The best frame pumps for road and gravel: Silca vs Zefal vs Topeak
My recent search for the best mini pump was met by many people asking me to do the same for frame pumps.
Well before mini pumps became available and were the common pick, frame pumps ruled the roost. These were most popular when steel frames were the norm, and the pumps would sit perfectly parallel to the horizontal toptube or along the seat tube, often held in place by a combination of spring tension and a pump peg on the frame. The bigger pump was welcome given flat tyres were more common back then, too.
But times change, frames became more angular and variable in design, and pump brands moved their focus to smaller pumps which were not dependant on frame size or shape.
However, through all of that, the frame pump has remained the go-to choice amongst many who favour absolute pumping practicality and perhaps suffer more flats than they should. Additionally, the resurgence of classically-styled metal bikes, along with the timely return of the Silca brand, has seen the frame pump become trendy again. And given that, I wanted to find out which frame pumps are worth owning, and which belong in the dark ages.
What is a frame pump?
A frame pump is a portable pump that’s designed to fit within a frame and become a part of the bike’s front triangle until it’s needed. All currently-available frame pumps feature internal springs and are designed to be retained along the top tube or down the seat tube. And that’s the key difference between a true frame pump and a large mini pump which requires a frame-mounted bracket for carrying.
Larger in size, frame pumps are also more efficient at inflating tyres than mini pumps. And if it weren’t for the lack of a pressure gauge and, arguably, a hose attachment, they’d make an ideal travel pump, too.
Dependant on frame size, the taller you are, the more efficient your frame pump will be. For example, a medium-sized Topeak Road Master Blaster might be 20g lighter than the next size up, but it takes 195 strokes to inflate a 650x47mm tyre (to 40psi) versus 163 strokes for the large size. Still, compare that to the most efficient (and largest) mini pump tested, the Lezyne Road Drive (Large), which filled a 700x25mm tyre to 80psi in 117 strokes versus the 87 strokes the Road Master Blaster (Large) did it in. Silca’s Impero Ultimate frame pump did the job in just 67 strokes.
Frames of the past often offered a small peg to help retain a frame pump, while others offered a clamp-on mount shaped to match the end of the pump. And sometimes frames featured both elements. Pump pegs can be found on the rare new steel frame, but they’re far from the ubiquitous item of yesteryear.
Frame pumps can also be a little fussy about which bikes they will and won’t fit. They’re best kept for road and gravel frames with classic round tubes, but some models can be fitted to some newer aero-shaped frames, too. Generally speaking, they’re not a great match where frame bags are in use, or on bikes that route the cables along the bottom of the toptube.
Thanks to the likes of Silca and the handmade bicycle scene the frame pump certainly isn’t dead, although it’s not exactly thriving either. Where I had no issues in finding 45 mini pumps to test (and had to omit many others) – I could only find three frame pumps for the test.
Silca, Zéfal and Topeak are the three brands still catering to the market. Blackburn and Park Tool used to, but each discontinued their offering recently. Similarly, SKS no longer offers a frame pump you’d want attached to your pride and joy (its full plastic construction means it’s best kept for inflating footballs). However, given that I love a good bit of speculation, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a few brands bring back frame pumps if the renewed interest continues.
How to size a frame pump
By far the trickiest part of buying a frame pump is working out the size you require. As I found out the hard way, different brands have different ways of quoting sizes – and those sizes are not cross-comparable.
To work out your frame pump size, you need to measure the inside-to-inside length of the tube you’ll be running the pump along (toptube or seat tube). This is easily done on bikes with open head tubes and straight tubes, but can get a little tricky on bikes with curvy and blocky headtubes and kinked tubes. Similarly, with the exception of Silca, you’ll want to ensure the head tube offers at least 25mm in available height for the pump to fit.
With the sizing sorted it can take some trial and error to find the most secure orientation to match your frame. All three pumps tested fit differently depending on whether you have the pump head facing toward the front or rear of the bike.
A common theme is that frame pumps certainly hold best when pinned between round (or at least rounded) tubes. Aesthetically they also look best when used on bikes with traditional straight (or better yet, horizontal) tubes. That’s not to say you can’t use a frame pump on a curvy Pinarello F12, but it’s more a question of why you’d want to given the number of quality mini pump options that wouldn’t look horrid on such a bike.
Now, onto the options.
First place: Topeak Road Master Blaster
Surprised to see Topeak in first place? This one was actually my favourite of the three to pump with, and it does so at less than a fifth of the price of the Silca (at least for those in Australia). The Topeak Road Master Blaster doesn’t have the most efficient volume or sturdiest build quality (both of those awards clearly go to Silca), but it does have the easiest and most comfortable pumping once above 90psi.
I found the swappable valve head (works with Presta and Schrader) — with its thumb-lever to lock it onto the valve — was the easiest to get along with. The high-grip rubber exterior was good for both frame fitment and comfort while pumping.
The textured plastic handle is comfortable in use and is shaped to fit a variety of rounded frames, and as with the other two pumps tested, it offers a dimple for a pump peg. This pump offers an approximate 50mm of sprung range for fitting a variety of frames, and I found it held secure in the two steel frames I tested it on. Topeak is also the only of the three to include a velcro strap for additional security.
Like the Zefal, the Topeak offers a switch to close off the spring when you need to pump with it. It feels solid in use and is rattle-free once attached to the bike.
And now the bad news, well, at least for those living in the USA. This wonderfully effective and high-value pump is not stocked within the United States. Thankfully those elsewhere in the world should be able to find one cheaply.
Highs: Ergonomics, a good fit in frames, smaller volume lowers effort at higher pressures, lockable valve head, externally sealed valve head, price.
Lows: Pump head dust cover is a loose fit, only available in silver, weird sizing on website (ignore it and follow my chart), not available in the USA.
Tested size: Large (47-52.2 cm)
Price: US$N/A / £23 / AU$45
Strokes to 100psi (700c25mm tyre): 110
Strokes to 40psi (650x47mm): 163.
Second place: Silca Impero Ultimate
Silca’s Impero Ultimate frame pump is the only option if you’re after an heirloom item that’ll still be pumping well beyond your cycling days. It’s also the only pump tested that’s free of plastic components, and is equally the only pump that has clearly been designed with an obsessive level of detail to ensure it can fit as many frame shapes as possible.
Housed within a machined aluminium head, the valve head is the only one to feature a press-on fit. This Presta-only head offers a two-stage elastomer seal which is both effective at pressure and simple to use. That valve head is covered by a soft silicon bumper which features Silca’s “FlexWing” shaping which vastly widens the frame and tubes shapes it will fit with. Of the three pumps, the Silca was the easiest to get a rock-solid fit with a variety of frames.
The silicon end to the handle end is also responsible for the snug fit, and it offers a subtle angle that gives additional fitment options for various tube angles or when choosing whether to run the pump head at the head tube or seat tube.
And then there’s another silicon bumper that sits on the pump body. Its role is two-fold: it helps to protect the frame’s paint but can also be slid against the handle to truly lock the pump into the frame. However, I did find it pretty damn tight to slide into (and out of) position.
Not only is the Silca the most secure fitting, but it’s also the most efficient, and by a fair margin. However, as covered in the mini pump test, high volume comes at the expense of easy pumping at high pressure, and vice versa. The Silca will absolutely handle being pumped in excess of 100psi, but it gets noticeably firm once above 80psi. The pump is noticeably more solid and free-of-flex than both the Topeak and Zefal when pushed at higher pressures.
Unlike the Topeak, Silca doesn’t provide a securing strap with the Impero Ultimate, but they do recommend using one on frames with non-traditional shapes. I can vouch that the strap isn’t needed if your pump is the right size and the frame offers traditional tube shapes.
To be clear the Silca is the best frame pump money can buy, but it’s the sheer amount of money required to own one that puts it into second place.
Highs: Build quality, elegant style, clever design allows easy and secure frame fitment, efficient volume,
Lows: Price, silicon bumper is a pain to slide along the pump body, pump head not sealed from the elements, surprisingly high pumping force required at high pressures.
Tested size: Medium (47-50 cm)
Price: US$165 / £162 / AU$267
Strokes to 100psi (700c25mm tyre): 84
Strokes to 40psi (650x47mm): 148.
Third place: Zéfal HPX
Remaining mostly unchanged for many a decade, the French-made Zefal HPX is a pump with a loyal following. I still have my father’s old HPX stashed away — it works reliably to this day (but doesn’t get much use), and is awfully similar in design to the model I tested.
With a mostly aluminium and partly plastic build, the Zefal offers a reversible valve (for both Presta and Schrader) and a locking thumb lever – much like the Topeak. And like the Topeak, there’s a switch to close off the spring action when you’re pumping.
The volume and ease of pumping are closer to that of the Topeak than the Silca, and it got the tested 100psi pressure into the tyre without argument. However, its metal head does become a little uncomfortable to the bare skin at these higher pressures.
As a pump, it does everything it needs to and will do it for a long time. For example, Zefal equips the main barrel with a U-cup seal that’ll surely outlast the simpler O-ring design of the Topeak. However, its classic design is more limited in its fitment security. I could get it to fit snugly when run along the seattube of the Chimera Zenith, but that position makes no sense to me because, well, bidons.
It also worked when run along the toptube of steel frames, but not as firmly as the Topeak or Silca. The metal prongs at the pump’s head, designed to help wedge the pump, just didn’t fit as securely as the softer materials of other pumps, and you have to be careful to not scratch your frame’s paint with them. The handle end is given a hard plastic cap that’s no better for ensuring a snug fit, and is seemingly best shaped for a frame peg.
These pumps can indeed fit securely along the top tubes of some bikes, however, the security and wide-ranging frame compatibility simply lag behind what the competition offer.
And finally, the springs inside have a slight rattle to them once installed on the bike – something I didn’t experience with the other two pumps tested. Sorry, Zefal, this is an iconic product, one with a proven track record and sold at an amazingly fair price, but the lack of non-marring contact points, and that rattle just don’t do it for me.
Highs: Proven and simple design, price, a classic look that will complement bikes from the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Lows: Fussy with which bikes it fits, uncomfortable pump head to lock your fingers around, lacks non-marring contact points, rattles.
Tested size: 3 (46-51.5 cm)
Price: US$40 / £25 / AU$70
Strokes to 100psi (700c25mm tyre): 113
Strokes to 40psi (650x47mm): 157
All three frame pumps tested do an admirable job of filling your tyres in an efficient manner and all three can be pinned between the tubes of a classic frame without issue.
However, equally, all three lack a hose to prevent valve damage from over-eager pumping and so care must be taken when using these at high pressures where high force is needed. Given this, and in my opinion, none of these are that far ahead of a good mini pump for pure practicality in an emergency situation.
If it’s a frame pump you desire, then the Topeak gets my pick based on absolute function and value for money. It functions as you want it to while being comfortable and easy to use.
If you’re considering a frame pump for the form it offers, you have three good choices – Silca, Silca or Silca. It may be sitting in second place but is arguably the only choice if you’re after a frame pump to match a custom bike. It truly does stand alone in its aesthetics and flawless build quality.
Only you can decide on whether a frame pump is right for you. Personally, I keep my tyres in good condition (and typically run tubeless) where flats are an absolute rarity and so I’m satisfied with carrying just CO2 most of the time, and a mini pump on more adventurous rides.
Sidebar: Dave (Shoddy) Everett’s two cents
I’ve long been a fan of frame pumps. I guess it comes from living and training in the north-west of the UK, where wintertime punctures can be frequent. I’ve owned two mini pumps and quickly disregarded them, returning to the trusty frame pump. When you’re standing on the roadside in the rain with the northern chill cutting deep, you want to fix your mid-ride punctures quickly. Fiddling around with mini pumps while keeping a group waiting as you get an almighty arm workout – it’s the height of rudeness in my eyes. No one would be buying you coffee at the cafe stop, that’s for sure. With a frame pump though, you’re admired, seen as a person with the utmost cycling etiquette.
Dave’s round-up is pretty much spot on in my eyes. Initially, I was ready to troll the article in the comments, winding Dave up in the best possible way. Instead, I’ll add my two cents worth. I’ve never used the Silca Imperio Ultimate, so I have zero words on that. But as for the Topeak and the Zefal, well that’s another matter. Both have lived in my garage for years and both have outlived other pumps, such as the now-defunct Park frame pump (unrepairable internals) and a Specialized frame pump (the barrel was far too skinny).
Build quality of the Topeak is sturdy and inflates fast. But there are two downsides to the pump. Dave mentions that it’s comfortable to use. I’d disagree. The small shark-tooth-like lever on the front of the handle can dig into your forefinger after using it for a while [author rebuttal: this shark tooth can be placed between the forefinger and thumb, and is light years more comfortable than the pointy head of the Zefal). After long-term use, the switch to lock out the springs becomes an absolute beast to turn. I’ve had to resort to using my teeth in the deepest, darkest winter rides when the hands were cold (Author rebuttal: The pump works just fine without this function. Case in point: Silca).
There’s also the fact that the cap for the pump head will quickly not fit. It’ll just dangle there until you rub your leg up against it one too many times and rip it off (Author rebuttal: this cap is easily removed, making it equal to Zefal and Silca which don’t provide a cap).
The final problem I’ve found with the Topeak pump is the need to replace the plastic pump head end and parts kit. It’s all a bit plasticky and not the most robust part of the pump. It’s the Achilles heel of an otherwise well-built pump. It seems to break every few years. Not a major problem (nor a major expense), but if it is your only frame pump it will mean having a spare pump or spare part kicking about to keep you out on the road. And this is why the Zefal HPX pretty much lives on my bike.
Sure the Zefal isn’t as well built and has its own problems. The main problem I’ve found is that it doesn’t sit in some frames particularly well. A velcro strap and a rubber wedge that Zefal sell can help a bunch (but it isn’t the best look). I will admit I’ve even managed to fit the Zefal on seat stays before. Very old-school.
The Zefal also doesn’t suffer the same stiff lockout problems the Topeak does. The other boon is that I’ve never had to replace any parts on the Zefal in all the years I’ve had it. I’ve owned it that long that I forget when and where I got it. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s reliable, which is exactly what you want in a pump when caught out in the middle of nowhere in the pissing rain and wanting to get to the nearest cafe to warm up.
The Zefal HPX was perfect though. My dad owns and still uses the all-metal version – an item that used to be available and is sadly no more. That item has outlived every other pump in the garage and countless bikes too in the 20-plus years he’s had it. I’d nick it from his garage if I didn’t know that it would break his heart.