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How the simple rubber ring isn't so simple

[This article was last updated on November 21, 2017]

You probably don’t think very much about inner tubes, but the components that hold the air that in turns holds your bike off the ground have a subtle but significant on the way your bike rides and performs.

Inner tubes affect the rolling resistance of your tyres, how easily you can end up sidelined with a puncture and the rotating weight of your wheels. If you care about performance — whether you mean by that speed or robustness and reliability — it’s worth thinking about the inner tubes you use beyond just where you can get 10 for £20.

Rolling resistance

The rolling resistance of tyres comes from the force needed to bend the tyre where it contacts the road. But the inner tube has to bend too, so if it’s thick, then the rolling resistance of the whole combination goes up too.

The flexibility of the inner tube material makes a difference too. Inner tubes are made from either synthetic butyl rubber or natural latex rubber. Latex is more flexible and thinner too, so if you want to reduce rolling resistance then latex is the way to go. According to Jarno Bierman at bicyclerollingresistance.com, you’ll save 4-5 Watts using latex tubes over butyl tubes. That’s probably not a difference you can feel, but it’s one you can measure with a stopwatch.

The big disadvantage of latex tubes is that they’re more porous than butyl tubes. That means that they leak air sufficiently quickly that you’ll need to pump them up every day.

A wrinkle to all of this is that butyl inner tubes have got thinner and lighter in the last few years. Bierman tested a 100g butyl tube against an 80g latex tube, but you can get butyl tubes as light as 50g. Because they’re thinner, they have lower rolling resistance but won’t lose air like latex; a good compromise for everyday riding.

Tyre maker Challenge cautions against the use of latex tubes with carbon fibre rims. It says: “Carbon rims do not dissipate heat as well as aluminium and prolonged braking, such as on long descents, may lead to hot spots along the braking surface. This increased heat can damage the latex material leading to a failure.”

Puncture resistance

Because the rubber is inherently stretchier, latex tubes are also more puncture-resistant, but for everyday riding you probably don’t want fewer punctures to come at the expense of daily inflation.

Sealants are a better solution. Preparations such as Slime contain small rubber particles suspended a liquid that dries on exposure to air. It’s pretty effective at sealing holes up to about 3mm across. However, it’s hard to squeeze a sealant through a Presta valve so sealant makers offer tubes with the fluid already inside.

Sealants aren’t perfect. If you get a big enough cut, the sealant won’t work and you’ll need to install a regular tube. Sealant-filled tubes are difficult to repair because the sealant stops the patch from sticking.

Sealants also add weight, but for the kind of everyday cycling application where you’d use them to prevent flats, you’re probably not going to mind an extra few grams.

Weight

If you’re not aiming for everyday riding puncture prevention, then a weight reduction is nice to have. A typical inexpensive inner tube — like the ones your bike probably came with — weighs 100-110g; Continental’s Supersonic tube weighs 55g (all weights for tubes with 60mm valves).

A 100g weight saving isn’t huge, but a pair of Supersonics is just £20. There aren’t many places on a bike where you can get a weight saving of 5g/£. If you’re replacing a bike’s stock tyres with lighter rubber, it’s definitely worth getting better lighter tubes too.

LifeLine Road Inner Tube — £2

Lifeline tube.jpg

Lifeline tube.jpg

The market for standard inner tubes has become very competitive in the last couple of years. With a claimed weight of around 100g, these tubes are stonking value at around two quid each, 10% off if you buy five, and 15% off for ten.

Michelin AirComp Ultralight — £5.99

Michelin AirComp.jpg

Michelin AirComp.jpg

For just £4, these 75g butyl tubes will knock off a useful few grams without breaking the bank.

Find a Michelin dealer

Michelin Air Comp Latex — £6.49

michelin-aircomp-inner-tube-road-latex.jpg

michelin-aircomp-inner-tube-road-latex.jpg

If you want to give latex a try (stop sniggering at the back), then Michelin's highly-regarded tubes are your cheapest and most widely-available option.

At a claimed 75g they're a bit lighter than a standard tube, which is a good start. Being latex they're more flexible than butyl and will therefore reduce both rolling resistance and frequency of punctures.

Find a Michelin dealer

Slime Lite — £8.48

Slime Pro Pre-filled Lite inner tube crop

Slime Pro Pre-filled Lite inner tube crop

With a payload of Slime sealant inside a lightweight butyl tube, Slime's Lite tube weighs just 102g, which is less than many standard tubes.

Our tester experienced no punctures while using the Lite tube, but that might just have been the Puncture Fairy looking the other way for a few weeks.

So he headed into the shed and did a simple test, pushing a drawing pin into each tyre. Nothing happened. When he pulled the drawing pins out and gave the wheels a spin, the green goo bubbled out through the holes, then stopped; the Slime had sealed the holes. A pressure gauge revealed the tyres had dropped just 15 psi during this process, from 100 to 85 psi, and the tyres held that pressure during a subsequent ride.

Read our review of the Slime Lite

Find a Slime dealer

Continental Supersonic — £9.99

conti-tube-supersonic-race28.jpg

The lightest currently available, these tubes are amazingly thin-walled. That makes them a bit fragile — you need to be careful installing them — but if saving weight is your aim, these are the tubes you need.

Find a Continental dealer

Vredestein Race Latex Presta  — £6.36

Vredestein Latex tubes.jpg

Vredestein Latex tubes.jpg

At just 50g each, Vredestein's latex tubes are as light as Continental Supersonics, but being latex will be more flexible and therefore make for tyre/tube combinations with lower rolling resistance. The porosity of latex means you're going to have to inflate your tyres every day, so these are tubes for a special pair of race or time trial wheels, to be rolled out when every second counts.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

20 comments

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marche [95 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

How often should you swap the innertube?
I'm using latex tubes and have been told to change them once a year at least because they could "explode"… (though I've never had a puncture or any kind of bouum!)

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FatTed [14 posts] 1 year ago
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Does it matter much what size Latex inner tube you use? ie the Vittoria inner tubes are 19-23c, 19-24c and 25-28c all for 700 sized wheels. I have 25 Contis on HED C2 rim.

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don simon [1449 posts] 1 year ago
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I've got some puncture proof jobbies in the winter bike. They're not puncture proof, but the air evacuates slowly enough that I'll be able to get home and change/repair in the warmth of the kitchen rather than on the side of a cold, wet and windy road. Perfect for the commuter bike too.... available in all sizes.

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peted76 [769 posts] 1 year ago
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+1 for the conti supersonics - awesome tubes.

Before tubeless, I ran them for a couple of years without issue, I can't think of one puncture incident, but there MUST have been one.... 

(FYI I'm 75kg and I'd have ridden them at them at 95PSI+)

However biggest hassle is fitting them, as being thin walled they get caught on tyre levers moreso and you'll get pinch flats before you actually getting onto the road.

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Veloism [75 posts] 1 year ago
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I've been using the AirComp - considerable difference over standard tubes but is a bit annoying pumping them up for every ride!

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Hypoxic [54 posts] 1 year ago
4 likes

Love latex tubes! No big deal having to inflate them before a ride. No more of a hassle than putting water in your bottles! It actually makes me more aware of my wheels and I find I tend to quickly roll the wheel over and check out the tread, any cuts, any bits of glass or gravel... lost count of the number of times I've found and flicked out a bit of glass before it's had more time to make it's way through to the tube and cause a punture. Be One with your Wheels, Luke!

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cyclesteffer [284 posts] 1 year ago
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I'd avoid the lifeline like the plague, they seem to explode for a pastime.

One brand I have found really good - are Halfords basic "5 for a tenner" tubes - really good, last for years, I think they are actually Kendas.

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jimmers [11 posts] 1 year ago
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I used Conti Supersonics. Got 2x punctures on the first two ride compared to one or two punctures for an entire year on normal butyl tubes.

Spent £20 on them then quickly filed them in the bin.

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Peowpeowpeowlasers [536 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I'd pay extra money for inner tubes with valves that aren't made from cheese.  I've had valve heads break on several occasions, and I expect we've all had inner tubes where the valve separates from the tube body.

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Mike T. [15 posts] 1 year ago
3 likes

I've used Conti Supersonics in my "good" summer wheels for years with perfect success.  They weigh 50 grams (half of my other tubes' weights) yet don't puncture any more often than my heavier tubes.
If anyone is puncturing them during installation they should adopt proper fitting techniques and use no levers.  Apply talc to them, inflate them by mouth first and then insert them into the rim and not just into the tire.  This way, there is no tube stuck under the bead of the tire while trying to get the bead over the edge of the rim.

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andyp [1511 posts] 1 year ago
2 likes

latex rocks. I've a pair of Air Bs from approx 1999 still going strong. Yes, they need a squirt every day or so, but I always check tyre pressure before a ride no matter what tyres/tubes I'm using.

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urbane [88 posts] 1 year ago
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Latex sounds like a bad idea for Bicycles because it will rot if lube gets on them or get brittle like Rubber Bands do eventually.

I use Continental inner tubes with threaded, car type valves, filled with Slime, on Mavic wheels (with decent bundled wheel tape), in Kelvar containing tires, with pressure indicator valve caps from ebay, so that I can see when they rarely need more pressure gauged, track pump air.  I rarely have to do inner tube replacement * despite cycling over drinkers glass and bits of vegetation etc. while commuting, and I've seen Slime work for months after a thorn puncture.

* inner tubes are cheap, so I have plenty spare, and a replacement is much faster than hopefully repairing an inner tube puncture.

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upriver [16 posts] 1 year ago
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Running tubeless or latex on all my bikes. Life is way too short to not splurge out on what i consider a much more supple and less punture prone tube. As for needing regular air, unless you are touring, it's really not a hassle to do this every ride.

Since running latex, i've had 2 puntures in about 4000kms, and one of those was a pinch flat. 

I've yet to see any tube rot or brittleness...

 

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hampstead_bandit [614 posts] 1 year ago
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If running high quality open tubular tires like challenge, veloflex or Vittoria then latex tubes really provide the benefits; incredibly supple, fast rolling, grippy, resistance to punctures. Install with talcum powder, inflate daily, remove debris and wipe tires with vinegar.

If riding vulcanised tires you might as well run butyl tubes.

I run tubeless with Stan's sealant on my MTB, and open tubs with latex on my road bike.

Many happy kilometres....

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rix [191 posts] 1 year ago
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Quote:

The big disadvantage of latex tubes is that they’re more porous than butyl tubes.

Well, the biggest disadvantage is that you can not repair puncture, mid-ride, on a latex tube with a simple self adhesive patch like butyl tube. To my knowledge there is no way to path latex tube reliably.

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edster99 [338 posts] 1 year ago
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rix wrote:
Quote:

The big disadvantage of latex tubes is that they’re more porous than butyl tubes.

Well, the biggest disadvantage is that you can not repair puncture, mid-ride, on a latex tube with a simple self adhesive patch like butyl tube. To my knowledge there is no way to path latex tube reliably.

Interesting.  I've used an old latex tube to make latex patches and then glued them with rubber adhesive, and had no issues.  Not sure it makes a difference, but this is in tubulars not clinchers.

Some of the time it just comes down to luck - like they say, correlation does not imply causation.

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rix [191 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

I had a bad experience using Michelin Air Comp Latex. They are made in such a way that they do not inflate evenly and have a small narrowing which feels like a bump when riding. At the valve two ends of tube are glued together, so that they overlap and tube there is twice as thick for about 4-5cm. This segment of thicker latex does not inflate as much as the rest (single latex layer) of tube. And I could see from outside that bit of tire (GP 4000 II) around that segment is slightly narrower. Vibration caused by this is so slight that you probably would not notice it on regular roads. It was noticeable only on very smooth surfaces.

P.S. Challenge latex tubes do not suffer from this.

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kide [29 posts] 1 year ago
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rix wrote:

Well, the biggest disadvantage is that you can not repair puncture, mid-ride, on a latex tube with a simple self adhesive patch like butyl tube. To my knowledge there is no way to path latex tube reliably.

I've patched Michelin latex tubes with Park Tool GP-2 Super Patches, plain old Rema Tip Tops and with pieces cut from old latex tubes. All with success. One tube fixed with a self adhesive patch started to leak a few months later but that is to be expected. 

I would not buy Conti Supersonics again. They seem to be fine at first but they are the ones I've had most trouble with. The Michelin Ultralights are a much better buy IMO.

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surly_by_name [548 posts] 3 months ago
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The only thing better than a latex tube in a good quality clincher is a tub. Porosity means they aren't first choice for commuting, but for your "good" bike, buy latex tubes.

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ianguignet [29 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes

i use slimes on all my X/Gravels. love them.