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Inner tubes can be performance upgrades too

Inner tube upgrade
Stu Bowers
7 Dec 2015

Inner tubes are often seen as cheap and disposable, but they can make a significant difference to your ride.

Tyres are one of the most important components on a road bike, affecting ride feel, handling and speed (read more here: How are tyres made), but don’t forget about what’s inside the carcass keeping it up to pressure – the humble inner tube. They may not seem like the most exciting products to discuss, or spend money on, but inner tubes are the unsung heroes of road bike performance.

It’s debatable as to who invented the inner tube. The pneumatic tyre was patented in 1845 by Scottish inventor Robert William Thomson, but it was another Scottish inventor, John Boyd Dunlop, who applied the design of a pneumatic tyre to the bicycle. American Philip Strauss is said to have invented the first combination tyre and separate inner tube in 1911, although Michelin also lays claim to this solution. Regardless of who got there first, inner tubes have remained the go-to method for inflating bicycle tyres for more than a century. Most cyclists have probably bought, patched and discarded more inner tubes than they’d care to remember, but how much thought do we give to them when making our purchasing decisions?

Through thick and thin

‘Inner tubes, like tyres, consist of a mixture of ingredients and, just as in the kitchen, quality ingredients are what count most when it comes to getting the best results,’ says Dave Taylor of Schwalbe UK. ‘You get what you pay for with tubes. You could have the best, most expensive tyres on the planet, but poor-quality inner tubes would sap the performance of the tyre. They need to work together as a system. Think of it like this – if you’re a marathon runner it’s pointless having high-quality trainers only to pair them with cheap, rubbish quality socks. The outcome will most likely be wrecked feet and poor performance.’

Continental Inner Tube

Before the Second World War most inner tubes were made from natural latex rubber, but this was in short supply after the war so synthetic butyl rubber, among other synthetic alternatives, was used instead. Actually, butyl proved to be better in many ways as latex can be adversely affected by coming in to contact with chemicals, plus it is more porous than butyl rubber. 

You get what you pay for with tubes. Poor-quality inner tubes sap the performance of the tyre. 

‘In most cases it’s the quality and quantity of butyl rubber that affects the tubes’ performance,’ says Taylor. ‘A higher butyl rubber content usually means greater elasticity plus a more airtight tube, but butyl obviously costs more than cheaper forms of synthetic rubber, so a cheap tube is usually made of poorer material. It will need to be thicker to be airtight, so will be heavier and will have increased rolling mass. It will also be less elastic, which will cause greater friction inside the tyre carcass as you ride and thus increase rolling resistance, so there’s really nothing to be gained from a cheap inner tube.’

Continental UK’s Shelley Childs agrees price is related to performance: ‘Our standard Race inner tubes [£6.99] are 1mm thick and the Race Light [£9.99] is 0.75mm thick, but the top of the range Supersonic [£13.99] is only 0.45mm thick – under half the thickness but twice the price. The 0.45mm tube will still hold air and take the same pressure because it’s a higher quality. But there are trade-offs. It’s so thin you need to take more care during installation – we don’t recommend using tyre levers, for example. They will provide a performance benefit, but you have to accept the risks.’ 

Taylor adds, ‘One way you can quickly tell if an inner tube is made of quality materials is to look on the box to see the size range it covers. If it covers a broad size range, eg 700c x 19-28mm, you’d expect this to be of high quality, or the elasticity [of the material] wouldn’t be sufficient to allow it.’

Zipp Inner Tube

It stands to reason that a lighter tube is thinner and therefore more supple, which could result in an overall better ride experience – unless of course you experience an increase in punctures. Herein lies a common conundrum and indeed a regular misconception. You might assume a thick, heavy tube will be more puncture-resistant and that you might be prepared to put up with its negative effects on your ride quality just to know you won’t spend too much time at the roadside fixing flats. It’s a hasty assumption.

‘It’s a misconception that cheaper, thicker inner tubes will be more puncture-proof,’ says Taylor. ‘It’s actually the reverse. A thicker tube will not flex as much if a tiny piece of flint [or whatever] pierces through the carcass of the tyre. It’s likely to instantly cause a puncture when it comes into contact with the inner tube. With a more flexible material the tube may well rub against the protruding flint or even flex around it.’

Bend me, shape me

In the knowledge that the best form for an inner tube is to be as elastic and lightweight as possible, why then is latex not more commonplace? 

‘We stopped selling latex tubes because the failure rate was too high,’ says Childs. ‘Latex tubes wouldn’t pass our quality control tests, because latex is quite fragile and needs to be treated very carefully.’ 

Taylor agrees, adding, ‘Schwalbe did at one time sell latex inner tubes [and it still uses latex inner tubes in its tubulars] but it is tricky to look after. It’s sensitive to a lot of things, like moisture, oils and even sunlight, so it isn’t long lasting unless you take very good care of it. Plus it’s not as airtight so you need to pump up your tyres before every ride. Also, to be honest, the development of butyl has come on such a long way in recent years you can have almost as light and flexible tubes without the constraints of latex.’ 

Vittoria Latex inner tube

Vittoria is one brand that still continues to make and tout the benefits of latex inner tubes. Vittoria’s UK marketing coordinator, Alex Rowling, says, ‘Butyl tubes can only be manufactured so thin before the integrity of the tube is compromised, and with cheap tubes there’s an increased risk of material inconsistencies. Latex allows tubes to be thinner and lighter than an ultralight butyl tube. Furthermore, the latex tubes offer a more supple ride, identical to what’s used inside Vittoria’s tubulars. So combine a latex tube and a Vittoria 320TPI open tubular tyre [clincher] and you will have a ride as close to a tubular as possible, but with the convenience of being able to change the tube if you’re unfortunate enough to puncture.’ 

The message is that it’s worth thinking about inner tubes as performance products, rather than simply dismissing them as disposables. As Continental’s Childs concludes, ‘If you’ve just spent north of a thousand quid on wheels, why would you not want to finish off the package with top quality tyres and tubes? They will have a big part to play in how those wheels, and the bike, feels to ride.’

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