Tires and tubes are the most crucial part of your bike because they are the contact point between your bike and the ground. They provide grip, stability, comfort, and performance.
And none of that could happen without the tubes (or sealant) inside. Tubes are essential to both performance and comfort because it affects the suppleness of your tire and how well it deforms to road imperfections.
So let’s talk about the different types of tubes and which ones are the best, whether it’s butyl, latex, or TPU. We’ll outline the key differences between these types of inner tubes and give you our recommendation for when to use each one.
Speed and rolling resistance
As a cyclist, you want to ride fast, especially if you are competitive. And one of the biggest factors that decide how fast you can go on your bike is the rolling resistance of your tires and tubes.
Rolling resistance is the energy loss between the road surface and your tires that slows you down, the loss is mainly caused by friction, heat, and vibration by tire deflection. The higher the rolling resistance, the more power you will need to move forward. On the other hand, the less rolling resistance, the faster you can go with the same amount of power. Rolling resistance is also affected by how fast you’re riding and how much you and your bike weigh.
On a perfectly smooth road surface, tire choice won’t make a big difference because there’s no energy loss by friction and vibration. However, no roads are perfectly smooth, so your rolling resistance is affected by how good the tires and tubes are at deforming and absorbing road vibrations.
Latex is the most supple inner tube, giving them the least amount of rolling resistance, making them good for racing and rides where top speed is critical. Using a pair of latex tubes will save you up to 7.5 watts compared to standard butyl tubes.
TPU is better than standard butyl but not as good as latex in terms of rolling resistance.
Comfort and ride feel
Comfort is actually a side effect of low rolling resistance, so latex tubes will be the most comfortable compared to TPU and butyl tubes.
For some people, comfort is more important than speed. Either way, you will also want to use latex tubes. These tubes are more flexible and supple, which means they prevent some of the road chatter or vibration from affecting you.
It’s kind of a toss-up between TPU and butyl, though. Some people prefer TPU, while others prefer butyl. It just depends on the brand and what you feel is more comfortable for you.
Tube types aside, comfort is greatly affected by tire pressure. A latex tube inflated to a higher pressure than butyl or TPU will be less comfortable.
If you’re a weight weenie, you might always be searching for inexpensive ways to save weight on your bike. And TPU is one of the best ways to reduce your bike weight. This is also important for people who are doing a lot of hill climbing events.
The lightest tubes out there are TPU, and they can be as light as 22 grams. Typically, latex tubes are lighter than standard butyl tubes. However, some brands like Continental make a lightweight butyl (Continental Supersonic) that is even lighter than latex. Regular butyl tubes can weigh over 100 grams, so that’s a 156-gram weight saving.
Ease of installation
If you’re new to cycling and want to change your own tires, you don’t want tubes that can be easily punctured during the tire mounting process. For that reason, butyl is the best choice for beginners as it is the thickest out of the three and the most forgiving one.
There is a “correct way” to install tires without using too much force, and if not done correctly, latex and TPU tubes can get pinched by the tire beads and will blow immediately during inflation. Also, with latex and TPU you won’t be able to use tire levers because the slightest force by the lever will tear the tube.
Once you’re a master at changing tubes, though, you will be able to use latex and TPU tubes without any problem.
Durability and puncture protection
Speaking of punctures, while there aren’t too many tests saying which one is the best, common sense suggests that butyl tubes probably have the best puncture resistance because they are the thickest.
Butyl tubes are also the easiest ones to fix on the roadside with a patch kit. The other types, latex, and TPU can fail when they’re patched, so this can be a problem too out on the road.
If punctures and durability are your biggest concern, then you may want to consider going with tubeless tires. Tubeless tires can reseal themselves if you get a small puncture, and you don’t need to change the tube at all.
If you want to stick to a tight budget, butyl tubes are generally the cheapest and easiest to get. TPU is the most expensive of the bunch, but some TPU brands like RideNow are actually more affordable than some latex.
Latex is pretty costly as far as tubes go but if you are looking to upgrade your bike to gain more speed or save watts, switching to latex tubes is actually a pretty good deal dollar-per-watt-wise when you compare it to other upgrades. For example, the cost of a few tubes, even the most expensive ones, is far less than the cost of new rims, which can easily run over $1000. And they can save you about the same amount of watts.
Air pressure loss
It’s good practice to pump up your tires before every ride, especially if you are using latex tubes. Latex tubes lose air very quickly, and you are definitely going to need to pump them up before every ride.
TPU tubes will hold air better than latex, but nothing holds air as well as your butyl tires. They just seem to hold onto air the longest. If you’re a lightweight rider and pump your tires to really high pressure, you might only need to pump them up once a week with butyl. Regardless, you’ll still want to check your tire pressure religiously.
When you’re out on the road, you’re going to need a tube that is easy to install if you get a flat tire. For this reason, butyl is probably the best choice as a spare tube because it’s the easiest and most forgiving type of tube to install.
You definitely don’t want to use latex tubes as ‘emergency’ tubes because they’re harder to install, especially when you’re tired and get a puncture on a long ride.
Storing spares can also be tricky for latex. Latex tubes are delicate so they might get torn for no good reason while inside your saddle bag. They aren’t compatible with all CO2 cartridges and pumps, as well, so you will need to take extra caution when buying.
If you have a compact bag and need tubes that pack into a smaller size, 3 TPU tubes quite literally take up the same space as 1 standard butyl tube. But then again, TPU tubes are harder to install than butyl tubes. So even though they take up less space, you need to make sure you can install TPU tubes without any trouble.
Lightweight butyl is a bit bigger than TPU, but it still takes less space than a normal butyl tube. If you’re not too confident installing TPUs and need the extra spares, lightweight butyl might be a good option.
So When to Use Which Tube?
With all that, how do you really know which tubes you should put in your tires?
We suggest going with normal butyl tubes for typical daily use, such as training or club rides. They’re the cheapest, easy to use and install on the road, and will hold a patch well if necessary. Think of butyl tubes as your go-to. They’re inexpensive and reliable.
If you’re going to be racing, you might want to invest in latex tubes for race day. They’re a little expensive, but they’re also faster and will save you precious watts especially if you race on smooth tarmac or indoor tracks. Remember, they’re a lot less expensive than other upgrades you could make for a similar impact.
For your hill climb races or events, consider TPU tubes. These will give you the lightest setup where weight is everything, especially on those steep climbs. Also, you might want to bring a TPU or two as your spare in addition to your butyl spare if you still have the space since they are very small when folded. Who knows, they might come in handy.
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