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Comparison: bicycle tube materials

Theresia 18. December 2017

In a world that seems to be going tubeless, tube technology is still advancing. Read on to learn more about the materials they are made of.

Bicycle tubes have been around since 1888, when John Boyd Dunlop made the first pneumatic tyres for his son’s tricycle. Today, a lot has changed and the various materials available have made riding with tubes a no brainer. While many have switched to tubeless setups, there are still advantages to tubes, especially since new materials have increased their durability and dropped their weight.

Butyl rubber tubes.

Butyl rubber tubes.

Butyl

Most tubes are made of butyl rubber. It is very elastic and holds air well. The weight of the tubes however, changes drastically depending on its application and tyre size. The tubes themselves have little effect on rolling resistance, but the more flexible it is, the better. The majority of tube manufactures use butyl rubber.

Advantages Disadvantages
Weight: When it comes to road bikes, butyl tubes aren’t much heavier than their latex or thermoplastic counterparts. Weight: The majority of MTB butyl tubes are heavier than latex and thermoplastic.
Price: Butyl tubes are more cost less than latex or thermoplastic. Puncture Protection: Butyl tubes are usually not as puncture resistance as their counterparts.
Pressure Loss: Butyl tubes lose air very slowly.
Latex tubes.

Latex tubes.

It's easy to see the talcum powerder on the tubes.

It's easy to see the talcum powerder on the tubes.

The latex tube valves.

The latex tube valves.

Latex

Most latex tubes are lighter than butyl versions. They also offer a high level of puncture protection from snake bites and foreign bodies. This is due to the talcum powder on the outside of the latex tubes. The powder prevents the tube from sticking to the tyre, allowing it to deform when poked. When mounting latex tubes, I recommend adding a little more talcum powder to ensure they don’t stick longer. Their high level of flexibility lowers the rolling resistance as well. Latex tubes cannot come into contact with oil or grease and should be kept out of direct sunlight and away from higher temperatures. The biggest disadvantage to latex is quick air loss, which means that tube pressure needs to be checked before every ride.

Advantages Disadvantages
Rolling Resistance: Because latex is so flexible, they lower overall rolling resistance. Pressure Loss: Latex losses air faster than both butyl and thermoplastic tubes.
Puncture Protection: Latex is more puncture resistant than butyl tubes. Price: Latex tubes are more expensive than butyl.
Weight: Latex tubes are very lightweight.
FOSS's thermoplastic tube.

FOSS's thermoplastic tube.

tubolito's thermoplastic tube.

tubolito's thermoplastic tube.

Thermoplastic

The third, relatively unknown, material tubes are made of is thermoplastic. The biggest difference to latex and butyl tubes is that they are made from a composite material instead of rubber. Thermoplastic tubes are more elastic and durable than other tube materials and offer the best level of puncture protection. We offer these types of tubes from FOSS and tubolito. While tubolito makes their thermoplastic tubes with a seamless design, FOSS mixes thermoplastic with elastomer. Both are recyclable and extremely lightweight.

Advantages Disadvantages
Puncture Protection: Thermoplastic tubes offer the highest level of puncture protection, and can still be patched/repaired. Price: Thermoplastic tubes are relatively expensive when compared to butyl versions.
Weight: Thermoplastic tubes are more lightweight. Especially the tubolito version which can save up to 65% over butyl tubes.
Rolling Resistance: Due to their elasticity, thermoplastic tubes lower the rolling resistance.
Pressure Loss: Thermoplastic tubes lose pressure very slowly.

Is lightweight better?

The lighter a tube is, the less rotating mass there is around the wheels. This also allows the wheels to accelerate faster, but to make this noticeable the tube needs to be significantly lighter than before. However, when it comes to puncture protection, lightweight butyl tubes don’t usually perform well. This is not the case with thermoplastic and latex tubes though.

The various tube manufacturers.

The various tube manufacturers.

Summary

The three different materials, butyl, latex and thermoplastic all have their advantages and disadvantages, but which one you choose to ride is up to you and your riding style. But since their inception in 1888, they have come quite a way and are still a great option in a world that seems to only want to go tubeless.

Tell me about your experience with tubes in the comments.

Theresia

Theresia

Blog comments are published with first name and first letter of surname.
Blog comments are published with first name and first letter of surname.
  • Fred R. 11. October 2018

    The puncture resistance thing has me perplexed because my experience, as well as those I use to race and train with, we had better puncture resistance with butyl tubes and NOT latex, in fact all of us "knew" that latex tubes were fragile and we only used them to race on because they had a tad lower rolling resistance, but training wise and everyday riding no way we used only butyl. Over the years since I raced I bounced back and forth between the two types of tubes and always experienced more flats with latex. The other aspect to latex that wasn't mentioned is that latex does feel a bit more comfortable to ride on then butyl. As far as light weightiness goes, we use butyl tubes that only weighed 70 grams which is only about 10 grams heavier than latex. I have not tried thermoplastic, but I heard that the rolling resistance was equal to a butyl not to a latex, but it is supposedly less prone to punctures than either of the other types.

    Blog comments are published with first name and first letter of surname.
    Blog comments are published with first name and first letter of surname.
    • Robin 16. October 2018

      Hey Fred, I experienced exactly the same, as I found Latex tube more resistent to pinch flats. About the rolling resistance, I absolutely agree - there is nothing more smooth than Latex. Give Thermoplastic a try! I run them in nearly all my road bikes and am very satisified with the overall experience. Regards, Robin

  • Calvin P. 13. September 2018

    I have found lightweight butyl tubes to be rather puncture-prone. Especially to sharp objects. Punch flats also occur a bit more often. They are a lot lighter at roughly 55-65g vs 95-105g for a standard one. Rolling resisitance does not get a lot lower. Just a tad quicker when rolling down a hill.
    Latex is my favorite IMO. Loghtweight at 60g and noticeably less rollimg resistance. Makes a cheap tire feel quite supple and a good tire feel like a open tubular. Cornering grip also increased and overall comfort. I do recommend to store them in a plastic bag and coated with calc in a dark and dry place. Stored one without any powder and after 2 momths of storage it simply couldn't hold air for longer than 3 hours. Sure, you have to pump them up every ride, but shouldn't you do that before every ride?

    Blog comments are published with first name and first letter of surname.
    Blog comments are published with first name and first letter of surname.
    • Robin 14. September 2018

      Hey Calvin, thank you very much for your Feedback. Personally, I prefer Latex and thermoplastic tubes. Both are light and puncture resistent. But Latex just gives the most smooth ride - as you said it is quite like a tubular tire. Thanks for the advice for storage! Cheers, Robin

  • Brandon T. 20. April 2018

    Very interesting article with great information about bicycle tube materials! Thanks for sharing.

    Blog comments are published with first name and first letter of surname.
    Blog comments are published with first name and first letter of surname.