A biker installs a new tube between the rim and tyre of his gravel bike after a puncture.
A biker installs a new tube between the rim and tyre of his gravel bike after a puncture.

Bicycle inner tubes for road bikes or MTBs: What system is suitable for which discipline?

Bicycle tube or tubeless tyre? Butyl, TPU or latex? Find out which system is best for you and your bike here.

Since John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre in 1888, almost all bicycles roll on pneumatic tyres. However, the way air is kept in the tyre has changed over the decades. These days you can choose between (inner) tubes, tubeless systems or tubular tyres. Each system has its own advantages and justification for use. After all, the requirements for a mountain bike are different from those for a road bike or commuter. We’ll go over common solutions and show you which system makes sense for your bike and your discipline.

Two bikers deal with a puncture during a tour. While one pulls out a tube, the other searches in his back pocket for a CO2 cartridge.
Two bikers deal with a puncture during a tour. While one pulls out a tube, the other searches in his back pocket for a CO2 cartridge.

Got a flat? An inner tube can help you get back on your bike quickly thanks to easy installation.

A Pirelli P-Zero SmarTube and cartridge are attached directly to the frame.
 A Pirelli P-Zero SmarTube and cartridge are attached directly to the frame.

An optimal solution for on the go: bicycle tubes made of thermoplastics.

The Proven Classic: Tubes

Tubes serve as air reservoirs in the tyre and were the standard on all bicycles for a long time. Compared to tubeless systems, they are easier to handle and maintain, which means that they are above all easy and quick to mount or change. Modern materials offer improved rolling characteristics and a higher degree of puncture protection. What you always have to pay attention to, no matter what kind of bike you ride, is the right tube size: it should fit the wheel diameter and the tyre width. Some tubes have a certain amount of slack in them. There are versions that you can use for both 27.5 inch and 29 inch tyres - they are also ideal as replacement tubes for Mullets (a bike with a smaller rear wheel than front wheel). Our shop has search filters for tyre size and width. Make sure that the valve is compatible with your pump and that the diameter fits through the bore of your rims. On sporty bikes, the Sclaverand valve is common – also known as the racing, Presta or French valve. To match this, most of the rims have a 6.5-millimetre hole. In the case of road bikes in particular, you should also pay attention to the valve length. Deep rims require longer valves or alternatively valve extensions. Schrader valves (also car valves) and Dunlop valves are more commonly found on inexpensive bikes today. You need a larger rim hole with a diameter of 8.5 millimetres.

Butyl Bicycle Tubes

The majority of bicycle inner tubes are made of butyl rubber, or butyl for short. The material has proven itself over a long time and can be used universally. Butyl tubes are inexpensive and hold air reliably for long periods of time. This makes them also suitable for bikes that sit for long periods of time without being ridden or for commuters who want to spend as little time as possible on maintenance. Most manufacturers offer them in different weight classes. The thickness of the material also varies. Tubes made of thicker material are cheaper and more durable, so they offer a little more protection against punctures. Tubes made of thinner material are lighter and therefore particularly useful in the sporting sector, since less material equals less rolling resistance. In the event of a breakdown, you can simply repair butyl tubes with self-adhesive patches or use a tried-and-tested patch kit with rubber patches and vulcanising solution. If sustainability is important to you, then you will be interested in the fact that butyl tubes can be recycled. Tubes from Schwalbe have for some time consisted of a proportion of recycled tubes. The market for butyl tubes is dominated by the large tyre manufacturers.

Bicycle Tubes Made from Thermoplastics

Relative newcomers to the market are tubes made of thermoplastics. You can recognise them by the abbreviations TPE (thermoplastic elastomers), TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) or simply "special plastics" in the designations and filters in our shop. They are extremely light, even lighter than latex tubes, hold air permanently and roll better than butyl tubes. The manufacturers also promise puncture protection that can compete with tubeless systems. In case of a puncture, you can repair thermoplastic tubes with self-adhesive patches. We advise you to follow the instructions of the respective tube manufacturer as to which patches are suitable and what needs to be observed. Compared to tubeless systems, they, like butyl inner tubes, require less "re-inflation" and are therefore ideal for sporty riders who can do without a bit less in terms of performance in favour of easy handling. Last but not least, because of their minimal pack size and weight, they are ideal as a replacement inner tube wherever space is scarce and performance counts, such as in road cycling or enduro racing. 

Shown here is a butyl tube and a thermoplastic tube. The TPU tube is much smaller.
Shown here is a butyl tube and a thermoplastic tube. The TPU tube is much smaller.

Compared to butyl tubes, TPU tubes have a significantly smaller pack size and less weight. © bc GmbH

Latex Bicycle Tubes

Latex tubes have long been popular with ambitious cyclists because they are lighter and more supple than butyl. The rolling resistance is even lower than with tubes made of thermoplastics. You should be a little more careful when fitting the tyres, as the material is sensitive and should not be squeezed between tyre and rim or with a tyre lever. Since latex does not hold air as long as butyl, you ought to check the air pressure more often and to pump it up if necessary. Small holes can be repaired with a normal repair kit. It remains to be seen whether thermoplastics will outstrip latex tubes.

State of the Art: Tubeless

With tubeless systems, you mount the tyre directly on the rim. By omitting the inner tube, tubeless tyres roll faster and smoother. In addition, the system is fundamentally more puncture-proof – especially at low air pressures. Tubeless has become widely accepted on gravel and mountain bikes. On road bikes, the demands on tyres and rims are different due to the high air pressures, but more and more riders are switching over. How do tubeless tyres work? Tubeless-specific tyres and rims fit together so precisely that they form an airtight chamber, and an inner tube is no longer necessary. To seal the spoke holes in the rim so that they’re airtight, you first have to apply a special kind of rim tape. You then screw the tubeless valve directly into the valve hole of the rim. Many combinations of high-quality tyres and rims already hold in air, but the system is only really complete with tyre sealant. You insert this fluid into the tyre either before assembly or through the valve afterwards. It not only ensures that the tyre is permanently airtight on the rim – it also seals areas with minor damage. Mishaps caused by thorns, for example, are now a thing of the past. The sealant should be refreshed every few months as it dries out over time. How long you can ride on one filling depends on the manufacturer. Tyre punctures that the sealant does not close on its own can be repaired with special repair kits. For this purpose, the wheel can remain in the bike and the tyre on the rim. In case a puncture cannot be repaired, we recommend that you always keep a spare tube with you, such as a tiny TPU tube, even if you’re riding with tubeless tyres.

bc basic Pro Tubeless rim tape is applied to a rim.
bc basic Pro Tubeless rim tape is applied to a rim.

Tubeless rim tape is required for airtight mounting of tubeless tyres.

Tyre sealant is inserted into the tyre via the tubeless valve.
Tyre sealant is inserted into the tyre via the tubeless valve.

The system is sealed airtight with the help of a special tyre sealant.

Head Start in Races: Tubular Tyres

Tubular tyres are tyres that are sealed airtight. To ride tubular tyres, you need wheels with special rims onto which the tyres are glued with tubular tyre putty, glue or tape. The valve is then fixed to the tyre. The combination of tyres and rims can be constructed very easily. Tubular tyres roll quickly and smoothly. They are commonly found among cyclocross and road cyclist professionals, but ambitious recreational athletes can also benefit from the advantages they bring. In the event of a puncture, you can try to remedy the situation with tubeless sealant before the tyre needs to be replaced. However, assembly and repair are no trivial matter.

Comparison table: advantages and disadvantages of different systems

 

butyl

thermoplastic

latex

tubeless

tubular

Mounting

+++

+++

+++

+

-

System Tightness

+++

++

+

+/-

+++

Puncture Protection

++

+++

++

+++

+++

Repairability

+++

+

+++

++

-

Rolling Resistance

-

++

++

+++

+++

Weight

-

++

+

+++

+++

Area of Use

Commuter

Travelling

City & Touring

Casual

Road

Road

MTB

Gravel

Road

Road (Performance)

Assembly and Air Pressure

When fitting tyres with tubes or tubeless tyres, good tyre levers can be enormously helpful. In addition to a floor pump, we recommend a single booster or one integrated into the pump for easy inflation of tubeless tyres. Air pressure has a big influence on riding behaviour. Here it is worth experimenting a little within the framework of the manufacturer's recommendations. A precise air pressure gauge helps you to reproduce suitable values at any time.

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