Inner tubes may not be the most exciting topic in cycling. Depending on how long you have been involved in the sport, you may not have even known there was a choice.
This article discusses the differences between a butyl and latex tube. If you’re currently running tubes or considering trying latex tubes, this article is for you.
- Butyl tubes are what most roadies know and use. They’re black and made from synthetic rubber, expand less (~1.5 times its size), but lose more energy as it deforms, creating a higher rolling resistance.
- Latex inner tubes are made using natural rubber and come in a few pastel-like colors. Rubber’s natural properties mean that when you inflate a latex tube, it fills every nook and cranny of free space inside your tire. When you ride over potholes or uneven surfaces, it can handle a tremendous amount of deformation with less energy loss. Latex inner tubes can expand to over seven times their actual size.
|Smooth and supple
|More care needed
|Not repairable and can deteriorate over time
|Thicker and can be patched
|~5W per tube
|Average $15 to $20 each
|Average $7 to $10 each
According to research by Aerocoach, latex inner tubes are the way to go if you want the best rolling resistance possible.
Rolling resistance, or CRR (Coefficient of Rolling Resistance), is an important metric to understand when selecting which tires and tubes you will use. Rolling resistance is a value assigned to the energy a tire loses through deformation as it rolls down the road. The higher the rolling resistance, the more energy is needed for the same speed.
Comparing results between the two means you can determine the rolling resistance of your favorite tire and tube setup.
Latex tubes has better rolling resistance due to its natural rubber properties.
Latex tubes are not only faster but smoother.
Because the latex fills any free space inside the tire, cyclists often equate the ride feel to that of sew-ups (tubular). If you invest in latex inner tubes, use them with high-end racing and performance tires for the best ride feel and results.
Latex tubes for a smoother ride feel.
On average, a standard butyl tube weighs about 110g, and a latex tube weighs 54g. That’s 50% weight reduction.
Easy math means one would save about 100g simply by switching to latex inner tubes. Lighter butyl tubes exist, but their weight savings come at the cost of a thinner sidewall, making them more fragile and susceptible to punctures.
Weight weenies everywhere rejoice at this easy 100g savings. Trying to shave precious grams is an obsession for some, and an expensive one too. So instead of buying expensive titanium bolts, carbon components, and saddles, you’d be better served by getting some latex inner tubes.
Latex tubes weigh on average half of butyl tubes.
Installation and maintenance
Natural latex is more susceptible to twists and kinks, a big no-no during installation, than butyl tubes. Latex is also porous; it loses pressure faster and will require more regular pumping.
Ensure the tube isn’t pinched, tangled, or caught between the rim and tire bead before inflating. A great tip I learned was to place a fair quantity of talcum powder inside the tire and turn it around 360° so the powder is distributed throughout its interior. The powder coating goes a long way in facilitating installation, preventing pinch flats, and reducing friction between the tire and tube.
Inflate the tire slowly, and between every few pumps, inspect that the tire bead-rim gap is clear of any tube by gently pinching around the tire’s circumference. At a certain point, you’ll know the tube is free from risk and can pump freely. This is also good practice when installing butyl tubes, so use it liberally!
Butyl tubes are easier to install and maintain.
Standard butyl tubes hold air longer, are more durable (except super light ones), and can be patched and repaired.
If you’re still running caliper brakes, butyl is the way to go, as it’s less sensitive to temperature changes that can arise with heat build-up with rim brakes. Either material works on a disc-brake bicycle that runs tubes since heat accumulates on the disc, not the rim.
Latex tubes are not repairable, deteriorate over time, and are more susceptible to damage if exposed to extreme temperatures, harsh chemicals (WD40), and UV rays over an extended period.
Butyl tubes are more durable and can be patched.
The marketing behind a Vittoria branded latex tube claims a saving of 5 watts per tire as compared to a butyl tube. It may not sound like much, but a bicycle has two tires.
If you calculate 10 watts gained over the total ride length, you get some interesting and significant figures in terms of power savings.
Scientific results support the latex power savings claim, so if you’re looking to improve your performance, instead of spending money on expensive upgrades like ceramic bearings, and oversized jockey wheels, you’ll save more watts and money by installing latex inner tubes to use with your high-end performance tires.
Latex tubes roll smoother and save you a few watts.
Cost and availability
A latex inner tube retails between $15 to 20, which is about double the price of a butyl tube.
Latex is a niche market, so the choices will be more limited. Quality brands like Vittoria, Silca, and Michelin, with a deep tradition in tires, still make them. Buying at your local shop helps keep their doors open, but you may find significant savings by purchasing your latex tubes online.
Butyl tubes cost on average half of latex tubes.
Alex Lee is the founder and editor-at-large of Mr. Mamil. Coming from a professional engineering background, he breaks down technical cycling nuances into an easy-to-understand and digestible format here.
He has been riding road bikes actively for the past 12 years and started racing competitively in the senior category during the summer recently.