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Perhaps your bike has a flat tire and needs a new tube. Perhaps you’re a cyclist who likes to be prepared, so you want extra tubes on hand so you can fix a flat right away. But which road bike tube is best for your situation? While road bike tubes seem to be a straightforward and essential element of a bicycle’s wheel arrangement, subtle differences between tube types can have a drastic effect on cycling performance and tire longevity.
Pneumatic (air-filled) road bike tires are great at distributing weight across the wheel rim, providing a smooth ride. The inner tube, as described by the late, great cyclist Sheldon Brown, is essentially a “doughnut-shaped rubber balloon” with an attached valve allowing you to inflate or deflate it. In fact, if it’s inflated on its own outside the bicycle tire, a road bike tube can be inflated to two or three times its original size. It plays a key role in the performance of pneumatic tires.
As you can see, some background knowledge is needed to select the right biking equipment. Keep reading to learn about the types of road bike tubes available and the conditions in which they work best.
What kind of cycling do you do? Daily commuting, distance riding, touring? Do you spend part of your time on the road and part of your time cutting through an unpaved or gravel path?
How you use your bicycle is a big factor in the type of tube you’ll want to buy. The style of bicycle you’re riding is also a factor. A commuter bike has wider wheels with a smaller diameter than a touring bike, and a distance bike often has the largest and thinnest wheels of the bunch.
Knowing the size (circumference) of your bike’s tires, and their width, is essential to selecting the right size of road bike tube. You can find this information on the sidewall of each tire. The circumference is always the first number listed, and the width is the second.
For example, the “fractional” marking of 29 x 2.25 indicates a tire with a circumference of 29 inches and a width of 2.25 inches (a common size for modern mountain bike tires). The “ISO” marking of 700 x 25c indicates a tire that is 622 mm in circumference and 25 mm in width (which is close to the same size as the 29 x 2.25 tire). The reason why 700 equals 622 mm, and why you may see both types of markings on one tire, is mind-twistingly complicated – the important thing is to write down the markings, whatever they are.
Tube sizes are chosen by matching the tire size to the range of compatible sizes listed on the tube packaging. However, there’s a surprising range of tube sizes available for each common tire size. This can make selecting a tube a little confusing for new cyclists.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the fit of road bike tubes is rarely exact because of the tubes’ tendency to stretch. Seasoned cyclists experiment with a few different sizes of inner tubes to see which one fits their road bike best and lasts the longest.
Butyl rubber: The most common material used to make road bike inner tubes, the wall of this tube is about 1 mm thick, enough to handle most road situations.
Latex: Latex is lighter than butyl rubber but also more fragile with a thinner wall. A punctured latex tube may not be repairable.
Thorn-proof: This is a specialized road bike tube popular in the southwestern U.S., where a particularly nasty “goat-head” thorn takes a regular toll on bike tires. It has a thicker wall around the top of the tube that provides extra protection but also adds weight.
Self-sealing: This road bike tube is pre-treated with a sealant on the inside wall of the tube. The sealant provides added protection against small punctures from thorns, nails, and other debris by closing up these very small holes with little air loss.
The two most common valves are Schrader and Presta. Road bikes traditionally use Presta valves. These are long and narrow with a valve tip that extends outward; the valve is closed manually with a lock nut. Lower-cost cycles and hybrid models in the U.S. tend to come with Schrader valves. These are shorter and stubbier, often encased in the same rubber material as the tube is made of, with a spring-loaded inset valve tip.
Each valve has its strong points. The Presta valve is ideal for very thin road bike tires because of its slim profile. It’s also easier to pump air through than the Schrader, as its spring-loaded valve is more difficult to keep open while pumping. That’s not a big factor if you only pump up your tires at home with a large pump, but those who adjust pressure or change tubes on the road will notice the difference if they have to use a hand pump. The beauty of changing tubes yourself is that you can switch to a tube that has the valve type you prefer.
Standard butyl rubber road bike tubes are the most cost-effective tubes, ranging between $5 and $7 each for common sizes.
The quality of the valve and specialty sizes can bump the price of tubes in the middle range to $9 to $15.
Tubes with extra features like thorn resistance are among the priciest, starting at about $17 and reaching $24.
A. You may be able to match the size of the original tube by looking at the old tube – sometimes the size is printed on the rubber itself. Older tubes may have worn away any size indicators, though, and some just don’t have them in the first place. Write down the tire size (circumference) and width; you can find them on the sidewall of the tire. (Try sprinkling talcum powder over the raised letters to see them better.) The first number is the tire circumference; the second is its width – for example, 26x2 or 700x23c. Alternately, you could look up the manufacturer specs for the bike online.
A. Inner tubes often list a range of tire sizes they’re compatible with, and there may be a variation of half an inch to an inch in width and an inch or so in circumference. Look for a road bike tube with specs that match your tires’ circumference and width as closely as possible. The tube should work well with most tires, but if you’re not satisfied with the fit and want it to be more precise, you may need to try a couple of different tube brands and sizes.
A. The fastest way is to partially inflate the new tube before installing it – just enough to take its shape while still being very flexible. Gently push the tube inside the bike tire, making sure the valve is not crimped or bent. Then, fit the tire to the wheel rim by threading the valve through the rim’s valve hole. Be careful not to pinch the tube while sliding the tire inside the rim. Inflate the tube gradually, pausing frequently to adjust the fit of the tire and make sure the tube is not being pinched between the edge of the tire and the rim (a fast way to destroy a new tube). Once secure, fully inflate the tube to the recommended pressure level.
Q. How can I keep a road bike tube from going flat?
A. The best way to keep a road bike tube in service for months or even years is to maintain proper tire pressure. Don’t ride your bike if the tires are underinflated, as you risk a pinch flat from the tube slipping under the edge of the tire. Also, know your terrain – if you’re riding roads with a lot of debris, consider adding a tire liner between the inside of the tire and the tube or adding a tube sealant to the inside of the tube (via the valve).