In my years as a cyclist, I’ve tried dozens of different tubes. Like everyone, I started with the standard butyl tubes, which are to tire inflation what a mentor told me turkeys are to survival: They just look for ways to die. He grew up in a family that farmed turkeys, so his perspective was informed by life with them prior to late November. That butyl tubes are still so dominant is a mystery to me.
I tried latex tubes. Most latex tubes provide to be surprisingly fragile and often split along seams or where the valve was fixed to the tube. Put one in your seat bag and it was likely to be ruined after a week’s-worth of riding.
I tried polyurethane tubes back when that was a passing thing for about the length of Tiffany’s singing career in the 1980s. They were difficult to patch and prone to other issues, not least of which was the fact that they still punctured with relative ease.
Then there were the butyl-lined latex tubes, which were meant to hold air better but provide the rolling and puncture resistance of a latex tube. While they had the puncture resistance of a latex tube, they also dried out as easily as a latex tube and had the rolling resistance of a butyl tube. Not super compelling.
So when I ran across Tubolito at the Sea Otter Classic last spring, I was intrigued and hopeful, but knew to check my enthusiasm at the saddle. Everything on paper looked good, but I couldn’t help but wonder how things would go out on the road.
Let’s cover some basics. Tubolito tubes come in basically every size you are likely to need for an adult’s bicycle: 700C, 29-inch, 27.5-inch, 26-inch and 20-inch. The 29, 27.5 and 20 each come in two widths, and there are two different weights with differing degrees of puncture resistance. The 700C comes in two weights for road use as well as a width and weight appropriate to gravel use. The road tubes come in three valve lengths (42, 60 and 80mm), while the gravel width comes with two (42 and 60mm). Valve stems are removable, so it’s possible to swap out for a different length; this is also handy if you have a really tiny seat bag. They also offer sizes for city and cargo bikes.
A Tubolito “S” or spare on the left, their standard in the middle, and that thing we’ve suffered with way too long on the right.
Let’s talk about that weight for a moment. Most standard tubes for road use with a long-ish valve stem will weigh somewhere between 140 and 160 grams. Lightweight tubes will run in the 80-100g range. A stout gravel tube can weigh upward of 180g. Now compare that with 38g for the standard weight Tubolito and 23g for the lightweight version. The gravel version? Just 54g. So when Tubolito claims their tubes weigh 2/3 what a standard one does, that’s conservative; in some instances, even at an apples-to-apples comparison, the savings can be more like 3/4.
Tubolito claims the tubes are twice as puncture resistant as butyl tubes. This is a claim I can’t verify. What I can say is that once I did flat and then realized the sealant wasn’t sealing, I popped one of the gravel tubes in the tire. The good thing about dried up sealant is that it makes inserting the tube a good deal less messy. Hooray. Maybe.
Impatience being a fault in the human condition, I took off with maybe only 30 psi in the tire. I needed to get home. My rush ended up with rewarding me with two tire-to-rim rock hits, just the sort that caused me to slow and look down at my rear tire, waiting for the inevitable hiss and ever widening casing. But it didn’t happen. Considering those hits were both as hard as the one that resulted in the flat in the first place, I considered that about as objective a measure as I was going to achieve. Tubolito’s own data suggests that a standard tube requires about 7.5Nm of force to puncture it (lightweight tubes only require about 5Nm), while a standard Tubolito tube requires more like 21Nm of force to puncture, making it nearly three times as strong.
Plus, Tubolitos can be patched.
Tubolitos hold pressure at a rate roughly equivalent to a standard butyl tube, certainly, much longer than a latex tube.
The secret sauce to Tubolito harkens back to a material mentioned earlier in this review: polyurethane. Tubolito uses a material referred to as TPU, which has been used in speaker diaphragms. Don’t get me started about what happened with speakers when high-end manufacturers began switching from basically paper to mylar and polyurethane (in short, clarity improved and speakers got louder for the same wattage). TPU is a thermoplastic polyurethane elastomer, a sub-species of the TPE family of materials.
In a world where every improvement seemingly comes with some ominous caveat, Tubolito is a nearly faultless product. Considering that there are bike shops charging $11-12 for normal butyl inner tubes, spending $34.90 for a standard tube or $37.90 for the “spare” version, I find the price to be utterly reasonable. Spending triple the cost of a normal tube to replace a fault-prone product in favor of one that is faster, weighs roughly 1/4 of the original and is at least three times as strong, plus is small enough that two tubes can be fit in the space occupied by one butyl tube, well if that ain’t a bargain, I don’t know what is.
Final thought: Stronger, lighter, faster. Pick all three.