Inner tubes often seem like generic commodities. One is as good as the next – so buy the cheapest one… I used to think that, too, until I started to see split seams, valves separating from the tube, and other mysterious flats that were not caused by “outside influences”. Around kilometer 1000 during the 2007 Paris-Brest-Paris, the seam split on a brand-new Michelin tube that I had bought at a control. (I had good luck with French-made Michelin tubes, but this was one of their Asian-made budget tubes.) It was a distraction I did not need at that point in the ride.
On the other hand, the Schwalbe 650B tubes I had been using always had been flawless. It became obvious that they were made to higher quality standards. So we decided to add Schwalbe tubes to our program. Initially, we intended these as “add-ons” for customers who were ordering tires anyhow. We were surprised how many customers ordered tubes just by themselves. Several customers thanked us for making these tubes available, and commented how they were tired of problems with the generic tubes they bought at their local bike shop…
Nobody likes flats, and fortunately, as we have switched to wider tires, we get far fewer flats. Now we can enjoy the comfort and speed of supple tires without added puncture protection, yet not worry much about flats. But there is no protection against faulty tubes… (The photo above shows a pinch flat. On some very rough gravel, even 42 mm tires are not wide enough…)
I also like to run slightly undersize tubes in my tires. Not only does it save weight, but it also makes the tube easier to install. (Trying to get a slightly stretched-out tube into the tire without creases and folds can be a challenge.) With quality tubes, you can run slightly undersized tubes (say a 28 mm tube in a 32 mm tire) – at your own risk, I hasten to add! The walls of quality tubes are uniform in thickness and will stretch evenly. Budget tubes often have thin spots, which don’t respond well to stretching.
(Superlight tubes always should be sized correctly for your tire, since they are too thin to stretch much. However, some tubes aren’t labeled for all the sizes they fit. For example, the Schwalbe SV14A tubes we sell are labeled for 26″ tires, but they also fit 650B x 38 – 48 mm.)
Better tubes don’t make your bike ride better… so if you are on a tight budget, get the best tires you can afford, and use cheap generic tubes. Be prepared to fix an extra flat once in a while, but at least you get the performance, comfort and pure fun factor of great tires. However, if want quality in all your components (or if you are entering a big event and want to decrease your risk of flats), using quality tubes means that you have one less thing to worry about.