Steve Cuomo is veteran bike industry product manager who has worked for a variety of brands over the decades. Most recently he’s been the man behind BikeTube Brand which is a consumer direct brand that specializes in all things related to innertubes and tire pumps (BTW, his $15 , dual-stage Air Handler mini-pump is the best that RBA has ever tested). We recently sat down with Steve to get the inside scoop on not only innertubes, but also why they seem so hard to find down at the local bike shop.
Q: What are the beginnings of Bike Tube? You’ve been around since the mid-’80s, right?
A: I started working for Cannondale in 1985, right after graduating from Boston University. Over the next 11 years I became head of bicycle product management and got to know most of the global component suppliers, their factories and capabilities. I then became vice president of product design and engineering at GT, where I continued to work closely with parts makers.
About six years ago I resolved to start my own company. It was obvious to me that consumers want to buy almost everything online. I wanted to create a brand that was very focused, in a product area that had been fairly stagnant.
I knew bike shops were making something like 500 percent profit on inner tubes, and that there was a buzz around tire size and pressure. By chance, a good friend’s family was in the inner-tube manufacturing business.
As an avid cyclist myself, I looked at things I disliked about tubes—packaging that just gets thrown away, butyl rubber bands that quickly disintegrate, tubes damaged from bouncing around in seat bags.
I created zero-waste packaging using only a high-quality silicone band that can be re-used and re-purposed. Also, I created an abrasion-resistant elastic booty, the TubeSock, to protect tubes when they’re in a seat bag. I made sure my tubes were each individually tested and had extra talc to make them easier to install properly. By the summer of 2016 we were shipping Biketube Brand tubes.
Our focus is not just inner tubes but air. We believe air pressure is the biggest single factor affecting the quality of your ride. Pumps, tire levers, tubeless valves and CO2 inflators are important parts of our business.
Q: Is the news of a tube shortage real, and what are the reasons for it?
A: Yes, there absolutely is a global shortage of inner tubes, and most other bicycle parts and accessories for that matter, and it’s related to COVID-19. Most of the factories were completely shut down in January and February. And then, with people stuck at home this spring and summer, the same factories were trying to make up for losing two months of production but at the same time ramp up to meet runaway demand.
No one could predict how much or how long the increased demand would continue, and although factories are humming now, manufacturing productivity generally slows in the summer, and yet demand remained very high.
Not only are my consumer sales way up, but I’ve also begun selling tubes to bike shops globally so that they can do repairs. The funny thing is, no one seems to have 26-inch tubes with Schrader valves, for example, and my lead times are still getting worse, not better.
Q: What’s the difference between latex and butyl tubes?
A: We sell both, but I generally steer customers towards our lightweight thin-wall Butane Series butyl tubes rather than latex. There are definitely riders who swear that latex provides a more supple ride, but the rolling resistance lab tests (which drive me crazy, because they don’t reflect real-life riding) show only a tiny advantage over thin butyl. Personally, I can’t feel a difference in the ride.
Light butyl weighs about the same as latex and costs less. Also, latex material is more porous than butyl, allowing molecules to pass through more easily, causing air pressure to drop significantly over the course of a single day. If you use rim brakes on carbon rims, you want to stay away from latex, because rims can get hot enough to cause latex to fail.
Butyl tubes are made lighter by using a thinner wall, and that requires tighter tolerances, which are achieved by slowing down the manufacturing process and carefully controlling the thickness. That’s why they cost more than standard tubes.
A light butyl tube in a light and supple 25mm clincher tire (not a tubeless tire, which are generally too stiff and heavy) is low maintenance, reasonably priced and fast as heck.
Q: So, what about road tubeless?
A: We sell many products for tubeless riders, but we advise our customers to try road tubeless only if they are experiencing a very high number of punctures per season. Otherwise, it may not be right for them.
Pinch flats and thorns are common for most mountain bikers, and tubeless does a great job of solving those problems.
But, most roadies don’t have those issues and may only get a couple of punctures per season. The weight and rolling-resistance advantages are largely fictional, because tubeless tires need to be heavier and stiffer so that they stay on the rim and don’t leak air. Also, the challenges of mounting and dismounting tires, clogged and stuck valves, holes that won’t seal, higher cost, and maintaining enough messy sealant in the tire are real.
You may decrease your number of punctures by 30 percent, but when things go wrong, they can go very wrong. There is a definite wave of roadies that have given up on road tubeless and are happy to go back to tubes. Unfortunately, they are stuck with tubeless rims, which can make properly seating a tire bead more difficult.
Q: What about the price difference between aluminum and brass valves?
A: Aluminum valve stems are lighter and cost more than the go-to brass material found on most tubes. We use anodized-aluminum stems on our light-weight Butane Series high-performance road tubes.
The weight difference between brass and aluminum stems is not huge when you’re talking about shorter valves, but with deep carbon rims that require longer valves, the advantage becomes more pronounced. With a rim that light, a higher percentage of weight is concentrated at the valve, throwing off the balance. We do not externally thread our aluminum valves, which makes them stronger. We make tubes for Enve Composites, and those have long anodized-aluminum valve stems.
Q: Any good tips for using tubes and fixing flats?
A: After installing a tube and tire, push the tire away from the rim so you can see rim tape, and make sure you can’t see any inner tube.
Go all the way around the wheel, both sides. It’s also a good idea to inflate a tire to about half, let out all the air, and then fill it all the way.
The plastic valve cap on a Presta valve is only for protecting the tube when it’s rolled up. After installing the tube, toss the cap. The round jam nut at the base of a threaded Presta valve helps when the tire is being inflated from totally flat, but is actually totally optional and can be tossed.
Try to avoid using a tire lever when mounting a tire, as they can damage tubes. There are some tricks for mounting tires by hand in our video on our site and YouTube channel.
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