Note: This is the eleventh installment in a series of articles on winter cycling. I hope to have the entire series finished by late November and then publish it as a free PDF book that you can download from this website (the working title is, “A Guide To Winter Cycling”).
Even if you own the best cycling clothing that money can buy, your bike ride is going to be miserable if you attempt to ride in the snow or ice with the wrong tires. It’s not just about having tires with a good grip—they also need to be pliable in extremely cold temperatures and be able to shed snow. I haven’t tried every winter cycling tire that is on the market, but I have used enough different brands to offer a few suggestions for those who might be new to winter cycling.
If you are new to winter cycling and not sure how much you are going to ride this winter, I would suggest you get a pair of Innova 26 x 2.1 snow tires—these mountain bike tires are definitely an “entry-level” grade. Unlike the more expensive tires that use carbide studs, the Innova tires use steel studs, so yes, they are going to rust (see the photo above). However, the Innova tires are at least half the price of Nokian or Schwalbe tires. Innova snow tires have 268 replaceable steel studs and an aggressive tread. While it is very common to lose a few studs during normal use every winter due to friction, the best I can tell I didn’t lose a single stud in over 500 miles of use during the first winter I had them.
While the side of the tire says the maximum air pressure is 60psi, I would recommend you never go above 50psi—and if you are riding on a lot of ice I’d drop the pressure down to near 40psi (the minimum recommended pressure). At 60psi the studs don’t grip the snow and ice as well. These tires are made with a standard rubber compound which means they are not very flexible in cold weather. These tires retail for around $72 each. If your local bike shop does not carry Innova tires, you can usually find them on Amazon.com.
If you are looking for a top-of-the-line tire winter mountain biking tire I would suggest the Nokian Hakka WXC 300 Studded Tires. These tires are made with a special winter rubber (durometer 58A) and are intended for extreme winter riding. This tire has large knobs for a great grip in mud and snow, along with 304 studs to keep you steady on the ice. The studs are made of aluminum and have sharp carbide pins—these pins should last for the life of the tire. Each tire weighs 750g (25.45 ounces). I bought a pair of 26″x2.2″ tires, but similar tires are available in other sizes. The recommended tire pressure is 29 to 65psi. I keep mine at around 40psi for winter riding and they are great in snow up to about two inches (5 cm) deep.
These tires are easy to install, but before you take them out in the snow for the first time you need to break them in by riding on hard pavement for at least 30 miles. The pavement helps seat the studs properly into the tires and roughens up the tips a bit for a better grip on the ice. The large tread pattern (knobs) on this tire provide wonderful traction in mud and snow, but they do require some extra effort on pavement because of their high rolling resistance. One thing that all studded bicycle tires have in common is that they are loud. How loud are they? Let me put it this way: You better hope that when the Zombie Apocalypse occurs that it happens in the summer, because if these tires are on your bike when it hits you are going to attract the attention of every walker and biter within 30 miles (it is a well-known fact that Zombies are attracted to loud noises).
Now for the confusing part: Nokian Tyres PCL is headquartered in Finland and is known throughout the world for their fine car and truck tires—they operate the world’s only permanent winter tire testing facility. At one time Nokian Tyres PCL manufactured bicycle tires, but not anymore. Today they license the Nokian name to Suomi Tyres LTD (another Finnish company). The Nokian Hakka WXC 300 tires are actually manufactured in Taiwan and are distributed in North America through Quality Bike Products (QPB). Nokian Hakka WXC 300 Studded Tires retail for $120 each at your local bike shop. They are also available from the REI Website and in some of their retail stores.
Anytime the snow is over 2″ deep I’ll be riding my Surly Necromancer Pugsley with 4″ wide tires. Like many of the early Fat Bikes, my Pugs came equipped with 3.8″ Surly Larry tires on the front and 3.7″ Surly Endomorph tires on the back (often called the Larry/Endo combo). These tires are great for folks who are lucky enough to ride on groomed snowmobile trails and hard packed (consolidated) snow. Those of us who ride on loose and unconsolidated snow usually find this tire combination somewhat lacking—the Larry in the front is prone to washouts (especially if the path is off-camber) and the Endomorph in the rear often loses its grip in loose snow. Fortunately, Fat Bike riders now have a couple of great choices for winter cycling tires.
The Surly Nate tire is 3.8″ wide and fits 50–100mm wide rims. The Nate has a large and aggressive knobby tread pattern that offers unbelievable traction in unconsolidated snow. While these massive tires have more rolling resistance than other fat tires, I’ve still been able to get my Pugs up to over 20 MPH on the pavement. I’ve also been able to cut a trail through five inches of fresh snow without any trouble—even on off-camber sections of the trail. In addition, I’ve been able to climb snow-covered hills while standing up out of the saddle—something I could never do with the Larry/Endo combo. The Surly Nate is available with either 27tpi or 120tpi (threads per inch). Higher tpi tires are usually lighter, more supple and more expensive. Lower tpi tires are generally heavier, more durable and offer better flat-resistance. The 120tpi Nate has a Kevlar bead and weighs around 1350 grams, while the 27tpi wire bead version weighs a bit over 1700 grams.
The first time I rode with the Nates was on a 35 degree day on an off-road trail that had snow and ice in the shady areas and several inches of mud and standing water in the areas exposed to direct sunlight. When I started my ride I could see the tracks left by a mountain biker who had started out on the trail before me that day—the tracks turned around after about 30 feet! However, I was able to ride for over 30 miles on this muddy trail and my Nates didn’t slip a single time (but they did throw a lot of mud).
The 27tpi Surly Nate tire retails for around $80, and the 120tpi version is around $120. You should be able to find these tires in the Men’s Department of your local bike shop. Once you get your hands on the Surly Nate tire, make sure you look for the Easter Egg (hidden message) just above the bead of the tire. In case you can’t find it, it says, “Deep Fried Meat Fueled Natepocalypse” (I am not sure of the best way to translate this into English).
If you are looking for the ultimate Fat Bike tire for winter cycling, look no further than the Dillinger Studded Fat Bike Tires from 45NRTH. The Dillinger tires are 4″ wide and weight only 1375 grams (a major improvement over my heavy Surly Nates). This lightweight snow tire has 240 aluminum-carbide studs that grips the ice and a tread pattern that gives the most amazing traction in snow you will ever find in a bike tire. This 26×4″ tire is available with a Kevlar bead with 120tpi (threads per inch), and a wire bead version with 27tpi. The intended tire pressure range for this tire goes from 5 to 30psi, but if you are riding on snow you probably don’t want to inflate them to over 10psi, and on the ice I would drop them down to 5 or 6psi.
The first time I rode on these tires was at Illinois Beach State Park so I could try them out on the snow, ride across a frozen pond and play along the shores of Lake Michigan. I rode my bike on surface streets from my house to the beach and while on the pavement these wide tires are a bit of work (they grip the road too well). However, the moment I left the pavement and got on a snowy off-road trail it felt like I was riding downhill with a tailwind—these tires ride so smooth and grip so well on the snow that I don’t even have the words to describe it! On the way to the beach I followed a very sandy trail that has a couple of small bumps I hate—they are only a few feet tall but most of the time my mountain bike sinks in the sand and I almost come to a standstill. However, with the Dillinger tires I just increased my speed and rolled right over the bumps.
At the north end of Illinois Beach State Park there is a small pond that was frozen over and it had several guys out ice fishing near the middle of the pond (always a good sign). I rode across this frozen pond and was blown away by two things: how much traction I had and how little rolling resistance I experienced!
When I entered the park I noticed that there were tracks in the snow from two other cyclists on a trail in front of me—both tracks were from mountain bike tires and it appeared that one of them was studded. I caught up with a guy riding the non-studded tires first—he was a nice guy but was having trouble hold a straight line so. A little later I caught up with the guy on a mountain bike with steel studded tires—he was riding faster than the other guy so I pulled up next to him and chatted for a while. When I conversation was over I hit the gas and quickly dropped him. Both of these guys were younger than me and in decent shape, so I am certain that on road bikes in the summer they would have dropped me, but a standard mountain bike snow tire is no match for a studded Fat Bike tire in the snow! The Dillinger tires sells for around $250 with the folding bead (Kevlar), but the wire bead version is a bit cheaper.
Warning: If you ride in the winter eventually you are going to come home covered from head to toe in mud, slush and snow. You will then find yourself standing out in your snow-covered backyard with a water hose and scrub brush trying to clean your bike. Your neighbors will never understand the smile on your face. In fact, I am not certain of the source myself. Does the smile come as a result of the fun you had on the ride, or from thinking about those poor guys riding their trainers in the basement because the weather is “too bad to ride in”?