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I have a road/commuter bike (Specialized Tricross) I use for commuting daily in New York City. The roads here can be quite harsh, with everything from leaves and branches to glass and potholes. The roads here gave me plenty of flats on the stock tires, so I replaced them with 28mm Continental Ultra Gators, and haven't had a flat since. I already have full coverage fenders with mudflaps on, and they've been very helpful on rainy days. Now winter is approaching and I'm wondering whether to swap out the tires.

I rode in winter here last year, so I'm familiar with the challenges, but I'm not perfectly satisfied with how my current setup performed.

The issues are:

  • About 60% of the time it's really no different from the rest of the year, just colder. A significantly heavier or knobbier tire would slow me down on these days.
  • About 10% of the time you get flurries or light snow that doesn't stick, and the smooth tread on my tires makes turning a bit dicey, but otherwise manageable.
  • About 10% of the time there is some fresh snow on the ground, and turning can be very challenging, but going straight is fine.
  • About 10-15% of the time there is older snow on the ground, mixed with patches of ice. I am able to proceed in a straight line at a slow and steady pace, about 10-12 MPH, occasionally getting off for steep hills and sharp turns.
  • 5% of the time conditions are such that it is completely unrideable, and I end up walking the bike home if I happen to have ridden it to work in the morning. I will often avoid riding in the 10-15% conditions mentioned above to avoid being faced with these conditions later in the day.

Do I need a completely new bike for the winter (or should I just take transit 20% of the time), or will putting on different tires help? Another possibility would be to buy a new front wheel with a very wide tire, and switch out wheels on bad weather days. Has anybody tried this out? Would I be OK with a smooth tread on the back?

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4 Answers 4

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I personally find that skinny (e.g., 700x23) tires cut through light snow really well, and actually have better traction than thicker tires that can sit on top of the snow. You do have to be careful on turns, but it's just like driving in the snow: you go a bit slower.

Bigger tires with knobbies on them work better with thicker snow. Basically, the thicker the snow, the bigger and knobbier you want your tires to be. That's an overgeneralization, but it cuts to the heart of the matter.

Unless you buy a whole new bike with frame clearance for larger tires (possibly much larger), there will always be a point at which the snow is simply too much for your bike to handle. That's actually something that's worth considering since winter weather is hard on bikes. And the salt, sand, and cinders that cities tend to treat roads with is even harder on them.

Another thing that you might consider is buying a second wheelset and installing your snow tires on those. It is much easier (provided that your rim widths are the same or you have discs so you don't have to adjust the brakes) to swap out a wheelset than it is to change your tires. Especially if you find yourself needing to do it at the last minute, as I often do.

Also note that the only tire that will give you traction on ice is a studded tire. It's probably not practical though given that you wouldn't be using it a significant amount of time since you shouldn't use them when it's not icy.

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Yeah, if I cycled in the snow I reckon I'd get a spare wheelset - not just a spare front - and put snow tyres on it. I can swap out a pair of wheels in just a minute or so, that time saving over changing the actual tyre would make the expense of the wheelset worthwhile. –  PeteH Nov 16 '13 at 12:39
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@PeteH The only catch to a spare wheelset is making sure that the rim widths are the same. I tried swapping out with an old set I had laying around the house one year. The old set had narrower rims than the new set and I didn't have any braking power unless I adjusted the brakes. It totally negated the time saving advantages of swapping wheelsets. But if you have discs on both wheelsets, it's all gravy. –  jimirings Nov 16 '13 at 16:16
    
@jimirings That's not entirely true. Disc brakes need adjustments, too, especially hydraulic ones. –  arne Nov 18 '13 at 15:02
    
@arne With mechanical disc brakes, you should be able to swap one wheel out with another without any issues unless you have a crazy weird rotor on one of the wheels. I admittedly have no experience with hydraulics. –  jimirings Nov 18 '13 at 21:34
    
@jimirings For mechanicals that may be true, but I'd definitely check whether the rotors of both wheels are centered in the calipers. While it will brake even if they're not, I think it's not the best you can do to your rotors. –  arne Nov 19 '13 at 8:50
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You say you've got a small apartment that can't accommodate two bikes, but how about two sets of wheels? The only thing that can deal with ice is studded tires, so for those 20% of the days that include ice, you need studded tires. Your Tricross should be able to accommodate such wheels, so it would simply be a matter of changing wheels rather than buying a whole new bike or using transit.

As for those days it seems okay in the morning but turns into an icy day in the evening, all I can suggest is paying careful attention to the weather guessers and guessing conservatively.

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What are studded tyres like on the bits in between the ice? –  Chris H Nov 18 '13 at 15:10
    
@ChrisH Slower and noisier, but still rideable. –  Carey Gregory Nov 18 '13 at 15:30
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I would get a spare front wheel and a studded Schwalbe winter tyre, pref 30-622 since it the smallest I know of and it got a quite low rolling resistance. Just leave it on for the winter period or swap it out for the icy days.

I've been commuting daily year round in northern Sweden for the past 5 years and 3-4 years more prior to that. Up here we have around -10 to -30° C during 3-4 months and some really shitty weather in fall and autumn when it periodically is rainy with frozen ground. My daily ride has a 40-622 tyre with 240 spikes and I never even slipped with it. Actually I also have a spare one for the back wheel but haven't come around to mounting it yet since the need weren't so big.

Good luck!

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That's really great information. Please let me know how much of a difference swapping the rear tire in addition to the front makes. I bought a new front wheel and schwalbe marathon winter tires, but will try to keep the slick back wheel in place. –  Tal Fishman Nov 19 '13 at 15:51
    
Why would you only put a studded tire in the front? –  jimirings Nov 20 '13 at 20:36
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Continental makes road-specific tires for winter commuters. They rely on rubber compounds formulated for cold, slick conditions as well as specially shaped treads designed to get a grip on icy and slushy pavement without extreme lugs. They also offer a lugged tire with traction studs, though the tread may be too aggressive for your taste. Schwalbe and Nokian also make studded tires, Schwalbe's Winter and Marathon Winter have a much less aggressive tread than the Nokians, and comes in a variety of road and MTB sizes.

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Could you expand on what it means for the studs to be "inset"? –  James Bradbury Nov 18 '13 at 14:08
    
@JamesBradbury - The studs are mounted in depressions within the knobs of the tread, rather than mounted directly at the surface. This increases their durability somewhat. It's a moot point as it turns out the studs on the tire in question are not inset. I'll modify my answer. –  RI Swamp Yankee Nov 18 '13 at 20:19
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