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Fat or Skinny?

I think the arguments are as follows:

  • Fat: You can float on top of the snow and you don-t have to go through it. You have a larger contact patch with the ground.
  • Skinny: Will find it's way through the snow to find some pavement to grab onto.
  • Studded: Works great on ice but has no effect on snow/slush/other stuff. (Note never tried studded tires so just speculating).

Conditions of Interest

I am interested in traction on:

  • Cleared city streets
  • Uncleared city streets

enter image description here

  • Uncleared city streets where cars have gone through and made deep ruts

enter image description here

  • Slush

enter image description here

  • Slush that has re-frozen into deep ruts
  • Ice patches

Note: All pictures are take from google images.

Background

I have a short commute through part of Ottawa and run lots of erands on my bike. When it is snowing and when the roads don't look good I have several routes that are only slow residential streets so I can stay away from people yacking on their phones.

I would also like to start doing some winter trail riding.

Here is the historical weather data for Ottawa.

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Backlink to reddit question: reddit.com/r/bicycling/comments/ol49b/… –  sixtyfootersdude Jan 17 '12 at 18:18
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One thing I know for certain: You should not attempt to ride on ice without studded tires. –  Daniel R Hicks Jan 17 '12 at 19:41
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I think the hypothetical "sink down" effect of skinny tires usually is ovewhelmed by their sensitivity to being caught in ruts and get pinch-flatted from hidden obstacles in the snow. –  heltonbiker Jan 17 '12 at 20:04

6 Answers 6

I live in a country which doesn't have snow, but have recently gone to Europe (Czech Republic), where I could "understand" a bit how these things work. Also, my background is with mountainbike on any sort of offroad terrain, including mud and beach sand.

That being said, I think your most concern would be the grooves/ruts from refrozen snow on roads, much similar to sun-baked mud on some fire-road tracks, but much more slippery, and flotation, much similar to riding on loose gravel or sand (I am speculating a bit).

I can see a lot of studded tires are also slightly pending to the knobby-fatty end of spectrum. With wider tires (no need to be super-wide), you can use lower tire pressures to float better and yet don't get pinch flats. Also, with wide AND knobby tires, you can much more safely ride diagonally through ruts without the danger of your front wheel getting caught and you fall.

So, that's my (also a bit speculative) impressions about effects of tire width, tread-pattern and inflation pressure.

Hope it helps!

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I've only done a little snow riding, but I think your interpretation is pretty good. But there's a lot of variability based on the nature of the snow/ice and the temperature. –  Daniel R Hicks Jan 17 '12 at 19:40
    
Good points. As @DanielRHicks points out snow is more variable than other ground types. When heading towards a rut you don't know if you will go through it or over it until your wheel starts to push throw. This is often compounded by the fact that it get dark very early in the winter (at 5:15 it is pitch dark here) and falling snow and just being cold can also limit your vision. –  sixtyfootersdude Jan 17 '12 at 19:45
    
And if you wear glasses like I do they can get covered with blowing snow rather quickly/suddenly, or fog up when the wind shifts. Visibility is definitely an issue, and often you're going more by feel than by sight. –  Daniel R Hicks Jan 18 '12 at 4:27
    
I have to agree riding on sand is similar to riding on snow. The consistency is also variable just like sand. –  Carson Reinke Oct 25 '13 at 17:05

I would suggest you go take a look at the Icebike equipment page for some advice and suggestions. Personally, living in Ottawa I would use the fat tires and put some studs on.

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I haven't had as many chances to test this year, but studded tires work great on ice. If you get some with a tread pattern that can handle snow, you can ride in any winter condition. I've mostly had experience with studs in car ruts, and I have no problem getting out of them.

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Well, you have a couple of different scenarios here: - Road with (some degree of) ice - Road with snow - Trail (probably with even more snow)

As a commuter, I guess you ride most in the fist scenario. At least, that's what I do. Riding in the winter isn't all that different from riding in the autumn/spring as long as you have studded tires. What makes a difference is how many studs you need. For very icy, uneven roads, more studs would be preferred, but the rolling resistance also increases a lot. I use Schwalbe Marathon Winter which has 200 studs. I find it a good compromise between speed and grip. 300 tends to feel "sticky" on bare road.

As heltonbiker says, a wheels ability to ride on different terrains can efficiently be altered by regulating the amount of tire pressure. For snow, use lower pressure for better grip, for good road conditions, use higher pressure for higher speed.

This site here has some really good reviews on different kinds of studded tires for different uses.

I would recommend Schwalbe Marathon Winter as a good, all round tire.

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I ride my road bike and commuter (a cyclocross bike with fenders) in the winter. Here are my observations using different tires ranging from 700 x 23 slicks on the road bike to 700 x 35 studded winter tires on the cyclocross:

  1. Skinny road tires are fine when the streets are plowed and salted (cleared city streets).

  2. Skinny road bike tires are fine so long as there is no substantial accumulation of snow (greater than 1 inch) on the road and there is no ice. Problem when there is accumulation though is you can never be 100% sure if there is ice beneath.

  3. Non studded fatter tires with knobs are better for loosely packed snow. Again this is assuming this is fresh snow with very slim chance of icing beneath. These tires are relatively fine for trail use too especially on fresh fallen snow.

  4. With slush I feel more comfortable going through with studded tires since I can never really be sure if there is ice on the slush/snow covered portion of the street (see image below) that I may be forced to negotiate due to vehicular traffic.

You have to be careful especially early in the morning when water run-off from the curb or sidewalk freezes into ice on the roads. Other things to consider are that studded tires are noisier and heavier than regular tires.

If you can afford them, studded tires in my opinion are a worthy investment for the winter months. Some pics below of my rides with studded tires and a pic with road tires, respectively, over snow covered trails, over icy roads, over slushy roads and finally using skinny tires:

Over snow covered trails:

Icy roads

Slushy roads

Skinny tires in winter

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Fat tires because:

You are riding in variable terrain. This is very similar to mountain biking. You want an all terrain tyre. Skinnies will cut through if the snow is loose and the ground is dry. If you have loose over packed or loose over ice you are still at a disadvantage. When you get refrozen slush you will get bucked hard. It's my impression that those who like skinnies are on generally well plowed roads and any snow on the road is new snow. If your local DOT doesn't care to do more than the bare minimum to keep the road open then you will want something a little more robust.

For perspective I commute daily in Montana year round. In town our average annual snowfall is north of 100". In our town only major routes are plowed and they aren't plowed flawlessly.

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