I live in the mountains of Vermont and bike 3 seasons a year on my trusty cyclocross bike. This year, I'd like to commute year round, through winter. My commute involves some steep, 10-18% climbs on dirt, gravel, and pavement with icy and/or unplowed snow. I've been debating about trying 2 different winter commuting setups:

  1. Winterize my current cyclocross bike. This option has the obvious advantage in that it's cheap, since I already own the bike. I was thinking about swapping out my Schwalbe Racing Ralphs (700×33c) and going with the widest possible tires I can fit, probably 700x40 with studs.

  2. Buy a fat bike. I've seen a lot of people talking about how much fun a fat bike is in the winter and how good they are for commuting. My main concern is the weight and climbing ability of these monsters on steep winter ascents/descents. Does this seem like a good option for my commute? I like this option because I could keep cycling through the winter, but this also involves buying a whole new bike.

Any opinions/experience is much appreciated. Thanks!

More specifics

My commute is 7 miles with ~2300 feet of elevation change. There are two short, but steep climbs with rolling hills interspersed throughout the rest of the ride. I'm mostly worried about the steep morning descents in bad weather and trying decide which bike option would give me the stability I need. Hauling a heavy fat bike up the hills is less of a concern, but climbing weight is still important to me.

  • 3
    This article, Fat or Skinny Tires for Winter Riding? might help you out. – dlu Jul 27 '15 at 0:20
  • Why not just give 1 a try and see how it goes? – paparazzo Jul 27 '15 at 1:00
  • @Frisbee My bike shop is currently having a big sale on fat bikes, so that's my main motivation for trying to decide between 1 and 2. – turtle Jul 27 '15 at 10:34
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    Never let logic get in the way of buying a new bike! All joking aside it's likely to be much cheaper to have two sets of wheels for your current bike than two bikes – Gordon Copestake Jul 27 '15 at 13:49
  • 1
    Even a 26er would have more float and tire options than a cross bike and a more stable geometry. Plus, road salt kills drivetrain stuff. You may find its completely adequate with some nice studded tires (Nokian(Suomi) Extreme 294, anybody?) -- I use Suomi Mount & Ground in winter myself to make ice relatively comfortable. – Batman Jul 27 '15 at 16:57
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Here are the things I believe you should be considering when making the decision.

Fat bikes climb just fine. Yes, a road bike will climb a paved hill more efficiently than a mountain bike under the same conditions. But, a mountain bike will also climb a muddy single track that a road bike would simply fail to move at all on. Efficiency and utility are trade offs in this respect.

A cyclocross bike will be more efficient in many conditions. However, at some point your cross bike will become unrideable (too much/deep/wet snow) and a fat bike will plod on. Depending on your weather and commitment to riding, a couple days a year where you shelve your cross bike and take other transportation may be acceptable for you. However, if you want to make sure you can ride as often as possible, a fat bike will offer you more commuting days. A fat bike also offers an advantage in this area as far as not finding out halfway into your commute that you are going to be pushing your cross bike the last 3 miles. It's slower, but a bit more honey badger.

As far as safety, I'd much prefer to descend with ANY snow on a fat bike than a cross bike. Thinner tires may cut through snow for traction, but when descending that sinking has a tendency to yank the front wheel all over the place. A wider front tire will float and may have a tendency to wash, but not dig and turn.

A fat bike would open up new options to you for winter trail riding. A cross bike just doesn't even enter into this equation. However, if you aren't into trail riding, it isn't really an advantage to you. Personally I enjoy winter trail riding above all other forms of riding and I live in the right place for it, so fat bikes are THE bike for me.

  • Well said, thanks for the help! – turtle Jul 27 '15 at 16:54

How much snow are we talking about? I’ve commuted through the winter on a cyclocross and had very little problems. The roads here (Austria) are usually cleared quite well, so I’ve never had deep snow. For black ice I used studded tires (Nokian Hakka W106) which — due to their narrowness (35mm) — also work quite well on slush. I’ve had the most difficulties with packed ruts which either prevent you from turning or break away on the borders (if the snow and ruts are still relatively new and not frozen over).

For offroad usage with deep snow a fat bike is probably better. Riding a cyclocross on paths in conditions like this one (notice that the bike is standing without any support because the snow is so viscous) is very hard and exhausting.

Make sure you have enough gears, riding with studded tires and/or through snow is hard.

  • Thanks for the advice. I'm glad to hear the cyclocross has worked for you. Snow is variable here, but ~250-300 inches a year is the norm. – turtle Jul 27 '15 at 14:56
  • How fast do they clear it away from the streets? Some 10cm of new snow are probably not that bad, especially because new snow is still fluffy. – Michael Jul 27 '15 at 15:01
  • The route that I commute is not on main roads, so early in the morning during my ride into town it's not usually cleared. I'd imagine the advantage of a CX setup is that the narrow wheels would cut through the fluffy snow and grip the underlying road surface. – turtle Jul 27 '15 at 15:15
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    It all comes down to snow load. A properly prepped cross bike will be faster in good conditions, but a fat bike will allow you to ride in fresh snow or semi packed snow that a cross bike just couldn't manage. Depending on the snow load in your area, a fat bike might only be useful to you 5 mornings a year, or it may be of use two months of mornings. Buying a fat bike MAY also open up for you a new season of trail riding as well. – Deleted User Jul 27 '15 at 15:58

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