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I'm currently living in Holland, Michigan, and we get quite a bit of snow (lake effect from Lake Michigan). I purchased a Giant AnyRoad CoMax this past summer which is great for commuting in all seasons other than winter.

This past week, however, I attempted to commute with 1-2" snow on the ground and dumped it four times in two commutes (ouch! my hip still hurts), so I don't think that's an option for the winter. It's mid-December now, and I'm already getting cabin fever, so here are the options I'm considering for Winter/snow commuting:

1) Snow tires for my spring/summer/fall bike: This is the option I'm least inclined towards for at least two reasons, for one, when riding on my other seasons bike in the snow I got the idea changing the tires alone will not be sufficient for 1+" of snow, and for two, to avoid changing tires often this would require a 2nd set of rims (and 2nd cassette, brake rotors, etc.), at which point I'd suppose it would be better to get a second bike altogether.

2) 27.5" or 29" mountain bike: This seems to be the best option. I don't need something super high end, rather I'd be looking for something mid-range that could be used perhaps 30-40 times a year when there is snow and will get me where I'm going, for example here are some possibilities:

https://www.giant-bicycles.com/us/revel-2

https://www.giant-bicycles.com/us/revel-29er

https://www.giant-bicycles.com/us/atx-lite

3) Fat tire bike: This is the option I'm least considering as these seem to be very expensive, and I'm not sure huge tires are necessary for light snow.

4) Any other suggestions?? (other than moving to California which is not an option at the moment)

I guess the decision really comes down to which size/type of tire is best for commuting in 1-2" snow with possible occasional ice patches, 27.5" or is 29" necessary/suggested?

  • 2
    You might want to look at some of the answers to an old question of mine -- Winter tyres or winter wheels? -- it's not a duplicate but is relevant to some of your points. – Chris H Dec 13 '16 at 14:15
  • also, lower the saddle for winter, to lower your center of gravity, and to be able to more easily put a foot down. Go slowly, avoid sharp brakes or turns, you should be fine. – njzk2 Dec 13 '16 at 16:18
  • Tires are everything in slippery conditions. Some winter tires have sipe patterns others have studs. Both will bite on ice. Without either you will find yourself on the ground when you ride on ice. I personally went for sipes as I deal with more black ice than solid ice. – Rider_X Dec 13 '16 at 17:41
  • This question is related to this: bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/42197/… – danielml01 Dec 14 '16 at 15:17
  • I also want to add BMX wheels here because they are cheap – shuva Dec 16 '17 at 17:57
26

I've got about 20,000 miles experience commuting in Alaska snow. There are really 3 kinds of snow to deal with: deep & fluffy, hard & icy, and slush.

I have two bikes, a Pugsley with Large Marge tires for deep snow, and a Kona 29er for everything else.

The trick to the Pugs is deflating the tires so they track right. 10psi in front is maybe too much, add a little more for the back. That makes a slow commute. When the snow gets over 2-3" of thick stuff the Pugs comes out.

Otherwise it's the Kona with Nokian Gazza Extreme studs. Pump them up hard and they cut through to the hard surface under the goo. Ice is no biggie, it's like riding on gravel. The springtime deep slush will shoot out through the open deep tread pattern and you can pretty much just ride straight through it without tire deflection. I recommend studs on your boots for ice riding too, when you put your foot down you'll need the traction at intersections.

Flat studded pedals, disc brakes, GOOD bright flashers, and you're set. Saran wrap taped over your helmet vents keeps your head a little warmer too.

Try a camping headlight under your helmet. Look at drivers at intersections and they see your beam, and see you.

Enjoy!

  • 6
    +1 on lighting and helmet lighting for extra visibility. – Benzo Dec 13 '16 at 19:11
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    Don't go for lights mounted to your helmet. They are the worst for everyone in traffic but you. Get front+back lights plus reflectors on pedals, spokes and also at front+back if you are paranoid. Good point about the shoes, today I fell because of this (put my foot down, oops, no traction either). – Nobody Dec 13 '16 at 19:37
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    @Nobody - the advantage of helmet mounted lights is that they are ~ 3 feet higher than the lights on your handlebars which can make you more visible (like if your head is higher than the car in front of you). It doesn't take a very bright light for this visibility (indeed, I don't like using a helmet light as a primary headlight since it tends to mask imperfections in the road -- it is so close to eye level that there are almost no shadows visible.) – Johnny Dec 13 '16 at 21:38
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    @nobody Flashing headlights are bad, but wide-angle floods are great on the head. Beam tracks your head direction, so all you need to do is face toward any threatening car. Reflectors are good but they're passive, and depend on a light aimed at you PLUS someone looking along the beam. – Criggie Dec 13 '16 at 23:00
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    @Nobody it's perfectly possible to do helmet lights well. It's also possible to do them badly. Mine has a narrow beam which normally illuminates the road further ahead of me than my handlebar-mounted light (if shining that far ahead it would dazzle people). With a little effort I can shine it at drivers (bus wing mirrors are an obvious target). It's actually easier to align helmet lights down at the road and have them illuminate the right bit. – Chris H Dec 14 '16 at 16:13
11

You would probably be alright by adding some studded tires to your existing bike. That will help a lot with control when ice is present. Skinny tires actually handle deep stuff well since they cut through it instead of float on top of it. Anyone who rides a fat bike knows that if the snow isn't compacted, your front wheel can float sideways and put you on the ground. Though, they have impressive traction when snow is packed. Ice still makes fat bike tires (and mountain bike tires) slide.

However, I use a mountain bike for winter commuting sometimes. I also have a fat bike, and I can say, they really are not needed for most winter commutes and they are still affected by icy conditions. Wheel size doesn't really matter much here, they all work pretty well.

If you're going to buy a MTB for winter commuting, you want:

  • Disc Brakes - they actually work in the snow, rim brakes kind of suck when it's below freezing, it's not that they don't work at all, they are just less predictable. I prefer to run sintered metal pads in the winter as they are less susceptible to contamination than semi-organic or organic pads. They are also cheap, but not universally available for all brakes.
  • Rigid vs Suspension - Rigid bikes are probably better for winter commuting due to low maintenance. Keeping salt out of your shocks is a thankless job, that you'll probably stop doing after a while, and your fork will wear faster. Also, the shocks that come on cheap bikes generally kind of suck anyway.
  • Singlespeed? If you don't have a huge distance to commute, a singlespeed MTB can be a lot cheaper in the long run. The drivetrain is cheap to maintain, chains are inexpensive to replace (you'll want to after the winter), and there is less stuff to freeze up and break down (I've had derailleurs fail to shift due to frozen slush buildup). Pick an easy gearing and spin a bit more as it makes it a bit better for control if you're not mashing.
  • Tires - Most mountain bike tires would be fine. Studs are awesome on ice, but they provide a lot of resistance on clean, dry roads. It's a tradeoff. You really don't want to be fixing flats though, so get some burly tires that don't flat easily. If you're going MTB, you can go tubeless, which can help a lot (Though, always carry a spare tube or two just in case).
  • Flat Pedals - in case you start sliding, it's easier to bail or put a foot down.
  • Good Cornering Skills - If you suspect you're on ice, keep going in a straight line. Take turns very slow and be prepared to put a foot down on the inside of the turn if need be.
  • You Don't Want: Zip Ties for Traction - Some people put zip ties on their tires for extra traction. You see this a lot on pinterest. It's a terrible idea unless you're riding offroad and you already have disc brakes (even then it's probably not worth it). Don't even think about doing this. It doesn't work with rim brakes at all (unless you unhook your brakes). Buy studded tires or not, don't do this.

TLDR: If you want a separate winter bike, any rigid disc brake MTB will probably be fine. You can add studded tires here too, it's probably not a bad idea if it gets icy frequently. Singlespeeds can be a good, low maintenance option.

  • 1
    Studded tyres pumped up to their rmax pressure aren't that bad -- on my commute any difference in timing (between Schwalbe winter and marathon plus) is negligible compared to the effects of traffic. And the studs are still there for unexpected ice, or you can let some air out for an early evening freeze. SInglespeed is a nice idea if it's not too hilly -- I wouldn't want to be grinding up hill and have the back wheel spin, and lack of decent downhill/flat gears would slow me down more than any tyres could. – Chris H Dec 13 '16 at 15:47
  • I haven't noticed any braking problems when it's a few degrees below freezing and/or wet with my V-brakes on my MTB (Peugot Dune). I usually only ride when the roads are dry, though. My brakes still easily have enough power to raise the rear wheel if I brake too hard on a cold but dry day, but my brother's non-MTB commuter bike has brakes that can't even do that when it's warm. – Peter Cordes Dec 13 '16 at 17:19
  • The conditions where V-brakes have really serious problems is deep snow at zero temperature, so that rim is caked with snow that melts at the slightest provocation. Fortunately, just trying to freewheel in that weather stops the bike pretty well. Cold and dry or even cold and fine snow are fine. – ojs Dec 13 '16 at 17:29
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    In my experience cleats are easy enough to get out from. The problem is when they get packed with snow and you can't clip in. – ojs Dec 13 '16 at 17:31
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    @PeterCordes I've also been fine on V brakes with koolstop dual compound pads down to about -6, maybe -10C. At that temperature in the dry the salt on the roads attracts enough moisture that they'e not completely dry as well as being gritty, so tyre-tarmac grip dominates. – Chris H Dec 14 '16 at 16:07
8

Your winters are harsher than mine but I run spiked tyres for the ice that we do get. They have some tread (like a not too agreesive MTB tyre).

  • The choice of tyre is more important than the choice of bike. But winter tyres are wider than road tyres (35mm+) so won't fit road bikes and may not fit your frame.

  • Bikes suffer in winter (wet all the time + salt) so you're right not to spend a lot. Second hand is a good option as a lot of the depreciation will have already happened (plus winter is a good time to buy 2nd hand bikes from fair-weather riders).

  • Whether you get 26" or 29" wheels doesn't really matter so long as the bike fits you, but there's much less choice of winter tyres for 27.5" (for these purposes 29"=28"=700C=ISO622mm. For example the popular marathon winter doesn't come in 27.5"; neither does the cheaper Schwalbe winter but you might not want them anyway)

  • You will have to take it easier on bends, as well as where snow can hide potholes.

(This is a bit of an extended comment, I admit, but for the length. Also it wanted formatting)

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