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Selecting the kind of bike to ride depends perhaps a bit too much on context—how much snow, whether and how quickly the snow is plowed, etc.

Last winter I've taken the road bike on trails soon after lighter snowfall. I rode on trails only and avoided proximity to cars since I didn't want to bet my well-being on whether nearby motorists were fully in control of their vehicles, plus the side of the road ends up being the plowed-snow-cum-slush zone.

light snowfall

Once the snow falling was heavier, I didn't quite dare cycle at all, but that's partly because I hadn't found a way to keep my fingers from freezing. Now armed with winter cycling clothing and a couple of options for winter cycling gloves, I think this may be a bit easier.

medium snowfall

Oddly, the most tempting time to go cycling is right after heavy snowfall (typically called a "snowstorm", even though it's really nothing more than a lot of snow in one day).

Hikers do a pretty good job of tamping down the snow on pedestrian and cycling paths with their boots, and so a fat tire may not be absolutely essential. Perhaps studded 700-38mm tires might do on either a mountain bike or a cyclocross (?).

heavy snowfall

What is the smallest collection of bikes you would maintain to be able to ride on these three types of roads—as well as on clean summer paths?

Related

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  • Gravel bike or cyclocross equipped with studded tires for the first two (or just cyclocross tyres if you are fairly sure there won’t be ice). Fat bike or MTB with wide tyres for the third.
    – Michael
    Aug 19, 2021 at 20:00
  • 8
    You just wanted to show off your images, didn't you? ;-) Aug 19, 2021 at 20:21
  • Loverly photos, thank you for sharing. Are the paths iced / icy or are they snow-covered ?
    – Criggie
    Aug 19, 2021 at 20:45
  • 4
    Generally you never have enough bicycles, the ideal number being n+1. But the number should also be kept at s-1. Where 's' is the number when your partner leaves and slams the door.
    – Carel
    Aug 20, 2021 at 18:10
  • 29 2.25 is about the same diameter as a fatty. Lace a fatty hub to some 29ers. Fat for soft snow, 29x2.25 studded becomes a wheel swap. You could add another 700C/29er set of wheels, or tire swap into the 29 rims and 700C/35mm on the fat bike, but a gravel bike would be better. So one bike and 2 or three sets if rims will work fine if you can get used to the Fatty Q factor.
    – mattnz
    Dec 4, 2021 at 6:31

4 Answers 4

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The smallest collection suitable for all three is one bike with one set of wheels. You pick a bike for the worst conditions, and accept that it might be a little sub-optimal for the best conditions.

You would therefore pick a fat bike with studded tyres and accept it will be a little slow when used in the conditions in your first photo. If it's a commute it may take a few minutes longer, if it's a training ride then you measure your rides in time x intensity rather than distance anyway.

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  • Good points - could you give a measurement on "fatbike" tyres? I guess they're anything wider than 100mm/4", but some might say 75mm or 63mm (3 inch and 2.5 inch respectively)
    – Criggie
    Aug 20, 2021 at 11:07
  • 1
    Since I didn’t set a constraint for the lower bound, technically you’re right. I updated the question. (That despite that you were likely writing tongue-in-cheek; it's not quite clear.)
    – Sam
    Aug 21, 2021 at 12:32
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    @Criggie a fat bike is traditionally 3.8"+. 2.6-3.0" fall under the 'plus' size category. I'm sure a 3.0" studded tyre would be fine, but I don't know if anyone makes a plus size studded tyre.
    – Andy P
    Aug 22, 2021 at 19:22
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My approach is two bikes, three wheelsets, and this approach is the one I recommend to cover all three scenarios.

One of the bikes is a gravel / cyclocross / touring style drop bar bike that has adequate tire clearance for wide tires. It has summer wheels that I start to use when the sharp gravel preventing pedestrian injuries on slippery ice has been removed, and end using them when there is either snow or ice on the roads. During the winter period I switch a second set of wheels on. Those wheels have 35mm wide studded winter tires and Tannus armor that prevents punctures from the sharp gravel used to make ice less slippery for pedestrians.

Usually the limiting factor in spring is not when ice and snow cease to be an issue, but the period lasting over month where there is no ice or snow on the roads, but the sharp gravel used to prevent pedestrian injuries on slippery ice annoys unprotected cyclists with frequent punctures and the municipality is slow in collecting it away. During this period lasting over month, I use winter wheels. Of course someone could argue I could have three wheelsets for this bike: (1) studded tire winter wheels, (2) gravel period wheels with Tannus armor to prevent punctures, (3) summer period wheels with only fast road slick tires. However, I fail to see why I should increase the count of wheelsets from two to three merely due to only one short period lasting bit over month.

The first and second pictures are perfect for gravel / cyclocross / touring bikes if you use studded winter tires. However, the third picture in my opinion is the style of road that necessitates owning a fatbike with over 100mm wide studded tires. The third wheelset is the only necessary wheelset for this fatbike and has studded tires permanently mounted.

Fatbikes are generally very slow on well plowed or snow/ice free roads, so you don't want to use a fatbike unnecessarily -- yes, don't use the fatbike unnecessarily even during winter. Electric fatbike would of course eliminate the speed problem but leave you with a battery life problem. My experience is that 500-watt-hour battery that can give you 120 - 180 km during summer if used on a road bike during reasonable temperatures, gives only 30 km if using on a fatbike and riding on very thick snow at very low freezing temperatures using an assist level that allows over 20 km/h continuous speed.

Hikers do a pretty good job of tamping down the snow on pedestrians and cycling paths with their boots, and so a fat tire may not be absolutely essential

I disagree with this. I used to ride a bike with 40mm wide studded winter tires when I was a poor student (didn't have money for a fatbike). My experience was that you generally don't want to go on top of anything where the hikers have tamped down the snow. My opinion was that riding on freshly fallen snow is okayish with the 40mm tires, and riding on plowed roads was very nice with the 40mm tires, but where the approach fails is when pedestrians have been involved. Snow that has been only partially compacted by hikers but not completely compacted by a plow, is something where the bike goes all over the place. It starts to randomly go left and right even though your handlebar is straight, and staying balanced even with a flat handlebar is practically impossible. Also, the surface causes major vibrations that can loosen for example fender or kickstand bolts on your bike, and even if you use threadlock on them the vibrations are really annoying.

Note: not even fatbike is a do-it-all bike capable of riding on snow damaged by hikers. If hikers have partially compacted only a narrow trail and you want to stay balanced on it with a fatbike, it may be impossible. Here's an example video of where fatbike fails:

(sorry, the narration is in Finnish, but you see the difficulty even without the narration).

I suspect your third picture doesn't have the problem that is seen on this video. In this video, the snow has clearly been partially melted and refrozen, causing major difficulties for cyclists, whereas in your picture the snow looks very fresh and a fatbike is very capable tool for the situation in your third picture.

6
  • Full ACK on the pedestrian snow issue, though it also applies to bicycles: Whenever something has partially compacted the snow, your tires will try to slip off the compacted patches. And the lines left by fellow cyclists are particularly irksome as they keep pushing to one side until you manage to get over the compacted snowline or get into personal touch with the ground. Thin, hard tires may be somewhat helpful as they can force lighter compactions apart, and retain ground contact longer, but only to some extend. Once the walked-on snow has got wet and refrozen, it's pretty much game over. Aug 19, 2021 at 20:20
  • @cmaster-reinstatemonica You're right. If we put it this way, then it's pretty much an unsolvable problem, because the sunny stretches will have completely melted two days after snowfall, the shaded stretches would have melted from pedestrians and refrozen, and the stretches in the deep wood would still have near-virgin snow. What does one do then; carry extra wheels in a knapsack?
    – Sam
    Aug 19, 2021 at 21:27
  • @Sam While I've personally cycled in very bad conditions (like refrozen slush that was so bad that it slowed me to 12km/h), there are simply conditions where it's impossible to continue riding. Freezing rain is one such example (unless you have spikes), and for most people the worse forms of refrozen slush are also a game-over condition. Wide tires help with the later, thin tires help with fresh snow, but sometimes you simply have to acknowledge defeat. Aug 19, 2021 at 21:55
  • @juhist I'm trembling after reading your answer and watching the video. It sounds like running a chain to the front tire becomes necessary (has anyone built such a thing yet?). Makes it tempting to either try the velodrome out, or to continue to forego winter cycling.
    – Sam
    Aug 20, 2021 at 1:59
  • @Sam Nah, the situations where you have to concede defeat are rare. Most days in winter are perfectly manageable, it's just that you need a backup plan for those days where your bike simply won't carry you a hundred meters. I only experienced one winter that had many days of frozen slush, but even that winter allowed me to keep riding. It killed a few luggage racks (too much vibrations for the flimsy aluminum welds), so I would understand other people not riding in these conditions, but it was the only winter where such conditions persisted for more than a few days. Most winters are fine. Aug 20, 2021 at 5:50
2

One bike and two sets of wheels, unless you're willing to both run tubes, and also change tires as needed, and also have the snow tires be a little borderline for the more extreme end of what you're talking about (the third picture) - in which case it's one bike with one set of wheels.

There are different ways of going about this, but to give an example: the main bike I rode for many years is a 1993 Trek 520 that has clearance for a 45 and some ice buildup. I've ridden it extensively with road tires in the 28-35 range, but it can handle 700x45 Nokian/Suomi Haakapeliita W240s with its fenders off, which are capable albeit around their limit on stuff like your third picture.

Given the modern array of bikes, there are a lot of ways you can do this with one bike where you switch wheel sizes down for your snow tires and thereby get more width and float. For example, riding 700x32 on your road wheels and 650Bx50 for your studded set is something a lot of contemporary allroad bikes could just do without issue. Something like a Salsa Fargo could run 700x50 everyday, 75mm fenders, have an alternate wheelset with 27.5x2.8 studded tires, and not even have to mess with the fenders.

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+200

This question depends heavily on individual resources: whether one is willing to buy, store, and, perhaps most importantly, maintain multiple bikes. (But to answer the question briefly, the best minimum is "one of each".)

In the long term the most important point is likely a recent observation made on bicycles.SE: the maintenance required is proportional to the number of kilometers ridden, not to the number of bikes.

The fact that there isn't one answer that would fit everyone doesn't mean that there aren't enough options to satisfy each cyclist, perhaps with the added benefit of finally appreciating what the (n+1) is about.


There are many options


Without a current road bike

If you don't already have a road bike, the following options would be workable.

The true-minimum option

Get a gravel bike with 700c-38 tires. Buy a set of studded 700c-38 tires. Swap tires in November and in March.

That would not be a terrible solution, but it's hardly a great one:

  1. 38mm tires would be too narrow for the third picture above.
  2. It takes >60% more power to maintain the same speed on gravel tires at their nominal 40psi as it does to ride on road tires inflated to 90psi.

(The option of using just a fatbike with its knobby tires in the summer and with studded tires in winter would be a miserable solution. It means one would have to put up with clicking sounds year-round: from knobby tires in the summer and from studs in the winter.)

The convenient-minimum option

Same as the previous solution, but buy a new set of rims + a duplicate cassette. Swap tires already mounted on rims in November and in March. (That's basically what motorists do, installing winter tires with a second set of rims.)

The impossible option

Get a gravel bike (or any bike with no suspension) that can accommodate 29"x2.25" on 700c tires. Such bikes are just barely starting to exist.

Use the narrowest tires that'll fit on the rims in the summer, and 29"x2.25" in winter, on one set of rims + cassettes—or the skinniest tires you fancy on a different set of rims + cassettes.

That may be just enough to go on deep snow.


With a current road bike

If you are already happy with your road bike, a gravel bike may not contribute enough to start cycling on snow and ice.

The approximate solution

Get studded 2.25"-wide tires. Install them on a hardtail, preferably with 29" wheels. The front suspension is pointless, but a hardtail is the only frame that will fit (29")x2.25" tires.

Use the road bike, unless there is snow or ice. When either is on the ground, use the mountain bike with studded tires.

The near-best option

Fit studded 29"x2.25" tires on a mountain bike. Get a fatbike with 26"x4.0" tires.

Ride road during the summer and for the first picture, mountain with studded tires for the second, and fatbike with regular fatbike tires for the third.

The justification here is that after heavy snow fall the fat tires will float just fine, and there will be less risk of hitting an ice patch (and so it may be possible to avoid also getting studded fatbike tires).

If the temperature has risen enough for snow to have melted, then fallen back quickly, there may be patches of ice on the road. If it then snows, the ice will be invisible, but will be just as slippery. If you're too concerned about this scenario, the following option is unavoidable.

The best option

Again, fit studded 29"x2.25" tires on a mountain bike, but also fit studded 26"x4.0" tires on a fat bike.

Ride road during the summer and for the first picture, mountain with studded for the second, and fatbike with studded for the third.

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  • 1
    Don't worry about deleting it - there's some good points raised in the various answers, which can be food-for-thought. If the Q is deleted, all the awarded rep disappears too.
    – Criggie
    Nov 20, 2021 at 22:16
  • In the recumbent world the answer would be a 'bent trike. But that might depend on the width of the paths.
    – Willeke
    Nov 21, 2021 at 16:14

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