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We're coming up on the time of year when the roads freeze overnight and thaw for the day, and studded tires are irritatingly loud on bare pavement. Because of this I'm thinking of getting the studless, high friction tires (such as Continental's Top Contact Winter).

I would like to know: What sort of winter riding are such tires good for, and at what point should I switch to studded tires?

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I am (or was, in the pre-pandemic world) a winter commuter in Canada. The studless winter tires are great for everything except actual ice and much more pleasant on bare pavement. If you need to actually ride on ice (rather than glide over an occasional small patch) you should really get studs.

My current commute requires riding in the road through a few major intersections and it is a common problem here that the heat from motors and exhaust causes packed snow in city intersections to ice up. Because of that I pretty much stick to studs these days even when overall conditions seem good, but I understand in Finland you are more likely to be able to get where you need to go using only bike paths than here.

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Based on experience with studless tires for cars: These tires look like they're optimized bare asphalt and packed snow. On slick ice they may have better grip than normal bicycle tires but nowhere near studded tires. In soft snow they are likely to be more slippery than tires with knobby tread. I would consider them for conditions where roads are rarely icy or maybe if the temperature is consistently below zero and bike paths are well maintained.

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    OTOH the rare ice round my way tends to be in big sheets (the worst is when the road doesn't dry by Monday morning after people wash their cars on a sunny Sunday afternoon) so although our winters are fairly mild and get little snow I run studs for a few months. I did find my Marathon Mondials (rough-road touring tyres) had better grip on unexpected ice than my SPD shoes, when I decided to stop and walk past the big icy patch and promptly fell, so tyre compounds can have a bit of grip on ice
    – Chris H
    Oct 15 at 7:59
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    Some shoes are really bad in this regard. The most annoying thing are the Salomon hiking boots that would be warm enough for winter but are incredibly slippery on ice. Anyway, here in southern Finland we have the pattern that snow banks melt during the day and the meltwater freezes everywhere over the night. In my hometown a few hundred kilometers inland there wasn't so much need for studs because temperature stayed well below zero for the whole winter.
    – ojs
    Oct 15 at 8:25
  • my current ones are Giro Rumble - good in mud, not good on ice or wet rock. Some of the Vibram soles seem to be that way. I envy you having proper winters (and saunas). I actually got a snow ride last year, but normally we don't have that much at all. Also some scary ice from part-melted snow - I was glad I was going uphill and not down
    – Chris H
    Oct 15 at 9:05
  • Vibram is like Shimano of shoe manufacturing. They do manufacture some high end gear but aren't really afraid of putting their name on something that's slippery in all conditions and melts away at first contact with asphalt.
    – ojs
    Oct 15 at 12:21
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    yes, though (I suppose like Shimano, and certainly like tyre rubber compounds) it's also a matter of suitability for the use. Most Vibram soles I've worn are hard-wearing and have decent grip in a range of hiking conditions but slip on smooth wet surfaces - perhaps a bit like Marathon Plus. I have had a few of pairs, neither on bike shoes, that are very comfortable and grippy but wear down fast with a lot of urban walking
    – Chris H
    Oct 15 at 12:28
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They are only a good choice if you ride on roads and are fairly sure that you won’t encounter smooth ice.

Normal road bike tyres (e.g. Conti GP4000s) are surprisingly horrible in winter conditions. Even a thin layer of snow slush on tarmac can make riding dangerous and difficult. Much worse than just wet road. You’d think the tyre would just press through the slush and contact the tarmac but apparently it’s not that easy.

Soft MTB or cyclocross tyres at low pressure can work quite well on slush, snow, mud and so on. They are surprisingly decent on rough ice (e.g. iced over snow) or packed snow. I assume this also applies to winter bike tyres like the Conti Top Contact Winter. MTB and cyclocross tyres have an advantage when it comes to climbing out of ruts or riding in mud.

I feel like the main problem with any kind of stud-less tyre in winter is that in ≤0°C weather you can almost never be sure that there won’t be an unexpected patch of smooth ice somewhere.

I hate studded tyres because of their noise, rolling resistance and weight, but they are really the only solution if you need reliable grip throughout a ≤0°C winter. With studded tyres the only bad “surfaces” are deep or very wet snow (because you just “swim” in it and it creates a lot of resistance) or a thin layer of packed snow on roads. The layer of packed snow tends to crack and break apart as you ride over it, which can make riding quite difficult and dangerous. Low pressure MTB or cyclocross tyres tend to do somewhat better in this scenario.

I’d only consider stud-less winter tyres if you live in a climate which sees occasional snow but is not consistently enough below 0°C to really get ice.

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  • "Normal road bike tyres (e.g. Conti GP4000s) are surprisingly horrible" - disagree, they work surprisingly alright. While other tires are better, I commuted for years in the Minnesota winters with GP4000s. The vast majority of the time, even in winter, the streets are plowed and ice free, so there is no problem with slicks. Oct 15 at 3:04
  • @whatsisname: With GP4000s (at as little pressure as possible) I can easily lock up the front wheel or make the rear wheel slip during acceleration on just a thin layer of snow slush. Yes it “works” if you are careful.
    – Michael
    Oct 15 at 5:19
  • You don't need to be consistently below 0 to get ice, just to dip below zero overnight. Quiet roads that don't get gritted may be the only option
    – Chris H
    Oct 15 at 8:01
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    @ChrisH: Yes, but a short dip below 0°C is often not sufficient to cool down roads far enough for ice to form (and of course you also need liquid water for smooth ice to form). But it can be more sufficient when it comes to bridges etc. This unpredictability is why I’d go for studded tyres when riding in (or shortly after) ≤0°C weather.
    – Michael
    Oct 15 at 8:12
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    @Michael I have found on one ungritted bike path the bridges were the worst, with the more exposed sections on an embankment not far behind. But our winter nights are long enough to freeze quite often even if the minimum may only about be -2°C. Our winters tend to be wet - there's always water around
    – Chris H
    Oct 15 at 8:16
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Generally studless tires are best in situations where the roads do not have ice and the vehicle does not depend on friction for stability. For example bicycles depend on friction for stability but cars do not.

However, in practice you probably won't change your tires every day, so you have to estimate from the climate of the area whether studless or studded tires are better. For example, if the climate is such that there's a well-determined time when the winter starts, and the temperature during the winter is clearly far below 0 degrees Celsius and there's a well-determined time when the winter ends, you can expect that in the winter the roads are mostly free of ice and there's snow on the roads instead.

However, in climates where the temperature stays around zero for long periods of time, ice is very common.

I wouldn't use studless tires on a bicycle because the stability of the bicycle depends on friction.

Also consider this: on cars the usefulness of studless tires is based on the fact that many drivers choose studded tires. Thus, the drivers that chose studded tires make the ice rougher. So in areas that see lot of car traffic, the ice becomes soon very rough, thus friction with studless tires due to rough ice can be acceptable.

However, bicycle tires are very narrow, and there are very few bicyclists even during summer. In winter, bicycling falls approximately to zero. You are about the only bicyclist on the road if you choose to ride bike during the winter. Thus, because of the narrow tires and very few bicyclists, you can't rely on all areas of ice to become roughened from studded tire traffic.

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    I agree. Studless tyres may be better is 98% of situations – but it's the 2% that ruin your day. My studded tyres make me ride much more confident, and thus in practice also faster, even though they have much higher rolling resistance and in most situations less grip. Oct 15 at 13:11
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Winter tires have a different rubber compound which provides greater traction once the temperature falls below 7 degrees. In cold climates, even if the air temperature is above this, the ground will often remain below this. There will provide better traction under 7 degrees than an all seasons compound which will become hard and lose traction when the ground freezes. They also have a deeper tread for displacing water and slush.

Studded tires are generally only suited to ice and soft snow. Outside of those two conditions the cost (noise, rolling resistance and price) outweighs any benefit.

If you had multiple wheelsets with studless and studded tires you would look to switch whenever there was snow or ice on the ground. You may get away with the odd day with patches of ice as long as you're alert.

I live in Nova Scotia, Canada and we have maybe 3 months when there is likely to be ice on the ground. It doesn't snow often, maybe once or twice a fortnight, but enough that if the snow isn't cleared ice will form and last until spring. I generally don't ride as much during this time so haven't been able to justify purchasing studded tires (and I don't own a fat bike).

If I'm riding during these times, and generally only to exercise the dog, I'm extra vigilant and stick to plowed roads where the ice is thin/ slushy or there is salt/ grit. I also never turn or brake on surfaces I suspect have ice.

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    “Studded tires are generally only suited to ice and soft snow.” They work perfectly ok on dirt and gravel. On asphalt they're decent – sure, the rolling resistance is annoying, and the grip is slightly worse than studless, but I disagree that this outweighs the enourmous gain in peace of mind for not having to expect any moment to fall on that odd hidden patch of ice. The one thing that studded tyres really are bad at is smooth stone, even when it's neither cold nor wet. But that's mostly issue for trials and some MTB terrain. Oct 15 at 13:21

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