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Summary

Just the need to use studded tyres suggests a fear of slipping and falling.

Does it ever make sense to use studded tyres along with clipless pedals?

More details

I'm a lifelong cyclist and I don't have an undue fear of falling, but when I ride with a group I realize that there are bike skills I never developed. I can dismiss those boasting of riding on just the rear wheel as yahoos (I find it inherently risky within a group), but someone capable of riding on one wheel will very likely also have more stability when riding on both wheels. Mountain bike racers seem to always ride clipped in, and they seem to get more control that way.

But I'm relatively new to clipless pedals (1 1/2 years). In my bike commuting days I was using toe clips—the only way to simultaneously be able to wear street shoes at the destination and get a powered full stroke. With clipless (Look Keo) it takes me a good fraction of a second to unclip. Falling on snow is of course milder, but it's a fall nevertheless, and so the inherent risk of falling on ice/snow seems to preclude clipless pedals. (Are there clipless pedals that enable disconnecting particularly swiftly?)

That said, the snow we had so far has been melting within hours, and I have no experience riding with studs on snow. The traction may well be so good that wearing clipless is a perfectly good option. Thoughts?

The bike for the present question is a 29" mountain bike with 1x12 transmission. I'd have preferred to find a solution that uses drop bars (to change hand position on long rides), but the constraints make it then harder to find a suitable set up.

Related:

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  • (Recumbent) trikes and quads. (Not an answer as it does not answer the body of the question.)
    – Willeke
    Nov 17 '21 at 18:52
  • @Willeke Interesting... But why do the categories of recumbent bike, trike, and quad exist, but the categories of (ordinary) trike and quad do not? No, wait, that would just be like putting back some training wheels. How much of the fun of cycling do you lose on a (recumbent) trike/quad?
    – Sam
    Nov 17 '21 at 18:58
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    I ride with clipless pedals+shoes year round. Studded tyres in winter. I don’t think clipless pedals change much about falling and crashing. Cyclocross is primarily done with clipless pedals.
    – Michael
    Nov 17 '21 at 19:02
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    When question has "does it ever" in it, there are always some special circumstances where it does. No need to go into details.
    – ojs
    Nov 18 '21 at 7:29
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    Can you explain why either "should" be obvious? Which rules state that pedals and tyres are related, except mechanically? Nov 19 '21 at 20:55
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This depends a lot on the rider. Ultimately you need to judge yourself.

Clipless in snow does make a lot of sense. The most important thing when riding on snow is an even and smooth power stroke, whilst also having good control about your weight distribution. Being clipped in makes this a lot easier. You can lower your dropper post a bit, get in a higher gear and still put smooth power down. With flat pedals you're more likely to either spin out at the torque-heavy horizontal-crank point (spinning out just digs the rear wheel in), or to get stuck and/or slip off the pedal at the top dead centre.

Of course, you still need to expect losing the balance at some point, and then you want to be able to get a foot down quickly – even falling in the snow isn't particularly enjoyable after a while. But with SPD cleats, this isn't an issue – stepping down sideways after a bit of practice works quite automatically and there is no significant delay.

For me, the main reason for riding flat pedals is always that the shoes are much better for walking. But in snow, the rigid soles of clipless shoes are actually not as problematic as they are on solid ground. They're still rubbish for their grip, but that can be fixed by adding something like Snowline Chainsen cleats if you need to push/carry up a steep hill.
Of course, normal cycling shoes are also not great in terms of getting cold feet, but clipless boots are a thing too.

All of this applies pretty much regardless of whether you run tyres with or without studs. Studs do offer better traction in snow, but you still need to be careful not to spin out the rear wheel. The main advantage of studs is that they greatly increase the grip on ice (from almost zero to at least enough to be able to stay upright). That is perhaps even more valuable when riding clipped in – but again, the clipping out is hardly an issue with SPD; in a situation where you fall on ice clipped in you would probably also have fallen with flat pedals.

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  • You're confirming a hunch I had for a critical point. Being clipped in makes it possible to fine tune the power transmitted to the wheel to get out of tough spots.
    – Sam
    Nov 18 '21 at 3:51
  • At least my Shimano SH MW7 shoes have surprisingly good grip and are surprisingly good for walking. They are also quite warm and waterproof and remove the hassle of overshoes. One of my best winter cycling purchases.
    – Michael
    Nov 18 '21 at 8:04
  • You can lower your dropper post - if you have one. I don't even on my MTB and put my studded tyres on my hybrid anyway
    – Chris H
    Nov 18 '21 at 8:43
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Clipless pedals are great for winter riding, just like any other season. I live in Minnesota and ride year round, and in the winter I ride on the streets, trails, and over frozen lakes and rivers. When I ride, I'm clipped in.

You're not at any more risk of suddenly wiping out than mountain bikers are when traveling over unfamiliar terrain. When you do ride over unfamiliar terrain, you will have to slow down and be careful, clipless or flats. You can always pre-emptively unclip in the dodgiest of spots, but for normal situations with enough clipless usage you'll unclip without even thinking about it, before long it becomes a purely unconscious, mechanical skill.

There is only one downside: clipless compatible shoes that are also good for winter riding are somewhat uncommon and thus very pricy. 45Nrth makes a bunch of very popular models but they are not cheap, so does Lake but they are also expensive.

Something to keep in mind: studded tire's strong area is ice, rather than just snow. When it's snow only and guaranteed no ice, regular mtb tires work fine, even in most hardpack snow. The studs are needed when you are riding on actual, slippery ice, or the dreaded snow/ice combination.

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  • Valuable hints. Thanks. I'm seeking one more detail, one that's only tangentially related to the question, but since you're in Minnesota and I have your attention: What is your preferred kind of bike? I'm not keen on fatbikes, and on my routes I have no need for shock absorbers—they're just dead weight, but there is no way to get a "mountain bike" without them. Then gravel bikes generally take only 1.5" (rather 2.25") tires. This leaves mountain bikes as the default option. Were you able to do better (less dead weight, lighter bike)?
    – Sam
    Nov 18 '21 at 3:48
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    @Sam: I can't answer that question because I don't know what kind of riding you do and like. Most of my winter riding is on a surly cross-check. Nov 18 '21 at 4:07
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    @Sam a decent hybrid works well in winter, though our snow doesn't tend to hang around for long. The 2nd picture here (Strava) is what counts as snowy here, and mine handled both the slushy stuff and the deeper bits well. A tourer/gravel bike/cyclocross bike with enough tyre clearance would be the drop bar solution Winter is harsh on bikes, so don't run anything too fancy.
    – Chris H
    Nov 18 '21 at 8:55
  • Regarding clipless shoes: I ride winter conditions in Finland and I really like the Shimano XM9 hiking/biking shoe. It is much more versatile than actual winter shoes and probably a bit cheaper too. With a thick(ish) sock, it's warm enough for me in almost all conditions (though prolonged rides in below -20ºC can get a bit uncomfortable). Nov 19 '21 at 11:42
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If conditions were slippery enough that I felt I needed to put a foot down suddenly at any time to prevent a fall, I would probably think it was too slippery to ride at all.

That said, SPDs do clip in and out easily, though they may be measurably slower than just lifting your foot off a flat pedal. With most SPD pedals, you can adjust the release tension to make release easier. And SPD shoes are probably more suitable for riding in snow.

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  • More suitable than what else? All MTB clipless systems use the same shoe interface.
    – Vladimir F
    Nov 17 '21 at 19:21
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    The OP mentions having Look Keo pedals.
    – Adam Rice
    Nov 17 '21 at 19:24
  • Re: "I would probably think it was too slippery to ride at all." That's what I have been doing over winters. The bikes collect dust over the 3-4 winter months. But winter + pandemic are starting to make me a little insane.
    – Sam
    Nov 17 '21 at 19:26
  • The worst problem with clipless pedals and snow is that in the right weather snow packs into pedals and niches around cleats and it's nearly impossible clean.
    – ojs
    Nov 17 '21 at 20:15
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    MTB clipless deal with this problem much better than road clipless.
    – mattnz
    Nov 17 '21 at 20:43
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Adding another answer just as a frame challenge to the premise of the question that being able to put a foot down quickly is relevant to preventing a fall in conditions that studded tires are relevant for. I've gone down twice hitting ice with "winter tires" when clearly I should have had studs. (and as a result always ride studs now...) If your studded tires went out from under you, your shoe is going to do absolutely nothing. My second fall putting a foot down likely caused a much more aggravated knee injury than simply crashing into a windrow.

(and have never fallen on studded tires.)

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    If you need to put down your foot, you need to do it as wide as possible. Even if there's no grip, you're sliding on three contact points so you won't necessarily fall over.
    – ojs
    Nov 18 '21 at 9:17
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    Re: "putting a foot down likely caused a much more ..." This requires a whole study, not just a question. Skiers remind each other that it's far better to take a fall on the shoulders or hips (which will bruise, but will unlikely break) than on the wrists (which can break all too easily). Judging by the shoulder and hip injuries this last TdF 2021 (Caleb Ewan—shoulder and Primož Roglič—hips) it may well be that similar advice, as you suggest, applies to cyclists. It's less clear that it's better to still be tethered to the bike while catching a fall on the hips/shoulders.
    – Sam
    Nov 18 '21 at 14:33
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    @ojs: I'd challenge you to hold that three-point pose for more than a second or so while slipping sideways on ice. At that point there's basically nothing stopping the bike from just sliding out from under you. Now, if your wheels had enough grip not to sideslip, it might work, but then you shouldn't need to put a foot down anyway unless you were about to stop. And stopping on slippery ice with studded tyres and studless shoes is a good way to land on your ass anyway. (Source: experience from several winters commuting by bike on ice and snow in Helsinki.) Nov 18 '21 at 15:19
  • @IlmariKaronen if you find yourself in situation where all grip is suddenly lost, that could happen. In my experience that's rarely true because the transition from snow to ice is usually noticeable. It could also affect things that I've been riding Nokia A10s (they suck but were the only tires that fit my bike) that are slippery on the center and have better traction when the bike is tilted to side. Yes, I live in Helsinki too.
    – ojs
    Nov 18 '21 at 16:02
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The biggest downside of (road) clipless in winter is when you get off the bike.

I have SPDs on all my bikes, with mountain/touring shoes. Even with these I've found that summer slick tyres have more grip on unexpected sheet ice than my shoes; your road shoes would be far worse.

I normally put my studded tyres on my commuter hybrid (in case of early morning black ice) then use that for snow rides, keeping the hardtail for winter mud. My road bike is a tourer, so I could put my 35mm studded tyres on that if I had a long ride planned. I haven't seen skinny studded tyres.

I know from experience that I can unclip and get a foot down if the back wheel locks up on dry tarmac (once was debris in the rear derailleur, that damaged spokes, one of which broke jammed in the chain a few days later). On snow you won't go down much quicker than that, though on ice you might on a bend. Being clipped in helps if the back wheel starts to fishtail anyway.

As for temperature, if your shoes are big enough, the right socks make a huge difference. I have a pair of sealskinz, with a water-/wind-proof layer. After dipping my feet in flood water at the start of a ride, they were just about warm enough later on when the temperature dropped below freezing - and those were the thinner version, with my summer shoes (mesh uppers). Even thin covers make a big difference by keeping the wind off, but reduce your grip area.

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  • Are there cyclocross shoes with ice/snow cleats? Mine were more mud-focused, but I imagine there are people with more... precipitous winters. 😉
    – Michael
    Nov 19 '21 at 17:27
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If it is cold enough to need studded tyres, most road shoes will be too cold for using. So you'll need thick insulated overshoes as well. I've found that overshoes all interfere with the cleat in some way, or the holes are so large the overshoe is more of a spat and provides insufficient protection

I expect that snowy/icy conditions would suit insulated boots, perhaps with studded soles, which would require flat pedals and optionally larger toe clips (ie "cages")

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  • 2
    There are many warm SPD-compatible shoes intended for sub-zero temperatures. Check the winter shoes from Shimano, Lake and 45NRTH as good examples. Nov 19 '21 at 1:58
  • @AnttiSalonen that you call them "winter shoes" means they're already designed for winter use, and doubtless lack vents while having more insulation. Sadly such shoes don't exist in my area - they do sound very useful for the cold.
    – Criggie
    Nov 19 '21 at 10:59
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Just the need to use studded tyres suggests a fear of slipping and falling.

Does it ever make sense to use studded tyres along with clipless pedals?

Oh yes it does. There's no disadvantages of using clipless pedals, ever, except the fact that you have to use special shoes for clipless pedals (and finding a special shoe that's warm enough in minus 20 degrees Celsius is darn expensive!). Besides, you can choose to use dual pedals such as PD-T8000 that have one clipless side and one platform side. Good dual pedals have a heavy end and a light end, so the pedal always is in a well-determined position, and you can choose between the clipless and platform sides by choosing whether to push your foot back or forwards when mounting the pedal.

If you have the money for special clipless shoes for all weather conditions you may ride in, I'd say go ahead and use clipless always, sans at most few kilometers long shopping runs in which case it would be ridiculous to use these special shoes.

Falling is not a consideration on clipless, ever. Not only is the user interface so easy that there's absolutely no danger for even beginners with zero clipless experience to fall, but also the user interface is so quick that if you ride on ice, with or without studded tires, you always have the option of unclipping before enough time has passed that you and the bike are on their side.

One thing that might not be such a good idea, however, would be to practice riding on clipless pedals (with no previous clipless experience), on ice, without studded tires. Such a condition is about the only condition that might make you fall, which never happens in reasonable circumstances.

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  • 4
    That is simply not true. It is very easy to fall and still remain clipped-in.
    – Vladimir F
    Nov 18 '21 at 19:28

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