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My last bicycle trip was a complete nightmare. Snow and ice everywhere, with no plowing anywhere. It made me re-realize what I already became all too familiar with last winter: it's a scary nightmare bicycling in that entire season.

I know that there are "winter tyres" with little metal spikes on them and a completely different and deeper pattern, but the issue with this is that I would have to keep switching tyres twice a year, or pay for this. Both are very problematic options for me. And I don't have the money or room to have two separate bicycles: one for proper winter and one for the rest of the seasons, although this would be a dream solution.

Sadly, when doing research, it turns out that there is no such thing as a "snow chain" for bicycles. There are ones for cars and various big vehicles, but also for motorcycles and even e-bikes! But not for plain old bicycles. Very frustrating. I even asked a professional about this, so it's not just the usual thing where this technically exists but only in the USA and I can't get hold of it, or it isn't compatible, etc.

I expected there to be some kind of similar product, such as maybe an "outer layer" that you can just wrap around your summer tyres to turn them into winter ones. Something clever and non-problematic like that.

Do I really have to hibernate the entire winter and not get any kind of exercise or fresh air for months just because of the stupid ice and snow and slippery madness? Is there some "do it yourself" method of temporarily "winterizing" one's bicycle tyres? I don't understand what the problem is if they can make them for all these other vehicles including ones which are literally bicycles with a little engine to help handicapped or "convenient" people.

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    Are the e-bike ones in sizes which would fit your tyres?
    – Willeke
    Nov 23, 2022 at 18:12
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    Years ago I'm thinking there were a few tire chains for bikes advertised, but I haven't seen anything for years. I don't think they were very practical. Nov 23, 2022 at 18:15
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    I'd guess that, back in the day rim brakes obliviated the idea of chains, so spiked tyres became the norm and that simply continues. Its not generally cold enough for me to need either, maybe once a decade. Limited experience so comment not answer.
    – Criggie
    Nov 23, 2022 at 18:30
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    Swapping tires twice a year shouldn't be "problematic". If you're running tubes, it takes about 15 minutes. Seems well worth it to avoid "[hibernating] the entire winter and not get any kind of exercise or fresh air for months just because of the stupid ice and snow and slippery madness". If you're running tubeless tires, 15 minutes becomes 30 minutes.
    – Paul H
    Nov 23, 2022 at 19:09
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    Rather than a second bike, thought about a complete second wheelset maybe? 10mins to swap them in and out. Maybe a little costly but doesn't take up the storage space of a second bike. Plus, it's an easy switch for those in-between days
    – Hursey
    Nov 23, 2022 at 20:18

9 Answers 9

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TL;DNR - They would (probably not) solve a problem that does not exist and would probably cost to much.

I suspect the reasons you cannot get chains (including modern equivalents such as 'snow socks' is simply a lack of market for them.

Until recently rim brakes made them technically not feasible. With the recent introduction of disk brakes, it would in theory be possible to install a chain on a bicycle, but practicality would come into play. Clearances between tires and frames are often small - less then 10mm is not uncommon. Many riders run fenders, again limiting the scope for chain fitting. The market size for bicycles that could run chains is much smaller than the number of bicycles.

The size range and variability of bicycle wheel and tire sizes would require a vast range of tire chains. I imagine a bike tire would require a precise fit for a chain to be useable. The cost of manufacture and logistics of distributing such a large product range would be enormous.

The problem chains solve is solved better with winter tires and studded tires. Most riders do not consider a tire swap a major effort, have a second wheel set, or a winter bike (a good idea where roads a salted). Installing chains once would take many riders as long as swapping tires.

Riding on chains would be far from ideal on many bikes. A car has big tires and suspension to soak up the vibration, and an engine which hides the power absorbed by the chains (there is a reason cars fitted with chains should not exceed around 30-40km/h - heat, which comes from the engine power not making it to the road).

Car chains are used where winter tires are not practical, targeting the occasional use, or a short duration when most use does not require winter tires (e.g. a couple of days of a snow after a storm or mountain passes). Unlike a motorcar, a cyclist has the option to get off and push, or very often, just not go for a bike ride on those days.

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    The last sentence here is huge. At least in some parts of the world, cycling is a leisure activity more than a mode of transportation, and many leisure cyclists wouldn’t even consider riding in the snow (and, because of the culture around cycling in such places, those who do are more likely to just buy a fat bike with proper studded tires for winter cycling). Nov 24, 2022 at 13:31
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    @AustinHemmelgarn many of us, even where cycling is regarded as a leisure thing, are also commuters with no (affordable) alternative. Although in my case actual snow is rare, ice is a significant enough risk to fit studded tyres in winter, but then I've got something for playing in the snow if we do get some
    – Chris H
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:56
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    @AustinHemmelgarn I've found almost the opposite in the UK - I think all our UK regulars cycle for fun while lots of commuters don't know where to turn for technical advice (there's a local facebook group that's pretty good - most of the time)
    – Chris H
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:23
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    @ChrisH there is a strong selection bias at play here. Most people who cycle to get places, but have little interest in it being a leisure activity don't need to know much about bikes. "What's the right pump for the valve on my tire" is almost as technical as it gets. Basics are well documented online anyway, so this group isn't asking questions on a cycling forum, despite the fact that they are likely the vast majority of people on bikes.
    – Clumsy cat
    Nov 25, 2022 at 13:53
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    @Clumsycat all true, but an enthusiast who's also a commuter cyclist is just the sort of person who's likely to be asking here about solutions to keeping riding through winter without masses of cost or hassle. BTW you'd be surprised at the technical questions from utility cyclists on the local FB group (which is a mix of advocacy, complaints, theft reports, and tech; it's also where I found out about unicycling classes).
    – Chris H
    Nov 25, 2022 at 14:57
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There is a product called ReTyre , https://www.retyre.co/ , that aims to solve that problem. It is heavily advertised here in Norway.

Image from their website

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  • Very interesting, but is it not a custom tyre that I would have to buy anyway, which supports those "coatings"? I can't just buy the "coatings" to use on my existing tyre?
    – W C
    Nov 23, 2022 at 21:43
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    Yes, you have to buy the "reTyre One" - a road style tire, and then buy your skin. It is not a cheap solution and running the inner and outer will make it heavy.
    – mattnz
    Nov 24, 2022 at 2:54
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    I wonder what the durability of that zipper system is like. Seems dubious to me, although I guess it depends what style of riding you're doing and in what conditions. I imagine the skins would slide around a little bit too.
    – rooby
    Nov 24, 2022 at 7:06
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    Considering what is known about factors that contribute to a good tyre, this seems like an amazingly terrible idea
    – Andy P
    Nov 24, 2022 at 9:18
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    @AndyP Actually the tests is mostly favorable.
    – vidarlo
    Nov 24, 2022 at 19:10
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There is also a different product that might be useful for you.

https://www.slipnottraction.com/shop

But I would really only ride with this on snowed in roads. I prefer studded tires as they also ride nice on concrete roads without wearing down too fast.

I'm also quite sure I saw something similar offered by a German company, but read a discussion that the effort for putting the chains on and off was almost as bad as changing to spiked tires.

Image from their web site

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    Cheaper than this (but can't say if as effective) running equally spaced ziplocks all around the tire (assuming the bike does not have rim brakes)
    – L.Dutch
    Nov 26, 2022 at 9:40
  • @L.Dutch cable ties are also more compact, so you can stash enough at home, at work, etc. for emergencies ,or even carry enough with you. They wouldn't last long on a snow-free stretch though
    – Chris H
    Dec 11, 2022 at 16:35
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There are two separate problems with snow riding: losing traction due to slipperiness, and getting stuck because the snow is too soft.

Both snow chains and studs address foremostly the traction issue, and studs do that rather better, giving safety even on ice. Studs also work well (i.e., with ok grip and rolling-resistance, very unlike chains) on tarmac, concrete, dirt or compacted snow. And you don't need to bring anything extra to be prepared – the studs are already attached to the wheels.
So as long as we don't consider soft snow, studded tyres are so much preferrable over chain-equipped summer tyres that it's definitely worth the swap.

Now, for cars at least, chains actually help also with the other problem, in a way that studs don't: they can basically dig themselves out of soft snow. It requires a lot of energy, but a car has a lot of power.
With a bike, though? That's probably not worth it. Once you're stuck in deep snow, powering through it is just a waste of energy, it's more effective to get off and pull carry the bike out. The only thing that does help is if the tyres can avoid getting stuck in the first place, but neither chains nor studs can avoid that: only wider tyres can, and in particular lower pressure. That's why, if you really want to ride on soft snow, a fat bike is the way to go.

Coarse MTB tyres also work decently on snow as long as it's not too deep, if you lower the pressure enough. You can go below 1 bar if you ride carefully, with tubeless and/or downhill casings perhaps even lower. And then when back on tarmac you can just pump them up a bit more again.

I'm pretty sure adding chains would still make any given tyre more snow-capable, but of course they also require extra clearance, and again that would probably better be used for running wider tyres instead.

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    Excellent points, yet despite "That's why, if you really want to ride on soft snow, a fat bike is the way to go.", a fatbike will not turn you into an angel who can float over snow. You will be compacting everything your ride on. Those following you will be delighted you did—for, anyway, however long you lasted. Compacting snow with a fatbike is intensely demanding.
    – Sam7919
    Nov 25, 2022 at 20:22
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    @Sam My dream is a bike with continuous tracks that is at least as efficient on snow as skis. Nov 25, 2022 at 20:31
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Let's start by re-framing: tire chains are not meant to be worn for a long time, go at any kind of speed, or for any sort of distance. They are a temporary measure to carefully go across an otherwise impossible to pass stretch of road. For example, a mountain pass that hasn't been cleared yet.

In comparison, you're talking about riding throughout winter.

Cars require different tires, not chains, to ride safely in winter conditions, and so do bicycle.

A relatively affordable and fairly simple solution is to have a second front wheel set with a studded tire. This is easy to swap (so you can swap it back and forth multiple time during winter if the situation changes), and gives you a good level of control, as you have a good (better) grip on the front wheel to brake and change direction. Loosing traction on the back wheel is less dramatic, usually.

This is also way less expensive that a full set of winter wheels, and less cumbersome than changing both tires.

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  • Nice points - could you please expand on why a single front wheel duplicate is better than an additional rear wheel?
    – Criggie
    Nov 25, 2022 at 20:55
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    @Criggie I'd say it's clear enough in the answer: a front wheel is cheaper, quicker to swap out, and more important to have always grip on than the rear. Nov 25, 2022 at 21:27
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I looked carefully at this problem.

One Bike

You can get one gravel or touring bike that will take both summer and winter tyres useful for all riding scenarios. But gravel or touring bikes with clearance for 2.25" tyres are not too common.

Two Wheelsets

Maintaining two sets of wheels is an option. This solution provides a nice compromise for storage space and money spent. You will still run into tyre clearance issues. Those can be cleverly solved if you know what you're doing (or get help) and use wheels of different sizes. The smaller winter wheels would provide larger clearance for winter tyres.

Two sets of Tyres

Replacing tyres twice a year is not that big a deal, but if your skills there are rusty, don't start with the pricey studded winter tyres. Practice first with older or with disposable tyres.

There isn't a one-fits-all solution

I'm here addressing the nuanced questions in the body of your question, rather than just the one in the subject line. The ultimate conclusion—to have a separate winter bike—is one you don't like, but it's far more convenient than the other solutions.

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I think studded tires is the only way to go. I thought about tire chains for bikes, but then dropped the idea.

A chain for a bike would have been very problematic, most of them are greatly explained by @mattnz

There are also some additional problems regarding "riding dynamics" - such a chain would be very heavy, nothing less than a Schwalbe Marathon classic. Accelerating, even only enough to be safe so you won't collapse would be painful in snow or ice. Basically, you are riding a fat bike without any wide tire advantages in snow.

İt's not just having extra 2-3 KGS on bike, you will have a huge rotating mass on your tires. Your bike will be very hard to control at even slow speeds. And also, if you don't have thru axles, your wheels can even break dropouts or get out of them, as when braking, the forces applied would be dramatically more. Your chainstays and forks would be overly stressed.

You'll be probably changing hubs every winter as they will be abused, too.

Chains for cars are emergency devices, mind you. They are meant for very slow speeds. Even then, after a few hours of ride, you won't believe how your suspension parts suffer, especially huge hub bearings grinds like patato chips.

For prolonged ride on ice, there is no alternative to studded tires, unfortunately. For snow, you will need very wide tires, and fat bikes are best. These are harsh conditions even for cars, and for a vehicle that is 100x lighter, skinny wheels, no electronic controls and very tiny energy output, we shouldn't expect miraculous auxiliary devices to make it much easier for us.

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The benefit of chains would be the possibility to stay with tires suitable for the roads where studs are not allowed even in winter (highway, high speed motorway).

This makes much less sense for a bicycle that seldom uses such roads. Once installed, studded tires can just stay for the winter that makes them stronger competitor for chains.

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I live in Colorado and I had slipnot traction make a custom set for my trike, just not sure if they ship overseas, but they work 👍

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    Hi, welcome to bicycles! You can improve your answer by including some photos of your chains, especially how they are attached to your wheels.
    – DavidW
    Mar 6, 2023 at 17:02

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