News & Opinion

Ask the Bike Maven: What are the best tires for winter cycling in the city?

In Ask the Bike Maven on December 22, 2010 at 8:56 AM

Photo by Nikolas Masse

By The Bike Maven | Ah, the joys of winter cycling:  the slush, the salt, the snot; the unplowed bike lanes; the frozen fingers…and worse.

If you are thinking the Bike Maven does not enjoy riding his bike in the winter, you would be correct.  Once the snow flies, my steel single speed commuter and the carbon fibre road bike I ride for fitness and recreation are cleaned and lubed and put away until the spring.

Copenhagen Chic by Mikael Colville-Andersen

But that doesn’t mean you should put your bike away too. There are many reasons to cycle all four seasons. They do it in Copenhagen and all over Scandinavia, so why not Toronto? Cycling is still the fastest way to get around the traffic-choked streets.   It saves you money; it’s good for the planet.  And cycling’s health benefits, to relieve stress, maintain leg strength, and to build cardiovascular fitness know no season.

And  Toronto is blessed with many winter days with clear dry roads, which makes cycling a natural.  It’s when the streets aren’t clear and dry that you have to consider whether to leave the bike at home, or to invest in some winter cycling tires to help keep you safe and upright through the worst of winter road conditions.

But what kind of tire to buy?  For snow on top of pavement, a narrow tire with widely spaced treads are best.  The narrow width helps cut through the snow, and the tread gives you traction on snow’s uneven surface to stop you from spinning out.  The wide tread self clears of snow. For wet and/or icy conditions however, the recommendation is just the opposite:  a wide, untreaded slick tire is best to keep maximum amount of rubber in contact with the ice surface.

If money isn’t a concern and you own an extra set of rims and quick-release hubs, you can install a snow tire on one set of rims and an ice tire on the other, and swap them out as conditions demand.  But if you’re like most people, you don’t have the money or the space to keep multiple rims around, and you need a good compromise tire that will perform reasonably well in both snowy and icy conditions.

The inverted tread of the Continental Town & Country tire

When it comes to winter tires, my favourite multi-purpose tire is the Continental Town and Country, which sports a brilliant inverted tread design.  On dry pavement or ice, the tire runs like a slick on the continuous ring of rubber that runs down the centre of the tire (the “contact patch“).   In dirt, slush, or snow, the inverted tread provides added traction.   In my opinion, the Town and Country is the best all-season multi-purpose tire. What a shame it is available only in the 26 inch size most commonly used by mountain bikes and some hybrids.

A word here first about tire sizes.   You’ll see the size of a bike tire embossed into the rubber or printed on the tire’s sidewall, expressed as something like “26 x 1.9” or “700 x 28”.   The first number refers to the diameter of your rim, and the second number refers to the tire’s width.  So in the first example above, the 26 x 1.9 means a tire is 26 inches in diameter and 1.9 inches wide.  Most mountain bikes and many hybrids take 26 inch tires.  The tire described as 700 x 28 means it is 700mm in diameter and 28mm wide. Most road bikes, including touring and cyclecross bikes, and some hybrids take 700mm tires.  But there are many exceptions to the general rule.

For road bikes, many turn to cyclecross tires, or a combination of tires for snowy roads. Generally, the choice is a knobby cyclecross tire up front and a slick tire at the rear.   The late Sheldon Brown was an advocate of mixing tire types this way.  His classic and comprehensive article on tire and tubes is worth a read.  But remember, this particular tire set up will help you in snow, but not ice.  In Toronto, where snow is cleared reasonably quickly from arterial roads at least, snow isn’t the main concern.  Because our weather goes through repeated cycles of thaws and freezes, ice is the biggest challenge to Toronto urban cyclists.  And for ice, many cyclists consider studded tires.

I haven’t ridden studded tires myself, but my friend Richard Fink has been riding them for almost 45 years.  Richard put together his first set of studded tires in 1967 by putting  industrial rivets into the 26 inch tires of  his CCM bike when he was just a boy. “Things worked great for 50 miles” Richard says.  With the hill formed by the old Lake Iroquois shoreline standing between Richard’s home in Cedarvale and his office at Bathurst and Dupont, Richard faces some daunting bike-handling challenges when the roads are icy.  He now runs 700mm Nokian studded tires from Finland on his winter ride, a Lightspeed touring bike.  But even with studded tires, an experienced winter cyclist like Richard still reports at least one fall every winter.

The website Peter White Cycles has one of the best run-downs about studded tires that I’ve read.  If you’re thinking of investing in studded tires, devote some time to giving the entire article a careful reading. “Riding on ice with studded tires is like walking on ice that’s been lightly covered with sand” says White. “It’s pretty safe. You’re not likely to fall unless you do something stupid. You’re not going to have the same traction you would have on dry pavement. But you’re going to have far more than you would with regular tires on ice. Keep in mind that there’s ice down there and you’ll be fine.  Try to be a hero, and you’ll probably pay a price.”  And keep in mind that on clear roads with no snow or ice, your studded tires will be noisy, slow, and won’t handle as well as a conventional tire.  The studs will wear fast on pavement.  Since these tires will run you upwards of $200 a  pair, you want to get as much mileage from them as possible.

Both Schwalbe and Nokian both make good quality carbide-studded tires for both 26inch and 700cm tires.  But the narrowest studded road tire that I’ve come across is the 700 x 32 Nokian A10.  That width will fit many cycle-cross, touring, and hybrid bikes, but not a pure racing road bike;  there won’t be adequate clearance in the front fork or at the rear brakes.

Nokian A10 700 x 32 studded tires from peterwhitecycles.com

Where to source your tires?  Your first choice should be to patronize your LBS: local bike shop.  Both Curbside Cycle and Sweet Pete’s carry the Schwalbes, and the obliging Rob Bateman is always willing to order in special items.   But if you can’t find what you want in our West Annex LBS’s, try Mountain Equipment Co-Op for Continental Town and Country and Schwalbe, Duke’s Cycles for Nokian, and Urbane Cyclist for slicks and cyclecross tires.   You can also try mail order with the aforesaid Peter White Cycles.  I’ve also had good luck with  probikekit.com, a mail order company based in the U.K. which offers good selection, great prices and prompt delivery on tires, parts and accessories. But if you’re going the mail order route, take care.  If in doubt, order the same size tire that you’re now running on your bike, or seek advice from your local bike shop. They’ll help you measure the clearance in your front fork and back brakes, to make sure you can handle a wider tire.

Schwalbe studded tires for sale at Curbside Cycle

A final word, and that’s about tire pressure. Automobile snow tires improve traction in two ways:  they have an aggressive tread design that grips and then self-clears of snow, and they are made with a special rubber compound that keeps the tire soft and pliable even in sub-zero conditions, helping adhesion to snow and ice.  Bicycle tires have no such special compounds.   For each degree below zero, your bike tire becomes harder and stiffer.  To compensate, many, including the City of Toronto cold weather cycling page recommend that you release some air pressure from your tire.   Release only a little air at a time, and try out how your bike handles, until you find what works for you.  But remember, don’t go below the minimum pressure marked on your tire’s sidewall, or you’ll risk a pinch flat.

These tips, together with a modicum of common sense should keep you out from under the streetcars this winter.  Enjoy your ride, and don’t forget to wave if you see Don Cherry.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

The Bike Maven is a Serotta-certified bicycle fitter who lives, works, and cycles in the Annex.

For other articles by this author, visit The Maven archive.

Visit Nikolas Masse‘s and Mikael Colville-Andersen‘s photostreams on Flickr.

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