Studded Winter Tires: Considered [from BA 42-200]

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"For a breathless instant, that familiar whisper ceases. You just rode across an invisible patch of ice, and the tire studs did their duty."

 

by Rick Shory

The occasional spill on winter ice had always been just good fun. I would laugh, pick myself up, and ride on. All that changed in one second, winter before last. It came so quick, I’m still not sure what happened. But there I was, lying on my back in a skim of water-over-ice. I clutched my ankle, screaming.

(I’ll digress for a paragraph on the medical side. If you come across a fellow rider in such a state, impress on him or her to do everything possible to prevent swelling. Whether it turns out to be a break, a sprain, or a bad bruise, the tissue swelling causes more complications than the injury itself. remember “r-i-c-e”—rest, ice, compression, elevation. Plus an anti-inflammatory. Lots. Like 800mg of Ibuprofen, three times a day. No joke. Many fallen cyclists, pumped with adrenaline, will brush off the idea of a ride in the ambulance. If so, r-i-c-e-(a) at home will do a lot to get you going again. If the spill does lead to an emergency room visit, don’t depend on the staff there to remind you of r-i-c-e. Mine didn’t. It would have saved me at least a month of recovery time. But that’s another story.)

Spring was well along before I was back on my bike with a new respect for icy streets. Before winter came again, I investigated whether there was such a thing as snow tires for bicycles, and indeed, there are three basic types.

The first is roll-your-own, such a putting a bunch of screws through an old tire, points sticking out. The other two options are tires you’d buy with built-in studs, the studs made of either steel or carbide. Within the studded tire categories, there are many variants; however, the basic breakdown of steel vs. carbide is like night and day.

I live on the Front Range in Colorado where the pavement is often bare through the winter. In conditions like these, there is absolutely no question that carbide studs are the way to go. Carbide is harder than pavement. It stays sharp. Steel is softer than pavement. It wears out. Steel studs on pavement would soon be smooth. They’d have no bite when you needed them. Worse than useless, they would give you the illusion of protection. The same goes for screws, no matter how impressive the rough ride. I think homebrew jobs such as the screw points might work in a place like Winnipeg, where they have a deep pack of snow on the roads all winter. The same, possibly, for steel studs. But not for riding on bare, icy roads.

The range of studded bike tires is bewildering. You’ll see treads with multiple rows of studs, in various patterns. If you’re a commuter, though, the choice is simple: all you need is two rows of studs, one on either side of the tread centerline.

When you ride straight ahead, the tire presses down, and the studs barely touch. When you turn, the studs on that side bite in. That’s all there is to it. Those multiple rows of studs are for gnarly mountain bikers, to climb out of icy ruts.

Last winter it froze up the night before Thanksgiving. In the morning it was about 10 degrees. I went out to try my new tires and I was amazed that I could ride over glass-smooth puddles. I could turn, brake, and accelerate—as if the ice were not even there. My tire tracks were a double row of tiny white dots, where the stud points bit into the mirrored surface.

You know how it is riding along a sidewalk and having to cross a driveway? The car tires have packed the snow, and polished it into rutted ice. It slopes across the direction you need to go. I don’t even like walking across places like that. Well, the studded tires took it like nothing more than rough pavement.

Through the winter, I tested the tires to see how far they would go. I would intentionally steer over patches of ice, cautiously at first, then more calmly as I got used to the idea that I really did have reliable traction. I even rode out on a frozen lake—no problem, except if i put my foot out, it could slip. If I locked the brakes, I could force a skid. But it was about like a normal slide in summer on dry pavement. The studs would turn up little curls of shaved ice.

I developed new habits. Before, I’d kept away from the street gutter ice. I would relinquish more and more of the lane as the ice accumulated through the winter. Now, I rode right on it. I even used it as a ramp to get up on the curb.

Here’s a common scenario: a couple inches of snow. Cars drive over it, squishing it into ridges that go curving around corners. The ridges weld into ice. Easy enough to avoid—when you can see them. But then another few inches of snow covers them up. On normal tires, those hidden ridges can throw you down like a roundhouse punch. The studded tires rolled right over.

The limit of what the tires could do was in threading steep icy rut fields more than three or four inches deep. These, I admit, were beyond my tires’ grip. But I’d just bump to the bottom of a rut, and go on. Studs only help a little in deep snow, or in slush, or in that crumbly collapsing layer of compressed snow/ ice where car tires have driven. The main factor there is the knobbiness of your rubber tread. The studs do add a little bite when you poke through to pavement, but that’s not what they’re for. Studs save you on black ice.

After the first snow, I had learned to be extremely wary. Usually, in sunny Colorado, the pavement is mostly bare and dry within a few days, though there could always be a patch of ice hiding in, say, the shadow of a parked car.

Riding along in the quiet night, the studs make a slight noise, as if the pavement were dusted with coarse sand. For a breathless instant, that familiar whisper ceases. That’s the only way you know you just rode across an invisible patch of ice, and the tire studs did their duty.

If you bring your bike indoors, watch it. What studs do to ice, they’ll do to wood floors. I got a few lines of little punch holes before i realized it. even walking the bike un-loaded is enough weight.

I bought my tires from Peter White Cycles in New Hampshire (they have pages and pages of information that answered all sorts of questions I didn’t even know to ask). I would have been glad to buy my tires at a local shop, but unfortunately I couldn't ever find quite what I was looking for. The particular tires I sprung for were 26-inch Nokian Mount & Ground W160s, but that would vary by your type of bike. They cost about $125 for the pair, with shipping. That may seem pricey, but it was a tiny fraction of my medical bills for a broken ankle. 

Evan P. Schneider