In this installment I’ll talk about a very valuable tool for winter riding, and my personal favorite: studded tires.

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Studded tires are one of those things that may not be useful a large percentage of the time, but for those times when they are useful, they are absolutely essential – specifically, when there may be ice on the road or trail. Rubber just doesn’t grip on ice by itself; studs of steel, or better yet, carbide (a very hard type of metal also used in cutting tools) can dig into the ice surface and keep you from sliding.

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For the trail, a covering of snow doesn’t always mean ice. If your trails are lightly used the snow can stay fluffy and be handled okay by regular knobbies. However, if there have been enough other riders or walkers to compact the snow, or if you’ve had some melting and re-freezing, layers of ice can form and studs can help you navigate over it without crashing. My home trails are within the city limits and see a lot of traffic, so much so that the trails often get glacier-like coverings of ice that last much longer than the snow. (As in the photo at right.)

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On the road, the snow is going to be compacted and slush-ified by the car traffic, and studs can definitely help you cut through it. There is also the danger of standing water freezing, particularly along the sides of a road, where we cyclists often have to ride. On the left is our very own Saxonburg Blvd.

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One caveat: Studded tires aren’t going to instantly make all conditions rideable. If the snow gets deep enough, the studs themselves won’t really help because they won’t be able to grip snow any better than rubber knobs. This is when I like to use the fattest tire I can, lowered to as low a pressure as I can get away with, to help float on the snow better. Some prefer a skinny tire to cut down through the snow as much as possible. Or you may need to learn to enjoy flailing around. (I took this photo on the right of my own tracks one night while flailing around toward home in a minor snowstorm.)

Another caveat: Don’t step off bike on ice! Your newfound ice invincibility with studded tires does not extend to your shoes. It’s very easy to forget this, come to a stop on an ice patch and attempt to dismount, only to do some unintended gymnastics.

There are plenty of studded tire choices from Nokian and Schwalbe (both with carbide studs), Kenda and Innova (with less durable but less expensive steel studs), and others. They can get pretty pricey, from $50-$100 each, but if you live in a climate prone to ice, the money may be well worth it to extend your riding season. The tires I currently use are both Nokian: the Gazza Extreme 294 for trails, and the Hakkapelliitta W106 for the road. Nokian is a Finnish company, so they know their snow biking, and they make their own tires on home turf in Finland. For both of these tires the number in the name refers to the number of carbide-tipped steel studs in the tire.

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The $100 Gazza Extreme at left is a nice beefy tire in 26″ or 29″ x 2.1″, with big blocky knobs in a square-ish profile that floats well in snow. Each and every knob had a stud, for ice traction down the center and on the sides of the tire, which allows a more natural turning motion while on ice (no awkward body English necessary to keep just a few studs in the right place). As you may note in the photo at left they are mounted on a singlespeed – yes, it was entirely possible to ride singlespeed on ice with these tires, even standing up and putting a fair amount of torque on the pedals. It is pretty cool to stop and see the scratches in the ice that the tires make. They’ve been fantastic to use. As far as I know, these are the only 29″ studded mountain tires available. They are of course heavier than your typical folding tire at 1105g, but hey, it’s winter training.

hakka1.jpg As fun as the Extremes are, the Hakkapelliitta W106 tires on the right (at around $50 each) are perhaps more valuable to me, as they’ve helped me increase my number of winter bike commuting days, and paid for themselves in less than a year in saved gas money. They come in 700 x 35c and 700 x 45c sizes – I use the 35c for my cyclocross commuting bike. The tread profile is more rounded, which felt very high in the center and a little strange at first, but I found that less air pressure than the maximum 65psi made them roll better. The studs are nicely placed in the mid-center and gave enough traction without being overboard. I have ended up riding with them some 10-12 times in the past year when only a tiny portion of my route was icy, but putting up with the extra-friction slow feeling of the studs on dry pavement in exchange for security on the ice was fine by me. The studs seem to be holding up just fine to this treatment, although I can expect some wear if I keep riding them in the dry. (Putting on the studded tires for a chance of ice/snow is kind of like bringing an umbrella if there’s a chance of rain… it seems to guarantee that the weather you prepared for won’t happen.)

One note about stud loss: it can happen, and probably will, but a few studs missing here and there won’t significantly diminish the performance of the tires. Nokian warns users to ride new studded tires for 30 miles on the road in order to seat the studs, a warning I did not heed and thus lost a couple right off the bat, but only a couple. (Replacement studs are available for around a dollar each.) Peter White Cycles advises that one can simply check out the tires before use and make sure that each stud is properly seated within the knob to prevent this.

If you’re lacking the cash, don’t mind a heavier weight penalty and have some winter project time, you can also make your own studded tires. This way you can also give life to some leftover tires with knobs not as sharp as they once were. They won’t last as long as carbide studded tires, but they will be cheaper, and you can experiment and find a stud pattern that works best for your routes.

- Choose a tire with large enough knobs to support your chosen screw, but not so large that the screws won’t clear your frame.

- Screws made for sheet metal are good, as they’ll be harder than wood or drywall screws. Half-inch for mountain bike tires or 3/8″ for cyclocross/hybrid tires are good sizes.

- Drill a pilot hole with a 1/8″ drill bit through each knob to be studded, from the outside so you can make sure they’re centered. Space the screws evenly to give good traction, mostly toward the outer edges of the tire (as these will be larger than commercial studs and a little harder to roll on).

- Screw in the screws with a drill from the inside through the casing so that the tips end up sticking out of the knobs.

- Add a protective tire liner or several layers of duct tape to the inside of the tire to prevent the heads of the screws from tearing the inner tube.

For more information:
The excellent Icebike site has some interesting, and surprising, data on the true slippery-ness of different conditions.

Peter White Cycles in Hillsborough, NH has a great studded tire page.

With each installment of this Cold Weather Riding series, more excuses to not ride in the winter are tumbling like dominoes… so get out there and enjoy yourself!