For lots of folks the question
of which bike to ride in the winter is moot. You ride the one you have. You may have no
room, no money, or no desire for another bike. What you have must serve for winter and
summer and every place and every time in between.
But if you had your "Druthers"....(and in truth you probably do, because a
second bike need not be all that expensive) what type of bike should you use for winter
I rather suspect that 95% of all winter cyclists are riding mountain bikes. Another 4%
are riding Touring or "Cross" bikes, and the last 1% are riding everything else
from crit bikes to recumbents.
(I leave out of this analysis those bike club rides on sunny winter weekends when the
roads are bare and the weather is crisp. Not that these rides aren't winter cycling, but
only because this sort of ride usually ceases when there is snow or ice on the ground and
therefore can't be called ICEBIKING in the sense employed here.)
This is sheer speculation, for other than what I personally see on the road or on the
lakes I have no data.
So you have a mountain bike. This is one of the easiest bikes to use on ice, if for no
other reason then the convenience.
|In most road conditions the wider MTB tires may help
you gain the traction you need. I say "may" because there is no
different tires at different pressures yield such a confusing bunch of data that it is
hard to do any proper analysis.
On icy road, or roads with hardpacked snow, the wide
MTB tires give you more rubber (or more studs) in contact with the surface. The value of
this will quickly be appreciated when you encounter hardpacked snow or bare ice,
especially rutted ice where cars have traveled.
Braking is highly dependent on how much rubber touches the ice or the gravel embedded
The ability to reduce pressure also favors the wide MTB tire. Skinny tires tend to be
higher pressure, and can't be "let down" as much.
|There is another school of thought that
proposes that since you will be cutting thru the snow anyway you might as well cut thru
with a skinny tire and make the job more like a knife thru butter. Skinny tires are said
to cut thru the snow down to the traction.
The trouble is, that most of the time you are
just on ice, and if there is anything under the snow it is probably ice too!
The skinny tire has a small contact patch, that means fewer gravel particles will be in
contact with the tire to provide traction.
Still, if the weight on those fewer particles is higher you could end up with good
traction. The Jury is still out as there are only a few skinny tire ICEBIKERS.
Off road, the wider tire MTBs pretty much dominate. I have never seen anyone riding
skinny tire bikes over frozen lakes or down forest trails. I would be willing to bet it
could be done, but it seems counter intuitive.
With normal MTB tires, and reduced pressure you will be able to traverse most packed
snow and up to about 6 inches of heavy wet snow. Maybe more if you are very fit, or don't
mind coughing up a lung. You will not float on top of fresh snow, you will be sinking in
unless you can find snowmobile tracks or heavily trafficked sections to follow.
MTBs usually come equipped to handle fenders and rear-racks for carrying things. For
commuting these usually are a requirement at some time of the winter.
Theoretically the tourer ought to make a better commuter than does a mountain bike. The
narrower tires are generally faster and they are usually equipped to accommodate fenders
On ice it's only is disadvantage would be in the narrow tires. You need the width for
braking. Many tourers can accommodate wider tires, and this might be an option, except for
the fenders - they are often too narrow to accommodate wide tires. Changing tire widths or
rim widths may cause a lot of other parts to need replacement. The Nokian W106 studed
tires (see below) may be a solution for your touring bike.
I've only ridden my Cannondale road bike on icy roads a few times. I didn't enjoy it
much, but really didn't give it much of a chance. The skinny tires seemed to skid at the
slightest provocation and I had no confidence in the braking at all. Perhaps with some
Nokian W106 narrow studded tires it would be suitable.
On icy roads, braking is often determined by how many granules of gravel your tire
covers. You learn to steer for the gravel that the sand trucks spread. If no gravel is
around, you steer for undisturbed snow, as even the granularity of snowflakes provides
more traction than bare ice.
Skinny tires just don't cover many snowflakes or grains of gravel. The higher pressure
of these tires means you have a smaller contact patch on the ground. My high pressure
Conti's didn't cover much gravel. As a result, they didn't see much ice either. Where can
I get a 22mm studded tire?
However, when there is no ice on the road it is still a treat to take your road bike
out for a brisk midwinter run on a bright afternoon in January.
Other ICEBIKERS have reported fair results with skinny tired road bikes. Especially
when they are equipped with studded tires. If your frame can accommodate 37mm tires check
out the Nokian W106 studded tires in this narrow size. See our tires
page. We also have an independent review of the Nokian W106.
Some recumbents are reputed to be rather capable on ice. Mine wasn't. It was a long
wheel based bike that had very little weight on the front wheel. The front wheel would
therefore tend to skid rather than turn the bike when it got icy.
Now for those of you unfamiliar with recumbents, you do not balance a "bent"
by using upper body English to the extent that you do on an upright bike. You are
"close coupled" with the seat back, and you just can't force the bike left, to
dodge a pothole, by jerking your body far right. You have to counter steer a
recumbent more than you do a regular bike. (Turn right to cause the bike to lean left, and
follow this lean with a turn to left).
This means it is VERY critical that the front wheel provides good traction.
Short wheelbased (SWB) recumbents have a higher percentage of the weight on the front
wheel than do long wheelbased (LWB) bikes. Also, the steering movement required are much
greater when the front wheel is farther away from where you sit. (Walk through the house
with a 1 foot ruler held out in front of you. Now do the same thing with a yard stick. The
far end of the yard stick may have to turn the same number of degrees as you round a
corner, but the arc has a greater radius, and the distance covered is greater. This
greater distance must be covered in the same time as the 1 foot ruler if you are to
maintain the same speed).
So LWB recumbents require greater lateral movements of the front wheel but have less
weight to hold that wheel on the road. SWB bents have more weight on the front wheel and
much smaller movements are required. Because of this, the SWB recumbent is the better
choice for icy roads. LWB recumbents can be sort of tricky on ice.
Recumbents in general do poorly on forest trails or other off road situations. (They
are great fun on lakes though).