Once More with Feeling: the Return of the Winter Tire Dilemma
After last year's mild winter, this holiday season caught us off guard with a bountiful snowfall. My two ridable transport bikes at the moment are a Brompton and a 650B prototype mixte (more on that soon). The mixte sports 42mm Grand Bois Hetre tires, and so I thought it would be a great idea to ride it in the snow. After all, the Hetres ride so nicely over unpaved, uneven terrain. Crusty snow feels kind of similar. I took to the streets.
Here I will pause to admit, that despite 3 previous winters of cycling behind my belt, I had never before ridden on roads that look quite like what's pictured here. There was never a need to, since our neighbourhood usually gets plowed and salted pretty thoroughly. Typically the streets look more like this - with snowbanks piled high on the sides, but the travel lanes mostly cleared. This time around, maybe on account of the holidays, they had not cleared the snow all that well. I got to experience the real deal.
The snow on the roads created terrain of three distinct categories. There was the even, packed snow. Riding on it felt similar to riding on post-rain dirt roads, nicely packed and kind of softish. The Hetres handled well there. There was the crusted-over snow, uneven and slippery at times, though not outright icy. This too felt manageable. And then there were the occasional stretches of deeper, slushier snow. I expected it to feel similar to mud, but it was way more slidey and my front wheel kept fishtailing. Still, overall I thought that the tires did fine. There were only a few stretches where I felt uneasy, and I attributed that to a lack of confidence.
So I got home and uploaded some pictures of my snow ride, planning to comment on how decently the Grand Bois Hetres handled. But promptly the pictures received feedback from others to the opposite effect, warning that these tires ride poorly in the snow. The fact that I happily rode them and felt they were fine strikes me as funny - in a concerning sort of way. Ideally, I'd like to be able to tell the difference between lack of traction and lack of confidence.
And so, once more the Winter Tire Dilemma is upon me. Naturally, everyone is suggesting studded tires. This is my 4th winter commuting by bike and I have yet to try them. Partly this is because they are expensive and I cannot seem to commit to a wheel size. I am riding 650B now, but in winters past I've ridden 26", 28" and 700C, and who knows what I'll be riding next winter. I am also convinced that getting studded tires and mounting them on my bike will activate the Umbrella Carrying Principle, ensuring that I will not need them.
Finally, the very fact of having gotten through 3 winters without them makes me question whether I really need studs. Winters here aren't really that bad, and tires with some tread seem to do pretty well. The Schwalbe Marathon Plus are the husband's favourite for city slush and snowy paths alike, and they are even available for the Brompton's wheel size. The performance-oriented Continental Top Winter IIs also come highly recommended. Knobby mountain bike tires are another popular choice. One issue, as I understand it, is that no tire is equally good for both snow and ice. Studded tires help with ice, but not snow. Tires with heavy tread help with snow, but not ice. This winter, my commutes cover longer distances and more remote areas than previously, so a good winter tire is worth considering ...though with all the choices and factors involved, I suspect spring might come by the time I decide.