What Makes a Good Winter Tire?

Winter riding is fun. The crisp air, the clear skies and the beautiful views. Getting out and breathing fresh air. There are many reasons to enjoy it.

Winter riding requires preparation. The most obvious is clothing – which we’ll leave for another post. Today, let’s talk about what makes a good winter tire.

Cold temperatures make rubber less grippy. There is no way around this. In theory, it should be possible to formulate rubber compounds specially for optimum grip in cold conditions. In practice, many ‘Winter Compound’ bicycle tires offer less grip in cold conditions, rather than more.

With all tires, you need to consider the reduced grip when it’s cold. Especially on familiar routes, it can come as a surprise when the grip suddenly bleeds away, at speeds that are well within the limits when the temperatures are warmer.

Having ridden many tires in cold conditions, I can say with confidence that the rubber compound of our Compass tires is among the most grippy you’ll find anywhere, cold or warm, wet or dry.

The chevron tread of Compass road tires helps to improve traction by interlocking with the road surface – which works regardless of the temperature. Even so, take it easy during cold days!

What about snow? Snow is surprisingly grippy. How much tread you need depends on the temperature: Cold snow requires only a chevron tread, like that of our road tires, to hook up. (You’ll see an imprint of the tire tread on the snow surface.) But when the temperatures are around freezing, the slushy snow is slippery, and you really need knobs to get good grip. (The knobs don’t hurt when it’s colder, either.)

Should a snow tire be wide – to float over the snowpack? Or narrow – to cut through the snow and try to find grip on the ground underneath?

Rally cars use narrow tires in snow. They are heavy and powerful, which allows their tires to dig down to a firm surface underneath the snow.

Snow cats use the opposite approach: Their wide tracks allow them to travel on top of deep snow without sinking in.

For bicycles, wide tires seem to be a better choice. Compressing the snow takes energy, and the less you sink in, the easier you roll. And cyclists don’t have enough weight and power to dig through the snow into the firm ground below.

What about ice? Under most conditions, only studded tires grip on ice. They punch holes into the ice that allows them to interlock with the surface. However, studded tires aren’t much fun to ride on dry roads. I suspect that a supple tire with studs wouldn’t work well – you probably need a stiff tire to push the studs into the (hard) ice.

There is one other issue: When it snows, many communities spread fine aggregate on the roads for better traction. Often, that aggregate contains freshly crushed rocks that can be very sharp and cause flat tires. In our area, we’ve found that the crushed rock will puncture worn tires – probably both because they are thinner and because aged rubber is easier to cut. Running relatively new tires has eliminated that concern for us.

If you live in a place that sees snow, but also dry roads, our dual-purpose knobbies are hard to beat as all-round winter tires. They roll as fast on dry roads as most racing tires. They corner as well as most road tires (above). And yet on mud and snow, they offer the grip of the best knobbies. Available in 700C x 38 and 650B x 42 mm, they are a great choice for rides where you may encounter all kinds of conditions.

Click here for more information about our tires.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
This entry was posted in Testing and Tech, Tires. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to What Makes a Good Winter Tire?

  1. John McNamara says:

    Happy holidays to all, especially the staff at BQ.
    Our Pennsylvania winters have been so unusually varied with temperatures and precipitation that I realize that I might do better if I have 2 bikes ready to go every morning: one equipped with my December-through-March studded tires (for the majority of days when black ice is possible) and one with road-worthy knobbies like the Stellas for when the roads are dry or snowed over.
    Its either that or invest in one winter bike with disc brakes & 2 sets of wheels…but maybe I’m overlooking some complicating factor on the second option?

    • Jacob Musha says:

      I live in Wisconsin and I have two complete wheelsets setup for my fixed gear winter bike. One has 26×2″ studded tires and the other has 2.1″ knobbies. The studded wheelset is a full three pounds heavier than the knobbies! I can’t stand riding the studded tires unless there is a risk of ice. I wish a lightweight studded tire was available, but maybe Jan is correct that the tire needs to be stiff for the studs to work.

      My bike has a cantiliever front brake so switching wheels is easy. As long as the rim is the same width, there are no adjustments. I can swap the wheelset in maybe a minute. Discs are more complicated. Unless the rotors are in *exactly* the same position, they will rub. You’ll probably have to loosen and re-center the caliper mounts when you switch.

      • John McNamara says:

        I am wary of the disc set-up for your stated reason, its the easy change-out and snow/ice performance that is attractive. I do have Paul cantilevers on my commuter but I’m challenged to get my wide tires in and out between them in a ‘got to get to work!’ pressure moment.

      • I’ve often wondered why many brakes don’t open wide enough to let the tires out. When we designed our Compass and Rene Herse brakes, we made sure they open wide enough for all tires that will clear the brake. I hate having to deflate a tire just to install it on the bike.

      • Mike says:

        @Jan: the front brakes on my ~1987 bike are old-school cantilevers and have a quick-release on one of the brake arms. It’s rather rinko-like in that I can easily pull the brake cable in seconds. The arms pop open wide enough for me to remove the wheel even with a Rat Trap Pass fully inflated and measuring ~52 mm. Same deal for the winter tires (which are a few mms narrower than the RTPs).

        That’s the good side of old-school; the bad side is the vintage U-brakes on the rear. Mine are mounted on the seatstays, not the chainstays as was the trend in those days, but that’s the end of the good news. One of the brake arms is slotted to facilitate quick removal of the straddle cable but the arms don’t really pop open wide enough to make a difference. I still have to deflate the tire in order to remove the wheel.

        V-brakes, like on my wife’s bike, have a quick-release system too that pops open the brake arms for wheel removal, though subjectively, it requires a little more fussing than do the old cantilevers on my bike.

  2. John says:

    Ah, the great winter tire dilemma. Wide or narrow? Studded? Up here in Edmonton we get it all: bare roads, slick ice, medium snow falls and dumps. There is no one tire that does it all.

    Wide tires may well nicely float on the surface of the snow but the tire will not sink into the snow in a predictable manner. It will go from side to side as it sinks in. This can turn a downhill into something more like snow surfing. Narrow tires will cut through better but will bog down in heavy snow.

    Studded tires are pretty much manditory given the slippery ruts that quickly develop on the side roads. Unfortunately most commercially studded tires have studs right down the center where they make most winter street riding unpleasant, hard work. Making your own allows you to place the studs to the side where they will grip if you slip but only lightly touch during straight riding.

    Perhaps the best solution would be to have multiple wheel sets with both wide and narrow custom studded tires along with a set of normal tires for the bare and dry days.

  3. David Green says:

    I’ve been bike commuting year round through Chicago winters for 15+ years. It greatly depends what routes and roads and snow removal processes one typically sees. Untouched snow is easy to cut through and plowed roads are easy enough to ride on most any reasonable tire size. My custom-built commuter runs 26” x 1.75 with minor knobs at their edges. Friends who ride multi-use trails that don’t get plowed every day pretty much have to use the super fat-tire bikes. My regular experience sees fresh snow in the early morning that I easily cut through and well plowed roads in the evening. Heavy, unplowed, rutted snow is problematic always but, fortunately, I rarely see those conditions. Don’t forget the essential fenders with clearance to allow for snow. And the short winter days that require lights. I use a dynamo front hub with headlight and tail light.

  4. Mike Shay says:

    The most important attribute for winter tires is flat resistance.

    • Agreed – fixing flats with cold hands is no fun.

      The question is how to get that flat resistance. Way back, I used to ride hard, belted 28 mm-wide tires during the winter months. These days, I’m on supple 42 mm Compass Babyshoe Extralights year-round. I get fewer flats now… and most are from the thin steel wires that puncture (almost) any tire. The extra width and lower pressure makes it harder for sharp aggregate to puncture the tire, and using relatively new rubber does the rest to keep my flats to about one per winter season.

      When you venture far off the beaten path, flats become less of a problem. During the winter ride in this short movie, not a single member of the group got a flat…

  5. mrl says:

    I have to disagree with you about supple tires being unsuitable for studs. As a lightweight rider, I experience poor traction from studded commuter tires because I don’t have the weight to make the the stiff sidewalls deform unless I underinflate them so much that they squirm under hard effort. More supple studded off-road racing tires offer much better traction and comfort on the snow-covered sheet ice and frozen slush of Quebec’s winter roads and trails, and grip the ice well even at very low ppressure. Each time I remove my compass tires to install my Nokians, I find myself wishing you made a knobby 26″ tire with stud pockets.

  6. Dr J says:

    For me studded tires a must-have. I live in the place that not only gets plenty of snow but I also frequently commute on a greenway that runs through an environmentally protected area. This means this paved path cannot be salted in winter and as such it’s always covered with a sheet of ice in March. That also means that a bike with 650B wheels is a very poor choice since it’s close to impossible to find studded tires in this size that wouldn’t have a heavy, deep, MTB-like tread as well. Essentially, if you need studded tires in the city (to be mostly used on paved roads with lots of ice but less snow), you’d better use 700C wheels.

  7. Mike says:

    For winter riding I simplify things and use studded knobby tires daily from December to April. They are less fun than rolling around on supple Compass rubber, yes, and there are plenty of days when the roads are dry or at least salted & sanded and a non-studded tire would be a better choice. There are also many days when the weather changes throughout the day, and choosing smooth tires works in the morning but you need studs in the evening. I’ve seen this time and again when we get a snowpack on the roads, warm weather during the day melts the snow, and the snowmelt freezes again in the evening.
    For this reason I use only studded tires through the winter months. I don’t have to decide anything in the morning – doing so would only add to my decision fatigue – and the chances of a wrong choice are high in the winter months. With studs on the bike, I’m ready for whatever winter can throw at me; I just get on the bike and ride. I chalk the additional resistance in the stiff tires up as “training” 😉

    The thought of switching back to Rat Trap Passes in the spring keeps me going in the long and cold winter months.

  8. Willem says:

    I have been a very happy user of the Conti Topcontact Winter ii tyres. These use car winter tyre technology, i.e. with a special tread pattern and a special rubber compound. The advantages over and above normal tyres are quite remarkable. In light snow these are significantly grippier than knobbly mtb tyres, and even with hard frozen snow grip is excellent, even if spikes would obviously be needed in really demanding conditions. The wide 50/559 variant is excellent, the much narrower 37/622 rather less so. Both are in fact much narrower than specified :the nominally 37 mm is only 32 mm in real life, which explains its more modest performance.

    • I’m glad you like the Contis. I suspect the latest version is better than past ones. I recall how TOUR (?) tested the first version and found that they gripped less than the standard Contis in cold weather.

      Car tire technology doesn’t seem to translate well to bikes. Car tires carry much greater loads and get warm even in normal running. (That is why you should check tire pressure always on cold tires.) The rubber softens as you drive – but bicycle tires don’t to the same degree.

      On the other hand, cars are much heavier and more powerful, so a soft compound like that of a good bicycle tire wouldn’t last in a car tire. It would wear too quickly when subjected to hundreds of horsepower during acceleration and more than 1000 kg during braking. Basically, cars are 100 times more powerful than bikes and weigh 20 times more, but their tires are only 5 times as wide (10 times if you count four tires vs. two). So if you use a car tire compound for bicycles, as Conti apparently does, you’ll probably end up with a tire that is harder than necessary.

      • Willem says:

        I suggest you try the Conti winter tyres yourself. The rubber compound stays much softer than normal bicycle tyres, Grip is pretty spectacular, so I fail to understand how any test could show otherwise. They also roll pretty smoothly, unlike studded tyres, of course. Having said all that, they are an intermediate option (hence perfect in the Netherlands). For the really demanding stuff that we do not get you obviously need studded tyres.

  9. Reid Nimz says:

    I think your intuition about relatively supple tires with studs may be wrong. I’ve been using the 45nrth Xerces (120tpi alloy stud version) lately and I’ve had no issue getting studs to grip on ice, ti seems about as supple as a pasela PT. That tire has my favorite configuration for winter tires which is knobs with big gaps and a nice center line with the studs running on the outside of the tire in two rows. With the tire (30mm measuring ~32mm on my rims) at 60 psi the studs only touch on turns. When we get ice (I’m commuting daily through Minneapolis) I put them at around 35 PSI and the studs grip just fine.

    The other comment is I think the ideal width depends on the type of snow. Fresh snow is rideable on almost any tire, but I’ve found narrow tires are much better in slush or very wet snow (that’s often what’s in the bike lanes) as wide tires can tend to slide. The same is true for hard-packed snow from cars that can move out from underneath wider tires unless you get up into Fatbike territory. For all other conditions, wider seems better (especially for frozen ruts).

    I think the ideal might be the compass knobby tires with pre-made stud holes on the outside that could be filled with available studs (I like the 45NRTH alloy/tungsten studs).

  10. David Cambon says:

    “I suspect that a supple tire with studs wouldn’t work well – you probably need a stiff tire to push the studs into the (hard) ice.”

    The popular, skinny, studded Schwalbe Marathon Winter road tire is as stiff as a board at room temperature and it hardens into a steel train wheel when it’s -35. Its stiff sidewalls and impenetrable hard rubber tread make it as slow as molasses, especially when it’s cold. The thick, inflexible tread compound of the Marathon Winter seems to be designed to keep the back of the studs from pushing through the tire casing and puncturing the tube. In my experience with the Marathon Winters that is their failure mode. The studs migrate through the casing and ravage the helpless tube before the tread wears out.

    For the dead of winter I switched to mountain bikes with large tire clearance so I can run 2.1″ folding bead Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pro studded off-road tires. The Ice Spiker Pros have a thin, supple sidewall that makes them faster than the Marathon Winters even though the Ice Spiker Pros have enormous, flexible, speed-robber off-road knobs. The gigantic Ice Spiker Pro knobs slow the migration of the studs towards the tube and I find I am getting 3-4 times the mileage out of an Ice Spiker Pro as opposed to a Marathon Winter. The Ice Spiker Pros have much better ride quality than the Marathon Winters and much better grip on rough, icy surfaces than the Marathon Winters. The Ice Spiker Pros are $200 each in Canada but are cheaper per mile than the $80 Marathon Winters.

    Photo (by me) of an Ice Spiker Pro in Edmonton, Alberta. The background is fall ice on the Edmonton bike lane:

    Winter Bicycle Tire

    Edmonton is one of those few places where studded tires are pretty well required to prevent spills. The side streets remain snow and ice covered throughout the winter. In most places (such as Seattle) the Compass Steilacoom or a regular Compass tire would be a far better choice for a winter tire. For shoulder-season touring I use Compass Barlow Pass tires and they seem to be able to handle light snow and odd patches of black ice when ridden accordingly.

  11. Frank B. says:

    Actually in my anecdotal experience new tires seemed to be more flat-prone than worn-in tires. My explanation was that new tires are “stickier” than tires, which have already dried out a bit on the road.
    As fixing flats in winter is much more uncomfortable than during warmer seasons, I tend to ignore grip and rolling resistance and prefer flat-proof tires then. Paselas are fine in winter.
    For commuting when there’s a risk of ice ice I have a second bike in reach which has wheels with studded tires. Could be any cheap old mountain bike. When there’s ice, there’s usually no rain, so no fenders etc. needed.

    • The stickiness of the rubber wears off in about 20 km (12 miles). The rubber of tires also needs to cure for about a month, but by the time tires arrive at the dealers, they should be fully cured. After that, they get more and more brittle with time, especially if you knead them by riding the bike. This means that tires are most flat-resistant 20 km into their long life.

      The difference in flat-resistance between a tire that is relatively new and one that has been ridden for a few years is quite remarkable. I remember in the days when I rode tires that came in two models. One was supposed to be rolling fast, the other was supposed to be tough. The tough tire had much more rubber, but I always replaced my tires when the flat frequency increased significantly. This happened with the same mileage on both models. When I cut the worn tires apart, I noticed that the “tough” model had lots of rubber left. And yet I was getting flats…

      • Frank B. says:

        I think, it’s pretty hard to get a data set that is large enough to be statistically valid to link “new stickyness” and flat frequency – so it might as well be the other way around or completely irrelevant. Maybe it’s just psychology: Having your first flat when you have just mounted new tires tends to “stick” more to your memory than a flat somewhere in the middle of a tire’s lifetime. Overly worn tires get more flats of course.

        As I commute daily along one of the most glass-littered stretches of road in all of Europe (which is Cologne’s river promenade) I do see a sigificant difference in flat resistance among tire types, though. A Pasela is much more flat proof than Gravel King which is still getting less flats than Hetres at the same 15%-drop tire pressure, same bike and rider. The challenge on the ground varies with the season: Winter actually is not much worse than summer because in summer there are more people at the promenade at night which means more broken beer bottles in the morning. New Year’s Eve will be another challenge as will be the famous carnival. I change tires when carnival starts (11.11.) and ends (March or April). Tires makers should test their products here. 🙂

  12. Philip Lussier says:

    I run 650x42b Grand Bois Hetres on my Soma Grand Randonneur. I have fenders with adequate, but not surplus, clearance. If I mounted the 650x42b Pumpkin Ridge would the knobs necessitate removal or readjustment of the fenders? Just wondering how that might work. Thanks.

  13. kai says:

    almost more than a grippy tread, grippy and soft compound is essential in the cold, with or without snow or ice. unfortunately some primarily grippy compounds contain sensitive natural rubbers and soon dry out and lose their adhesive grip. same problem as with natural rubber shoe soles.
    for commuting i also have found its a good idea to keep a separate bike with carbide studded tires for icy days, especiallly in the inbetween-season where weather and conditions change on a daily basis.
    biking in winter is great fun!

    • I agree that the rubber compound is of prime importance. We are excited to have access to some of the very best tread rubber in the tire world. The interlocking adds further grip. The two factors work together – without one or the other, the tires would have less grip.

      By the way, natural rubbers don’t seem to have the most grip. This may have been the case in the past, but today’s tread compounds are far better than anything in the past. Many white tires have a high percentage of natural rubber, yet they grip less well on wet roads. That is the reason why all our tires have black tread, even though the other colors were quite popular when we first started making tires.

  14. kai says:

    apart from good tires, a good geometry of the bike is important.

    some bikes tend to self-steer with stronger force than others, for example ‘modern’ mtb-bikes. this shows itself wintertime under two specific and common conditions: one if you try to bike in semi-packed snow not quite able to bear the weigth of the front tire, two if you try to keep the bike on a packed single track with sloping sides.

    under these circumstances such bikes tend to undulate left and right soon causing a stop or a crash. hopeless and dangerous. i think its could be a related occurance to what happens with shimmy on a race bike.

  15. Allen Potter says:

    Having already broken a collarbone due to an ice-crash, I am now cautious: studded tires reign when there is any chance of snow/ice. Snow is fun most of the time, even with normal road tires. But as it melts, then re-freezes, the patches of ice are just too risky for me. Nokians (their motto: “Deserve Them”) are brutally slow on dry pavement, and 5 days after a storm here in Denver, that’s 90% of the commute. But that other 10% demands the security of studs. They just never slip, and I can commute safely.

    • John McNamara says:

      Basically, I’ve kept my studded tires on all winter since buying my 1st set in 2006. But I’ve lost some confidence in them as I find they sometimes feel ‘greasy’ during cornering on dry roads, even when riding slow & with caution. Then the tires can feel disconnected from the road, its a strange and disconcerting sensation, and I have lost traction – again, this is on dry roads. I wonder if the inflexible sidewalls have something to do with this and its not just the studs…?

  16. Peter Chesworth says:

    Your occassional reference to lovely Italian and French cars – from 2CV to Delta S4, is much appreciated and demonstrates fine taste and insight 🚴🏽 Happy new year from a scorching Oz summer.

  17. Joe Kendrick says:

    I live in Minneapolis and bike commute through the winter. Until 5 years ago, I used knobbies in winter and fell about 3 times per winter. I’m talking here about the bicycle suddenly disappearing out from under, followed by sliding like a hockey puck. At my doctor’s suggestion, I put a single carbide studded tire on the front and have not gone down once since. In this climate, in this area, if you are not going to use studs, you will either stay off the bike during icy weather, waiting for paths to become dry or you will accept falling.

  18. Phil says:

    I’ve been commuting in Montreal for the past twenty year. We have very cold winters here (-30 C) with a lot of mix conditions. I try to go out every day no matter the conditions and I do share the dislikes for studded tires, there friction is just to much. Over the years I found that marathon winter top contact 2 offer the best compromise. Their lizard skin design is very grippy even on ice surfaces and their casing are surprisingly supple. They are handmade in Germany and they offer a good puncture resistance. They show qualities that you explain well in your blog. Did you ever try them?

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