Fat vs. skinny: Picking the right winter tire

Photo by Vic Gedris.

A round-up of the best winter bike tires

Story by Jeff Carson

Overcoming the cold is one of the main challenges cyclists face in winter, but that mental fortitude can be all for naught if you can't stay upright on your bike.

The first line of defense against the snow and the slush and the ice is a good set of winter tires. But which tread is best? Studs or no studs? Fat or skinny? We talked to the fine folks at three of our favorite bike shops to get the goods on good winter tires.

Jill Allen of Sweet Pete’s

dandyhorse: What tires do you recommend for winter riding?

A: Tires can be a very personal preference. That said, good rubber in the winter is worth every penny. We carry a variety of brands that can serve the variety of cyclists that ride all year. Some riders feel more confident riding studded tires all winter long. Others like the benefits of a very puncture-resistant, sticky rubber tire. We tend to recommend the following as a good cross section of tires:

For studded tire enthusiasts you can get either the Schwalbe Marathon Winter (4 rows of studs) or the Schwalbe Winter Tires (2 rows of studs). You can get these tires in 26" or 700c in a variety of widths. Great for a commuter.

For a slicker, sticky rubber, puncture-resistant tire we recommend Continental Gator Skins in folding or wire bead, or, the Bontrager AW1 tires. Both come in a wire bead, helping to keep the cost down. They also come narrow enough to run on a road bike. The greatest thing about either of these tire options is that you can run them all year. They are smooth enough and relatively light compared to other winter-worthy tire options to keep on your summer ride.

One of our most durable winter tires of all time is the Schwalbe Marathon or Marathon Plus. These are tried-and-true tires, ideal for winter. They offer incredible durability and grip, with just enough tread. Or go with a classic winter tire, Schwalbe's Top Contact Winter.

Lastly, if you want a folding tire, thin, lightweight and grippy tire, The Continental Grand Prix 4 Season is a good way to go.

Do you prefer fat or skinny tires for winter riding?

Having tried both, I prefer skinny tires for winter riding. Wide tires tend to gather snow in their treads, which inevitably end up becoming slick, hard rocks as a result. The skinny tire will cut through the snow far better than its wider companion. By cutting through the snow faster, the tire will be able to grip the ground below sooner. I'm personally riding Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires sized at 700 x 25. Only on a select few days did I wish I had studs on my tires.

Martin Neale of Hoopdriver

dandyhorse: What tires do you recommend for winter riding?

A: On city streets, conditions vary so drastically over short periods of time (due to snowfall, plowing, temperature changes, etc.) and from street to street, that there isn’t one that’s ideal. It’s also dependent on the rider’s comfort and experience level. In general, I recommend the widest tire that will fit (allowing for some snow build up under fenders), at the lowest recommended pressure (increasing the size of the contact patch), and a tread pattern with a bit of bite for loose conditions. I don’t recommend studs for most people, but there are winter specific rubber compounds and treads, such as the Continental Contact Winter, available in 4 sizes. We stock 37-622 at $72 each and can order the others.

If you do want to try studs, which are expensive, consider just one on the front for positive steering: saves money and you can mount it on a separate wheel for easy weather-dependent swaps. Unlike regular tires, they should be run at higher pressure to push the studs out in icy conditions and softer otherwise so the studs depress a bit and wear less.

Do you prefer fat or skinny tires for winter riding?

Fat or skinny? Neither for city riding. Depending on the bike, I use tires between 28mm and about 37mm for urban riding year round. I’ve been winter riding for at least 25 years and don’t use winter specific tires, but I do let the pressure down to minimum if conditions are slippery (increasing the size of the contact patch). There’s also no shame in taking the occasional day off the bike!

Kathleen Banville of Urbane Cyclist Co-op

dandyhorse: What tires do you recommend for winter riding?

Honestly, it depends on the bike and the rider. Some bikes will only accommodate a skinny tire and mountain bikes require fat tires. The two main qualities I recommend is a light tread that will shed water and provide grip over uneven surfaces, and a high-quality rubber compound designed for wet/cold conditions. If someone has a road bike and can only run 700x23 [tires], then I would recommend the Continental grand prix 4 seasons, because they have a black chili compound which grips better in all weather. If they can take a 700x37, Continental makes a winter specific version of the Contact tire that comes in that size as well as 26".

Do you prefer fat or skinny tires for winter riding?

I use Continental Contacts in 700x28 for my rainy day/winter bike because I can't fit a wider tire and I find the grip and tread great, even over ice. I run the tread on my front tire backwards for extra traction.

Related on the dandyBLOG:

 Don't call it a spin class: Indoor cycling at Sweet Pete's

Cyclists bundle up for the Coldest Day of the Year Ride

Review of Frostbike: New book about winter cycling from Calgary

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