Friday, January 14, 2011

Schwalbe Winter Tires

As a year-round cyclist living in an area with snow and frost, despite the cost, I decided to get studded winter tires.  The combination of a few things convinced me that it was worth the experiment:
  1. I caught a sale at a store that had both a 20" and 26" matching tire for the recumbent.
  2. A few positive experiences from friends gave me the opportunity to ask a few questions.
  3. I decided that an injury was far more expensive than a pair of tires.
Given that virtually all of my riding is on roads, my primary interest was dealing with icy conditions on plowed surfaces.  Consequently, I didn't need a particularly aggressive tread.  Vanity pushed me to get matching front and rear tires for the recumbent such that I settled on the Schwalbe Marathon Winter.  At this point, I have several days of riding and commuting during normal and "winter" conditions and have reached a few conclusions.

Let's consider winter weather first ...

We recently had a snow storm with mild amounts of snow -- approximately one to two inches by my unscientific observation -- but excellent conditions for ice formation.  The morning commute had noticeable snow accumulation mixed with slush and ice.  By the evening, there were long strips of relatively thick and hard ice on the multi-use paths (MUP).  The roads, however, were plowed and well treated for ice such that ice was spotty. 

Handling is much much much better on icy trails and roads.  The moderately aggressive tread -- for a city/road tire -- helps somewhat in the snow and slush.  If we assume that it is meant to be applied to the MUPs, Schwalbe's claim of "full control on icy roads", however, is a fantasy that would make Mr. Roarke proud.  During the evening commute, my typical speeds on the flats and downhills will be about 13 to 18 mph.  While on the MUPs, my velocity was roughly cut in half.  Any faster than that and I would get an occasional squirm that was a little unsettling.  Note that I could still pedal up the occasional steep climbs while leaving the Teddy Roosevelt parking lot heading towards Rosslyn.  Moreover, the tires gripped much better than walking while wearing these shoes.  A test walk at the top resulted in comedy that would have made Chevy Chase proud if I had actually fallen.  But the bicycle was very steady.  The tires, however, performed very well on the arterials and side streets.  While I am a little too chicken to ride at 100%, I have noticed no handling changes nor sliding while riding at 80 to 90%.  Mind you, I would slow down more while going downhill; but I am quite pleased with the road performance.    

Now normal conditions ...

The fastest way to describe the tires is that they behave a lot like a mountain bike tire with some moderate knobbies.  Personally, I typically use wide supple tires with little or no tread so the change in rolling resistance and handling is noticeable.  Relative to my typical tire, they are very heavy.  Schwalbe claims the 26x1.75" tire is about 1000 grams.  I believe it.  So while I have friends that do centuries -- or longer -- with the winter tires, they wouldn't be my first choice.  On the plus side, the tires do support a wide range of tire pressures.  During normal conditions I have been running them at 45/50 PSI in the front/rear.  So the ride is comfortable. 

My conclusion ...

In short, if you want to blast down the Mount Vernon Trail or similar, I think you need a more aggressive winter tire.  But it will allow you to ride the trails with much more confidence at a relaxed pace while performing at an acceptable level during normal conditions.  If you want to continue road riding with a much higher degree of confidence, these tires are an excellent choice. 

Important note regarding the tires ...

I had an opportunity to play with tire pressures a bit and ice, snow, and slush handling all improve with lower tire pressures.  As a cyclist that is floating between 190 and 200 pounds and typically rides with lower than average tire pressures -- a story for another post ... I think the average person rides with way too high tire pressure -- I still lowered the tire pressure another 10% or so for road use.  And for the local MUPs, I pushed it further towards 35 PSI in the front.


  1. Wow, I run 35psi on my car tires....

  2. My winter tires (also Schwalbe Marathon Winter) have been great, especially given that the Wilson Bridge was plowed but not salted. Three days after the snow fell the shady areas have a thin layer of snow and/or ice and the tires handle it very well. They even rode well on Wednesday (the day after the snow fell) before the trail was plowed.

    That being said, I do wish the trails in this town were cleared as quickly as the roads are. On Wednesday evening I took my townie bike (no snow tires) out to run an errand and had no trouble on the roads. Three days later I still need winter tires to get to work (there is no sensible on-road route from Alexandria to DC).

  3. @Mark ... The front tires are 20x1.6" or about 40-42mm wide. I would not ride particularly fast nor hard at 35 PSI. If you think my guage -- or my eyes for that matter -- is that accurate, the PSI was technically 36 PSI. I have ridden 50mm wide tires at 35 PSI in a normal fashion. But judging from an experiment at a local park, the low PSI does seem to help.

    @Jonathan ... Salt or similar treatment would make the Custis Trail much better for pedestrians and cyclists: Especially with the rolling hills.

  4. I understand that you are on a recumbant, but I have a really rudimentary question. For the average person with 2 bikes, would it make just as much sense to just ride the mountain bike until the snow melts?

  5. Funny, when I think of people even considering riding through the snow and ice, the term "average" never pops in my head. ;-)

    I think handling on ice is like night and day with the studded tires. The reason I referenced that little section leading out of Teddy Roosevelt into Rosslyn is that it ices up all the time and I've never made it up with normal tires. Even though the conditions for ice were very good, I made it up at a slow but steady pace.

    Is it worth it? If you are putting the miles on during the winter or want to commute on a regular basis, I think so. But in general, the cold weather keeps most people inside. Rain, snow, and/or ice probably keeps just about the remainder. I wanted matching tires. But there are a lot more options in 26" for the front and rear. Chances are you could do considerably better with regards to cost.

    I don't think riding a recumbent has much of an effect on the decision. In some ways is better suited for bad weather: One has a lot less distance to fall. The bike handles well and can fit fat tires on it too; I wouldn't be surprised if 60mm tires fit without fenders. With experience one learns how to shift one's weight around pretty effectively. While I suspect that it never becomes as natural as an upright, I think that the effect is relatively small. The effect of the tires is big.

  6. Thanks. Just to clarify, I am wondering how much better these tires on a road bike work than just grabbing the mountain bike. (Now, if you are on a recumbent bike, then switching to a mountain bike just for the tires is a huge change). My guess from what you say is that these tires would be better on ice than a mountain bike, but maybe about the same in snow, and some places maybe about the same because the wider footprint of the mountain bike tire. Presumably, these snow tires worsent the ride on the road bike when there is no snow so using mountain bike also means you are keeping the tires with less rolling resistance on (at least for those unwilling to change the tires more than once a season)


  7. I've ridden studded tires in winter for about 5 years now, and they are great. It's amazing how much of a difference they make in allowing you to stay upright and stay stuck to the pavement. And while they don't prevent the "bump-steer" issues of riding on bumpy frozen surfaces (think footprints or tire tracks frozen in the road or trail), they do give you better control in those situations simply by keeping the front wheel "stuck" to the surface.

  8. @Jim ... A bud of mine just picked up a set of Nokian somethings for his MTB. He might be breaking them in today. Anyway, I asked him to post something after he had some time to experiment.

  9. I bought studded tires for my mountain bike a few years ago. I was curious to see if they would help me in the snow and ice better than my regular mountain bike tires. Some think studded tires are "extreme". But I have found them to keep me upright 99% of the time (I did fall once, but that was due to a drop-off/angle on the bike path - but I was going uphill, so it was more funny than anything to fall). I feel confident with the studded tires - - it's like they're Velcro, as the studs bite into the ice/snow.

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  11. I think snow tires are very important and should be used a lot more. If not, use tires that have a great winter grip. It is important to have a car that is save a reliable during snowy weather. I decided to use the new Nokian Hakkapeliitta tires which are great because the special pocket-type sipes on the tire shoulder help remove water out of the road surface, creating a stable and sure grip during slipper conditions.