Tuesday, December 29, 2015

I knew it wouldn't be easy: starting to ride in the snow

If you read what Peter White has to say about studded tires, you might see why I picked the Schwalbe Marathon Winter tires (the 700x35mm version) for my commuter.  They are for people like me - commuters who might ride in the snow but are most worried about slipping on ice and maybe getting stuck in an icy rut.  I bought a set of these from Peter last month and mounted them soon after,  waiting for a chance to try these out.  My chance came this morning.  There was a ride out of Ride Studio Cafe (first snow of the winter, which happened at 3 AM today) which was too early for me.  In any case, I knew that I would be outclassed on my "dad bike", a Swobo 3 speed, and headed out around 5:30 AM.

Since I knew I would be riding in the dark and with snow falling, I mounted a few lights on the bike for the purpose, an older 600 lumen Nite Rider on a Paul Components Gino mount at the front hub and a generic battery powered flashlight/headlight on my handlebar.  I kept a Light and Motion Urban 350 in reserve (and for pictures, as it turned out).  For rear lighting, I had Portland Design Works Radbot and a generic red/blinky rear light.  (Both of the generics were handouts on a Bike to Work day in the last couple of years.)  The Marathon tires have reflective sidewalls and I had my usual assortment of reflectors on my person.

So how did it go?  It was fun, pure and simple!  I can't say that I was fully in control at all times, especially in the deeper snow (thanks to plows - although most streets that I rode were not yet plowed).  But I could move through the snow and felt that I was stable as long as I was moderate in my speed and direction changes (as Peter White preaches).  I could ride through snow as deep as 2 inches with not much difficulty, although riding in a complete straight line wasn't easy and at times even possible.  That kind of performance seems expected based on reviews and the advice on Peter's web page.   I rode on some trails and the bike did fine, as long as I was riding downhill or on the flats.  The bike had a lot of difficulty moving up snow covered hills.  I suspect that this has something to do with the gearing, it may have been easier on my Surly Cross Check with a 30/30 gearing.  My Swobo has the stock cranks and chainring and Shimano 3 speed IGH and that's usually good enough.  In fact, I had to walk a hill on snow covered dirt that I could pull my 40 pound son up on a trail-a-bike.  I also had to walk a couple of steep sections of paved road.

That said, I think the tires excelled in the kind of riding that I got them for: minimally plowed paved surfaces.  I could ride at a reasonably fast pace safely.  The bike path in Arlington was paved an hour or so before I first rode it (there was more snow on my return trip) and the going was safe.  If you know anything about me and commuting, you'll understand that safe is better than fast.  And these tires in these conditions are anything but fast.  It was fun to hit slightly deeper snow (2+ inches) in Lexington, where the path isn't plowed, but it was remarkably slow.  Having to get home to shovel out my wife's car (although changed plans later and worked from home), I was relieved to get back on the plowed Arlington bike path and made great time getting back home.

While the tires made riding possible for me, it wasn't easy.  At times I felt like I was riding moderate hills on the D2R2, except that I was on the gentle uphill grades on the paved bike path.  Surprisingly, they felt suddenly fast under the 3 bridges on the path that we still clear.  That contrast is telling for me: studded tires and riding in snow is not going to get you there faster, but it will be more fun than waiting for a bus or driving.

Should you try studded tires?  If you are a fair weather commuter like me, then you might want them if you plan to ride this winter.  I understand that some  experienced year round riders don't believe that studs are necessary.  But it was clear this morning that I would not have been out without studded tires.  And I certainly would be less than enthusiastic about riding the next few days with snow and icy patches on the edges of the roads I will be commuting on without studs.  They gave me some measure of confidence.  But I'm not entirely sure that I want to ride on the narrow streets of Cambridge, if we have anything like the snow that fell last winter.  I'll hold off on a decision until we get there. It's not that I don't think that the tires could help me control the bike, it's because there are a lot of cars that might be in less than complete control of their drivers.  Your mileage may vary.

Oh, and Ride Studio Cafe had a great idea of getting out early for the first snow of the year.

Tires tracks in the snow at the beginning of the unplowed Lexington section of the Minuteman bike path.  I hear it was the Ride Studio Cafe riders.  I was here around 6 so they were long gone by the time I arrived.  But I did see two cyclists following me back into Arlington, although left the path before they overtook me 

I tried some trails in Arlington Great Meadows.  They proved to be impassible  for me when traveling up a steep enough hill.  I passed through here on my road bike with 700x25mm tires last weekend.


  1. Saw you out there on trails this morning, well lit and still fresh 2 hours after you started! And had heard about your snow tire plan. So it's fun to see this post. I am tempted to get the same snow tires and will have to ask you if they are ok on regular pavement, too, if weather fluctuates, since I'm not good with taking wheels on and off.

    1. It was fun seeing you in the snow. I've tried the Marathon on dry pavement and they are slow. I couldn't imagine my full commute on these tires for days on end during a dry stretch this winter. But I could imagine using these tires for a daily commute to Alewife.

      An alternative to these tires is the 45NRTH Xerxes, reviewed here. It sounds like a great compromise tire - inflate to higher pressure for dry days and deflate for days when you might encounter ice. Let's meet for coffee in the next week or so. I'll have more to say about the Schwalbe tires then.