Cyclists have two tiny points of contact with the road. Their safety depends on how well they are able to grip the road. Bike commuters who live in cold winter climates face an important safety question each year: what type of winter tires to run for bike commuting? Since safety should be our number one priority it’s an important question to answer. Let’s consider when studded tires are the preferred option and what you should be aware of when picking one.
Studded tires provide superior grip on icy roads compared to studless tires. They are excellent for commuting in places where temperatures drop below the freezing point for several months each year. Studded and studless tires have advantages and disadvantages, and whether you should choose one or the other comes down to the climate and weather conditions you will be riding in.
Studless winter tires offer good traction on slippery wet roads and they are also quite good on packed snow, so they are perfect in mild winter climates.
What is a studded tire?
Studded tires are winter tires with small steel or carbide studs on the knobbles to provide grip on ice. They provide sufficient traction that won’t slip even if you go on a sheet of ice if you go carefully. It’s not like riding dry asphalt with grippy tires. You still need to be mindful not to change direction suddenly, and you should expect longer braking distances than usual. They are far superior on ice than other tires, including studless winter tires.
You can enjoy the benefits of studded tires only when the studs come in direct contact with ice. They don’t have a grip if the sheet of ice is covered in powder snow, and they’re not grippier than normal winter tires on packed fresh snow.
It’s important to note that there are some significant differences among studded tires and their intended use. Some are knobbly some are slick. The knobbly ones are for single-track or off-road use. They provide the most traction at the expense of being very heavy. They’re not practical for most commuters. Slick studded tires are better suited for riding on icy paved roads or commuting because of their lighter weight and lower rolling resistance. You need to find one that strikes the right balance between safety and comfort.
When to use studded tires?
Studded tires are best for commuters who live in long-lasting cold winter climates with lots of ice. They can be left on the bike for several months out of the year and can be used on dry paved roads too. They are a good safety net for unpredictable winter conditions, where roads can turn slippery and covered with black ice overnight.
Studded tires can be used on various surfaces, including dry pavement, although the material used for studs is important if you use them on paved roads. Steel studs wear out quickly and lose their effectiveness. Carbide studs last much longer than steel ones. Nokian and Schwalbe tires produced since the early 2000s all use carbide studs.
The effectiveness of studded tires can be felt, especially on sheets of ice and icy patches, since the studs have a grip that no rubber tire can provide, no matter how knobbly it is. They give you the confidence that you can control the bike in dire winter weather.
Here’s an excellent real-life comparison from Saukki. If anyone is qualified to give them a fair comparison, it is a Finnish man with snow readily available six months each year.
How long do studded tires last?
A good set of studded tires can last several seasons and several thousand miles. Commuters often mount them on their wheels in November and leave them on until March, meaning they run them half of the winter season.
It’s possible to change tires depending on the weather, although it is impractical. Since they are quite noisy on the road, if your budget allows, you may want to keep two sets of wheels, one with studless and another with studded tires, and change them depending on the weather.
Studded tire characteristics
Studded tires are quite heavy because the studs add weight, and they are quite robust. They typically weigh between 1.5 and 3 lbs (about 0.75-1.5kg) each.
They run at lower pressures than most tires. The recommended pressure varies from tire to tire, but each type has a recommended pressure range of typically 20-60 PSI (1.5-4 bars). The lower the tire pressure, the more studs are in contact with the ground, giving you a stronger grip. Remember that tires running at lower pressures may look like they’re deflated even when perfectly safe to ride. It is recommended to check the tire pressure regularly to ensure you’re not stranded somewhere on a freezing roadside.
The studs on the tire damage don’t damage the inner tube since they don’t come in contact with each other. The outer part of the stud is spikey, but the inner part is flat, well embedded in the tire, and therefore separated from the inner tubes.
If you decide to put studded tires on your bike, you will need inner tubes too. There are no tubeless studded tires.
Their weight and lower pressure translate into a higher rolling resistance than other tires, which means that you need to pedal harder to go at the same speed or pedal at the same effort level and go slower.
Different tires come with different amounts of studs. They usually range between 100 and 400 per tire. The more studs a tire has, the more grip it can provide, but at the same time, the heavier it is. With use, some of the studs may start falling out. If it’s only a few, there’s nothing to worry about. Once you lose a dozen or more, it’s a sign that you should think of getting new ones.
Studded tire sizes
When it comes to sizing, studded tires don’t fit all wheel types and sizes. They are only available in 20”, 26” and 27.5”, 650b, and 28” diameters. You need to pay attention to tire clearance, since the narrowest studded tires are 32mm wide. Their width makes them impossible to mount on most road bikes, but they fit most hybrid, gravel and cyclocross bikes with 28-inch wheels.
Mounting and getting started
When you buy a new set of studded tires, you need to run them in by riding them on paved roads for about 25 miles (40 km) without sudden acceleration or braking first.
At first, you will be surprised at just how loud studded tires are on the asphalt. They sound similar to popcorn popping or bacon frying in a pan.
For best grip, you should install studded tires at the front and rear as well. If you can afford only one tire, you should install it at the front. It will improve the steering of your bike, but you will still struggle to climb hills covered in ice, because your rear tires will have no sufficient grip on the road.
Studded tires are typically more expensive than normal tires and range between 50 – 200 dollars, but they are a good investment if you want to commute in maximum safety. The SCHWALBE Marathon Winter HS 396 Studded Road Bike Tire (available on Amazon) is a solid studded tire for bike commuting, and it can be purchased for less than 100 dollars.
Pros of studded tires for commuters
- Good grip on icy roads
- Can be left on for the whole winter season
- Can run at lower pressures for better grip
Cons of studded tires for commuters
- Higher rolling resistance (although it’s on par with other winter tires)
- More costly than other tires
- Louder than normal tires
Maybe you live in a region with mild winters and you don’t have too much snow and ice, but you get a lot of rain and cold weather instead. In this case, you would not be able to enjoy the benefits provided by studded tires. Or maybe you own a road bike which doesn’t have enough clearance even for the narrowest studded tire.
In this case, there are some alternatives: some are dedicated winter tires, others can be used all year round.
I’ve had good experience with the inexpensive, but durable Continental Ride Tour tire all year round for over a season and over 3000 miles. I’ve had no punctures even when I didn’t have the tire inflated to the correct pressure and they offer good grip in all weather conditions, even on icy snow in winter. The threads show no signs of wear. I think that the sidewalls will be the first to wear out, especially if I fail to check the pressure regularly. You can check prices and availability on Amazon here.
Best all-weather tire for road bikes
The Continental Grand Prix 4 Season has great grip on wet slippery roads as well as on dry asphalt, and it’s a very light yet durable option. It offers plenty of grip and solid puncture protection. It is a solid all-weather option for road bikes too, as they range from 23 to 32 mm. They aren’t cheap, but those who have bought it are delighted with the purchase especially because of its light weight. It can be found on Amazon here.
Best all-weather tire for hybrid bikes
The Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires have been a go-to recommendation for bike commuting. They are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to commuter bike tires. They are on the expensive end of the spectrum, but they are very durable and perform well in most weather conditions. You can view prices and shipping on Amazon here.
Studded tires are a reliable companion of winter commuters on slippery icy roads and they are a worthwhile investment into commuting in safety if you have long and below freezing point winters.
During the cold winter months, when the nights are longer, you should pay special attention to staying safe. This other article answers whether it’s safe to bike at night, and what you can do to enhance your safety when you’re on your bike in the dark hours.