By Richard McGuire
Most years, the first snowfall has signaled it’s time to put my bicycle away for the winter.
But last summer I bought my first electric bike, and I was having too much fun to put it away when we got an early snowfall on October 23. Besides, my sister in Halifax, who commutes by bicycle through the winter, encouraged me to keep going. Just watch for ice, she warned.
So although I’m an experienced cyclist, I’m a newbie when it comes to winter cycling. I hope that you can learn from my mistakes and falls.
- Watch video on YouTube:
My e-bike is a Rad Power RadMini with four-inch-wide fat tires. The fat tires are good on snow, but their 20-inch diameter limits their ability to ride in snow deeper than a few inches.
The South Okanagan of British Columbia, where I live, has mild winters by Canadian standards, and its semi-desert climate means there’s often no snow, or the snow isn’t very deep. But with a short drive, you can be at a higher elevation and real winter conditions.
In early November, I took a ride on a portion of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail that begins a long climb from Beaverdell and Carmi to cross the mountains to Penticton. I was still just using the Kenda/Rad stock tires that came with the bike.
The rise was gradual, but with the elevation gain, the gravel surface was increasingly covered with patches of re-frozen snow. Suddenly, my front wheel hit a patch of ice and before I knew it, I’d fallen to the ground, getting scrapes and bruises.
I realized that the stock tires would be useless on ice and I explored options to make my rides safe.
Most people recommended studded tires, but I couldn’t find any pre-studded tires in my size. They are, however, more widely available for the larger 26-inch fat tires.
A bike store in Calgary sold me a couple of knobby tires in my size and told me it is possible to add studs. They recommended the #1000 tire studs from Grip Studs, which you screw in from the outside. The problem is you need about 100 to 150 studs per tire, depending on tire size, and that costs hundreds of dollars.
I watched videos about how to use regular screws as studs, installing them from the inside, but I decided it wasn’t worth risking ruining the new knobby tires.
Another option recommended to me was a set of chains from SlipNot Bicycle Traction System based in Colorado. Their chains for 20-inch fat tires sell for $115 USD for a set — much cheaper than studs.
Their packaging makes the claim that, “SlipNot outperforms studded tires without the extra hassle or expense.” That sounded good and I ordered a set.
The advantage of chains, of course, is that you can easily take them off to ride on pavement and put them on only when you need them. They take just a few minutes to install. But are the performance claims true?
Over the next couple of months, I tried riding in different winter conditions both with the stock tires and with knobby tires fitted with the SlipNot chains.
I found that the stock tires could handle cycling in packing snow up to about three inches deep. Packing snow is snow at about 0°C (32°F) that sticks together but has not melted into slush. The tire just compresses the snow and even the shallow treads are able to grip it.
The stock tires can also deal with a light dusting of powder snow.
Where they fall down, however, is in other conditions such as slush, refrozen snow, mud, and deeper snow. In these conditions, the knobby tires, Specialized Ground Control Sport Tires, performed significantly better.
But what about ice? For this, the knobby tires were not enough and so I tested the chains.
I ran into difficulties on my first ride with the chains, partly because I didn’t yet have the knobby tires and so was using the stock tires.
The biggest problem was that my chains were too loose because I should have removed all eight sizing spacers — not just four. The back chain came undone and tangled in the bicycle’s chain — my fault for improperly installing them.
When the chains were installed properly and used with the knobby tires, they performed well on refrozen snow, including where it had turned to ice on snow. Sometimes though, I did take a minor slip, but not a fall, when the side of the tire struck a small icy ridge.
For my final test, I tried cycling on a frozen lake with the knobby tires and SlipNot chains. I took it very slowly and began with just a light twist of the throttle, and my legs trailing on the ice for more stability.
When I pedaled, the chains provided sufficient traction on flat ice. But the side of my front tire came up against the side of a small icy ridge and I fell onto the ice.
The experience convinced me that for extreme ice, you need more than just the knobby tires and chains. I have not yet tried studs, but videos by others suggest to me that they provide better traction than chains on an uneven ice surface like a frozen lake.
I will continue cycling this winter using the knobby tires and chains, but I now better understand their limitations. If I decide to add studs, I will again test them on a frozen lake, risking a fall, all in the interest of knowledge. And I will share the experience in another video.
Watch video on Vimeo: