While it’s hard to argue that riding in winter has the same allure as the sun-baked and dusty trails of summer, if you get the right winter tyres fitted to your bike it needn’t be full of slip-sliding heart-in-mouth moments. Here’s what you need to know to get the right set for you.
Updated October 2016
What should I look for in a winter tyre?
There’s a huge variety of winter tyres that cover the entire gamut, from models with steel spikes designed to grip in ice to narrow light weight items designed to cut through the mud of a cross-country course. What you need depends very much on how and where you ride, but we’ll cover the key features below.
Just as in summer tyres, having the correct rubber compound is crucial to performance. The compound dictates how hard the rubber is and it’s measured as a durometer. A very soft compound tyre would be around a 40a durometer and would give you masses of traction, even in very wet conditions. As rubber gets harder as it gets colder, a soft compound tyre will retain more grip even when it’s freezing outside.
The downside to a soft compound is that it creates much more drag and therefore rolling resistance. It will also wear much faster and the soft knobs will tend to move about more and can give a vague feeling to the handling on hardpacked trails. A harder compound doesn’t have these problems, but they can give very unpredictable handling in the wet and so are best avoided for winter use on the whole.
A good compromise is a multi-compound tyre that uses harder rubber in the centre to reduce rolling resistance and a softer one at the edges to give good cornering grip. The downside is that these tend to be more expensive than single compound tyres.
The most obvious feature of a winter specific tyre is the most visible; the tread. They tend to have much longer knobs in order to dig down and maximise grip in loose conditions.
Dedicated mud tyres tend to have the most aggressively long spikes, which are also widely spaced in order to prevent mud from sticking to the tyre and eventually jamming up your frame or fork with muck. They work really well in deep mud but the long knobs tend to bend about on harder surfaces, giving vague handling and increasing rolling resistance.
Some riders like to modify their mud spikes by trimming down the central knobs with clippers for faster rolling, but this is a time consuming business. If you tend to ride on trails that are a mixture of mud as well as roots and rocks, then a dedicated ‘intermediate’ tyre might be best. As the name suggests, these occupy the middle ground between a full mud spike and a conventional tyre. These still use widely spaced tread but tend to have less prominently spiky tread, especially in the centre. That means they still clear mud well and dig down to grip, but they have much more predictable handling on hard surfaces too.
Of course, if things have passed from mud to snow and ice, then a much more extreme kind of tyre is what you need. Studded tyres have metal pins embedded into the tread which provide a surprising amount of grip, even on sheet ice. Those studs mean that they don’t work very well on anything other than ice or hardpacked snow, so unless you live somewhere that has months of extremely cold weather they’re best avoided — as is letting body parts come into contact with them.
When it comes to tyres designed to work in wet and muddy conditions there are two schools of thought when it comes to tyre width. One is that using a relatively narrow tyre, around 1.8in wide or less, will dig down to harder terrain more easily, provide more mud clearance around the frame and also allow less mud to cling to the tyre itself. The downside to this is that a skinny tyre doesn’t ‘float’ on top of softer terrain and can have very sketchy handling when you move from mud to roots or rock, as well as being easier to structure.
If trail and enduro is more your thing, using a fatter tyre around 2.25-2.5” is likely to work better. That will provide more ‘float’ on top of mud and also offers more comfort and resistance to puncturing. Make sure that there’s enough clearance in your frame or you’ll end up getting clogged with mud and grinding to a halt.
Standard versus 'plus" tyres
While we're on the subject of width, there's a new option riders should consider when preparing their bikes for winter riding. Many of the latest crop of 29ers are also compatible with 27.5+ wheels and tyres.This opens up a new realm of possibilities for winter riding.
If your winter riding conditions are very muddy, you might be better served by the faster-rolling 29er wheels and tyres that will cut through the slop. On the other hand, if your trail turns slick but not too muddy, or if you frequently ride through snow but don't want to invest in a fat bike, 27.5x3in tyres will provide better float and traction.
The final piece of the puzzle to consider is the casing, also known as the carcass. This is the body of the tyre and provides its shape and volume. How thick the casing is depends on how many plies, or layers, were used to make it.
Using two plies is common in downhill tyres, which give a super durable but heavy casing. A single ply design, often used on more cross-country orientated tyres, is lighter but more puncture prone.
A good middle way is a tyre that uses a lightweight reinforcing layer to boost protection without hugely increasing weight, such the Maxxis EXO casing.