Walking my winter bike: fat tire vs skinnier
September 30, 2019 9:16 PM   Subscribe

How hard is it to push different types of bike/bike tire through snow?

I aim to be a first-time winter bike commuter this year, and I am in search of a winter bike. Based on the circumstances of my commute, arguments could be made for either a fat tire or a narrower (likely studded) tire. I understand that, while riding, a fat tire will in general float over snow, while a narrower tire can sink in and grip the road. What I am wondering is: what's it like to push either type of tire through snow, while walking the bike?

I live in a very hilly small city in Minnesota with roads that are in poor condition under the best circumstances and frequently not plowed until several inches of snow have accumulated. Thus, I am prepared to do a lot of pushing.... I don't expect to successfully bike every day, but some biking throughout winter would be better than no biking.

If narrower tires are recommended, what is a good width? I like the stability of wider ones, but I don't want too much drag in snow.

I am not a person with especially great upper body strength, if it matters.
posted by Comet Bug to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It is much easier to push or pedal a fat tire through snow of any depth; a skinnier tire sinks more. My all-purpose winter bike and the thing I recommend to everyone in my winter city (snow or ice guaranteed on all trails and sidewalks, and often roads November through mid-April) is a fat tire with studded tires, which can conquer all things. If you are buying a new fat tire, see if you can get the dealer to throw studs on there before you buy and charge you the difference in price; any kind of fat tire is expensive and the use case for fat tire with no studs is pretty limited. Do not buy a super cheap fat tire at Costco or Walmart- even the decent ones are heavy enough as it is.

If you will be riding mostly on very packed snow or ice, you can get away with a studded mountain bike tire. If you are riding in just an inch or maybe three at most of fresh snow on top of something harder (straight ice, cold pavement) that will still be fine. There is nothing (nothing) that will make you angrier than riding/churning in a foot of mashed potato snow with no bottom no matter the kind of bike you have, so it’s usually better not to ride in super deep fresh stuff until it has seen some traffic. A couple inches of fresh stuff on top of soft-packed snow is fine on a fat tire and will absolutely destroy your soul on a standard studded mountain bike tire.

Your upper body strength does not matter much imo. If the snow is not packed at least a little you should plan on much slower speeds than regular riding in any kind of fresh snow. You can get going pretty good on icy surfaces with studs, though, regardless of width of tire.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:41 PM on September 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I agree you want a fatter tire, with studs. I’m not so sure you need a special bike with a wide fork for an super fat tire. I’ve done plenty of snowy biking (and pushing) on a ‘regular’ fatter mountain bike tire (e.g. 2-2.4” wide). When you get up to very fat (e.g. 3.8”) it does add non-negligible weight to and cost to the bike.

If a special fat bike sounds fun and you can afford it, sure go for it. But if money is tight and you also value versatility, I’d buy a nicer used bike and put 2.4” studded tires on it and sell/upgrade next summer if necessary.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:10 AM on October 1, 2019

It has been my experience riding in Chicago that studded tires are better for ice than snow - depending on the kind of snow, it can just get packed around the tread and studs and render them pretty ineffective. Also, studded tires are insanely heavy, and I hated riding on them when there wasn't snow/ice, and hated swapping tires all the time (I only have one bike).

So I have evolved to the point where I just put cyclocross tires with a decent tread on for winter - I think 34mm? Maybe a little wider? - and am judicious about letting road conditions determine Go or No Go on any given day. Lots of fresh snow not yet plowed, actively falling snow that affects visibility, or melted snow that has frozen into solid ice tends to be a No Go. You may be surprised how many Go days you get, and I agree - some riding is better than hanging up the bike entirely for several months!
posted by misskaz at 7:00 AM on October 1, 2019

I have winter biked for eight years now in a very snowy city (Ottawa, Ontario) and have always ridden with skinny studded tires, which used to be the winter bike platonic ideal. However, in recent years as they became more available, many of my friends have switched to fat bikes and are very pleased with how they work versus their previous skinny tires, largely because of the aforementioned floating effect of the tires. Some friends who would just avoid riding on days where there were snowdumps are now just riding through them.

I have a very central commute where the roads are reliably cleared to the pavement all winter, so my bike with skinny tires works great for me, but for anything even slightly outside of that type of clearing I would say fat bikes, unequivocally, are the best for riding on snow. Snow packs unevenly so you want a wider tire that can handle that rather than being susceptible for every change in texture, which makes snow cycling much more difficult and in some cases impossible.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:44 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I go with not skinny, not mountain-bike-wide, and definitely not fat-tire-wide studded tires in winter. 35mm isn't bad in most conditions with decent studs, though I'm sure going with studded fat tires (and a whole new bike to fit them!) would probably be about as slip-proof as it gets.

Ice is a much bigger concern for me than snow. Harder to get a grip on it without studs, can hide under snow, packs down either unevenly (bad) or in flat glassy sheets (also bad), and hurts more to fall on than a nice pile of snow. (And if it helps, with the layers we wear in winter, uncomplicated falls are more likely to bruise our pride than our bodies.)
posted by asperity at 9:22 AM on October 1, 2019

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