Invest in a set of top-quality winter-specific tyres and they’ll carry you safely and pneumatically through to summer without wearing out your expensive summer treads.
Winter roads place very different stresses on your tyres. In summer, we want lightweight, fast-rolling rubber to allow us to cover the ground as efficiently as possible — making the most of our opportunities in the sun.
Sadly, in this northerly isle, warm days with the sun on your back are a rare thing in winter. Years of neglect and a season’s worth of frost damage leave the roads in a terrible state. Add to this the carpet of windswept twigs, leaves and detritus that covers the road less travelled and the mud and flints that get washed onto the road after winter storms and you can see that a winter tyre has a lot more to cope with than its summer relative.
The other side to the winter tyre is its effect on your friendship with your riding mates. No one likes a puncture in summer but in winter — no thank you. Standing by the side of the road for 10 minutes, rapidly cooling off, while someone with cold fingers fights with their tyre levers?
No, too many puncture stops because you have inappropriate or worn tyres will not make you popular on the group ride. If you ride alone, you’ll just end up hating yourself. We have a three-a-week rule. If you have more than three punctures in a week, it’s definitely time to change your rubber.
As absolute performance is not the primary goal in winter, you can afford to choose your winter rubber based on your priorities. Do you favour grip on wet roads? Is puncture resistance the most important? Would you rather have a comfortable tyre? We’d like all three but in truth, your choice will inevitably be a compromise on one of these. We pulled together seven of our favourite winter tyres to help you make the right decision.
What to look for
Ultimately, grip is a combination of a few things on a bicycle tyre. Rubber compound has the greatest effect on how much traction your tyre will offer. A large flat-surfaced car tyre needs tread to remove water from the contact surface but the shape of a bicycle tyre and the small contact patch mean it is the rubber compound that has more effect on traction.
Tread pattern is still important: dirty roads especially can unstick even the grippiest of tyres so some tread or profiling will allow the rubber to push past the dirty film or squeeze it away. Great rubber with no tread will be a lot more effective than a poor compound and deep tread. Chances are the chunky tread will also reduce the tyre’s rolling efficiency too.
While we don’t exactly want punctures in summer, we detest them and the enforced, cold break they produce in winter. Many summer tyres will have a thin breaker belt of some description between the vulcanised rubber and the carcass of the tyre. Winter tyres will almost certainly have a much thicker, tougher or larger version.
They will also have reinforced sidewalls. This should prevent large stones and potholes damaging the tyre. All these things will reduce the likelihood of the dreaded hiss, but will be detrimental to the ride of the tyre.
As puncture resistance increases, so does rolling resistance. As you stiffen the tyre with rubber on sidewalls and toughened carcasses, it is less able to deform as it passes over deformations in the road, slowing you down slightly.
One way around the increased rolling resistance dilemma is to increase width. The larger carcass can be run at slightly (maybe 5-10 psi for a fatter 25c tyre) lower pressures to allow more deflection, without running the risk of impact damage or punctures. Wider tyres also have a larger air volume, increasing comfort.
Finally, the larger dimensions of the tyre offer a bigger contact patch, potentially giving more grip. There are downsides: bigger tyres weigh more and there will also be a limit to how big a tyre can get before it no longer fits on your bike. Most bikes come with a 23c tyre as standard, and a 25c winter tyre should fit fine — much bigger than this, though, and you could run into clearance issues.
Our 7 of the best
Size tested: 700×25
With triple-ply Polyamide sidewalls, a wide breaker belt extending to the shoulder of the tyre, a thicker rubber tread and Duraskin mesh in the sidewalls, the Hardshell is a belt and braces tyre. The extra layers and thicker tread do affect the rolling resistance and feel of the tyre but not as much as we feared. Grip is as good as anything on test and, compared to many such tough tyres, they are pretty easy to fit. As an all-round winter tyre, they are a great compromise between protection and ride quality.
9 TEST WINNER
The Intensive is designed as a high-performance training tyre. Therefore, long life and protection were key during design, making it perfect for this test. Thermoplastic reinforced compound should increase tread life (we aren’t sure about that) but we can vouch for the fact that it doesn’t reduce grip: these are among the best when it comes to traction. Toughened Hardskin sidewalls stiffen the ride a bit, but anyone after a very grippy, light and great value tyre should seriously consider the Hutchinson Intensive.
9 BEST ON A BUDGET
Size tested: 700×25
With 3D, checker flag-style protection, Panaracer has reinforced the Extreme Duro PT without adding much weight. The theme continues with the PT breaker belt under the tread. The Dual Rubber compound and All Contact tread shape are claimed to be ideal for rough roads. It’s comfortable and it rolls well, but the lack of visible tread pattern means it suffers on dirty roads. We did encounter wheelspin on steep, wet climbs, preventing us from trusting grip on the front wheel. It may be comfy and on the light side, but we weren’t enamoured with this Japanese rubber.
Size tested: 700×25
Schwalbe makes one of the most respected puncture-resistant touring tyres, the Marathon Plus. This Durano Plus is the road bike equivalent. A thick rubberised breaker under the tread repels pretty much every attack from puncture-causing villains. However, the trade-off is weight and ride quality. The Durano Plus has great traction with its good compound and simple tread, but the stiff ride and extra weight mean it is one for the seriously puncture-averse. They are also very difficult to fit first time round.
Size tested: 700×25
Specialized has chosen to combine the comfort of a 25c air volume with the tread width of a 23c tyre for speed. The result is a tall, narrow tyre with a tread that has a profiled, unsupported edge. There is no doubt that the larger tyre offers more comfort than expected from a tyre with a 23c width, and good puncture resistance, but it’s the tall carcass and rubber’s shape that have the most profound effect. When pushing hard, this unsupported edge squirmed alarmingly, leaving us with little comfort on the limits of traction.
Size tested: 700×23
The Fortezza Tricomp is a great racing tyre and the Quattro is a tougher version for all-year use. As you’d expect with such a base, it rolls very well and the grip is superb. Despite a slick central surface, we never had an issue with sliding on corners (front) or climbing (rear). Puncture resistance is increased over the standard tyre with a tougher belt, but it is not up with the other tough tyres in the test and the lack of any size options will also put some people off.
Size tested: 700×25
Rubino Pro tyres are often fitted as standard to bikes, but this Tech version has a much tougher Mithril sidewall protection. With puncture-resistant band (PRB) under the tread, attacks from the top are pretty well repelled too. We ended up with a large slice on ours that did penetrate the tread but not the breaker. The tread design may clear water and debris well, and so instil confidence, but on wet roads we were left wanting for traction. Fair weather riders will love the supple ride and low weight for the protection, but if you ride in the rain, there are better options.
For puncture resistance, there’s a clear winner: Schwalbe’s Durano Plus. But it isn’t that simple. The Durano Plus doesn’t ride as well as we’d like and the extra weight is something few are prepared to carry around. Vredestein’s Fortezza Quattro Tricomp will be perfect for those after a fast and grippy tyre, but the lack of a 25c version will put some off. Two tyres stood out. Hutchinson’s Intensive has great grip and is a dependably puncture-resistant ride companion, but it was on damp, mucky roads that it came into its own. Its stiffer ride prevents a perfect score, but the great value price is another nod in its favour. Continental’s Gator Hardshell, on the other hand, offers superb puncture resistance, great grip and a supple carcass. As we stated earlier, a good winter tyre is a compromise, and the Hardshell is our favourite combination.
This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Cycling Active magazine