Two-wheeled winter: CBC producer finds the right tires for winter cycling

It's Radio Active producer Isabelle Gallant's first winter commuting by bike. Every two weeks, she'll be sharing some of her adventures and lessons learned along the way.

Lesson 2: how to choose the right tires for winter

winter bike tires doing their dirty work

7 years ago
Duration 0:36
Video Producer Rick Bremness straps a go pro to a bike frame to get a closer look at how studded tires fare in winter cycling conditions.

WATCH THIS: Video producer Rick Bremness straps a go pro to a bike frame to get a closer look at how a studded tires fare in winter cycling conditions. See video below for a look at how a fat bike compares. 

When I decided to enter the world of winter biking, it came down to having a set of winter tires to give me the push I needed to get started.
Every other week, intrepid Radio Active producer Isabelle Gallant shares lessons learned through winter cycling. (Isabelle Gallant/CBC)

In October, I was contemplating biking year-round for the first time, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to shell out for studded tires.

Then my friend Jordan (my personal cycling guru) told me he had an extra pair he could loan me.

Problem solved: winter biking challenge accepted.

There are really two kinds of bikes tooling around Edmonton this time of year. The regular kind — often fitted with studded tires — and fat bikes.

The virtues of fat

Fat bikes, the other winter cycling option

7 years ago
Duration 1:38
Ben Fedoruk, general manager at Revolution Cycle in Edmonton, says a fat bike standard tire does really well in winter. "The way they are constructed, they flex a lot.” Watch as Fedoruk takes to city trails on his fat bike.

In 2014, the popularity of fat bikes shot up, but before that they were definitely a fringe product. Now most cycle shops around town sell them, and several shops rent them too.

Molly MacDougall bought her fat bike just a few months ago and she's now a serious convert.

"It's so much fun," she told me, "I kind of want to sing the A&W bear song when I'm on it sometimes, you're just floating over stuff and bouncing."

Instead of using her fat bike to commute to and from work, McDougall rides it on river valley trails, where the larger tires are a major asset.

"I mountain bike in summer, and it's good way to continue it through the season," she said. "When you're riding a small-tire bike on the single-track trails in the winter, you're on a path. And if you fall off that path, you're into a snowbank. Whereas with the fat tires, if you fall off the path, you have a little recovery time and you can get back up there."

Now that she has a fat bike, McDougall rides trails in the river valley three or four times a week.
Cyclist Molly MacDougall uses her fat bike to navigate Edmonton trails during the winter. (Isabelle Gallant/CBC)

"Winter doesn't seem so sad and depressing," she said. "When it rained last week the trails were icy and I couldn't run and I couldn't ride safely, so I was on the treadmill at the gym and I was like, "This is the worst ever.'"

Fat bikes are ideal for riding in new, fluffy snow. They don't get as much grip on ice as studded tires. So Molly uses a studded fat tire on the front wheel and a tire with extra grips on the back one. But she's still taken a tumble or two over the winter.

Nothing to fear

"Last year, strictly commuting, I think I fell twice," McDougall said. "And one was on that day when we had that freakish ice storm, and it was just sheer ice, and both times I was using studded tires and I braked and lost it." 

Each time she said it was a slow-motion fall — more funny than painful. 

Many people who don't cycle in winter might be worried about falling on ice or snow, but, in fact, as another fat bike rider told me, falling off your bike in summer, spring, or fall is usually worse.

You tend to be going faster in clearer conditions so you can fall harder, and you can hit gravel or get road rash

In the winter, when you hit the snow it cushions your fall. And on ice you will likely slide, and because you're wearing extra layers it tends to hurt less.

Me and my stud

I usually take my daughter to day care on the back of my bike. When I first decided to bike all winter, I wasn't sure if it would still be safe to ride with her.

But the studded tires have proven solid in virtually all weather, and now she sits in her little seat behind me almost every morning. On days when I know the roads are especially icy, or there's fresh snow, we've opted to walk instead.

Overall, I'm very happy with my studded — and free — tires. They perform great on packed snow and generally keep me stable on ice as well. The tires don't do so well on the loose, brown snow that you find left on the streets a few days after a snowfall. But usually I can avoid that.

To be fair, I've never tried riding a fat bike and I've also never ridden on river valley trails, but I understand the appeal of fat bikes for trail-riding and they seem like a lot of fun to ride. 

But for getting from point A to point B all winter long, studded tires are the way to go for me, even if I don't hear uplifting fast food jingles playing in my head while I ride.

​Isabelle Gallant is a chase producer with Radio Active. When she's not tracking down stories or teaching herself how to stay on her bike in all kinds of weather, she can be found playing with her three-year-old daughter or trying out new cookie recipes.

Every two weeks, Isabelle will share some of her winter cycling adventures and lessons learned along the way.