Winter Tyres

One advantage of riding a sturdy ‘touring’ bike in the winter months is that I do not have to worry about the condition of my wheels and tyres every time I ride in foul conditions.  When I rode a skinny-tyred [23mm!] roadie bike the jarring, juddering and constant fear of losing grip made rides a harrowing experience at this time of year, although that didn’t stop me riding through ice and snow when I got a bad attack of cabin fever!  Now, however, I have 26 inch wheels, capable of managing tyres up to two inches wide.  Comfort and security is mine!  But this happy state of affairs brings with it certain dilemmas in the tyre department, as we shall discuss.

The Legacy of Buying a Second Hand Bike: Panaracer Tourguard

My bike, when I bought it, came with a pair of ‘standard fit’ Panaracer Pasela Tourguards.  As the name would suggest, these are touring tyres and have a tread pattern that sits between slick and all-out tread.  Thorn fit the

Tourguard as a standard tyre on their bikes, and they have a good reputation for reliability.  However, mine were 1.75″ width – veritable balloons in comparison to the sleek 28mm width I was used to on the Audax bike.  Pedalling effort was slow and tortuous, and I ditched the tyres [they were 4 years old and showing signs of perishing] for a narrower pair of the same brand.  At 1.25″ wide, the new tyres were much faster, offering lower rolling resistance.  But the ongoing problem I then had related not to the tyres themselves but to the wheel rims.  These, Mavic EX721‘s if you’re interested, were full-on touring rims capable of handling pot holed Indian roads with a fully laden bike.  But they were also designed for low pressure, fat tyres – and when I consulted Robin Thorn about the wheel/tyre combination, he warned me that my new skinny tyres were, shall we say, somewhat unsuitable for the rims.

Shamed, and slightly worried about warnings that the narrow tyres could theoretically slip off the rims, I trudged off and began a search for suitable rubber.  My problem was that whatever I chose, I wanted maximum tyre pressure [I was used to riding on 100+ psi], but the EX721’s were rated at about 70 psi maximum – and I was advised that a minimum of 1.5″ width was the best I would get away with.

Hobson’s Choice: Panaracer Crosstown

Next, I moved to a pair of Panaracer Crosstown tyres, 1.5″ wide, which seemed to offer a beefy build, a deep tread and decent puncture protection.  They were not light in weight, and could again only handle about 70 psi, but they got me through the autumn.  Until, as I reported late last year, I swapped rims at the front of the bike as part of my dynamo hub installation.  This gave me a Mavic XC317 rim rated at over 100 psi.  Shortly afterwards, I swapped the rear rim for a Mavic XC717, good for the same pressure.  I was free of the low pressure problem at last!

A brave new world: Schwalbe Marathon Plus

Now able to choose the kind of tyres I really wanted, I sold off the Crosstowns and the old rims.  I bought a pair of Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres off eBay for £40 a pair – these being the ‘ultimate’ puncture-proof tyre in popular folklore.  I bought 1.35″ – the narrowest you can get for a 26″ wheel.  Having fitted them, which was not as hard as I had been told, they pumped up to 95 psi and they offer a reasonable low rolling resistance combined with utter surefooted-ness in the wet and mud.  Now if you read the cycling forums, M+ seem to polarise opinion.  People say that:

  • They are too heavy for normal use.
  • They are like riding through treacle.
  • They are almost impossible to put on and take off a rim [Spa Cycles even have a video telling you how to persuade an M+ on to a rim!]
  • They are unbreakable.
  • They are the best compromise for real-world winter riding.

Having ridden them in the last week, when the conditions underfoot were wet, muddy and with the mid-winter broken and pot-holed roads in evidence, my feeling is that if you are prepared to put up with their weight [and yes, they are heavy], then they offer a feeling of complete confidence.  Even at 1/35″ wide, your bike feels sure-footed and comfortable.  When you approach bad road conditions at speed, there is none of that nervousness you get with skinny tyres: you can aim them through the obstacle and carry on.  I like their tread pattern – and the puncture – proof belt gives them a rounded profile on the road, making them roll nicely.  You really can stick drawing pins into these tyres without causing a puncture.

Summer and skinny: Continental Gatorskins

I also have a pair of super-skinny 1.12″ wide Continental Gatorskins, a tyre which I used on my Audax bike.  Last week I put these on for a 30 – mile ride, and found the speed exciting – they are a quick, semi-slick tyre, which Continental claim are truly four-season.  I’m not so sure about that claim.  Gatorskins at that width are a great summer tyre which weigh in at literally half the weight of the M+, and they are genuinely good at resisting punctures.  But you cannot alter the laws of physics, and if you hit a pothole with a slim, hard tyre, your rim [and also the tyre] are going to suffer damage.  The knife-sharp handling they inspire can induce a sense of vulnerability on bad roads, and I sometimes worry about catching them in those lateral cracks in the side of the tarmac where subsidence has occurred.

For real world riding at this time of year, my money is on the Marathon Plus as the benchmark.  As with all things bike, there is a trade-off between ultimate lightness and durability.  You are thundering along surfaces which are wet, periodically muddy, with the risk of ice patches and unexpected pot holes and strewn gravel.  If you want to ensure grip, then the combination of low-ish rolling resistance and predictability wins every time for me.  Roll on May, when the summer rubber can be rolled out!!


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