Saturday, January 2, 2010

Studded Tire Technique

After my recent fall-down-go-boom post, frequent commenter and pal Steve K. asked me (off-blog, mercifully) how one can be spastic enough to fall down on snow and ice while riding studded tires. I'm paraphrasing (Steve's too nice to call my spastic), but that was the gist.

As always, Steve makes a good point. Studded tires are supposed to prevent exactly what I went through. As I pondered this, it seemed like an opportunity to be (brace yourself) educational. See, studded tires -- wonderful though they may be -- are not a cure-all for winter's woes. With bad technique and/or a truly awful combination of slippery substances, it's easy to overcome the benefits of studs and find yourself making the world's ugliest snow angel.

One amazing studded-tire trick is to use a fixed gear. I'm not usually one who spouts that whole "Zen connectedness" cliche, but the ability to directly control the rotation of your rear wheel is a real boon on snow and ice. If you're skidding, you know it. And if you need to control your speed on something sketchy, you can. Still, I've gone back to derailleurs this winter (can't risk a high-value fixed in this slop) and still (usually) manage to stay shiny-side-up. It's just like driving in winter -- figure out how fast you can stop, and don't go any faster than that.

The key to studded tires is weight distribution. Studs only work if they have enough of your weight on them to bite into the ice. In the case of my crash, I had just started out. I didn't have weight on the saddle for that first turn of the pedals, so the rear tire didn't bite. The torque from my massive thighs (one's bionic, remember) spun out the rear, which went sideways, and down I went. The fix is to get your butt down before you put any power to the drivetrain, planting the studs solidly before you try to move forward.

The same rule applies to the front, too. The effectiveness of braking and steering on those front studs relies on having some weight over the wheel. Not enough weight up there will let the tire skate -- or it won't press down through the snow to find the ice underneath. The result? Abject terror and a visit to a roadside drift.

The other joy of winter is the rut -- and I'm not talking about the one you get in watching old Tour tapes from the indoor trainer. If you find yourself down in an icy tire-track, you might as well keep following it to wherever that car went. Pretend you're hunting it like wild game if that helps. Try to steer out and you'll probably find yourself imitating roadkill unless you have the rare "extreme" studded tire with lots of sideways studs specifically designed for grabbing this sort of thing. Better to stop, lift out, and go your merry way. Discretion over dental work.

The intersection is your enemy during snowy commutes, too. On an uninterrupted road, you can take advantage of ruts to build up some good high-traction straight-line speed. The catch is, if you encounter a place where traffic has been traveling at 90 degrees to your express route, you're going to find perpendicular ruts and snow piles that will make things go all wonky. At best, they'll be small heaps of that dirty, squishy stuff that looks and feels (but doesn't taste, unfortunately) like brown sugar. Follow the weight distribution rule and you can pretty much hammer through, though the front wheel may give a spooky wiggle. Worst case, you may find that the crossroad was deemed "more important" by the guy with the plow, and a nice drift will be waiting at the point where he dumped snow on your road in deference to his. Best to let up a little at intersections and be prepared for the worst.

My thermometer is reading double-digits below zero (in Farenheit) right now, so I'm not going out to re-test these techniques any time soon. But, for those of you having a snowy-but-tolerable day, I hope this helps you keep the studded rubber down. Dress warm, stop for a hot cup of joe whenever you can't feel an appendage, and be careful out there.


Steve Fuller said...

Air pressure can be important too, depending on the amount of studs you have on the tire. Too high and you might not have maximized your carbide to ice interface. One more reason that combination of fat tires with studs would be better this time of year (IMHO)

Anonymous said...

Nice to know that I have an influence over "mainstream media". ;-)

I might buy the argument about weighting the studded tires in order for them to be effective. However... I thought that you were gifted in applying weight to tires?

Well, I can hardly criticize your technique. I've never ridden on studs, and it has only been a few weeks since I went down (twice) on wet ice on a ride.

I might critique your use of the term "ice ruts". I think I'd call them "ice ridges". The dang things hide under the fresh snow, waiting for a chance to knock your wheels out from under you. Very annoying, and dangerous if cars are nearby.

This is definitely the tough part of the year. I've mostly abandoned my many bikes in favor of the XC skis. A very enjoyable change of pace, other than requiring the use of a car to get to the parks where I ski.

from chilly Peoria, IL
Steve K.
(so does this mean you aren't buying a tadpole 'bent trike?)