If you’re determined to keep riding throughout the winter, you’re going to need some extra help to deal with the change in conditions.
In this guide to winter tyres for road and mountain bikes, we assess some of the best examples on the market and explore the advantages winter-optimised compounds can deliver for your off-season rides.
Do I really need winter cycling tyres?
The tyre is the source of the bike’s grip, acceleration, cornering, and ultimately the cyclist’s control.
During winter, however, the duties of a tyre increase, with water, ice, and snow changing how the bike reacts and making formerly challenging conditions impossible.
It’s a difficulty shared by both mountain and road bike riders.
Winter rains tend to wash more debris onto roads, which means more glass, nails, and other sharp items all poised to give you a puncture.
Changing a tyre in the wind and sleet is no-one’s idea of a good time, which is why many winter tyres put puncture protection paramount among their priorities.
Mountain bike riders, meanwhile, can find ice-packed terrain that is impassable with a standard tyre. Trails become less predictable and the extremes of hard and soft terrain widen.
This is why many serious riders invest in an excellent winter tyre when conditions turn for the worse.
What’s different about winter tyres?
Mountain bike winter tyres have a different solution to the change in conditions compared to their winter road-going brothers (or sisters).
Given their task of traversing mud, rock, and gravel, winter mountain bike tyres tend to employ deeper, wider tread patterns, softer compounds, and even spikes or studs to provide grip on the ice.
To complicate matters, some winter mountain bike tyres are more resilient in the face of soft, deep clinging mud, while others are aimed at better navigating hard-packed surfaces.
The effect on performance can be huge, so it’s worth paying close attention to the kind of surface you anticipate spending most of your time on this winter.
Counterintuitively, most winter road tyres employ a slick surface, which actually provides the best grip on even wet tarmac. Their narrow profile cuts through shallow water (mud is less of an issue), removing the need for water-dispersing treads, allowing the smooth tread to still grip the road’s grooves and indents.
So, for winter road tyres, while the approach of maximising grip remains largely unchanged, the focus is more on puncture protection and using robust compounds to provide durability in testing conditions.
Winter MTB tyres – which is right for you?
As mentioned, the type of terrain you’re riding in should influence your choice of tyre but there is a variety of ways you can find the best match between your cycling style, the terrain, and the bike you’re using.
It’s important to note that buying tyres is always a compromise between speed and grip. More grip means more rolling resistance, and therefore more effort to generate speed.
There are, however, ways around this problem, such as the use of pronounced side lugs on the tyre to help cornering, while avoiding overkill on the tyre’s main contact point with the ground. Tightly spaced, shorter lugs perform best on dry, hard-packed trails while taller, more widely spaced lugs plug into the mud more efficiently and clear more quickly.
Manufacturers also employ different compounds across the tyre profile to help get the most out of each point of contact with the terrain. The softness of rubber is measured in ‘durometers’. Tyres with a durometer of 70 are hard, fast-rolling and long-lasting. Softer, stickier tyres with a durometer of under 50 offer improved grip at the expense of durability and speed.
Many riders find a compound rating of around 60 gives the best all-round compromise for long tyre life and good performance across a variety of conditions. Super-soft downhill racing tyres can approach 40 durometers prioritising grip over everything else.
Now you’ve established the type of tread and compound you want, the next thing to consider is tyre width. Again, this is a process of compromise, and what is right for you may depend on your riding style and preferences.
Wider tyres are more stable on corners and at speed, with the bigger surface providing more purchase and control. But that also means more friction, and therefore more rolling resistance as the tyres grip more terrain.
There’s a fuller description about tyre width in our mountain bike tyre guide.
You also need to make sure there’s enough clearance between your tyre and the bike’s frame.
Cross-country mountain bikers tend to go for tyres between 1.8 (4.6cm) and 2.2 inches (5.6cm) wide, while more aggressive 'All-Mountain' riders and downhill racers use tyres between 2.1 (5.3cm) to 2.4 inches (6.1cm).
Another option is to go for front and rear specific tyres which have tread designs optimised to provide the best performance for their respective jobs.
The back wheel’s main occupation is power and acceleration, so it makes sense to have a thinner tyre that can dig into the mud and get purchase. The front tyre, meanwhile, is preoccupied with stability and steering, so many riders go for a wider profile up top with more pronounced side lugs and lower central lugs for less resistance.
Winter road tyres – which is right for you?
Durability trumps all other considerations when going for a winter road bike tyre. There’s little point having a tyre fizzing with speed if you’re going to spend most of the ride at the roadside, attempting repairs with frozen digits.
So, the first consideration when looking for a winter road-going rubber is something that can withstand nicks and gouging on a debris-strewn road.
Winter road tyres achieve their resistance to punctures in several ways, such as more robustly wound thread, reinforced sidewalls, and interior puncture protection systems.
All these protections have a negative effect on performance, but manufacturers are making huge strides in mitigating these.
A higher thread count – measured in TPI - means debris has a harder job penetrating the tyre, but the downside to the extra durability is a heavier compound with more rolling resistance and slightly less traction.
Winter tyres often have a TPI under 100, while more expensive options can push the TPI over 100 using materials like Vectran or Kevlar to offset the disadvantages.
Puncture protection has come a long way in recent years, with manufacturers using ‘protection belts’ and ‘breaker’ materials to keep intruders at bay.
You’ll also find that winter tyres are significantly wider than your standard road-goers. A consensus for having wider road tyres has been gathering pace for some time, and current winter models follow this trend, with many starting at 25mm; already wider than the former standard 23mm.
Current thinking is that wider is better and the only thing holding you back is your frame’s clearance, so feel free to be bold.