Road bike tyres designed for winter riding are generally not defined by being soft, supple, light or fast. They don’t tend to result in an immediate curl of the lips and a feeling of electric power, but in the wet, cold, more slippery months they do provide a great deal of extra confidence.
Winter tyres are all about grip, and puncture resistance. The former, because roads are more likely to be wet, or even icy, and the latter because rain washes more debris onto the road which means that without extra protection punctures are likely to become more common.
It’s easy to walk into a bike shop, and assume the tyres with the chunkiest tread will offer the greatest winter protection. Not so. Some brands such as Continental do add tread and believe the patterns have an impact, but the greatest alterations made to offer grip and deflation free riding are to the make-up of the rubber.
Tyre manufacturers adjust their materials in a few different ways, here’s a look at what they do:
Summer tyres are usually created using a soft compound – this means they offer a lower rolling resistance, making them faster and lighter but much more prone to rips and damage.
Winter tyres use a tougher compound – they roll a little harder on the road but are much stronger. Some more expensive options will use a dual or triple compound - incorporating softer rubber on the tyre ‘shoulders’ which make contact when you corner, and a harder variety in the centre where the most pressure is applied.
If you want absolute protection for a bargain, at the sacrifice of ride feel, go for harder compounds. If you’re happier to endure the odd flat or prepared to pay a little extra for the perfect combination, look for a dual compound.
Harder compounds generally mean the tyre is tougher, and therefore a little harder to get onto the rim in that final moment when you’ve just got about an inch to go. However, opting for such a tyre will limit the frequency of you having to remove it. It might just be worth packing an extra tyre lever to help you out.
Puncture Proof Belt
Any winter tyre worth its salt will have some form of ‘breaker belt’, generally made from Kevlar or Vectran. This layer sits between the rubber tread and the inside ‘carcass’ and acts as a layer between debris and the inner tube.
TPI stands for ‘threads per inch’. A high TPI means that lots of fibres are woven together, making for a soft and supple ride, but an increased risk of something sharp getting in. A low TPI is tougher and harder, but offers fewer opportunities for puncture instigating shards. Winter tyres often have a TPI of sub 100, however, more expensive options will be able to keep the TPI over 100, offering extra protection via a highly effective Vectran or Kevlar belt.
Once upon a time, nearly all road cyclists used 23c tyres which were believed to be nippier. However, 25c options have become much more popular these days, with the belief that they offer a lower rolling resistance and are therefore faster. Add to the equation that wider tyres present a larger contact area to the ground, offering more confidence and grip on corners and in the wet, and they’re the most popular choice for winter tyres.
It may only be 2mm, but the extra width does feel different – corners feel much safer but acceleration feels spongey for some – you’ll only find out if they’re for you by trying them.
You can go wider still, with 28c and upwards available. However, there will be a limit as to the clearance your bike can provide, so check before you buy. The bigger the tyre, the lower your tyre pressure (PSI) should be.
Ideal Tyre Pressure in Winter
It’s also worth remembering that a slightly lower PSI (Pressure Per Square Inch) provides you with a wider contact patch – therefore more grip, which is important in the wet.
Challenge Tyres make some excellent handmade tyres, and when we asked one of their experts Morgan how much we should alter tyre pressure in the wet he explained: "The maximum tire pressure is required by international law [the International Standards Organization or ISO] to be marked on the tire. This max pressure has nothing to do with the optimal operating pressure (called OOP)!" - In other words, don't just glance at the number on the side wall, and pump up to that pressure - especially not in winter.
A number of factors affect ideal tyre pressure:
- Road conditions - smooth roads mean you can use higher pressure, bumpy roads warrant lower pressure.
- Weather conditions - dry days allow higher pressure, wet roads mean lower pressure.
- Rider weight - this has been overlooked a lot on the past. A 90kg man will need to run a higher pressure than a 60kg woman. The lighter rider who won't push down on the tyre as much, causing the ride to feel much more bumpy, and thus slower as forward momentum is lost. All too often, riders on the lower end of the weight scale fail to adjust their tyre pressure.
- Rider speed - if you're cruising along at a relaxed pace, comfort is probably more important than acceleration. So go for lower pressure. Racers might want higher pressures - but should bear in mind that on most rougher UK roads more speed could be gained by a lower pressure that travels smoothly over bumps.
Morgan explained: "The top eight World Tour Road teams have rock star mechanics who keep a table of tire OOP for each rider (by weight), tire volume and course. More top Road teams know the OOP equation changes from Strada Bianca to Paris-Roubaix to Tour of Flanders to concrete or asphalt, unserviced by years of recession or paved yesterday for the Tour de France. They know OOP needs to be adjusted for the rain and even more if it is the first rain after weeks or months of dry when oil or gas or exhaust accumulate where traffic is high and roads may become slick as ice. When the tire patch is optimally adjusted to keep as much soft, supple rubber on the road as much of the time as possible - especially in those corners deformed by heavy vehicles braking - all riders relax, focus on the moment and perform their best."
Ok - so you don't have a personal mechanic with a unique chart just for you - but you can create your own. Learning what your 'OOP' is takes trial and error. Once you've worked out the ideal number for your weight in normal conditions - you can reduce that by 10psi if it's wet, and a further 10psi if the road surface will be bad.
If you're looking for an example - here's a look at the 'sort of' pressures I usually run on my road bike. I've only included smooth, purpose built race circuits and 'average' UK roads - if I was riding really rough country lanes I'd probably let a little more air out.
Disclaimer: these work for me, and can give you an idea - you'll need to test and learn to create your own table.
|Rider weight: 58-59kg||23mm||25mm|
|Dry, good surface (eg race circuit)||100psi||90psi|
|Dry, rutted surface (most UK roads)||90psi||80psi|
|Wet, good surface (eg race circuit)||90psi||80psi|
|Wet, rutted surface (most UK roads)||80psi||70psi|
A few of the most popular options…
Specialized Roubaix Pro - here for £25
The Roubaix Pro is designed to offer winter worthy puncture protection and grip, whilst still feeling fast and fun to ride. The tyre features a bead-to-bead Endurant casing, plus 'BlackBelt technology' for puncture protection. However, the casing is designed to offer a smooth ride and a slick centre lowers rolling resistance whilst a tread pattern on the sidewalls makes for better grip in the corners.
Continental Grand Prix 4 Season Folding Duraskin Road Tyre – here from £33.
Designed for tough riding, this tyre uses an almighty two Vectran layers, as well as a ‘Duraskin Mesh’ for more tear resistance. The silica rubber is super grippy and Conti have even managed to keep the TPI at a whopping 330 for a smooth ride.
Schwalbe make excellent tyres - and their Durano is a great option for winter. The tyre uses a dual compound - a RaceGuard belt works with a double layer of nylon fabric to provide protection in a tyre that's still light and fun to ride.
There are several versions within the Durano family - but the 'Double Defence' tyre also has an extra layer of snakeskin fabric for additional protection.
Vittoria Zaffiro Pro Tech Folding Clincher Tyre – here from £13
A great value option, I’ve rolled on these for a winter and enjoyed a fairly puncture free time of it. Vittoria use their unique Aqua Flow tread pattern and Aqua Grip compound, both designed to provide extra grip, and the sidewalls are dense for extra protection with an overall TPI of 60. A training tyre for long endurance miles, it’s not the quickest or lightest out there, but should keep you inflated over long rides and won't break the bank.
Oops - we just upped the price stakes! But Challenge create stunning handmade tyres. They're best known for their tubular tyres - but this version is an 'open tubular' - or clincher.
The Strada Bianca is a Tuscan road race that incorporates long sections of rough, white gravel roads. These are fast, racey tyres - but they can handle a lot. A PPS puncture protection shield is used - but the TPI is a massive 300. The Strada comes in 25c, but there is also a Strada Bianca version in 30c - though you'll need a bike that can take tyres that width so it's worth checking your frame specification.
Your bike will need more TLC over winter - here's our guide to maintaining your pride and joy in ten easy steps.