December 9, 2009

Blazing a new trail

This is the first time in ANY year of commuting that I've managed to make it this deep into "winter"... and it's still, technically, autumn.
No car in the driveway, no excuses, no backing out... it's not willpower, it's just what I gotta do.  I've made the best use of my income to secure gear that will help me be successful over the years, including an array of balaclavas, headbands, WindStopper this-and-that, a winter jacket, base layers, wool socks, wool caps, tights, winter boots, monster gloves - the list goes on.  However, this is the first year I've actually needed to use them all, often together in certain configurations, day after day.  Along with stuff for the body, this is the first year I've actually had a proper "winter bike" - I've been close before, with this mountain bike and that, but this year I've taken it a step further with a better mountain bike, and have employed studded snow tires.

This post isn't really a review, if I can help it, but the Nokian Mount & Ground W160 studded tires I'd purchased back in October finally got mounted to rims last night, and we took our maiden voyage this morning.  I am quite impressed.  Sure, I have no control test for this particular set of conditions - but anyone that's ridden on semi-plowed suburban side streets after a long, cold rain, followed by below-freezing temps and snow knows that it's no easy ride on any tire.  It didn't take long to realize that had I been on regular tires, things would not have gone so well.  I can imagine my front tire darting this way and that, rear tire holding on only by weight sitting on the saddle - it's do-able, yes... and I've done it before.  This winter, however, my commute route is pretty much set and it involves a long section of paved bike trail.  Maybe I'm getting soft, maybe old, or maybe traffic in Johnson County, KS has finally turned a corner for the worse in the last couple years:  but I want as little a part of traffic as I can get.  So, trails it is.  That made the studded tires all too easy a choice to make.  No salting, no plowing here;  which is arguably easier to ride on anyways.  This morning, the usual Kansas routine of rain followed by snow and cold had turned the trails into seven miles of ice-rink.  

After getting off the glazed and rutted streets and onto the trails, I was just amazed - forget the fact that I'd survived the glazed and rutted roads, I was actually expecting things to get harder on the trail.  I could hear the studs biting into an icy layer below the snow I was cutting through - it was very apparent they were making contact and doing their job. Even slamming on the rear brakes wouldn't break them free.  It almost became a game to see how far I could push this new envelope.  I even started using the front brake... not something one usually gets away with on ice. I was able to stand out of the saddle and climb, come to near-stops on steep downhills, and basically just cruise along.  While cornering, physics tend to take over, and while the studs are still biting there is some under-steer apparent while the rubber between stud transitions lets go as the tire rotates.  Not enough to induce a slide, but enough to alter your intended line.  Cornering flat, and gingerly, was needed - which was appropriate for the conditions anyways.  All in all, however, it still only took me five to seven minutes longer than normal (on this bike) to arrive at work.  Considering my initial thoughts as I'd left the garage at the onset of my commute (like, "what am I *doing*?!), I ended up surprised, pleased, and impressed.  

Time will tell, however:  there will be times where I ride home on bare pavement due to a botched forecast, or afternoon snow and ice melting, so longevity comes to mind.  The studs are carbide, so they shouldn't dull - but I'm watchful.  The manufacturer and other long-time users mention stud loss, on the order of 5-10 being "normal" - and I can see that, potentially.  If I ride safely and don't try anything nutty, I should be able to minimize that - and realistically, if 5-10 is normal and I have "only" 150 studs left in a tire, would I even notice?  Not likely, unless they all fall out of a single area of the tire - also not likely.  

Recommended?  Absolutely.  Short of a multiple-feet-deep snow event, this winter suddenly looks exciting and fun... if you can call ten degrees and a 30 MPH westerly wind "fun".  There is stud-loss, and then there is wind-chill induced skin-loss...  Staying upright and keeping moving is very important in this kind of cold:  and so the studded tires become a strong variable eliminator, which is another good selling point.  Some have called them overkill, but I simply had to find out for myself; and now, as I write this, I feel practically spoiled by these tires.  Even if they only last me this ONE winter season of commutes, they are worth every dime so far.

Instead of worrying about falling, I was able to ride loose and almost enjoy the commute.  The solitary beam of my headlight was magnified by the fresh snow, and I was able to see everything I needed to and more. I  checked out rabbit tracks criss-crossing everywhere, saw some deer, and surprised an owl that was enjoying his pre-dawn catch.  Kinda surprised me, actually... BIG glowing eyes, and then wings from nowhere as it took to the sky with its catch.  Awesome... try to see THAT happen in a car!  I won't walk that car vs. bike line, but it did cross my mind - no matter what the weather, it's always enlightening and interesting the things I see from the saddle, tucked back in these suburban woods.  The joggers and dog-walkers are gone now, no footprints -- just me, and for a few miles I can forget I'm surrounded by houses, and just enjoy watching nature doing what it does after a storm like this.  Pinned in by strip malls and golf courses, I'm still amazed how much life I see back on the trails.  One of these days, I really need to hit Blue River, Swope, Landahl or something similar on this bike - and see what I can find.

For now, grinning from my morning accomplishment and test, I am looking forward to more fun this afternoon, if I can keep my mind off the west wind that will push against me the whole way.  Breathe, pedal, and try to keep my mouth closed... it's teeth-chillingly cold out there... 

More to come as winter plays out... 
Thanks for reading!


Jon said...

I'm beginning my third season on the relatively cheap Innova brand studded tires. I've ridden quite a few bare-pavement miles on them, and the studs on the rear are fairly worn, down the center of the tire. But, the side studs have held up well, and they are the important ones!

Stud loss is totally unnoticeable from the saddle, even though I have a few places where adjacent studs are missing.

The studded tires are, for me, not a luxury but, rather, a necessity for ecveryday winter commuting.

Big Oak said...

Thanks for the review of the Nokian tires. I've been thinking about getting a set, and your post pretty much seals the deal.