As much as I enjoy entertaining my fellow commuters, impersonating a dreidel in the middle of the street at rush hour just isn’t a good time. Plus, the patch of snow or ice that just sent me sprawling is likely to prevent the nearest rolling death box from avoiding me, which makes keeping the rubber side down doubly important.
This aversion to both humiliation and possible death spurs my annual search for winter commuter tires, something that will keep me safely trudging through nasty mornings while still rolling well enough to keep riding from being a chore.
Generally, my two top picks for winter are studded tires, like the Schwalbe Marathon Winter we featured in this month’s issue of Velo magazine, or knobby cyclocross tires, which have obvious benefits in the snow while still rolling acceptably on pavement.
The first contender this year is neither. Continental’s TopContact Winter II has neither studs nor big knobs. I was skeptical.
The first secret of the Winter II lies in its hundreds of tiny micro-siping channels. (Conti calls them lamellae, which I thought were the little frills under a mushroom. I guess they look similar.) The second is a soft, winter-specific rubber compound designed to maintain its grip in cold temperatures. Why tiny little siping channels instead of big knobs? Because big rubber knobs can’t bite into ice; traction is determined by the sheer quantity of edges attempting to grab hold.
The tread compound is optimized for cold weather, like a winter car tire. In warm weather the rubber is incredibly soft, easily squished around with a finger. As the mercury drops it firms up to a more reasonable durometer. Regular tires become super hard in the cold, compromising traction.
The Winter II is available in 700x37c or 26×1.9-inch sizes, which should fit any cyclocross, touring or mountain bike frame. Suggested retail is a competitive $65. The casing is a triple ply with 180tpi and a PolyX breaker for extra puncture resistance, and has a reflective stripe down the side for extra visibility.
I tested the 700x37s on my cyclocross-framed commuter. They measure a true 35mm, which I was concerned about initially but turned out to be a benefit in certain conditions. Weight is 607g per tire on our scale.
Where they’ll work
Traction on slippery surfaces is drastically increased over a regular touring-type tire, matching or even exceeding a cyclocross tire in certain conditions. The Winter II handles short sections of ice, even nasty black ice, much better than any ’cross tire I’ve used, though a studded tire still inspires far more confidence.
With less than four inches or so of snow on the ground, the Winter IIs cut through and use their contact surface area and soft compound to provide excellent grip.
Where they won’t
Deep snow is a no-go. The lack of side knobs makes tracking or turning impossible if the tires can’t reach down to a hard surface. The good news is that it doesn’t really matter what that hard surface is: Ice or pavement, the Winter IIs grab hold. The 37c versions I used were narrow; they could almost always get down and bite onto something during our last five-inch storm. Any more snow and they’d be in trouble, though.
Though the Winter IIs roll admirably fast when it’s cold, the soft rubber gets even softer and slower when it gets warm. The hundreds of little siping bits squirm around on warm pavement, sending rolling resistance through the roof. It might be worth swapping them out if a week of 60-degree highs is forecast.
That same soft rubber picks up gravel and other spikey bits more than any tire I’ve ever used. I haven’t had any flats yet, but I have picked a few chunks of glass out of the tire that the PolyX breaker stopped.
We’re just two storms into winter here in Boulder and I’m already a big fan of the Winter IIs. I love their versatility: They grip well on ice (which is what usually takes me out, not the snow); can take on a few inches of snow with ease; roll well on dry pavement; and come with more puncture protection that more cyclocross tires. For extreme conditions I’ll put on the studs, or ride my mountain bike, or just strap on my skis.
Best of all, I don’t feel the need to pull them off between storms the way I do studded tires. That’s appreciated here on the Front Range of the Rockies, where even big storms often melt off the roads within hours.
2011 Continental TopContact Winter II, tread
I was amazed that the Winter IIs held on to ice even without studs. I wouldn't try to turn quickly or brake hard, but coasting over a nasty patch is no problem. Photo: Caley Fretz
2011 Continental TopContact Winter II, more edges
More edges provides more grip. Photo: Caley Fretz
2011 Continental TopContact Winter II, PolyX breaker
Continental's PolyX breaker helps prevent flats. Photo: Caley Fretz
2011 Continental TopContact Winter II, angular tread
The angular, siped tread grabs slick surfaces. Photo: Caley Fretz
2011 Continental TopContact Winter II, be seen
Reflective sidewall strips are great for short days and dark commutes. Photo: Caley Fretz
2011 Continental TopContact Winter II
The Winter IIs are designed with a cold-weather rubber compound. Photo: Caley Fretz