Scorchin' Cold
by John Rieffel

"The bicycling season in Boston is really only ten months long... because July and August are just too hot"--Sheldon Brown

The stretch which laid John low

Winter 2001. It's below twenty degrees Fahrenheit. A snowstorm followed by two weeks of slightly-above-freezing days and well-below freezing nights has reduced Boston's unshoveled sidewalks, shoulders, and trails to treacherous sheets of bumpy ice. Great day for a bike ride, don't you think? Actually, since it's a Monday, it's just my normal weekday commute. Why should a little ice stop me?

My 10-mile commute is mostly paved, except for a one-mile stretch of poorly-drained dirt road which runs along some railroad tracks. When it first iced over, I tried navigating it on a Surly Steamroller fixed gear equipped with cyclocross knobbies, but all I got for that was a sprained wrist and a bruise the size of Alaska on my bum. What's worse, the ice was so slick that I couldn't even get back up after my fall--I had to drag myself and my bike to the edge of the trail in a rather undignified manner.

After this episode, I avoided the stretch. But adding another mile to my commute wasted time. Also, needless to say, I was ready for revenge. After a little research, I ordered a set of carbide-studded Nokian Hakkapeliitta tires from Peter White, in nearby New Hampshire.

Surly Steamroller with Nokian tires

As Peter's Nokian page shows, the Hakkapeliittas, although possibly the narrowest of the Nokian studded tires, are still quite huge. Mounting them isn't so easy. You'll need a bike with big clearances.

Fortunately, the Steamroller fits the bill. In the rear, all I had to do was add a link to the chain. The front tire was more of a problem. When mounted, it rubbed the underside of my RX-100 caliper brake. I suppose I might have waited for the carbide to eat notches in the calipers. Instead, I made tiny shims to push the axle further down in the fork ends, and so gain a few millimetres extra clearance. Ill-advised, perhaps, but it worked.

Homemade shim to space the oversizd front tire

The tires are a just a tiny bit heavy. 875 grams, to be exact. For those who remember their high school physics, the extra two pounds translate into an awful lot of rotational inertia. In layman's terms, acceleration is a bitch. Further, low psi (65 max) and a wide profile translate into high rolling resistance. In other words, pedalling is a bitch. I stuck with my 43x17 setup, but if you're weak-of-knee, you might consider lowering your gearing a bit. Your orthopedist will thank you. But look on the bright side: after a winter of riding on these tires, you'll have Legs Of Steel™, and will crush those puny fair-weather riders when the spring thaw comes.

The second I rolled onto the iced-over path that had vanquished me before, all these concerns about weight and sluggishness melted away. The traction was superb. I managed to clear the entire trail without a single fall. In fact it was so much fun I turned around and did it again. And again. There is a sort of sick satisfaction in surviving a rear-wheel skid over a sheet of ice, and then turning around to see the huge grooves your tire etched into the slick surface.

Nokian was here

The rest of my commute confirmed that the Nokians gave superb traction not just on ice, but also through snow, icky gutter slush, and everything in-between. In fact, the only place where traction suffered was over those ubiquitous steel plates. The knobs slipped all over the metal, giving the bike the skiddishness of a puppy on a newly-waxed floor.

Two subsequent winters of commuting on this set-up, in some of the nastiest weather New England has to offer, have only deepened my affection for ice-scorching.

Nokian in use

John Rieffel is in the third year of a Computer Science Ph.D. at Brandeis University. Some days he wishes his commute were 20 miles each way; other days, he wishes it were 5.

v1.0 written November 2003

Photos © John Rieffel 2003.

You can buy the tires John used from Peter White. Tell him we sent you.
If you get the ice biking bug, you'll need the Icebike site.

You are your own mechanic and you work at your own risk. and John Rieffel will not be held liable for any damage or injury arising from use of the techniques described in this article.

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