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Can these skinny tires make winter riding possible?

Way up north in Alaska, we’re experiencing what’s considered a “mild” winter, meaning that temperatures are hovering around 10º Fahrenheit and this snow is less than 11 inches deep. This is in contrast to the typical Alaskan winter, where the mercury spends most of its time firmly below zero and accumulation is measured in feet. One constant of any Alaskan winter however, is ice, and this season is no different. Though I have yet to jump in to the world of fat biking, I have decided to take the plunge into winter cycling, with the help of the Nokian/Suomi Extreme 294 tires. Will the Nokians prove to be a budget-friendly gateway into the world of winter riding, or are fat bikes the only way through the snow?

Specs

The Extreme 294 is a wire bead, non-foldable, lightweight tire made with a non-toxic rubber compound, available in a 2.1in width with either 26in or 29in diameters. Some of you astute readers may be asking, “Why the ‘294?'” This isn’t simply a number that Nokian and Suomi agreed upon for its cool factor, but rather the number of carbide steel studs in the tire that will be assisting in propelling you through winter’s harshest conditions.

Along with the 294 (I’m trusting them here, I didn’t count for myself) studs, Nokian and Suomi have developed a tread pattern designed to roll through ice and snow with ease, while still providing a good amount of grip. When compared to my current tires, the WTB Velociraptors, the difference in tread design and profile is readily apparent, with the Nokians looking noticeably more “square.” After installing the tires and inflating to the recommended 35 psi (I’m a chump who still hasn’t gone tubeless), I was off to my home trail system of Kincaid Park.

26 x 2.1 Nokian Extreme 294 (left) compared to 26 x 2.1 WTB Velociraptor.

26 x 2.1 Nokian Extreme 294 (left) compared to 26 x 2.1 WTB Velociraptor.

Out on the Trail

When you take a bicycle out on icy trails, you expect a loss of traction and you’re constantly preparing for a mid-corner bail. However, with these tires, a certain amount of mental re-calibration is in order. Had it not been for the stinging cold and the snowbanks all around, I could have been fooled into thinking that I was out for yet another ride on Kincaid’s hero-dirt. Power was transferred straight to the ground without any protest from the tires, turns were still reasonably snappy, and grip on the icy trails was impressive; it was like old times! Right until I met a deeper snow drift that proved too difficult a traverse for the mighty Finnish tire, resulting in a sudden reminder that winter is a different beast when compared to the three other seasons that I had grown accustomed to. One benefit of winter riding however, is that snow proves to be a much more forgiving medium for crashing when compared to the dirt and rock that are exposed during the rest of the year.

In spite of the frigid weather, Kincaid's trails were still well-tracked.

In spite of the frigid weather, Kincaid’s trails were still well-tracked.

While the Nokians are exceptional on ice and hard-packed snow, the limits of the tires became apparent in looser snow, which leads to the front end of the bike washing out mid-corner. However, if speed is kept in check and a wider than normal line is chosen, the Nokians still provide an impressive amount of control. Of course, with a 2.1 inch wide tire, one can’t expect the same amount of float or capability that a fat bike would provide, but for those of us who aren’t willing or able to jump in to the world of fat tires, the Nokians could be a worthy substitute; just don’t expect the same tank-like riding experience when winter takes over your favorite trails.

The Nokians' tread design does an excellent job of evacuating snow and ice

The Nokians’ tread design does an excellent job of evacuating snow and ice

Deep powder aside, the Nokians have proven themselves to be a formidable tire and have made year-round riding a real possibility. Ice and shallower snow prove no match for the tires, and as long as you keep your wits about you and don’t try to push through any major snow drifts, you’ll certainly have a good ride. They definitely track true and will have a tendency to follow any existing ruts, which may alter your intended course, but such is to be expected when dealing with frozen trail conditions. Thankfully, studs are located on the shoulder tread blocks so traction is still available when riding at steeper lean angles.

Speaking of studs, I did notice that, after a month of aggressive riding, one of the studs had freed itself and left the party. One stud down, 587 to go. I’m not too concerned at this point, as I think that the rate of stud loss will be slower than the rate of tire wear (even though some riders are reporting 1000+ miles on a set), and traction hasn’t been compromised in any meaningful way.

Ice, hard-packed snow, loose powder, I threw everything at these tires, yes, including the kitchen sink.

Ice, hard-packed snow, loose powder, I threw everything at these tires, yes, including the kitchen sink.

Bottom Line

At a cost of $99 per tire, this is a bargain when faced with the prospect of buying a fat bike to conquer winter. The tires have proven themselves to be more than capable of handling ice and hard-packed snow, with deep, loose powder being their only downfall. But, the question remains: will switching to the Nokian Extreme 294s suddenly turn you in to an unstoppable cycling force, impervious to the harsh realities of winter and its unforgiving conditions? Not necessarily, but a set of these tires will do wonders in extending your riding season–just be prepared for a soft landing when you try to chase your fat biking buddies through the powder.

Alec Cervenka is an avid biker who has recently relocated to Anchorage, AK from Denver, CO and is in search of bigger and better riding. In the past year he’s ridden all over the United States and he looks forward to exploring the depths of the Alaska interior on his mountain bike.

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# Comments

  • FattyHeadshok

    I’ve been riding these tires all winter in PA. on a 26″ HT. I commute to work daily through the local state park on mixed surface of grass, gravel, asphalt, single track and rock garden. All I can say is that they are worth every penny. It’s been cold here and the trails are covered in sheet ice that’s formed from multiple hikers packing down the snow. I bunny hop onto wooden bridges, do log overs, blow through ice and snow covered rock gardens, ride over frozen ponds, down ice covered rock stairs, lean into turns etc. no problem.
    A word of caution: these tires do have limits and you do need a different skill set to ride on ice and snow. It’s particularly challenging when there’s been a bit of melt off and the ice is covered with a film of water. The knobs tend to want to hydroplane and stop the spikes from digging in completely. Also loose powder on top of sheet ice is doable but you’ll really get a balance skills workout.

    One last thing. Be sure and follow the procedure for setting the spikes by doing a long asphalt ride first. I know it’s as boring as watching paint dry but it really does help to anchor the spikes. Additionally you need to use tubes because the rubber compound that these tires are made from doesn’t react well to the Stan’s sealant. I had a lot of bubbles forming all over my sidewalls from my tubeless attempt with these tires. Buy these tires and get out there. Your bike skills will grow rapidly from learning how to ride in winter trail conditions. Have fun.

  • Alec Cervenka

    Excellent points on breaking in the tires and avoiding the tubeless goo!

    I’m also happy to hear that these tires have extended your riding season as well; I was feeling cabin fever something fierce before I picked up these tires. I definitely noticed a difference in riding style too once I switched, you certainly can’t go bombing through all corners like you do in Summer. Having to carefully (emphasis on carefully) pick your lines adds a nice mental aspect to riding for sure!

  • ironhead700

    After 10 plus years of experimenting with studded tires, (using the Big 3: Nokia, Continental & Schwalbe) I am currently riding with the Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pro (29×2.25) on my 08 Gary Fisher Superfly hardtail. Using studded tires on my bike was similar to my first experience with a four wheel drive vehicle: they are invincible and will ride through anything. Once I realized that the studs are for ICE and came to “grips” with the amount of flotation offered in snow I was then able to use the tires to their full potential. Yes there is a learning curve for winter riding: Snow covered ice is the big one: When the snow is deep enough the studs won’t reach the ice – then there is no advantage with studded tires. Also watch the speed – especially around turns. The studs have to have time to ‘bite’. Main usage for me is riding on ice and snow pack. BTW: replacement studs are available – the aluminum body with carbide tips are the best and the studs are interchangeable between brands. (very little size difference)

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