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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.