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Staff Picks: Winter Tires

It’s finally Ypsi’s turn to get the snow dump. With a slow Saturday in the store, Juan and Jesse set out to find their new best friend.

Up for the test: Continental Tour Ride; Continental Top Contact; 45 Nrth Gravdal; 45 Nrth Xerxes.

For many of us here at the shop, this is the first season we’re running dedicated winter tires on our commuters, so we began our frosty day with more curiosity than experience. We choose a diverse tire set to play around with speed and traction variables, and after plowing the drifts for an afternoon, we got a basic feel for ride qualities within our sample group, comparing differences between studded and studless treads, wider and narrower widths, and pitting all-purpose tires against the dedicated winters. Rated from Not Bad to Most Awesome, here’s our take.

Not Bad – Continental Tour Ride, $45 (47mm, tested at 60 PSI)

Juan’s new Salsa Vaya came stock with the Tour Rides, so we left them on to start with our first spin around on the fresh snow. And they weren’t so bad at all. The deep lugs helped out with some traction, and the smooth center tread rolled nicely where you could find a stretch of bare pavement. Most surprisingly, the tires were awfully resistant to packing up with snow. If you’ve got Tour Rides on a stock build, or if you’re looking to squeeze fourth-season life out of your three-season commuters, a pair of these Contis just might be up for the job.

Bang for the Buck - Continental Top Contact, $44.95 (37mm, tested at 70 PSI)

This is a unique design for a winter tire. Much traditional wisdom – passed down through the generations, and the Internet – encourages the winter rider to select tires with big lugs and wide channels, but Continental takes a different approach: their Top Contact tire is designed to maximize the contact area of a soft rubber compound. The half-pea sized nodes that sprinkle chevron-shaped, slightly-raised lugs will work as sticky fingertips, reaching for a surface to hold as you corner. The tread stays soft at freezing temperatures, too, and that’s the whole key to the design – if those pads were hard, they’d be slippery. Jesse ended up riding the Top Contacts in two sessions – the first time around, we set them up at 60 PSI, but we were curious to see how 70 PSI would affect performance. The higher pressure worked best; on tight turns, as the tire rolled from center to side, the high PSI helped to maintain the full surface area and reach of those sticky fingers.

Best for Confidence – 45 Nrth Gravdal, $85 (38mm, tested at 60 PSI)

At 38mm of carbide-tipped studded tire (252 total studs), the Gravdal is certainly beefier than 45 Nrth’s narrower studded option, the 30mm Xerxes (140 studs). That additional beef brings two impacts to ride quality, as compared to the Xerxes: it adds confidence in proportion to added sluggishness. While that’s not an uncommon tradeoff, in the case of the Gravdal, the added heft is coming from a gnarly tread bearing high-traction metal, which is a sluggishness you can feel and hear – with heavy engagement, those studs were grinding. For its confidence qualities, 45 Nrth calls the Gravdal their go-to commuter, but we might prefer something swifter for our everyday rides. A pleasant surprise: These were easily hand-mounted, without tools.

Most Awesome – 45 Nrth Xerxes, $85 (30mm, tested at 60 PSI)

At 30mm, the Xerxes is awfully narrow for a winter tire, but the guys loved it; Juan reports that the Xerxes felt like riding pure road, even through the snow pack. Call it a pizza cutter effect. A narrow tire slices through light snow blankets and deep drifts alike, and with every inch, you’re finding contact with pavement. For riders who’d love to carry over their three-season habits into the frozen season – riding at speed, leaning into corners - the Xerxes just might be the best tool around for the task. These, too, mounted up painlessly.

Lessons learned (if you need just Juan takeaway): “Low pressure isn’t always better. Wider isn’t always better. Spikes are good, but more spikes aren’t always better – they cut through and get to the pavement where the grip is. The Xerxes is the perfect commuter winter tire.”

Thanks Juan, thanks Jesse, and thank you! We wish you the nimblest winter trails.