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Tire Chains

In addition to studded tires for supplying winter traction there are also bike tire chains and bike tire wires.

SnowyStreet.jpg (12749 bytes)These usually attach to the tires, while avoiding the bike rims so as not to interfere with the brakes. The chains cross the tread providing traction in deep snow and ice. The wire variety usually holds chunks of metal with teeth positioned over the tread.

These of course provide a bumpy and noisy ride on pavement, compared to studded tires, which themselves are noisy  enough.

However, some claim that bike chains provide better traction than studs in thick snow and that brown compacted but un-consolidated squirming mass that forms when cars drive over new snow but it is too warm for it to freeze to the ground. (Also known as "Brown Sugar, Chocolate Mousse, Car Snot, etc.) 

When on really snowy roads, you may not notice the bumpy ride caused by the devices.


Tire chains for bikes are far more lightly constructed than those for cars.  They also have the attendant problem that the tire rims must not be obstructed because that would interfere with the brake pads.  This later restriction does not apply to Coaster Brake bikes or bikes with disk brakes.

icechains1.jpg (13552 bytes)Therefore, the chain system is rather tenuously secured on the outer half inch of tire tread.

These can come off in sudden turns where there is good traction, so they must be installed tightly.

The normal way to achieve the degree of tightness that is required is to deflate the tire somewhat, install the chains, then re-inflate the tire so that the chains are held securely.  This of course means that if you intend to do this on the road you have to have a pump.

icechain2.jpg (10957 bytes) The model shown here, Quik Klaw Cleats by KoolStop uses a long threaded barrel on one end of the "ladder like" set of wires and cleats and a threaded bolt on the other end.   There is one junction on each side of the tire.  These are usually just installed "finger tight" (no tools used) and the the tire inflation is raised to lock them in place. This can be done with out removing the wheel, but you have to carry a pump.

The cleats shown in the model above protrude about a quarter of an inch above the tread.  Bikes with brake bridges or tight fitting chainstays may have clearance problems.  Not all models have cleats this large, some are simply another metal cord running across the tread.

Cleats tend to be spaced every 6 inches or so, and this produces a very bumpy ride on hard ice or bare roads.  So much so that you will want to take them off as soon as possible. Cleat wear can be very rapid if ridden on dry roads.

When you do remove them, they are customarily rolled up and placed in your panniers.  The set show make a 6 inch diameter roll, rolling them tighter makes for nasty tangles.

Other than the rough ride there have been other problems reported with these devices.  My local bike store owner reported that they sold only two sets last winter, (different brands) and had trouble with both of them.  One caused a nasty accident when it came loose and seized the front wheel.  This is apparently not that rare.

klawchains.jpg (10133 bytes)There are several brands and bike shops tend to push what they have (probably because they have had them for years and years and would like to get rid of them).  Monitor Traction Devices seem toe be the most widely known. The Quik Klaw Chains at right are also sole by KoolStop.

I also found an interesting hint of another system at that is comprised of hooks, which fit between the rim and tire, wrapping around the tire. When traction is required, a chain is stretched from one hook to the other – across the tire. The site hosting this product is defunct, but ICEBIKER Bob Bagnall found that images were located IBMs Patent Site and are viewable here.

Home Made Chains

It is also possible to make your own tire chains for bike use.  Not limited to winter ice and snow, these are also suitable for mud and off road work.   This is best explained on the "Tread Online" site of Ramsay's Cycle (Cape Breton)  here. While probably inappropriate for public trails over delicate ecosystems, they should work well on semi-frozen snow trails if your bike has the clearance to accommodate them.

What's Best, Studded tires or Chains

Chains are said to be better on unplowed roads and trails where there may be 6 inches of uncompressed snow below your wheels, some of it trampled and uneven.

Others claim that the newest version of studded tires do better in these situations and are lighter and less problematic.

I don't have an opinion, as my bikes have clearances that are too tight to accommodate these devices, but here are some postings from Rec.Bicycles.Misc newsgroup courtesy the Danenet Bicycle Commuting Pages that deal with this subject.

Another Opinion

Back when I owned no vehicle (insert favorite poor student story here) I commuted year-round by bike. This included the winters from 1987 to 1993. Most of these winters were in the Northern city of Edmonton where we have two seasons: Winter and July ;^)

After a couple of winters on my usual knobbies, I felt there had to be a better solution to traction on ice and snow since I now faced a 24 km round trip to school and back. I contemplated the (at that time) new IRC Blizzard, but it looked like the studs were useless, and at $85/tire (boy, have they ever come down in price) I couldn't justify the expense. The store offered me another solution: tire chains. I purchased one for the front tire and decided to try it for awhile before deciding whether one was required for the rear wheel.

Unfortunately, I have no recollection of who the manufacturer was. I can only describe it. It was made out of a very durable metal, roughly the thickness of a wire coat hanger. This wire was bent so that it consisted of about 1" to 1 1/2" long links and about the same width. Where each link joined, the loose ends of the wire were allowed to point outward by about 3/8" at both sides to dig into the snow. I say the metal was tough, because these protrusions didn't bend over even after 2 (long) winters of usage (est. 4000 km).

My experience with the tire chain up front was very positive. These babies stuck to the hardpacked snow like you wouldn't believe! The main drawback was that bare pavement, etc. was to be avoided because traction wasn't great (and it would probably prematurely wear down/bend? the spikes). Also, there was greater rolling resistance. 

One distinct advantage to having the chain on the front tire for me was the ability to use the front brake. My rear brake was one of those under the chainstay mounted U-Brakes which were popular in the early 80's. The front tire flung all sorts of gunk into the brake cable housing where it was routed under the bottom bracket. I rarely ever had a working rear brake!

I only ever recall one wipeout while using the front tire-chain. The rear wheel swung out on me with no warning and I was unable to stop its momentum as it quickly swung about in front of the front wheel. The front tire held its ground and the handlebars were wrenched out of my hands. Eventually something had to give, and I went flying!

Overall, I was quite pleased with the tire chain and never got around to purchasing a rear tire chain. Unfortunately after the second winter, the chain rusted up very badly during the off-season (summer! :^) ). I was never able to find another chain, but I also didn't look too hard since we had a few milder winters, I lived closer, I had a new bike so rear brake freezing was no longer a factor.

Bruce Johnson

Last Updated 02/01/06 05:57:52 AM