When my employer announced they were going to make us pay for the privilege of using the parking lots on campus, I balked. I was only driving a car during the months of December through March anyways, and they weren’t giving me an option to pay month-by-month. I had to drop $120 on a pass that I would only use for a little while. I decided it was then time to make a commitment to year-round bicycle commuting.
To understand why this is a significant commitment, you have to understand the climate of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Being surrounded on three sides by the largest freshwater lake in the world means that we are subject to copious amounts of Lake Effect Snow. The average is 220 inches of snow per year, with a record being set about 30 miles up the road of 390 inches. In comparison, Detroit gets about 43 inches, Minneapolis gets 54 inches and even Rochester, New York gets just shy of 100 inches. To be sure, there are places in the mountains that get more snow than us, but I trust the point is made. The upside is that the lake also moderates our temperatures, such that we hardly ever experience the frigid temperatures seen in prairie states like Minnesota or the Dakotas.
The very first purchase I made to support this winter commuting was a pair of 45NRTH Polara studded tires. Having lived in the Minneapolis area for a few years made me keen to try out this relatively new offering from the Minneapolis-based 45NRTH. I looked at other options from Nokian, Schwalbe and Kenda, but none struck me as having the same balance of price and performance as 45NRTH.
Some salient features of the Polaras:
- 700c X 35 wire bead
- 110 studs
- 886 grams/tire
- $50 per tire
After riding these tires for two months in a variety of winter conditions, it’s time to talk about how they roll.
Installing them is pretty easy. I did wear some gloves to make sure I didn’t shred my hands on the studs, but the wire bead mounts up quickly.
The first week I rode them on mostly dry pavements with some extended icy sections. We had gotten snow but it mostly melted before I got the Polaras mounted. However, that left lots of big icy patches that were often invisible on the asphalt. As would be expected from studded tires, they were loud but still rolled fairly well. I noted very little effect on my commute times. Riding across the icy patches was so uneventful I stopped even noticing. Braking, pedaling and cornering were all perfectly acceptable. During this week, I only lost one stud and have lost none since.
After that first week, we started getting our regular snows. For us, this means my commute becomes almost entirely on snow-covered roads. The plows get out, but they don’t get down to the pavement. If I ride over more than a couple hundred yards of bare concrete or asphalt during my ride, it’s pretty unusual. That makes the Polara a much more appropriate choice than the Xerxes (also from 45NRTH). The Polara places its studs down the center of the tire rather than near the shoulders, as the Xerxes does. This gives you a lot of straight line traction, even on packed snow. Turning the bike means using the handlebar instead of just leaning the bike, because leaning gets you off the studs (and therefore giving up the security of traction). I’ve ridden through fresh, dry, powdery snow. I’ve ridden through heavy wet snow. I’ve ridden on packed down snow. In all of these conditions, the Polaras have exceeded expectations. The tread blocks shed snow well and the studs grip tenaciously. But here’s the wrinkle.
The tires are mounted on a singlespeed belt-drive cyclocross bike. This is an ideal winter setup, as there are no derailleurs, no shifters and no metal chain to gum up. The only downside is that my commute home is pretty hilly (the very first hill I ride up is a short, but intense grade of almost 14%, with other extended pitches of 6-9%). Combine “singlespeed” with “hill” and you get “standing climbing”. (You should throw a dash of “weak legs” in there too.) In any case, I don’t really have a lot of rear wheel slippage when I am doing all this standing. The Polaras hold on tight.
When I first announced my intentions, my family and friends mainly wondered about my ability to get back up these hills in the snow. The Polaras make that easy-peasy. I was much more concerned with going down hills and not being able to stop. The Polaras make this a frivolous non-concern as well. The wheels stay pointing nicely forward, the bike doesn’t fishtail and the wheels don’t lock up under heavy braking.
If I had to find something, anything, wrong with the Polaras, it would be their appearance. I’m a sucker for branding, and the “45NRTH” and “Polara” stamps are pretty subdued (even when they aren’t covered by brake dust).
Conclusion: If your winter commute has you riding over large amounts of snow, whether packed or fresh, going uphill or down, singlespeed or geared, the Polaras get the job done at a very nice price point. Highly recommended.
You might notice this is Part 1. I have several other items I’ve been using that I want to review as well, as time permits.