Feet can get cold in winter if insulation doesn’t work or if your feet get wet. If you don’t solve these problems, you could eventually get trench foot, (you can find images online). Trench foot isn’t fatal, and wasn’t invented by soldiers in wet trenches, but got a lot of attention when they could no longer walk. Although not fatal, and not as potentially harmful as other cold weather injuries, it’s a bad place to find yourself. Ever had sweaty feet, and not been in a situation where you could take your shoes off and let them dry out? In addition to the odors that can grow, as the skin continues soaking in this enclosed swamp, it will start loosening and detaching from the foot. And just like a freshly popped blister, you now have very tender and painfully sore fresh layers exposed. Ok, sorry about that disgusting situation, but avoid it!
Warm and dry feet are sometimes key to survival, or at least comfort, while outside in cooler temperatures. For me, the fun is over when my feet are going numb. First requirement: keep my feet warm! Although hands get cold too, we can always stop the activity and sink them into warmer clothing on our body or do the windmill to get some warm blood back into the fingers. It’s not as easy to strip your feet and put them in your armpits, not sure I could do that on a good day, with minimal clothing and in the comfort of home. Mental image: Riding a trail and finding another person with bare feet, trying to fold themselves into a knot to get their feet into their armpits, not sure it’s even possible, but it provides many minutes of entertainment!
If your feet get soaked in the heat of the day in the winter, imagine what happens when the temp starts dropping, they will begin to cool. How can we avoid this? Keep our feet and shoes dry. Some people have excessively sweaty feet and some have feet that behave well when contained in the socks and shoes of winter. Thick socks can provide more insulation, but also provides more storage space for perspiration. You need footwear that insulates and breaths or spend less time in the cold. What about cycling shoes?
Summer weight shoes breathe nicely, but don’t provide much insulation and most are vented and will let all that cold air in when you’re trying to take a KOM by flying down the bike deserted path at 30mph, or scaring hikers on that sweat stretch of singletrack. Time for winter solutions. Years ago, I learned a nice solution from a friend- cut two corners from a plastic grocery bad (recycling!) and put these over my toes and slip it into the bike shoe. This blocked the cold air from my toes and that helped tremendously, but if this caused perspiration to build, then my feet got cold. One cold day ride, I forgot to slip into my bags, I stopped at one of the dog poo bag dispensers, took a bag, and tore it into two pieces for my feet and continued my ride much more comfortably.
Booties are a great solution. There are many options, from basic waterproof to insulating, and some designed purely for aerodynamics. I have rain booties, Sugoi Zap Bootie, which will block wind from the feet and work as a shield in the winter. And I have winter booties, the Pearl Izumi Elite Softshell Shoe Covers, wind proof, water proof, and insulating. Each have their strong points and will lower the effective riding temperature allowing you to chase those KOM’s when the traffic drops due to low temps, or just to ride to work.
But when you grow tired of slipping, or forcing, your shoe into booties, consider the next level- winter shoes. I got my first pair back in 2010, Specialized Defroster. Why did I wait so long? No more plastic bags, no more forcing shoes into booties, simply put my socked foot in a different, taller shoe, and on my way! Wish I’d had these at cyclocross nationals in Bend in 2009! I found that I could comfortably ride when the temps dropped below freezing.
I had developed a desire to ride to work on the coldest day of the winter, and now this would be easier, and without hobbling gently in the building on near numb feet, avoiding all obstacles to insure I didn’t bump my toes into something causing that jolt of pain surging through the remaining nerves that worked. I did find discover a limitation of these warm shoes. On that first coldest day of the winter with these shoes, before sunrise, as many of us work the dreaded 7:30- 4:30 hours of the loyal, it’s 14 degrees F, and I get a flat tire. So much for my confidence in tubeless, but I knew there was a problem. The tire had lost pressure the previous day, and I didn’t investigate why, I just added air.
While solving my tire problem, I’m working my hands and fingers through rewarming activities, and the bottoms of my feet are beginning to feel the cold frozen surface of the dirt road I’m standing on. That thick hard plastic foot bed is conducting my foot heat to dirt, just as science proves with surface contact. Fortunately, I got rolling again before my feet went numb, but that was a learning experience. And a year or two later, on another coldest day of the year, riding to work again, I got a flat. I’ll say that asphalt is no warmer than hardpack dirt before sunrise, at 14 degrees F!
The Specialized shoes were great for years, but at the six year point, I thought it best to upgrade before winter. Synthetic insulation in clothing and other items that get flexed and compressed often, will lose bulk over time. And shiny new shoes are awesome! Winter cycling shoes had gained more popularity since 2010, and there were many more options. I knew that I’d probably ride short distances down near 0, but that’s only short exposure time also. After realizing it would be difficult to justify the much warmer Artic rated boots, I decided on the Northwave Celsius 2 GTX MTB Boot.
I was impressed as soon as I opened the box! Probably because they were clean, unscratched, and the black, red, and silver color scheme was nice. The insulation felt thicker than the old Specialized shoes, the fit was good, and the tread was nice and think, plenty thick to protect the Crank Bros cleat. I was slightly excited for winter to arrive (I never say that!).
The Northwaves have held up good for three winters. The upper flexible insulated parts are holding up well, given all the flexing/folding while getting my feet in. The speed lacing system is simple, but I’ve always thought there could be a bit more security; the upper only has Velcro, the laces only go up so high. Although the fit is good, there is one issue, and I’m sure it’s normal by virtue of this being a bike shoe. While walking, yes I do walk in my mtb shoes on my local trails, because I ride singlespeed and things get too steep sometimes. Walking up steep hills is much more comfortable in a more flexible non-mtb shoe, picture a running shoe. Steeper hills cause friction and hot spots on my heels, and that’s with the shoe synched tight. With hardly any flex in the sole this is mostly unavoidable, and with generous implementation of “French technique” stepping, it’s no problem. (Yes, French technique, you should see some of the climbs here!)
When do I wear these shoes? I dig them out about mid-November and will put them away in March, hopefully. I can tolerate the insulation up to 55F, but only if I’m riding after work on a day with a cold morning. With my rain booties or the insulated booties, I could ride when a little colder, but I’m not sure I need to, or want to.
Northwave has changed the product since my purchase. It now has SLW2 lacing, similar to Boa, all on the outside of the shoe, unlike my older shoes. This should bring a little more security and should make it easier to get in and out of these shoes. They also have two additional colder models, providing comfort further down the thermometer, which I’d really like to have an excuse to try, but I don’t love winter that much. A friend once told me that he doesn’t ride when the temp is lower than his age. That’s sounds like a great rule, but I like riding year round, and not because it’s cold out, but just because it’s riding. But that doesn’t mean that I would avoid the opportunity to live in the tropics! Even in the tropics, there’s a chance your feet will get wet, and you’d have find a way to dry your feet in a humid environment, but at least you wouldn’t need to attempt to put your feet in your armpits to get them warm.