Round-Up: Four polar vortex-fighting mountain bike shoes to keep your feet warm and dry

Pro Reviews Shoes
We test four different winter MTB shoes to find the ideal kicks for wet, muddy and sub-freezing conditions.

It might be March, but don’t tell that to all those half-frozen humans living in the Midwest and East Coast, where it’s been one of the worst winters on record. For many, riding outside in subzero conditions is absolutely out of the question. But for those few lunatics who have to get their fix outdoors on the bike no matter how wet, cold and oppressive the winter has been, some good insulated footwear is required to keep the feet from becoming ice blocks.

My feet have always been the weak link when it comes to cold winter rides on the bike. No matter how many pairs of thick wool socks I put on, my toes go numb within the first hour of a ride. Actually, my winter rides don’t really begin until I can’t feel my toes anymore.

Since wearing booties on a mountain bike ride absolutely sucks and wearing a plastic bag between two layers of socks keeps my feet warm in a pinch, yet sweaty as all hell, I decided that a legitimate pair of winter mountain bike shoes was needed. Thankfully there’s no shortage of options out there, and I was able to rustle up four different shoes courtesy of Shimano, Specialized, Mavic and Lake.

Specialized Defroster

Weight (pair of size 47): 1150 grams
Price: $200
More Info: www.specialized.com

I got to use the Specialized Defroster in a number of different scenarios including full on mountain bike rides in 15 degree temperatures and a 90-mile road ride in the mid-30 degree temperatures, which is what makes the Defroster so great – it’s extremely versatile. While a few other shoes have gnarly, aggressive tread, the Defroster has a more subdued outsole that could almost pass for a winter road shoe but still has enough tread to handle most muddy and snowy conditions.

The injection-molded midsole offers a reasonable amount of stiffness for good power delivery, yet still flexes nicely when off the bike and hiking up hills. But for real nasty mud and snow, you’ll need to use toe spikes because the Defroster tread alone isn’t quite aggressive enough.

Thinsulate 400 gram insulation lining keeps heat in while letting moisture escape, and even on the coldest rides, with one Merino wool sock layer, my feet stayed surprisingly warm. My hands were a different story though. I think I did permanent nerve damage to them on a 15-degree ride with a three-mile downhill.

This was the first pair of shoes I ever had with the BOA closure system, and it kicked ass. Lightweight, simple, and effective, the BOA system is flawless, however, it can be subject to user error. There is a tendency to want to over-tighten the BOA closure, which not only cuts off blood flow to an ever expanding foot and making it cold, but also causing pain on the top of the foot. It was happening to me until a friend said to loosen the BOA closure. After I backed off, the shoe was much more comfortable and warmer too.

The neoprene upper collar with a seam-sealed internal bootie does an exceptional job of comfortably locking in heat and keeping water out, and the wider toe box for thicker socks was a welcome feature for my gargantuan feet.

A sheet rubber heel and toe make the Defroster look durable, while a flap over the midsection of the shoe gives it a distinct bootie-type look. A few of my roadie buddies mistook the Defroster for a road shoe with a winter bootie over it.

Who is this shoe for?

The Defroster is perfect for someone who wants one shoe to do both winter road and mountain bike rides. It’s capable enough to handle wet, muddy and extremely cold conditions off-road, but also sleek and low profile enough to look good as a winter road-riding shoe (provided you put mountain bike pedals on your road bike).

Continue to Page 2 for the Shimano MW81 shoe review »
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About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.


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  • NW Rider says:

    Some feedback if you ride in WET conditions where your feet are subject to splashing water. The Mavic Drift is NOT waterproof. The overlap design from upper to lower is flawed and allows water to penetrate easily. I had a pair and sent them back from getting soaked feet every ride and now have the Shimano winter shoes. Much better up here in the Pacific Northwest!

  • wrecognize says:

    PI Barrier GTX are pretty solid.

  • Jeff says:

    Nice write up. I purchased the MW81s a couple weeks ago and love them.

  • drbikeben says:

    I just bout a pair of the MXZ303s after riding an earlier version of Lake winter boots for about 8 years. With the old pair I would still have to put in chemical warmer packets to keep my feet warm enough on colder days (0-20F), but with the MXZ303s I have not had to worry about that at all. As Kurt says the fit and comfort is unbelievable– they are better than most of my non-riding shoes! They’re pricey but I expect to ride them for at least as long as the previous pair, probably longer!

  • andrew stevens says:

    I purchased a pair of the specialized defrosters this winter and took them on a two hour night ride at 12 degrees with 5″ of snow. During this ride I managed to find a flowing stream and planted my foot right in the middle(where else?). these shoes kept me dry and warm the whole time. I have been winter riding in wmass for 25 yrs, and these shoes were great.

  • duder says:

    Next year see about the Louis Garneau 0-Degrees LS-100 as well…though by then I will probably have bout a pair of something…

  • Pat says:

    Great review. I have the Lakes and they rock when the temps drop below 20F. Super comfortable. Warmer than that I use Mavic Screes. I find the Scree great from 20-50ish…then they start to get too hot, but they are waterproof and great for mud. And if there is mud then the temp is above freezing and too warm for the Lakes.

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