It didn’t strike like lightning. It was more like a subconscious feeling created by its absence until one day I finally noticed. Hey, I thought. My feet aren’t cold.
That was a good day, as have many since then. It seems a small thing, and I didn’t realize it until I realized it, but toasty feet have since become one of the keys to my winter bicycling habit.
Feet are often an overlooked part of winter, and they certainly were for me in the beginning. Too many of us who live in winter climates don’t adjust our footwear for winter. You’ve seen those slaves to fashion: standing at a bus stop in subzero temperatures with ankles bare against a nor’easter, or standing in a drift of snow in basketball shoes that are absorbing meltwater that will be delivered later in a frigid day-long trickle.
(I once heard of a program to donate warm wool socks to poor kids stuck wearing ankle socks in February because that’s all they could afford. It was cleverly called Tall Sock Tuesdays. I bet you could offer the same program at a downtown law firm and find just as many takers. The next time you hear a grownup complain about being cold in winter, check their socks. My money is on cotton thinsies.)
The same foot neglect applies all-too often to those who want to extend their love of bicycles into the colder months. Generally, staying warm on a bike is easy. Pedaling legs will keep your core warm. Most of us understand the importance of keeping our heads covered (thanks, moms). Cold hands are the early-warning system of autumn, so by winter most of us have found a good glove/mitten/pogie combination.
Feet, however, tend to be overlooked. Many people on bikes are reluctant to give up their cycling shoes, having swallowed the professional racing notion that being clipped into your pedals will make you faster, an idea that author Grant Peterson dispels in his great book Just Ride (unless you are a pro, he writes, almost all of your pedalling power comes from the downstroke. At best, being clipped in will slightly reduce the drag of your upstroke, not add any additional power). Sadly, most cycling shoes suck in winter. They don’t keep the heat, they rarely keep out the moisture, and they keep your trapped on the pedal when you need them to stabilize yourself over ice.
The opposite approach can also be problematic. Once I gave up the idea of putting foot warmth ahead of everything else, I started wearing my giant -30 C winter boots on my cold bike rides. The boots are great for shoveling snow, but on a bike they felt big, bulky and sweaty. I still wear them on those truly frigid days, but arriving to my destination while looking like I’m dressed for a narwhal hunt is not a great option either.
For me, the Rosetta Stone of winter urban cycling footwear came in a pair of Australian leather slip-on boots. Purchased originally as a nice autumn option, I just kept wearing them as the season changed. They were warm, resisted water, and could be inconspicuously worn at the office all day. Then, one day in the middle of winter, after weeks of riding through the snow and cold, it dawned on me: I couldn’t remember the last time I complained of cold feet. These boots were awesome.
For me it was a pair of Blundstones, but this has nothing to do with a brand (the company isn’t paying me to write this, I swear). Innumerable brands and styles will do. What’s important is that they are boots; warm, dry and wearable all day long. When paired with a good pair of tall winter socks (preferably merino-wool), these boots have proven their mettle in all but the worst winter weather.
Even as I write this, I realize it sounds like a no-brainer verging on mansplaining: “Boots keep your feet warm. Thanks for the revelation, loser.” But it took me so long to realize this, and I so often hear people complaining about cold feet while riding, and I’m committed to my theory that cold feet are at the root of many people’s subconscious hatred of winter, that it feels worth sharing.
In short: Ditch the cycling shoes. Buy warm socks. Wear good boots. Enjoy winter.
Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.
Also published on Medium.