Monday, October 15, 2012

Trail riding and avoiding cold toes

After a family walk this morning in one national park east of Helsinki (Sipoonkorpi), the weather was still so good in the afternoon, that I decided to head out west on my still newish, but getting ever more grubby, cyclocross bike to hit a second (Nuuksio). OK, they're only 'pocket' national parks compared to the huge wildernesses of the north, but they are not without their attractions. If nothing else, the trails designed for easy walking make decent non-surfaced cycle paths when so much of the forest is sodden, if not actually flooded. Whilst having a little break to eat and massage some life back in to my toes, I posted the picture on the left to Facebook and Twitter  along with the plaintive cry of a caption "Does anyone who rides in autumn and winter manage to keep them warm?" It was actually more or a rhetorical comment on the passing of the seasons, and the fact that my toes had gotten a bit nippy by this point, than really are a request for advice. I've had cold feet many times whilst riding, even once getting some superficial frostbite riding home from work. As a result I've spent a lot of time and quite a lot of money, trying to combat the problem down the years. But via both channels, many kind hearted mates and contacts who also bike left suggestions on what works for them. All were pretty sensible suggestions and actually things I have tried down the years. But I thought I'd bang out a few lines here on my experiences with trying to keep toes warm whilst riding to accompany some phone-snaps I took while out on the trail. It was a beautiful evening, and my phone's camera doesn't really do it justice, but these are the best I got.

It's an odd thing, I don't have big problems with cold toes anywhere except when cycling. Ice climbing - yes: occasionally they get cold. I bought some warmer boots last winter partly to combat this, but if I get cold feet ice climbing, it is normally a predictable result of choosing to climb in light boots that day. These are better for climbing in, but not so good for keeping your feet warm. If you're willing to wear old school plastic boots, your feet will stay warm almost no matter what.

But cycling is different - even in summer when the temperatures are in the teens, my toes can get cold in my road shoes. Cycling shoes are stiff; this transfers more power from your legs to the bike, but the lack of your foot flexing really limits the amount of blood that flows to your toes, and coldness easily results. The fact that I ride all my bikes with SPD (or clip in) style pedals adds to this.

So the first thing - loosen your shoes off. In summer, that is often enough. Next up, again very thin shoes covers - my came from Decathlon and are cheap 0.5 mm neoprene ones and work very well. In rainy or damp three season usage on my road bike, they're normally enough. On cooler autumn days I'll wear some thicker socks as well and make sure the shoes are pretty loose from the start.

For riding off tarmac, you're far more likely to get damp feet. And damp feet get cold quickly. For commuting and also I've used them touring, some big, slightly bulky Shimano DH-style shoes with minimal mesh sections work well. In damp conditions or as autumn turns to early winter I use water-proof socks made by SealSkinz

I've been pretty impressed with these - the membrane that makes them waterproof also makes them much warmer. I also use them a lot with more classic XC MTB shoes, like I was today. But even if they keep your feet dry, if your shoes get wet, you can get cold toes. Dry cold toes, yes, but cold all the same.

So the next step is to add over-shoes as well. I've got two different pairs, with the best being some super cheap Biltema own brand ones; the Swedes make them out of some seriously thick neoprene. The others are stupid Decathlon ones, where the zip won't lock at the back and creeps down as you ride. Been meaning to sew a velcro tab on for years to stop it! The problem with over-shoes is if you have to get off and walk. Most cycling shoes can be a bit slippy, but a layer of neoprene under them makes even MTB shoes hopeless to walk in.

Finally, for mid-winter riding, i.e. -5 or below: this is the serious business. I've come to the conclusion that the cleat on cycling shoes (metal) that itself clips into another bigger lump of metal (the pedal) conducts too much energy away from my feet. Via the sole is how you supposedly loose the most heat from your feet in winter, so it makes sense. For mid winter, I change pedals from SPDs to some basic cage-style ones with the addition of "Power Grips": a simple but really effective strap system. Then I wear a baggy leather hiking shoe, with thick wooly socks (or the Seal Skinzs), and then the neoprene over-shoes on the outer layer. That seems to work ok into the minus teens. 

As the temperatures head down toward -20, I decide I'm too old for this shit, and walk to the bus stop. 

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