Warmer feet for recumbent riders.

 U.S. Marine Sgt. Jose Gonzales and retired Marine Cpl. Travis Greene push through snow flurries during the 10-kilometer recumbent bike portion of the Warrior Games, May 13, 2010, at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Photographer: Senior Airman Christopher Griffin.  (I, Robert, had nothing to do with this photo or race. I just think it looks like a great moment in sports.)

I don’t know if there’s a Facebook page dedicated to it, but I would like to declare that I’m a “fan” of warm feet.  On cold winter rides, such a very strong preference can be problematic, especially on a recumbent bike where one pedals soles-of-the-feet-first into frigid temps, made still colder by windchill.  While winter temperatures alone can make your feet cold, while bicycling, the windchill makes it bite that much more, whether it’s at your feet, your hands, or your ears.

The problem is made worse by cleats like Shimano SPDs or Crank Brothers because the metal cleat in the bottom of your shoe conducts cold into your shoe.  This is a good reason to abstain from cleats during the winter.  Winter riders may also be interested in this blog entry, illustrated by Mike Clelland, where we discuss ways to stay warm when the heat is off.  Among the important points are that you must keep your insulating layers dry and it is crucial to avoid tight and constricting clothing.  These last cause a loss of circulation.  That loss in circulation, however slight, will make you colder.  Also, dress in layers, not only so you can remove clothes as you get warm, but also because warm air gets sandwiched in the layers.

In my time as a recumbent rider, here are some of the solutions I’ve tried.

Insulated shoe insole: $20
An easy way to make your biking shoes warmer is to replace the standard insole — this is the insert that goes between the bottom of your sock and the hard sole of the shoe — with an insulating layer.  This is particularly good for recumbent riders, as opposed to standard frame riders, because it protects the bottom of your foot from windchill.  You can buy various inserts.  I’ve seen them made of felt and 3M Thinsulate(TM).

Insulated shoe insole, Do It Yourself (“DIY”): 10 cents
I made a pair of insulated insoles by taking an old “ensolite” foam sleeping pad I no longer use for camping.  Here’s how to do it.  Take out the original insoles from your biking shoes.  Place them on the pad.  Trace around them with a pen.  Cut out the shapes with an X-Acto knife.  Stick them back in your shoes.  Put them on and ride.

At first, the homemade insoles made my shoes tighter, but as I rode, they flattened out.  The results were dramatic.  For a cost of pennies, and 10 minutes of time, I created a pair of insulated biking shoes.  If your original insoles have arch support that you don’t want to lose, you can try re-inserting the original insoles after the ensolite insoles have flattened out a bit.  Pictures of the process follow.

Trace the original insole, in pen, on the scrap of “ensolite” foam pad.
Use an X-Acto knife to cut out the shape. Insert it into the shoe.
And voila, insulated bike shoes for recumbent riders.

Bike shoes with thick wool socks: $25
This is my preferred solution if the temps are above 25F or so.  Thick socks are warmer than thin socks, yes, but you can only go just so thick until you can no longer fit your feet into your shoes.  I’ll add shoe covers, if necessary.  Add a vapor barrier or neoprene sock and you’ve got a decent cold weather riding shoe.

Vapor barriers and plastic bags: $0.10-$45
Ultimately, this is one of the best all around solutions and it may work with your summer bike shoes.

When you’re active, whether riding or hiking, your feet sweat.  That moisture then enters your insulating layer, whether that be socks or insulated shoes or boots.  That moisture dramatically inhibits the power of your warm insulating layer, which means unprotected and cold feet.  Vapor barriers work by preventing evaporated body moisture — sweat — from entering the insulating layer.  You can buy commercial vapor barriers for your feet, which cost between $8 and $45 or so.  Instead of commercial vapor barrier socks, you can also use plastic bags, and this isn’t the half-a** solution you might imagine; it works extremely well.  Bread bags are particularly good, foot-sized, and hard-wearing, but I’ve also used light-weight bulk vegetable bags.  The vapor barrier is worn as a first layer on your bare feet or over a thin liner sock of synthetic or wool.  Next, put on your warm insulating layer and then your shoes or boots.  If you expect the weather to be very cold or wet and you’re wearing non-waterproof shoes, you may also wish to put a second plastic bag between your insulating layer and your shoe.  This keeps the insulating layer dry and also inhibits additional windchill effect.  Some of us may be concerned about appearances, “I don’t want people seeing me with plastic bags under my SIDIs,” but who cares what others think.  For one thing, you’re riding a recumbent; you’ve already decided you don’t care what others think.  And other riders might be too cold to notice (or say anything about it).  (Truth is, your feet are hanging out there in front of you.  Everyone’s going to notice.  Again, who cares.)  A couple brands and links:
Warmlite (with extended explanation of how vapor barriers work)
RBH Designs
Integral Designs
The “Oware” blog entry about using neoprene socks and plastic bags as vapor barriers
Short video of plastic bag method:

Bicycle shoes with shoe covers: $30+
This works extremely well if you begin with vapor barriers.  However, putting aside vapor barriers for a moment, let’s start with shoe covers: some are better and warmer than others.  The good ones are, of course, more expensive.  Neoprene shoe covers are the warmest, but, since they don’t breathe, use them with care.  If you don’t use vapor barriers and then cover your entire shoe with a neoprene shoe cover, your foot’s sweat will almost certainly create a lot of moisture in the inner layers.  If your feet then get cold in addition to sweaty, over a long ride you may develop immersion foot (trench foot).  This can become a medical emergency, even without the trench.

However, if you start with vapor barriers, you can turn your favorite summer bike shoes into a capable pair of winter shoes.  Start with a thin neoprene vapor barrier/sock.  Put on your road shoes.  Then add the neoprene shoe cover.  If you can afford a second pair of shoes for winter, get them one or two sizes too large.  Then, add a heavy wool sock over the neoprene vapor barrier before putting on your shoe.  Add the neoprene shoe cover and your feet will be just as cozy as.  There is a limit to this solution though.  The neoprene covers that I’ve seen are mostly open on the bottom, leaving the sole of your shoe exposed to serious wind chill.  So, while your feet will be warmer than they would be without the cover, at brutally cold temps, you’ll be better off with a shoe or boot that is insulated at the sole.

Winter cycling boots: $200+
Shimano and some other makers have nice insulated winter riding boots.  Add a vapor barrier and warm socks and you’ll be good to some pretty low temps.  Cover it all with a neoprene booty and you’re all the warmer.  It’s still not as warm as low-temp Pac Boots and platform pedals, or warm socks/shoes and a fairing, but, as far as solutions, it’s the most don’t-I-look-like-a-cyclist-as-I-buy-a-muffin-at-Bunbury’s?

Bicycle shoes with cheap shoe covers that I’ve windproofed with duct tape: $30.02+
This works pretty well but it looks like crap.  And the tape prevents the covers from stretching nicely over your shoes.  But it works in an emergency.  Apply the duct tape after you’ve put on the covers over your shoes.

Insulated winter hiking boots or running shoes: $130+
One of my preferred solutions when it’s below 25F.  I have a pair of Keen 15-degree insulated hiking boots that are fairly light and make for good winter riding shoes.  Add a vapor barrier, a chemical foot warmer and a thick wool sock and they’re about as warm as I need for winter rides in the New York City area.  I’ll use a good, grippy pedal and I’m pleased as punch that I’m riding at all, given it’s the middle of winter.  If you want insulated “cleatable” biking boots, they do exist, but I’ve never seen them in a local bike shop.  The market must be too small.  Find them via Google.

If you need insulated (non-cleated) boots or shoes for severely cold weather riding, search for the general category of “Pac Boot.” At this time, I’m recommending the brand “Baffin,” a Canadian company. They make a range of cold weather sports boots that are relatively light in weight, flexible, and extremely warm. Among the various models, they make a cold weather, low-top, sports shoe, “The Leader,” rated to -20C/-4F that would make a great riding shoe.

Chemical foot warmers: $1 each, for five hours of warmth.
Good emergency warmth.  When it’s cold, I always carry a pair of chemical foot warmers that are good for about 5 hours of warmth.  Thin enough to fit inside almost any biking shoe or boot, I’ll stick in warmers if my original solution proves not to be warm enough or if I’m out till evening and the temperature starts to drop.  As for whether it’s better to put them on top of your toes, or under your foot, in the arch, I don’t know.  I usually put them under the arch.

Neoprene toe covers inside your bike shoes: $20
Not recommended.  For me, these worked better on a standard-frame bike, where my feet are traveling toe-first into the wind, rather than on a recumbent bike, where I need insulation on the bottom of my foot, but I rarely use my toe covers and have never really been happy with them.

Biking sandals or Crocs with multiple layers of thick socks: $30-$100
Crocks work surprisingly well if you don’t need clipless pedals, because the sole is so thick and insulating and the foam rubber grips the pedals well.  Some folks swear by using biking sandals with heavy socks.  I haven’t tried the sandals but I believe this would be a good solution.

Terracycle “XT” fairing, in the spring.

Front fairing or full fairing: $125+
Fairings are the ultimate cold-weather tool for recumbent riders and are possibly the classiest solution.  A front fairing does a good job of keeping the windchill off your feet and the faster you go the better the wind-chill protection (and the greater the speed improvement).  A full fairing is wonderful if you can fit one to your bike.  The full fairing entirely blocks the wind and the heat generated by your working body warms the air inside.  I’ve heard complaints that it can get too hot inside the fairing, even on a cold day, and this highlights the drawback: it’s hard to regulate the temperature in a full fairing unless there are vents.  Personally, as a city dweller who sometimes puts his bike on public transit, I prefer to use a small front fairing — if I use one at all — like a Terracycle Windwrap XT because it doesn’t inhibit moving the bike around small spaces.  A larger fairing can be unwieldy going in and out of buildings and on and off trains.  Also, fairings are one of those things that are so beautiful when they’re brand new, that I’m concerned — too concerned, really — about scratching them when I move around the bike.  …And a large fairing is easier to scratch than a small fairing.  This is silly, I admit.  A scratched fairing works just as well as a clear fairing and they’re not designed for you to look through (or at) anyway.  I love seeing riders with old and beat up fairings who are able simply to enjoy the benefits without babying them.

Robert Matson
New York City Recumbent Supply
The Innovation Works, Inc.
copyright 2012 Robert Matson

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