I don’t usually (ever) give gear awards (though I might start, now that I know that companies pay to enter those contests – did you know that? Some of those “best gear” and “best places to work” and “best places to live” aren’t really contests as much as paid advertisements? I know this because one of those “Outside Magazine Best Places to Work” winners told me how much it cost them to be allowed to “enter” and participate in the process in hopes of being chosen. Don’t believe me? Sometimes I feel I’m too cynical, but then I hear about things like that and things like this and I think I’m a downright Pollyanna after all).
So, my point. I don’t give gear awards because the entire concept is silly. It’s rare that one piece of gear tops all others in every category for every person. In the category relating to the product featured in this review, for instance, there’s really only one other contender in the entire gear lexicon and I didn’t have a chance to try it out. And even if I did, I haven’t tried all conceivable other pieces of gear in the world to judge whether or not they outperform the others. That’s what you’d have to do to pick a “gear of the year” with any authority at all. See? So I’ve no idea whether these Lake 303s would be the overall winner, but I am very impressed with them.
Winter cycling here in Alaska is not at all like “winter cycling” anywhere else. There’s something about nine full months of bitter winter that makes it a little more full-on. I think just about anyone can shiver through a few sub-zero rides or a bad gear choice or two. But when you’re riding 3+ hours into what in the lower 48 qualifies as “wilderness” almost five times a week no matter the weather, you’ve got to figure out a good system.
I’ve been struggling with this for a while. I’m really only in my third season of fat bike riding in winter, and a lifetime of frostbite and frostnip episodes have accumulated into excruciatingly cold-sensitive extremities. I get cold even in summer sometimes (bear in mind our summer is, similarly, not at all like Lower 48 summer) and the fact that cycling shoes usually have extensive venting systems vexes me regularly. Last August I was doing mountain rides in full neoprene booties, which worked OK except that those things are meant for daintily zipping along on a road bike and being removed from your shoes the second your foot is unclipped from the pedal. They’re not at all meant for hikeabiking up a mystery pass over scree. So, my booties are destroyed and my feet still get cold.
When winter rolled around this year I was saddened to put my clunky old flat pedals back on my bike. To my frustration, even switching to flat pedals and “rated to -40” mushing boots still left my feet nipped on many occasions, sometimes quite badly. I didn’t have high hopes for the Lakes, which seek to solve the problem of how to continue using clipless pedals in the winter while not losing one’s feet to frostbite, because I thought there was no way to insulate against the clip – basically a giant hunk of metal attached to the bottom of your foot.
The first iteration of Lakes evidently didn’t solve that conundrum, and people reported varying degrees of success, but by the end of the season most serious Anchorage snow bikers were sporting the boots and keeping their clipless for the duration. When the company came out with a new version this year, I asked to try them out and was ecstatic to have the option for clipless. I got them the day before leaving to bike the Denali Highway in what was likely to be single digit temps, so I was a little reluctant to put them to the fire test right away, but once I test-rode my bike and experienced the extra power and control lent by clipless, I knew I’d have to try the boots on my trip. I hate riding with flat pedals. I’d take the risk. I added heated socks, neoprene booties, and gaiters, and launched (after about a half hour of putting all that stuff on).I logged almost a hundred miles on that trip with my cobbled-together stay-warm system, and kept all my toes. I was highly encouraged. My friends, all on flat pedals and big boots, were jealous of my clipless pedals and I’d no intention of going back to clunky, inefficient flat pedals. Since then I’ve refined my system for using the Lakes and I have NEVER HAD COLD FEET AGAIN the entire winter. That’s in all caps because it’s so amazing. Me, the queen of cold feet. I don’t have cold feet anymore. I can ride in total foot comfort.
So it took this long to get to the point of this article: the specifics of the boots. They don’t come in half sizes, nor in women’s sizes. Ordinarily I find that kind of annoying, since fit does matter, but for the way these boots function, it doesn’t matter much. You’ll want to get them at least a half size or full size up since you’re going to need heaters and thick socks. The basic method that most people use around here is going a full size or two up, then piling on the socks and letting the foot slide around inside the boot, creating a little friction and keeping things warmer. Since you’ll be riding them a size too big, the fact that the heel cup isn’t optimized for a woman’s foot almost doesn’t matter. I really only notice it when I have to hike up a hill, in which case my heel lifts out of the heel cup. Over long distances this could be a problem, but hopefully if you’re riding a bike you won’t have to hike long distances. If you do, well, a bike isn’t what you should be using for that trip, I’d say. If you’re stuck with it, though, you’ll appreciate the flex in the Lakes which make them relatively comfortable for walking.
The closure system is simple and effective; a boa-style cable cinch over the arch of the foot and a clip to secure the built-in gaiter. The clip closure can be tightened by adjusting a velcro strap which is enough of a pain in the ass that I never adjust it. It’s the one downside to an otherwise very well done closure system (mostly I say that because I just don’t like velcro). It’s meant to be a “set it and forget it” type of adjustment which is good; relying on velcro closures in cold weather and snow just isn’t practical.
For the best warmth performance, I added a reflective footbed and wear a chemical heater on the top of each foot at the toes, and layer a gaiter over the boot to keep heat from escaping the top of the boot and to keep snow from getting down inside the boot if I step in a deep drift. This seems to work great even in temps into the single digits, which is amazing considering that my -40 musher boots don’t even keep me warm in those temps with a chemical warmer. Since I got my system dialed in for me, I’ve yet to get cold toes on a ride. This is huge considering that up until now, I never finished a winter ride WITHOUT cold toes. It’s a whole new world now.
Generally this experiment is a great success and with some tweaking to your own preferences, the Lakes can keep you warm all winter so you don’t have to sacrifice your clipless pedals; great news for any serious cyclist. As the company continues refining its design, I’d like to see women’s sizing as well as a nod to the fact that winter boots shouldn’t be shaped like cycling shoes with a narrow toebox. There’s no need for that as the point of winter boots is to stay warm, not optimize performance. Having more room in the toebox would eliminate the need to buy the boots too big. I think this issue is just a symptom of the cycling industry’s general reluctance to step too far outside of “The Way Things Are Done” because in this case, it just doesn’t make sense. But maybe snow biking didn’t make sense until the last year or two, and we’ll see some changes soon. Innovation is something we desperately need to make cycling more accessible and flat-out fun, and Lake is doing a great job enabling the snow bike crew to keep improving the experience.