Saturday, November 28

Fatbike Friday: The great boot conundrum

Sorry for the delay Brian! I managed five and half hours on the road bike yesterday thanks to Brett and Erik towing me around, followed immediately by driving up to the hospital to find my wife and wait for my new nephew Walt Berry. Congrats Betsy and Scott! That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. However I think the boot problem is a good one so here is my current, excessively researched and currently in motion plan...
Winter boots for racing the Iditarod Trail Invitational (yes my name is finally on the start list!) are an easy proposition so long as you meet two conditions. Either A) you give you your clipless pedal system and switch to flats and/or B) you have feet smaller than a size 10 US.

I have solidly size 12 flippers and find clipless pedals to be a great advantage to me. Crap, now what? Over the past few years I've debated what to do about this problem, making due in Colorado down to -5F or so with extra socks and a vapor barrier system. However there was no chance in hell I was comfortable with this system much below 0 deg F making it a total non starter for going to Alaska or the Arrowhead 135.

Others have had a lot of solutions and MTBR is a wealth of information for those willing to do the digging. MikeC has posted his solution but with feet much smaller than mine, basing my solution off Lake Winter boots seems impossible. Last year I ordered a size 48 boot just to try and while they still come in a 50 wide, there was no way even that was going to be big enough for my ideal system. Others have glued on overboots, tried large SPD sandals with various liners, ordered some really neat Shimano shoes from overseas but none of those solutions hit the "right on" button for me. I've even called cobblers, sole companies and custom cycling shoe makers in a search for something that could meet the vision in my head.

So what is my ideal solution? If I could have just what I wanted, what would it be? Now take this all with a grain of salt as I haven't slogged it out yet in super cold conditions but experience so far with different events has taught me that my research goes a long way towards being prepared. My ideal boot is one that fits me foot, with a large enough toe box for good wiggle and swelling room without an exceptionally sloppy heal. It needs to have a certain amount of insulation built into the shoe, ideally with an inner boot or liner of some sort, namely an Intuition style closed cell foam or pacboot liner. I want the shoe to be functionally waterproof as much as possible. In the summer I feel the waterproofing is detrimental but in the winter I'll be using a vapor barrier foot system and with stepping into overflow at any time a real possibility, I want maximum protection without the weight and bulk of an overboot. I know the overboot system has fans but with coming across overflow or breaking through the ice a real possibility, I want protection all the time regardless of my notice. A built in or added on full time gaiter is important as it will tie into my pants system to provide a large degree of liquid water protection for short term exposure. A sturdy rubber sole for walking traction and lug blocks with enough width to support screw installation is also key. Field serviceable parts, ie shoelaces, are a nice bonus when compared to the BOA system which works well but does wear out/break. Inexpensive (custom cycling shoes run upwards of $1000/pair) and publicly available parts are a nice bonus too. And finally, I want this system to work with SPD style, two hole clipless pedals.

So how was I going to get this ideal boot to happen as it's certainly not something on the market right now? Good question. I started out by making sure I had all the pieces of the system that I knew I was going to use or a decent approximation of them. Most important was the VB insulated sock and pacboot liners mentioned previously on the blog. With these on my foot providing appropriate foot room, sizing charts measured me out somewhere near a size 52 wide cycling shoe. In a 52 there were only a couple options available, namely Sidi and Shimano. The Sidi's come in a MEGA/wide width but their sole is not conducive to walking and the plastic would take complete removal and replacement with a rubber sole to be serviceable. The Shimano shoes seemed plausible but after seeing them in person there were several aspects of the design that made them less appealing, namely the rachet buckles, the low cut and short height toe box. If you're an glue and overboot person they might work for those of you with a size 12 shoe or less (Shimano m086 ~$100).

With cycling shoes all but eliminated I was onto winter boots. I tried on several options at REI, checked out the race reports from past years and finally settled on some boots used last year by one of the Petervary crew, Tracey. Now after some good info from T-race and a quick visit to RU Outside I've now got some winter boots on the way. They look like they've got a great sole, they lace up for great control, they're waterproof with a built in gaiter and they have both internal shoe insulation plus a removable pacboot liner. Plus they had my guesstimated winter size (13) and one size up (14) in stock and on sale. Now there is one relatively giant problem with these, they're not clipless. What? Are you going flat pedals? Nope not without a big old fight.

After some emails and an offer of help from a local orthotics company and fellow cyclist, I'm going the conversion route. The internet is full of some ghetto and not so ghetto approaches to converting regular shoes to clipless duty. The key as I see it is to make a well fitting stiff insert that approximates the shoe's last to mount the cleat to. This will provide stiffness for pedaling but primarily provide a solid place to mount the cleat to with Shimano's SPD plates or t-nuts. The goals of the insert are to be as minimally conductive as possible, ie minimal metal use, to be stiff enough to reduce excessive fatigue to the mounting points, both pedaling and insertion/removal from the pedals, to be thin enough to not excessively add to the height of the sole reducing toe box room and fit the last of the winter boot closely enough that it can be solidly and permanently anchored to the boot. Doing this all in a reliable and professional manner is a tall order but I'm sure it can be done after dissecting all the cycling shoes in the house. With a bit of carbon fiber and epoxy, some expert help and careful retrofit work, I think a good and potentially universal solution can be figured out. More to come after the boots arrive this coming week and I sit down with my partner on this project.


Cellarrat said...

Is clipping in really worth all this hassle?

your also making me glad i have size 9.5 feet


Jill said...

If anything, it sounds like a fun puzzle. I still subscribe to the KISS theory in all facets of life.

But as long as you don't fill them up with water, I'm guessing you'll be fine.

Eric said...

Good luck - you'll need it!

For a bit more info on the carbon thing see here:

Fonk said...

I'm with you when it comes to appreciation for clipless pedals, but I wonder if it would really be worth it in this case? You're probably also going to be doing a lot of walking in that race, walking in snow, ice, water, etc. It seems to me the perfect recipe for gumming up your cleats with snow & ice, leaving those clipless pedals essentially useless.

Eszter said...

Way to use that engineering degree. ;)

Glad to see you back out on the bike.

Chris said...

I know it looks like a lot of work and it probably will be but it's definitely worth it to me. Both Jeff and MikeC are on clipless so it's definitely not a problem of clipless being worthless out there, just a matter of appropriate boots. Those two just have smallish feet making the Lakes a workable proposition and further work "too much" for them.

Hopefully this method will produce a repeatable solution for others who want to go down this path.

Ben W said...

Any recommendations on vapor barrier socks?

Jim said...


I live right around the corner from you (Quail St off Countryside) and have carbon fiber, various fiberglass cloths, epoxy and a way to vacuum bag composites at home. I've also gotten orthotics from Podium and I love em! (I used to work next door to Russell).

I've got plenty of CF to play with so you can experiment to get the stiffness you want.

Drop me an email at