It might be March, but don't tell that to all those half-frozen humans living in the Midwest and East Coast, where it's been one of the worst winters on record. For many, riding outside in subzero conditions is absolutely out of the question. But for those few lunatics who have to get their fix outdoors on the bike no matter how wet, cold and oppressive the winter has been, some good insulated footwear is required to keep the feet from becoming ice blocks.

My feet have always been the weak link when it comes to cold winter rides on the bike. No matter how many pairs of thick wool socks I put on, my toes go numb within the first hour of a ride. Actually, my winter rides don't really begin until I can't feel my toes anymore.

Since wearing booties on a mountain bike ride absolutely sucks and wearing a plastic bag between two layers of socks keeps my feet warm in a pinch, yet sweaty as all hell, I decided that a legitimate pair of winter mountain bike shoes was needed. Thankfully there's no shortage of options out there, and I was able to rustle up four different shoes courtesy of Shimano, Specialized, Mavic and Lake.

Specialized Defroster

Weight (pair of size 47): 1150 grams
Price: $200
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I got to use the Specialized Defroster in a number of different scenarios including full on mountain bike rides in 15 degree temperatures and a 90-mile road ride in the mid-30 degree temperatures, which is what makes the Defroster so great - it's extremely versatile. While a few other shoes have gnarly, aggressive tread, the Defroster has a more subdued outsole that could almost pass for a winter road shoe but still has enough tread to handle most muddy and snowy conditions.

The injection-molded midsole offers a reasonable amount of stiffness for good power delivery, yet still flexes nicely when off the bike and hiking up hills. But for real nasty mud and snow, you'll need to use toe spikes because the Defroster tread alone isn't quite aggressive enough.

Thinsulate 400 gram insulation lining keeps heat in while letting moisture escape, and even on the coldest rides, with one Merino wool sock layer, my feet stayed surprisingly warm. My hands were a different story though. I think I did permanent nerve damage to them on a 15-degree ride with a three-mile downhill.

This was the first pair of shoes I ever had with the BOA closure system, and it kicked ass. Lightweight, simple, and effective, the BOA system is flawless, however, it can be subject to user error. There is a tendency to want to over-tighten the BOA closure, which not only cuts off blood flow to an ever expanding foot and making it cold, but also causing pain on the top of the foot. It was happening to me until a friend said to loosen the BOA closure. After I backed off, the shoe was much more comfortable and warmer too.

The neoprene upper collar with a seam-sealed internal bootie does an exceptional job of comfortably locking in heat and keeping water out, and the wider toe box for thicker socks was a welcome feature for my gargantuan feet.

A sheet rubber heel and toe make the Defroster look durable, while a flap over the midsection of the shoe gives it a distinct bootie-type look. A few of my roadie buddies mistook the Defroster for a road shoe with a winter bootie over it.

Who is this shoe for?

The Defroster is perfect for someone who wants one shoe to do both winter road and mountain bike rides. It's capable enough to handle wet, muddy and extremely cold conditions off-road, but also sleek and low profile enough to look good as a winter road-riding shoe (provided you put mountain bike pedals on your road bike).

Continue to Page 2 for the Shimano MW81 shoe review »

Shimano MW81

Weight (pair of size 47): 1016 grams
Price: $230
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My first pair of legit mountain bike shoes back in 1992 was from Shimano. Ever since then I've always had at least one pair of Shimano shoes in my closet, so when the MW81 showed up on my doorstep, I knew they were going to satisfy, and they did.

The first thing I noticed about the MW81 was that the shoes were extremely lightweight; nearly 100 grams lighter than the next lightest shoe, the Mavic Drift. The svelte weight gave me a little cause for concern. Would they be warm enough?

After a few rides on both the road and the trail that hovered at the freezing mark, my feet came back completely comfortable, cozy and warm. In fact, for me, the Shimano MW81 was the most comfortable all-around, all-purpose shoe of the test. Its simple, three-strap Velcro design with a well-executed neoprene upper ankle gaiter lets your foot effortlessly slip inside, cradling the ankle perfectly. No tight spots, no discomfort whatsoever.

The MW81 uses a Gore-Tex lining to keep foot heat in while still letting moisture escape while a fleece insole keeps out cold air from below. Like the Specialized Defroster, the MW81 is a terrific shoe for both road and mountain bike duty, with a capable yet low-profile outsole that features spike mounts and a yellow pedal rest midsole.

A stiff polyamide sole with glass fiber delivers good performance even on the road, yet offers enough flex so that hike-a-bike sections of trail are easy on the feet. What I like most about the MW81 is that it's an exceptional all-around performer. It does everything well while keeping your feet warm and dry.

Who is this shoe for?

Like the Defroster, the Shimano MW81 is ideal for someone who wants a winter shoe that can be used both on the trail and on the road. It's also great for those who like a lightweight shoe that's simple, durable, extremely comfortable and gets the job done without much fanfare. If I had to pick one shoe to do all my winter riding, this would be the one.

Continue to Page 3 for the Mavic Drift shoe review »

Mavic Drift

Weight (pair of size 46): 1088 grams
Price: $200
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Having worn a few different Mavic mountain bike shoes over the past couple years - including racing an entire week of the Breck Epic in a pair - I was excited to try the winter version of Mavic mountain bike kicks called the Drift.

The first thing I noticed on the Drift was the super aggressive Contagrip outsole tread pattern. And with a pair toe spikes up front; the Drift is without a doubt made for going muddin'. Lots of reflective accents are great for visibility in the evening or night, and a solid Ergo-Fit insole gives terrific support. The midsole is a perfect balance of stiffness for power delivery and flex for walking.

If you foresee a lot of backcountry snow and mud hike-a-bike, the Drift should definitely be on your short list, as they deliver among the best off-road traction in the test. However, there's one somewhat serious issue here, at least for my feet it was.

The Drift was the least comfortable shoe for me in the test. It seems as though the Drift started as a traditional Mavic mountain bike shoe that just had a Gore-Tex neoprene ankle gusset attached to it. Although the Drift is fully waterproof and the ankle gusset keeps heat in while letting moisture out, unlike the other three shoes in the test, the lower-to-upper section is not a one-piece design. Where the traditional shoe stops below the ankle, it started digging into the side of my foot because of the neoprene upper, causing some annoying discomfort, especially when walking off the bike.

Who is this shoe for?

Thanks to its aggressive outsole tread pattern and waterproof Gore-Tex liner, the Drift is perfect for those who want tons of grip and warmth in mud and snow while still delivering stiff pedaling performance while on the bike. The two-piece lower and upper neoprene insert however may cause annoying ankle discomfort.

Continue to Page 4 for the Lake MXZ 303 shoe review »

Lake MXZ 303

Weight (Pair of size 47): 1560 grams
Price: $308
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If a moonboot and a Wolverine work boot had sex, the MXZ 303 would be their spawn. Without a doubt the Lake MXZ 303 was the most impressive shoe out of the box, and the heaviest. These kicks look more like a mountaineering boot than a winter mountain bike shoe. The first thing I noticed about the MXZ 303 was the rich smell of genuine full-grain Pittards WR100 leather. Simply awesome. Another awesome aspect of the MXZ 303 is the über-aggressive Vibram Mountain V outsole for insane amounts of grip in mud and snow.

Slipping my feet into the MXZ 303 felt like slipping my feet into a perfect fitting pair of UGG boots. The MXZ 303 was by far the most comfortable overall shoe in the test. The BOA side-secure mechanism is a better design than what's on the Defroster, preventing you from accidentally over-tightening.

As far as keeping heat in, the MXZ 303 has some serious technology going on. Featuring a full 3M Thinsulate liner to help the feet breathe, the MXZ 303 also has Outlast inserts that can actually regulate internal shoe temperature, trapping foot heat and retaining it when needed, then releasing it when an adequate temperature is reached. A Thermosol composite insulation insole uses an air-trapping barrier to keep cold air from entering below the foot.

So yeah, subzero conditions in the MXZ 303 was nothing for these kicks. They were ridiculously warm from start to finish. My feet were extremely comfortable and happy, and all I had to wear was a thin pair of normal cycling socks. Perhaps the only downside to the MXZ 303 is that because it's so big and burly, you might have issues with the inside of the shoe occasionally rubbing the crank arm. Also, the fiberglass-injected, high-impact nylon midsole in the MXZ 303 definitely doesn't feel as stiff as the other three shoes when pedal mashing out of the saddle.

Who is this shoe for?

If you're planning to flee the Zombie Apocalypse by bike in the dead of winter, or if you like to ride fat bikes in the middle of January in northern Minnesota, this is the shoe you want. It's by far the most comfortable, warmest and most aggressive shoe in the test. Hell, I would even use these shoes for other purposes like hiking and après-ski. They're that warm and comfortable. Plus they just look badass. The MXZ 303 might not as versatile as the Defroster or MW81, but if you're looking for the burliest shoe for hardcore winter mountain biking, these kicks are choice.