Monday, December 12, 2011

Toasty Toes: Shimano SH-MW81 - Review

Sometimes the gear you use can lead a ride to be a miserable sufferfest instead of a cherished memory. 

I love riding, but sometimes I get cold feet. Literally. On the Double Roubaix I wore a pair of Pearl Izumi Barrier GTX boots. They’re great shoes, but they don’t fit me. Like most cycling shoes they are too narrow for my Fred Flintstone feet so I ended up with numb toes 1/2 way through the ride. I got lucky with my first pair of Bontrager RXLs – they actually fit. I didn’t even try anything else on. There was a 50% off sale on all shoes and they were the only ones in my size (43). I wasn't looking for a carbon soled race shoe, but I ended up with one. Since then, I’ve tried Sidi, Specialized, Mavic and several others to no avail. They’re all too narrow. (I got a second pair on sale when I found they Bontrager was about to change their design.) Too narrow is an even bigger problem when it’s cold. The tight shoe restricts circulation resulting in cold feet. When there's an option to get the right gear, I'll find it rather than suck it up and suffer. I'll HTFU by training - not enduring numb toes.

In Boulder, where the population of dedicated cyclists is unusually high, it’s somewhat surprising that very few shops actually carry winter shoes. I had researched several brands and Lake and Northwave seemed like good options, but they were nowhere to be found locally. Online is an option, but a scary one given that shoes rarely fit me. Once I found that a local shop carried winter MTB shoes by both Sidi and Shimano, I headed over. It was Friday after all and I had a 4 hour ride planned for the next day where the high was only supposed to be 45. Fortunately for me, The Shimano MW81 fit perfectly in size 44 (one size up from my normal). It was one of those situations where the fit was absolutely perfect right away. I added my cleats and was set to go.

Shimano SH-MW81

The ride began at around 32 degrees, went to a high of near 50 and dropped back to 36. I was comfortable the entire time. There were a couple points in the cold part of the day where I could feel a bit of cold coming through the sole, but to be fair I was not wearing particularly heavy socks. They were a lightly padded set of Smartwool socks. I could easily fit warmer socks and would probably feel fine. When it warmed up to 50, I wasn’t sweating. The MW81 has a perforated synthetic leather upper.  In conjunction with the Gore-Tex liner, this allows the shoes to breath and have durability.

Our toes don’t move much in cycling shoes. No big deal when it’s warm, but that movement brings circulation and warmth. I have just enough room to wiggle my toes in these. It’s not sloppy mind you, but there is wiggle room (pun intended). 

The stiff soles have a minimalist tread pattern, but what exists is pretty grippy. Shimano uses a softer rubber on these so they won't slip around (unlike most other bike shoes). The softer rubber compound provides traction while the minimalist tread design allows easy mud and snow clearing. It seemed to work for me. I'm not sure why it's yellow, but there is also a mid-arch patch to protect the sole if you jump on the pedals and don't engage right away. The sole also felt plenty stiff. My RXLs have a full carbon sole with zero flex. Riding for over four hours I never once missed this firm platform. Bonus. 
Soft rubber + minimal tread = traction & mud shedding. 

The MW81, has a horrible name, but a smart design. The three wide straps don’t put too much pressure anywhere, something that could restrict circulation. These straps are likely to last a very long time, unlike other shoes using the BOA lace system which get several reports of breaking. The shoes have a semi-boot look. They look like a somewhat fat cycling shoe with a floppy neoprene ankle cover. In fact this is what they are, and it makes a lot of sense. The floppy ankle gasket provides some insulation and helps seal out snow, but it doesn't restrict movement. Cycling may not move many toes, but it does engage the ankle. I hadn't noticed this benefit until after I had already made my purchase and was many miles down the road. In fact, the best thing I say to compliment them is that while riding I forgot I was wearing a high topped shoe.

Solid piece of kit. We’ll see how they last over the long term, but from what I have experienced so far I expect good things.  


  1. Have you had the chance to test these shoes in very wet conditions?

  2. It's not too wet here on CO. Mostly it's been cold and snowy. I haven't used them tromping in and out of the snow too much, so I'm probably not the best judge on their waterproofness. I can say that unlike regular shoes with covers, I've never had my feet wet from the tromping I have done or from road spray.

  3. Which shop in Boulder did you find that carries these?

  4. Ben - I got them at Excel Sports. FYI - I'm not maintaining Gravel Quest any longer so you'll finder newer reviews, reports, and drivel over at