Northwave Celsius XC Arctic GTX winter shoe review: Solid fit, toasty toes

Northwave ditches the XC ski boot model for a more cycling-specific one that offers better foot holding and feel.

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I’ve ridden a lot of winter-specific cycling shoes over the years, and one thing I’ve noticed is how often they’ve mimicked cross-country ski boots with a separate inner liner and outer shell, some sort of speed lace arrangement inside, and then a zip-up outer. To the credit of brands that have gone this route, the design has been popular because it’s warm. 

But it also often hasn’t fit as well as you’d expect for a cycling shoe. Those insulated inner boots are usually lacking in support and structure, and then the outer shell further adds to the bulky and vague feel.

Northwave’s winter range are made as cycling shoes first and foremost, with the parallel mission of keeping your feet warm. The Celsius XC Arctic GTX is built much like the brand’s regular road shoes, so they fit better, they feel better, they’re more efficient, and yet — surprise! — they still keep your little piggies from freezing.

A recipe for success

Apart from appearances, the Celsius XC Arctic GTX is pretty conventional in its design and construction. It’s built with a synthetic leather outer shell in Northwave’s standard asymmetrical wraparound format, reinforced with TPU around the outer perimeter, and secured with the company’s own SLW3 dial-style closure. That’s all securely stitched to a lightly insulated neoprene liner complete with a waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex liner membrane, a tall elastic ankle cuff to help seal out cold and water, and a bit of extra insulation around the toes. 

The tall neoprene cuff isn’t as nicely shaped as I would prefer, but it seals up top well enough, and it’s quite flexible around the ankle.

While this is technically still a double-layer design, it’s still more similar to a standard cycling shoe since it’s all connected together, and the end result is thinner than having two wholly separate components.

Northwave’s SLW3 system is worthy of more detailed discussion since it’s probably not what you’re used to seeing with dial-style closures on cycling shoes. Whereas most Boa-branded closures pull two wires at a time, the Northwave system uses a single cord that’s rigidly anchored at one end and criss-crossed across the top of the upper. Turning the dial tightens the cord in roughly 1 mm steps, and while the system also allows you to loosen things in similarly fine increments, you do so by pushing a small switch instead of turning the dial in the opposite direction. Pulling up on that switch releases the cord all at once.

Down below on the Celsius XC Arctic GTX is a carbon-reinforced nylon plate with the same “Jaws” tread design that Northwave has been using for ages, complete with a two-bolt cleat interface and optional toe spikes. There’s a road-specific model with a three-bolt interface and more pared-down tread — the Celsius R Arctic GTX — but I’m of the opinion that walkable two-bolt pedal systems make more sense in wintertime so that’s the direction I opted to go in for this review.  

The SLW3 dial-style closure system is exclusive to Northwave, but it works well.

Northwave offers the Celsius XC Arctic GTX in two colors — grey or fluorescent yellow, both with lots of reflective detailing — in sizes 37-49 with half-sizes from 39-46. Retail price is US$280 / AU$400 / £215 / €250, and actual weight for my pair of size 43 test shoes is 897 g.

Fully baked

The primary objective of any winter cycling shoe is to keep your feet warm, and these certainly did the trick for me. One test ride in particular never got warmer than -6°C (21°F), and yet my toes were only just slightly chilly after a couple of hours when combined with my trusty Handlebar Mustache winter socks

But do they keep your feet dry? That I unfortunately can’t tell you, seeing as how Colorado has been in the midst of a particularly severe drought for many months now. But as with any winter shoe — Gore-Tex or not — and given the design, I’d expect these would do a good job in anything other than a prolonged downpour (in which case you’d probably be better off with dedicated shoe covers, or just by staying home).

The Gore-Tex membrane promises to keep cold wind and water at bay.

It’s the quality of fit where the Celsius XC Arctic GTX shoes really shine. 

To be clear, these aren’t going to rival top-end summer shoes in that respect. However, the form-fitting shape and well designed closure system still offer a pleasantly snug and even fit that’s better than most winter-specific cycling shoes I’ve used in the past. The toe box is a little more tapered than I’d prefer (Northwave is an Italian company, after all), but there’s a decent amount of room up there and good width overall to maintain blood flow when wearing slightly thicker socks. 

As usual with Northwave, that more generous width extends through the midsection and heel, and the overall volume is a bit higher than average, too. I had a bit of heel slip in some situations, but I very much fall into that narrow heel category. And although my instep is definitely also very low, I didn’t have any issues getting the tightness where I wanted it. 

The rear half of the shoe is decorated with a lot of reflective detailing.

The neoprene cuff is reasonably tight around the top, but I would have preferred the shaping further down to be a little more refined. Then again, that collar already makes it a little trickier to get these on and off as it is, so a closer cut might not be practical. Northwave thankfully includes two beefy pull loops to make the process a little less arduous. Some might question why Northwave didn’t go with a more open design with a Velcro closure here, but I think this was the right way to go since it leaves the collar more flexible (and less likely to leak). 

Some might be bummed that Northwave doesn’t just go the Boa route, but the SLW3 closure system works just fine. It’s a little clunky and not quite as intuitive to operate as Boa’s Li2 or IP1 systems, but it provides the same level of adjustability. If anything, my guess is it’s less prone to loosening up over time since the internal ratchet only has to operate in one direction (which is good since Northwave isn’t likely to offer the same stellar long-term support as Boa).

Arch support is fairly minimal, though the plus side of that higher volume is that there’s plenty of room to drop in a more supportive insole (I went with Solestars here, which were a dramatic improvement over stock). And while the tread design might seem plenty aggressive, it’s not the best for wintertime conditions.

I’d like to see Northwave follow the lead of winter automotive tire brands here with a rubber compound that’s grippier and more pliable when it’s cold outside. Coincidentally, Northwave does partner with Michelin on other shoe models so this doesn’t seem like it’d be that much of a stretch.

Arch support is very minimal, though most riders will find there’s plenty of room inside the shoe to drop in a different insole.

Otherwise, I really don’t have much to complain about — and I love nitpicking shoes, mind you. 

Well, OK, fine, maybe there’s one thing. These are quite expensive, especially for shoes that will only ever get used in cold temperatures. However, let me say this: if you’ve ever struggled to keep your feet warm on a ride and have never tried dedicated winter footwear, you don’t know what you’re missing. And because Northwave actually did a good job with these, you won’t really be giving anything up in return for those warm feet.

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