When I think of the cycling brands that have consistently set the bar in design, Giro is one of the first names that comes to mind. I can’t think of a single dud during the company’s history. Most brands out there have had some not insignificant missteps:
- Schwinn’s application of the Paramount name to TIG-welded frames in the 1990s.
- Campagnolo Delta brakes—beautiful, but ineffective.
- Modolo Morphos levers—they did more to hurt an excellent bar maker than competition did.
- Bell V1 Pro—that single helmet did more to set back the helmet cause than any head injury.
The V1 Pro and its predecessor, the Biker, offered cutting-edge protection for one of the most important organs in your body. Unfortunately, when Star Wars hit the silver screen three years after the introduction of the Biker, the Imperial Storm Troopers looked oddly familiar and while Star Wars fashions were all the rage at roller discos, cycling in America had yet to figure out hip. The V1 Pro looked rather like a leather hairnet on steroids and rigor mortis. The two designs were similar for fairly obvious engineering reasons, but both helmets missed the boat in attractiveness and ventilation. They were successful products for their time, but large numbers of cyclists—the majority by most statistics and my memory—avoided them like cod liver oil.
Jim Gentes introduction of the Giro Prolight in 1986 was a watershed moment for bicycle racing. Had Gentes been a motorcyclist, many of us might have trouble counting the concussions we’d have had by now. The look of amateur bike racing was instantly transformed and as PROs began to wear them at stateside events, Giro helmets became almost fashionable.
Since then only Bell and Specialized have truly been able to compete toe-to-toe with Giro. Several European brands have struggled to meet ANSI requirements. It’s fair to say that while its supremacy in helmet manufacturing has been challenged, no other company has had it in its rear view mirror.
Mastering a single market segment is tough to do, so I immediately wondered why Giro would enter the eyewear category. After all, one failed product can kill a whole industry, and while it is ludicrous to think a bad bike helmet could set us back to the BLH (before leather hairnet) era, New Coke proved that a sales win could still give you a black eye.
So I asked Giro the simplest of questions: Why eyewear?
Their response: Eyewear “had become a bit stale.” Citing the company’s reputation and expertise in fit, design and engineering, they believed they could breathe new life into sunglasses designed specifically for cyclists. The following five bullet points are the response I got verbatim:
- Lens interchange systems had not evolved from the most basic “tug and snap” interface (so we developed “PopTop” technology in the Filter sunglass)
- Nobody was engineering frames to fit with modern helmets (hence, Super Fit Engineering to create temple that minimize or eliminate fit issues with helmets)
- Styles had become stagnant (so we’ve been developing 2-4 styles a year)
- Lens technology wasn’t evolving much (we’ve worked with Zeiss to develop 3 proprietary lens tints for cycling, and we’re working on lens coatings and more…)
- Benchmark products had not evolved in a decade (imagine that same scenario for frames, components, helmets, etc!)
While most of these criticisms could be leveled at any competing eyewear maker, the third and fifth points seem most particularly appropriate to Oakley; the M-frame was more than 10 years old at the point Giro began its design work and the lens shapes had hardly changed; indeed the Heater lens, which looked oh-so-stylish on John Tomac in 1991 looks positively Halloween costume today … and it’s still available.
When I first saw the eyewear line I will admit I didn’t like the look of the company’s flagship wraparound, the Havik. Love the name, didn’t dig the styling. If anything, that was a good thing. The first time I saw the M-frame with the Heater I thought it looked a little too Buck Rogers. Then it grew on me. The recent retake on the design gave the shades a larger lens, slimmer frame and is now called the Havik 2.
Giro’s designers worked hard to create ventilation points to prevent fogging. There are ports at the temples and in the nosepiece to circulate just enough air to prevent fogging. It’s a tricky balance, that. Too much airflow can dry out your eyes, which will—ironically—make them water, leaving you with the feeling that you might as well not even have glasses on for all the good they are doing. Too little airflow and they can fog up, forcing you to take them off just so you can make out the wheel ahead.
I live in a fairly humid place and if eyewear has any inclination to fog, I’ll find out when I get to the start of my morning group rides. I’ve made enough of an effort on the way there to begin to sweat, so when I stop and wait for the others to arrive, I achieve a magic confluence of cool temperatures, warm water vapor and high humidity. Every pair of glasses I’ve ever worn has fogged up. That said, how quickly the fogging occurs varies like flavors of soda. The Havik will fog a bit more slowly than Oakley’s Radar, but much compared to the Jawbone, much more slowly.
Styling and fogging are minor points really when considered against the importance of lens clarity, quality and tint. Giro touts the excellent clarity of their Zeiss optics. My experience with Zeiss lenses goes back to my first introduction to Nikon cameras and the clarity that came with even their least expensive products. I’ll take their word that the impact resistance is sufficient; if it’s not and I find out, I suspect I’ll have bigger issues to consider, so I’m not too concerned.
But on the subject of lens tint, I get very picky. On a weekend day, my eyewear must be light enough to accommodate the low-light levels of a cloudy morning and yet dark enough to protect me from the bright sun of a cloudless noon. I’ve noticed that the difference in light from 7 am to noon at my home can be five F-stops or more, which is enormous considering that aperture is a squared function.
Specialized chose to address this problem with Adaptalite technology; consequently my Specialized shades are terrific on the darkest of early mornings, and just barely do the job when I’m heading home after coffee following the Saturday ride. With the Havik 2, I’ve been riding with the Rose Silver 23Z lens, which has shown remarkable flexibility so far. I’d actually prefer something that’s just a touch on the dark side when I leave home so that the sun isn’t quite so intense at mid-day. It is one of, if not the most adaptable lens tints I’ve used.
With almost two years in the eyewear category Giro has accomplished much. Any well-capitalized company can buy a ProTour team endorsement, but getting those athletes to wear bad glasses during a race’s hardest moments is not guaranteed. Establishing distribution and a sales force able to penetrate into even conservative shops isn’t easy; anyone who has worked in a shop has memories of trusted sales reps and the reps the shop owner used the staff to run interference. Oh, and there’s one other little detail that impressed me: I’m not surprised these glasses fit Giro helmets, but I am impressed they fit helmets from Bell and Specialized; clearly, they did their homework.
Alberto Contador photo: John Pierce, Photosport International