When I was a kid, my parents had a subscription to New Yorker Magazine. They had a delightful habit of cutting out their favorite cartoons and taping them up inside the cabinet doors in our kitchen. One favorite of mine was by Edward Koren in which a large furry beast with a mouth the size of a bathtub stands behind a couple in their living room. The wife tells their company, “We deal with it by talking about it.”
That seems to be a fair way to start off a review of a pair of cycling shoes with laces.
I don’t want to dance around this. Until the Giro Empire was introduced we all thought that laces were strictly the domain of NOS Dettos and photos from the Horton Collection. I mean, laces? The blast-radius of WTF? reaches all the way to the Flemish Cap. Those neon yellow laces are Exhibit A in why Giro is the bravest company in the bike industry. I’ve not loved every product they have introduced. Indeed, they’ve introduced some stuff here and there that I’ve downright disliked. But here’s the thing: Even when I haven’t liked a product, the design elements underpinning an unusual feature that I’m not wild about have never been random, strictly for style. They are a company long on style, but never place it ahead of function.
Thinking back on the four worst aspects of my first pair of Sidis is probably a good way to assess the basic elements of the Empires. Those Sidis seemed like pretty good shoes until I switched to clipless pedals. Then all sorts of stuff started going wrong. First, the eyelets at the top of the shoe started to stretch. Second, because the eyelets were stretching, the laces effectively became longer and began to catch between the chain and big chainring. Third, the cotton laces began to break. And fourth, the reduced support for the shoe due to the lack of toe clips increased the stress on the sole just behind the cleat. Both soles snapped behind the cleat. Those are all good reasons to dismiss a pair of shoes, with prejudice.
There’s little point in introducing a pair of shoes that possess such obvious flaws, right? Still, those flaws were so monumental, I had trouble getting past an experience that occurred more than 20 years ago. Giro had more than addressed those concerns, though. The top two pairs of eyelets are reinforced. The laces are a good deal more stout than those old cotton ones and the Tejin microfiber is stout enough that while not impossible to stretch, a ride in the rain won’t result in your shoes growing by a half size. As to the silliness of having laces flopping around to get caught in a chainring, Giro included a small elastic loop to keep the laces out of the way. Those broken soles? Well there wasn’t much threat that the Easton EC90 carbon fiber soles would snap in two.
I had the sense that as I set the cleats up on the shoes and began adjusting the laces for my fit they were mocking my objections. I’m not one for personification, but if ever a pair of shoes could have managed a derisive laugh, these would have been the pair.
The one-piece Tejin upper is a marvel of construction in that finding a material that could be forced to assume such a shape wouldn’t also find a new, less-desirable shape the moment it becomes damp with road spray. Giro says the Tejin is remarkably breathable which is why there are no panels of mesh or more obviously breathable materials, just perforations to aid breathability. While I haven’t used these shoes in ultra-hot conditions, I’ve not noticed my feet becoming sweaty in familiar conditions, and they’ve been on the cool side when I’ve worn them without booties on mornings in the low 50s.
Most fitters I know turn red with apoplexy any time you try to discuss a shoe manufacturer’s insoles. I’ll agree that most are pretty awful. I’ll also agree that a custom-molded insole beats any production insole like a piece of schnitzel under a meat tenderizer. All that said, Giro’s insoles, with their replaceable arch support, are far and away my favorites on the market. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve got an extremely high arch (not to mention a foot wider than some boulevards) and the Giro insole is the only production insole that can provide support for the whole of my arch.
After riding with the included insoles for a week I went ahead and swapped them out with a pair of custom molded ones I have. This is a practice of mine that is virtually inevitable with all shoes I wear; I didn’t trim these insoles to match the shape of the insoles I removed, the upshot being that it pushes the toe box out a bit, gaining me a bit more width where I need it most, near the ball of my foot.
I’m told that if you’ve got a relationship with a good shoe repair shop a talented cobbler can stretch the Tejin a bit to customize the fit, but you need someone with both know-how and tools.
The last time someone sent me a $150 shoe to review, my feeling was that it was so crappy I didn’t see the point in reviewing something that made uncomfortable to do the two things that model was meant to accomplish: pedal and walk. With a suggested retail of $274.95, these are twice as expensive as any pair of dress shoes I’ve ever purchased, but I never asked as much of a pair of dress shoes I’ve worn. I’m also aware that some production—not custom—cycling shoes are still a good bit more expensive; I can’t make out why.
I’ve observed a number of features to recommend these shoes, but I’ve only circled the central issue of these shoes—how having laces affects the fit. Let’s consider that most cycling shoes use three straps to close, whether velcro or ratchet. Honestly, three points of adjustment isn’t much. By comparison, the Empire has seven sets of eyelets. The fit that the laces has allowed me to achieve is order magnitudes better than what I get with three straps and even better than what I can get with a Boa closure. Let me add that I’ve encountered a number of velcro straps that were too short and stiff to comfortably accommodate my wide, high-volume foot; I could barely get the strap to connect without cutting off circulation to my forefoot and toes.
A buddy on Saturday’s ride asked how on Earth I’m able to adjust the fit during my ride. My response: I don’t. I’d say that twice each year I’ll get distracted as I’m putting my shoes on and realize that either they are too loose or too tight and need to adjust them. Part of this depends on the fact that I’m not someone who rides with his shoes tightened down like a corset; I don’t see the point. I simply pull the the laces to the point that the fit is snug, but not tight, and I can do five hours in them that way.
It would be easy to pitch the Empire as a classic case of making an old idea new, but the truth is simpler, more compelling, less derivative. Seven sets of eyelets simply give you more control over fit through a greater length of the shoe. It’s an idea we should never have stopped chasing.