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Ever been handed a brand new pair of mountain bike shoes three days before your first 100-mile mountain bike race, and then you went on to win said mountain bike race, wearing said shoes, in record time?
That’s what Levi Leipheimer, winner of this year’s Leadville 100 race, did. As the story goes, Giro product managers handed him a brand new pair of Giro Code mountain bike shoes literally in the airport as he was departing California for Colorado and the race. Wearing the brand new shoes, he set a new course record.
So what exactly is the California-based company doing to make its new kicks first-time comfortable?
In taking the decision to build shoes, Giro designers leveraged every advantage they could find. One advantage was time – with no high-pressure timeline for introduction, they spent a full two years just building the shoe last.
A last is the nylon, foot-shaped form around which a shoe is built. After fully 16 revisions and a range of inputs, they settled on medium-volume lasts for the new shoes. They also made separate, differently shaped lasts for the two women’s shoes in the line (one road and one mountain, with more on the way).
Spending this kind of time just refining a foot model seems silly, especially when stock foot forms can easily be sourced off the shelf. But company designers wanted precise fit, securely molded heel cups for retention, and adequate volume to accommodate a range of foot sizes and a range of insoles.
That’s right — a range of insoles. Part of the insole option comes directly from Giro, which designed a new insole system to go with their new shoes. Called the SuperNatural Fit Kit, the system includes a stock insole that mates via Velcro to any of three different included arch supports. The arch supports dock underneath the insole (keeping the contours under your feet smooth and soft) and come in a range of low, medium and high. They’re made from firm but forgiving foam to conform to different feet.
Furthermore, knowing that many riders are turning to custom orthotics for improved comfort and arch support, Giro shoes are designed to fit with either their stock insoles or with aftermarket or custom orthotic insoles. Normally I can’t stand shoes without installing my own orthotics, but Giro’s high arch supports in the SuperNatural kit actually nearly did the trick for me, making those long hours on the bike comfortable.
The Sole is the Soul
The final piece of Giro’s fit puzzle included extensive attention to the carbon fiber soles (or plates) on top of which all the shoes are built. Company designers sought light weight, usable stiffness for power transfer, and sensible fit. To that end, they enlisted help from Easton carbon fiber engineers.
Easton and Giro are part of the same sporting goods company. Easton tested a range of competitors’ carbon soles for weight and stiffness, then designed their own to minimize weight yet retain stiffness where it was needed. They even used real time digital foot pressure mapping to understand more clearly the loads exerted on the sole of a cycling shoe.
As a result, Giro’s Easton-branded carbon soles are quite flat across their width and they are very thin at the toe and heel. They’re also competitively light and stiff, and just 6.5mm thick above the cleat, making for a very low stack height. The design contrasts with many shoe makers who have turned to cupped or concave soles with carbon that curves up around the edges and perimeter. Giro feels that designs like this inhibit comfort by confining the wearer’s feet to a rigid, unyielding “tub” of sorts. Giro wanted their soft, pliable upper to extend all the way down to the shoe sole so that any foot volume “spillover” would be free of pressure points.
Also in contrast to certain shoe designs, Giro wanted a neutral platform, free of any built-in varus or valgus wedge or cant. It’s become common for bike fitters to wedge shoes and cleats to correct perceived irregularities in rider’s pedal strokes. Some shoes have this built in. But after consulting with Todd Carver of Retul bike fitting (preferred fitter for RadioShack, Sky, HTC-Columbia, and others), Giro decided to create neutral shoes. They felt that if bike fitters wanted to add wedge correction after the fact, that was their decision but they didn’t want to force a fit on customers that didn’t need it (or didn’t know, or for that matter didn’t care).
So, ‘Bout Those Shoes
Giro’s will have three mountain bike models coming to stores in February 2011. They are the Code ($280) and Gauge ($200), and the Sica for women ($200). They all feature injection molded outsole lugs, carbon sole plates, scuff-guard armored and more supportive upper material. Their blend of competitive weight (about 350 grams) and features will make them equally at home on the race course or on epic trail rides.
Company designers pointed repeatedly to Leipheimer’s notoriously finicky involvement with shape, features and fit. He figures prominently in photography and literature. And nobody will disagree with a pro rider adopting new shoes – it’s a rarity. But who’s to say if his demands align with the needs of average cyclists everywhere? And will the shiny shoes hold up for the long haul?
So far it looks as though Giro did fine work melding magic and performance for super elite racers with comfort and traditional construction for weekend warriors.