Pros: Lightweight, stiff sole; adjustable arch support
Cons: No on-the-fly adjustments; poor ventilation
The lowdown: Form-fitting performance shoes that make a statement at a reasonable price
Giro‘s unique Empire shoes generated plenty of buzz when they debuted on the high-profile feet of Taylor Phinney at this year’s Giro d’Italia thanks to a combination of high-visibility colors and a lace-up design that harkens back to the days before clipless pedals. Giro designed the Empires specifically for Phinney, who was seeking a time trial shoe that had had the strapped-in feel of a traditional track cycling shoe with the look and feel of a soccer cleat — the sport he grew up playing.
The Empires hit it big early with Phinney’s victory in the Giro prologue, but he continued to wear his Giro Factor — Giro’s more traditional road shoes with a buckle and two Velcro straps — on the longer road stages. That is until he crashed and broke the buckle on his Factors. From then on, he wore the Empires in every race, including a pair of fourth places in the Olympic road race and time trial.
We were initially skeptical of the lace-up kicks; buckles and straps seem to be working quite well, why go back to an old-school design? When we first spotted them in fact, we didn’t expect that the Empires would even make it to market. Then at Eurobike this fall, Giro officially launched its lace-up shoe in two colorways: all black and deep silver.
The Giro Empires take some time to get used to. Our test pair fit true to size in a 42.5. The lace-up procedure is not as quick-and-easy as your standard hook-and-loop/buckle design. They may even require a couple of stops during the first couple of rides to re-lace. Similarly, it may take a couple of rides to decide which of the three arch supports works best with for your feet. It may be best to consult a professional shoe fitter if you find yourself torn between two of the sizes.
Once we mastered the lacing pattern, the Empires had one of the most conforming uppers we’ve tested. The only other shoes that can compare to the morphed-to-your-foot feel of the Empires are the 2013 Specialized S-Works, which secure with a pair of BOA reels and include a $125 price bump relative to the Empires. The S-Works and the Empire each weigh in at approximately 210 grams per shoe for a size 42.5.
The Easton EC90 carbon sole is the same that Giro uses on the popular Factor road and Code mountain bike shoes. Like our experiences with the Codes, the Empires didn’t give us any hot spots or blisters. The soles are stiff, light, and kept our feet happy, so it’s hard to argue with anything there.
The laces did stretch a bit over the first couple of rides, but after 100 miles or so the issue evaporated. It is also possible that we just got better at lacing them up at the start of the ride. As mentioned, there is a bit of a learning curve to these shoes.
The heel cup held very well and felt very secure. The soft, faux-suede liner gripped socks nicely without forming wrinkles or rubbing the wrong the way. The outer silver material is extremely lightweight and flexible.
Our only true complaint is the lack of ventilation. While it’s a great feature this time of year, we imagine that during the heat of summer the Empires might get a little hot and sweaty. We’ll keep this in mind for further testing and report back when the warmer temps return to Colorado’s Front Range.
The bottom line is that the Giro Empires are not for everyone. They have a fantastic fit with no irregularities — average width, average volume, multiple arch options all present and accounted for. The lace-up design, however, will scare away many riders. If you’re the type who loosens your shoes after warming up or you tighten down the top buckle before a town line sprint, the Empires are not for you. If you appreciate a stiff sole, conforming upper, and a classic design, the Empires are right up your alley.
At $275, the Empires fall on the inexpensive end of shoes using uppers of this quality and soles this stiff. For riders on the fence, the $275 might be a barrier too large. This is especially true in that the Giro Factors use the same sole and come with a buckle and traditional construction for $290.
At the end of a long ride, with our feet kicked up on a coffee shop stool, we love staring down at Empires. They look fantastic in their own garish way, and we would happily line up with weight weenies, soccer enthusiasts, and lovers of classic design to buy a pair.