'Matter'

MATTER: Giro’s Empire SLX and VR90 Shoes – Smash Pedals in Style and Comfort

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Why Giro?

For bike riders who wear club or team costumes every, if not nearly every time they ride outside, there are but a few opportunities to express personal style: helmets, glasses, gloves, socks and shoes. Each piece – for the discerning cyclist – needs to blend form, function, and performance at a price that fits the budget. Now that helmets are understood to play an important role in terms of aerodynamics, aesthetics, fit, weight, and protection all need to be balanced against this attribute. Every rider will weight each aspect in their own way. Giro’s introduction of the Synthe helmet was but a piece in the puzzle in 2014 when I was making decisions about which brands I’d approach to partner with for 2015. After having supported our events for years with no retail connection in Tall Tree Cycles, a lot of goodwill was layered upon years of experience with Giro helmets. At the same time, Giro was moving forward with excellent shoe options, along with gloves and a slew of other soft goods. When we sealed a deal for the season, I couldn’t wait to get into the product.

In this first of three MATTER posts on the Giro products I used in 2015, I review their laced Empire SLX and Empire VR90 shoes. The following posts detail the Synthe helmet, Ambient and Blaze gloves.

Empire SLX Road Shoes 

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Giro seemed a little out to lunch in 2012 their lace-up shoes. At the time, they looked silly to me and many others, a regression, if anything. However around the same time an aerodynamics study indicated that the lace-up format was the fastest in the wind. Hmmmmm. As I searched for the paper, I encountered these

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which got me thinking: would a sleeve reduce aero drag on a lace-up shoe? Well, my next search revealed that not only has Specialized developed a lace-up shoe as their ‘fastest’ option, based on their Win Tunnel tests, they’ve also introduced a lace-cover just like the soccer ones! So, perhaps we’ll see Giro introduce the same, or we’ll see riders purchasing the soccer ones. I can see myself trying the blue ones!

Back to shoe design, essentially, it looks like the smaller the shoe, the more aero it is. Straps, buckles, BOA knobs, and shoe covers all add volume to shoes, and thus more aerodynamic drag. Upon receiving the shoes, I was immediately struck by three things: the colour – holy WOW!; the low weight; and their lack of girth. Against my Sidis and Specialized velcro strap shoes, these were very slight. The closes shoes I had in terms of volume were my Specialized S-Works mtb shoes, which use BOA closures.

My original plan was to run a slightly larger mountain bike shoe (Empire VR90) than the road model, the Empire SLX. I thus ordered a 46 in the mtb shoe, and 45.5 in the road.

Unboxing the SLXs, I was struck by their incredibly vibrant colour and attention to detail. The construction was perfect, and little details like the replaceable outer lugs, extra laces, and carry-bag made an impression: quality.

Unfortunately, the 45.5 was too small, and it took some time for a 46 to become available. Side by side, the mtb shoe was very slightly roomier, providing a little more volume in the toe box, which is perfect for use in the spring and fall with thicker socks. My first 4 hour ride in the SLXs was less comfortable than desired, as the shoes are both a little on the narrow side (compared to Specialized and Sidi), and the one-piece non-stretching last does not allow for much foot expansion under pedaling pressure. However, having diagnosed the problem as being rooted in my foot’s compression and horizontal expansion (flattening), I opted to install my tried and true Birkenstock cork insoles under the shoes’ footbeds on my next ride. Success. With more support than the highest arch support insert could provide, my feet no longer flattened and pushed to the sides of the shoes. I used this set-up in both pairs of shoes, and after some time, I’ve found they are no longer essential, as the shoes have stretched out just enough to allow for some compression.

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Also on the technical side, the SLX shoe is designed as a ‘neutral’ fit. This means that unlike some other brands – Specialized is an obvious example – their soles are designed flat rather than canting the foot outward. I don’t really have a opinion on neutral versus canted shoes. I’ve used both extensively now, and with adequate arch support, I find both comfortable. In fact, after time in the Giros, when I tried my Specialized road shoes on the trainer the foot alignment felt odd. Not bad, odd.

Also on fit, the most frequent question I received over the season was whether the reduced ability to adjust the shoes over the course of long rides/races was a bother. In all honesty, after the first few rides, after which I learned how tight to tie them, I encountered no issues on this front. I am have never been one to need to loosen my shoes over the course of long days, so I was not surprised to not encounter issues. Instead, I was very impressed to be equally comfortable in summer-weight socks, thick fall socks, and doubled-up socks over the course of the season. Doubled-up socks for December El Nino rides allowed me to keep the sock doping rolling; fantastic! The laces allowed me to adjust the volume of the shoes to accommodate whichever socks I wanted better than other shoes I’ve used.

Specifications

  • Weight 175 grams (size 42.5)
  • $530 CAN

Features

  • UpperOne-Piece Upper Design
  • Premium Evofiber™ SL Breathable Microfiber Sport Laces: Holds a Knot, Durable, and Light
  • OutsoleEaston ® EC90™ SLX2 High-Modulus Carbon
  • Titanium Hardware
  • Replaceable Heel Pads
  • Ultralight SuperNatural Fit Kit footbeds with Adjustable Arch Support
  • X-Static ® Antimicrobial Fiber Travel Bag Included

Empire VR90 Off-road Shoes

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Much like the SLXs, but with a roomier toe box, the VR90s also became more comfortable on long rides once I supported my arches adequately. As with the SLX, I found the cleat mounting slots positioned far enough back for me, and then some. I prefer a more rearward cleat position than some, but not approaching ‘mid-sole‘. On the road, I like to balance seated power and efficiency (somewhat reduced load on calves) with out-of- the-saddle maximum power efforts as in sprints. Off-road, I find the same position works well, and going further back makes clipping in harder (when riding platform pedals, the foot tends to position further forward on the pedal).

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Photo: Alain Villeneuve

The Vibram outsoles of the VR90s are the standout feature for me. The compound used is both durable and grippy in all the conditions I’ve encountered, and the layout of the lugs has proven to be very stable. This is an area I’ve had issues with in other shoe models that used very minimal lug designs, leading to instability off the bike. The VR90s didn’t give me any issues during dismounts while racing cyclocross, which is the toughest test for the shoes I can think of.

The VR90’s provided toe studs are high quality steel, and essential for tough run-ups during cyclocross races. They protrude enough, however, that you might want to remove them for general mountain bike riding, as you might accidentally snap one off on a rock.

Specifications

  • Weight 315 grams (each shoe, size 42.5)
  • Price: $450 CAN

Features

  • One-Piece Design upper
  • Premium Evofiber Breathable Teijin Microfiber, Sport Laces: holds a knot, durable, and lightweight
  • Easton EC90 Carbon Fiber midsole
  • Vibram® Mont Molded Rubber High Traction Lugged Outsole
  • Mid-Foot Scuff Guard
  • Accommodates Steel Toe Spikes (included)
  • SuperNatural Fit Kit footbed with Adjustable Arch Support
  • X-Static Anti-Microbial Fiber

Conclusions: MATTER RATINGS

Empire SLX shoes – 9/10

After getting my sizing right with the SLXs, and realizing I had to use more arch support than provided by the stock footbeds, the comfort of the shoes was excellent all season. After logging perhaps 5000km on them, they remain very fresh looking, don’t stink, and feel great. On the durability front, I’m very impressed, particularly because they are so light, and thus don’t feel like they’d be rugged. In fact, the exposed carbon of the Easton shank remains nearly flawless despite many off-bike excursions on dirt roads and even trails. I am amazed by the durability of the finish. Likewise, the shiny upper remains nearly flawless after contact with other bikes in the fray, and my own spinning front tire. The material’s sheen, while stunning ATMO, also makes the shoes very easy to clean with any sort of mild soap.

Those who live in hot climates might be bothered by the venting in the SLXs, given their very minimal perforation. This really comes down to each person’s specific disposition and climate. For me, the lack of significant venting is more of a plus than a minus, as it makes the shoes a little warmer during the many cold rides I do. Yes, booties are great for that, but they’d cover up the beautiful shoes!

Pricing on these shoes is indeed high, which is the one reason I give them a 9 out of 10. I feel very fortunate to be partnered with Giro, as I’d find it difficult to bite the $530 bullet. However, had I paid for mine, I’d be comforted by the fact that  they barely look used after hundreds of hours of use.

These shoes are not for everyone, fit has to be paramount when choosing between options. For those who find them fitting in terms of shape and price, I highly recommend the Empire SLX to climbers and sprinters alike. I suspect they won’t change much in the years to come; it’s hard to improve on this level of refinement.

Empire VR90 – 9/10

Like the SLXs, I find the VR90s close to flawless, their price being the one thing that keeps them from scoring a perfect 10. Fortunately, like the SLX, the VR90s fit great, are hard wearing, and still look excellent after hundreds of hours of riding. Their smooth finish affords very easy cleaning after mucky rides, a strong asset for an offroad shoe. Their outsole is certainly a performer, lending sure grip on all surfaces. It seems to be slightly less durable than some other outsoles I have, but those others are slippery in comparison. So I think Giro nailed it with the Vibram material. The midfoot rubber coverage of the carbon shank perfectly blaances low weight and grip while struggling to clip in. Their toe scuff guards have proven key when smashing my feet into rocks and crashing, as they both protect my toes and the shoes from damage. Perfect.

I feel confident in recommending the Empire VR90s to all manner of offroad rider, from mtb to gravel to cyclocross. If they fit your feet and budget, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better blend of light weight, durability, performance and style. There’s nothing I can think of improving here, thought I will always be in favour of more bold colour options!

To see more from Giro, visit their site. Rebec and Kroes carries a good stock of Giro’s products, so I encourage locals to pay them a visit for more info and purchases. Many thanks to Giro and Rebec and Kroes for their support through 2015!

Disclosure: I was provided the shoes reviewed above from Giro at no cost as a sponsored athlete.

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