“I wish I could claim that I sat down, wrote a brief that we’re going to make the best lace-up cycling shoe in the market and we all approved it.” But Giro’s senior footwear and softgoods product manager Simon Fisher admits: “It didn’t happen that way.”
Giro originally tiptoed into the cycling shoe market with their strapped Factor range in late 2010: good enough, but far from groundbreaking. A year later, American pro Taylor Phinney visited the office. “He said in a round-about away, ‘I’m doing the Giro d’Italia and I’m gonna win the prologue. So I need a shoe for that,’” Fisher recalls.
Giro had already been working on a prototype for a laced model that became the Republic, aimed at handling everything from mountain biking to touring and commuting. A track racer and keen footballer during his teenage years in Tuscany, Phinney was on board with trying something similar on the road.
Fisher and Giro’s creative director Eric Horton got their heads together. “Older cycling shoes were something we really glommed onto it in terms of the look, but also to re-reverse engineer: why did they go away in the first place?” Fisher asks.
The perennial problem was that leather needed breaking in, could relax excessively with rain or sweat and laces couldn’t be tied on the fly. A large part of what made Phinney’s laced road shoe possible was improved modern microfibre technology. Giro worked with Japanese company Teijin, who were involved with the iconic golden Nikes that sprinter Michael Johnson wore at the 1996 Olympics.
With footwear, the last comes first, and theirs held the shape well, yet stayed supple. “Soft to the touch but it doesn’t stretch out, meaning you can tie your laces and it’ll stay put,” Fisher says.
The result was the Giro Empire, a cross between a football boot, influenced by Nike’s Mercurial Vapor, and an athletic spike in appearance.
Ultimately, the shoes tie into the ongoing pursuit for cycling zen. “The best ride ever is when all of your equipment essentially disappears,” Fisher says. “You’re just experiencing whatever it is, climbing the hill, descending, you’re in that moment. We all know that when something starts rattling on your bike, your foot starts hurting or your helmet goes sideways, you’re suddenly back out of it.”
Phinney duly won the 2012 Giro prologue, but his killer kicks were hidden to the watching world by aero covers. Yet a day later, the American crashed, breaking the buckle off his Factor shoe. The only pair left in his suitcase? His grey Empires with fluoro green laces.
After a spectacular crash on the third stage, the photographers present were fixated on the maglia rosa’s feet because of the icepacks on his ankle. Social media went nuts at his funky footwear.
“This is where the blogosphere becomes your chief marketing officer or chief critic … the cool part about it was we heard half the people say it was the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. And the other half thought they were so dumb and terrible,” Fisher says.
Phinney loved his Empires and raced in them throughout that season. What started as an aerodynamic “art project” for Phinney’s time-trials ended up going to market for the masses. Even after the lighter and improved Empire SLX came out two years later, there was still doubt over laces.
“I had editors at our launch like ‘that’s cool. Nice project, kids,’” Fisher says, affecting a condescending tone. Several top riders needed no convincing. “We saw Cipollini riding them; Bradley Wiggins was another one,” Fisher says.
The British star had gone out and bought his own pair; Giro moved fast to officialise that relationship. Romain Bardet and former Vuelta King of the Mountains Omar Fraile have also worn them. When helmet, bicycle and apparel are all team-issue, shoes are one of the few expressions of individuality available to a professional cyclist.
Wiggins led the way, wearing a striking blue Lichtenstein-and-Weller inspired pair at the 2016 Tour of California and golden shoes for his successful Hour Record bid.
The Briton had also wanted a pair of retro black shoes for his farewell at the Ghent Six, but the turnaround time wasn’t sufficient for Giro. We’ll surely see similar colourful customisation from style-conscious pro riders in the future.
As fast as it is good-looking, the Empire has struck back for laced shoes as a modern cycling design classic. Seven years since entering the footwear market, Giro are happy. “It exceeded the hope, it went way better and faster than we had expected,” Fisher says.
What’s next? Shoes that dip below the 100-gram weight mark, and more tech, Fisher reckons: “The age of Strava, of measuring watts, of feedback from your shoes.”
The feature is an extract from Rouleur 17.7