As with most things in the cycling industry, shoes (especially road shoes) tend to follow the lighter and stiffer trend. Year after year, companies introduce new shoes that are meant to be lighter and stiffer, but aren’t fundamentally all that different from other shoes on the market. Recently, however, a few companies have started to think about things a bit differently.
It seems there are those that question whether lighter and stiffer is all there is when it comes to shoes. I mean, after all, shoes are the primary connection of your engine to the bike, and leaving out the human element is perhaps missing a key component of the role that shoes actually play in your cycling experience. With that in mind, I wanted to talk about a couple of models from companies who are doing things totally differently.
The first shoe that I saw that fit this description was the Giro Empire. The Empire was originally developed for American rider Taylor Phinney and came on the market in 2013. He was looking for something a little bit different than what was available, and Giro responded. Since then, Giro has continued to innovate, and they have some great new versions of the Empire this year, including a reflective version called the Empire ACC.
In fact, we actually talked about the Empire road shoe on CycleTechReview not all that long ago. I had the opportunity to take a look at the Empire SLX, though, which is the slightly higher model. The SLX runs $350 vs $275 for the standard Empire, and for your extra money, the big change is a one piece upper that saves a bit of weight as well as a slightly lighter and stiffer carbon sole. Hey, just because lighter and stiffer isn’t the only thing to look for in a shoe, doesn’t mean it’s not something that can be appreciated.
The incredible lightness of the Empire SLX isn’t the big thing I notice, though. What I absolutely love about these shoes is how comfortable they are. When you slide the SLX on, you practically feel like you aren’t wearing cycling shoes. It’s a really unique feeling to use shoes that are so minimal. In fact, I’ve been wearing Vivo Barefoot shoes for years, and I find the Empire SLX feels a lot like my barefoot day-to-day shoes feel. There is tons of room in the toe box, and the lace system really does allow for infinite adjustability.
Which of course brings us to the big question that everyone asks about the Empire shoes. What’s it like to use the laces instead of all the various buckle systems? This is something Matt touched on in his review as well, and my take on it isn’t really any different. It’s more of a hassle to get the Empires on and off. Once they are on, though, it’s absolutely worth it.
Last year, when I reviewed the Specialized Expert Road shoes, I talked about what a wonderful feature the BOA dials were. I actually said I wouldn’t really look at shoes that didn’t offer BOA dials. So, I was a bit reticent to even consider the Empire SLX, but as the accolades piled up, a friend in the industry said I really needed to take a look.
He was absolutely right. With laces you might not be able to adjust your shoes while riding, but I’ve also never felt the need to do so. I happen to have more than one pair of cycling shoes, so I do find myself using something with a boa dial to just jump on the bike for very short rides, and especially for the trainer, but if I only had one shoe, I wouldn’t be worried about the laces.
It’s also worth mentioning that while performance is certainly the driving factor in shoe choice for me, it’s hard to deny the style that the Empire represents. When the camera dwells briefly on Taylor Phinney lacing them up in the movie thereabouts Reprise, it’s hard not to notice how great they look.
If the Giro Empire SLX represents lightweight, old school style, and a hardly there feeling, then the Giant Surge Road is just about the complete opposite. It’s a high tech shoe with dual BOA dials that while not heavy, is a claimed 115 grams heavier than the Empire SLX. What they share, though, is an attempt at doing something completely different and really considering the human element.
Instead of a traditional sole, the Surge uses a traditional sole at the forefoot and the heel, and connects the two pieces with a carbon beam. The idea is that your foot is allowed a more natural movement through the pedal stroke while not losing stiffness. In conjunction with the beam, called the ExoBeam, Giant is also using something they call the ExoWrap where they pull from the centre on the sole in an attempt to give a more wrapped feeling. It’s only possible because of the space the ExoBeam allows.
The effect of these innovations is very noticeable. In fact, I found the Surge a little bit odd feeling initially. Your foot moves a lot and in places you aren’t used to, like near your arch. The feeling of having your foot wrapped in the shoe is also very noticeable, a bit like wrapping a piece of fabric around your foot vs pulling your foot tight to the base of the shoe.
Personally, I didn’t find these to be necessarily performance advantages, or not, but more of a preference thing. The big thing I notice about the Surge is that the toe box is pretty narrow, and they are incredibly stiff, definitely more so than the SLX. Traditionally, when you’ve got an essentially flat plate of carbon, you’ve got to use the inherent properties of the carbon to try and resist the natural flex. The ExoBeam instead behaves more like a piece of 2×4 turned on its side. There isn’t even a hint of flex.
Ultimately, this article isn’t about comparing the two shoes, but it’s hard to ride with them both alternatively and not do a bit of comparing and contrasting. What I’ve found is that I prefer one or the other depending on the type of riding I’m doing. Long distance and varied terrain I prefer the Giros, but if I am doing something shorter, and I think I’m going to try to lay down some power, then the really solid, stiff, feeling of the Giant is what I like.
What I wanted to highlight with the Giro Empire SLX and the Giant Surge is that there are some companies who are really thinking differently about how cycling shoes perform. When a company presents something really different, it requires that the consumer think a bit differently as well. The Giro is pretty much universally loved while the Giant is just hitting the market but doesn’t seem to be so universally loved.
From my point of view, these are both successful shoes that are going to cater to a very different type of rider. Don’t let a lack of Boa dials or an odd sole keep you from taking a look at two pairs of shoes that are different and still great. I would say if you like a really solid feeling shoe that wraps tightly, then the Giant Surge, running about $320, will be more to your liking. If you prefer a more open toe box with a bit more long ride comfort, even if that comes at the expense of ultimate stiffness, than the Giro Empire SLX, for about $350, is going to be more for you. Personally, I don’t put down a big wattage number, and I lean more towards the Giro shoes.
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