On looks alone, the Giro Empire is, in my opinion at least, probably the most beautiful shoe available. Yes, the laces might be an anachronism and a flashback to a bygone era, but the simplicity of the shoe is, in practice, superb, not least in a modern marketplace where fancy features are all the rage.
But part of the genius of the Empire is that under that throwback exterior lies a shoe that uses techniques and materials that are right up to date, meaning you genuinely do get the best of both worlds.
The Empire first broke cover at the 2012 Giro d’Italia on the feet of Phinney. Since then the design has been refined and there are now two versions: the original (and more affordable) Empire ACC and the newer, lighter Empire SLX, unveiled last summer. The ACC weighs a claimed 215g per size 42.5 shoe, while the SLX drops the weight to 175g. We weighed our size 45 Empire ACC shoes at 262g a piece.
Of course, if you want the exact same shoes that Phinney (and a certain Sir Bradley Wiggins) uses then you’ll have to cough up the extra £20. We’ll focus here on the Empire ACC. The sole is made from Easton’s EC90 ACC carbon fibre (the Empire SLX uses a lighter Easton EC90 SLX carbon sole) and it’s used on a number of shoes in Giro’s range (the Factors, for example) and also in their arrows. Yep, that’s right, Easton also make carbon fibre arrows. In any case, if you’re the sort of person who frets about sole stiffness you won’t be disappointed as there’s no detectable flex to be found here, no matter how many watts I tried to put through the pedals. Giro have complemented the soles with replaceable heel bumpers – a feature sometimes forgotten on shoes – meaning if you treat these well, you should be able to ride in them for a long time indeed.
The upper has a one-piece construction made from what Giro call Premium Evofibre. It’s a highly breathable microfibre designed to keep your feet well ventilated and percolated with extra holes to ramp up the breathability even more. The one-piece construction combined with the laces means that you have a very sure, progressive closure, even if you like your shoes tarsal-crushingly tight. The thinking behind laces is that they offer a greater range in terms of customisable fit and, personally speaking, I found the Empires to be one of the easiest shoes I’ve used in terms of getting them on. It may not work for everyone but because laces tighten progressively, you don’t have to mess about with multiple straps/ratchets/dials, you just pull on the laces until you’re happy with the fit, and it’s dead easy to get the tension right.
The one thing I was worried about was the laces coming undone. It seems silly, but the last thing you want is a lace getting caught in the chain hurtling down a hill at 60km/h. But they didn’t come undone once in hours of riding. The classic trick of tucking the loops back under the laces further down the shoe no doubt helped, made easier by the fact that Giro have added an elastic band halfway down specifically for that purpose. On top of that the laces are ever so slightly rough to the touch, noticeably so when compared to, say, trainers, and this increases their friction with one another.
One of the fundamental problems with shoes isn’t actually the shoes, it’s feet. The trouble is that while almost all feet are roughly the same shape, there’s a huge amount of variability within that and what works well for some people will cause endless discomfort to others. One thing Giro do well is supply their shoes with adjustable insoles – called the SuperNatural Fit Kit. They come with three different levels of arch support, and that should help most people achieve a fit that they’ll find comfortable. I already own a set of Giro ProLight shoes that use the same insoles, so I was able to set these up with the same level of support and get a comfortable fit almost immediately. But if you’ve not used them before, it’s definitely worth playing about to find something that works for you. On short rides most of us can tough out a bit of pain in the feet but it can be a real day-saver if you’re out all day and will definitely get rid of the need to stop every so often and give your feet a rest.
In use, these might genuinely be the most comfortable set of shoes I’ve ever used. I’ve ridden in lighter, more expensive, fancier and more lauded shoes in the past, but very few of them provided fit and comfort on a par with the Empires. The benchmark for a set of shoes is the ‘not thinking about them’ test. If you’ve been riding for multiple hours and not thought about your feet once, then that set is a keeper. I rode in these for hours during testing over multiple rides in varying late winter/early spring conditions (it was the UK, obviously), and not once did I think about my feet or something hurting/irritating in fit terms.
The only thing I did notice is that, on one of the milder days when I ventured out without any kind of overshoes/covers, my feet got cold quickly, even with a set of thick merino socks underneath. This bodes well for them being a good choice in summer, too, when efficient ventilation is a priority.
With the Empires, Giro have certainly achieved what they set out to do: create an old-school looking set of shoes with performance to match the very best high tech shoes on the market. Stick the Empires in a head to head with anything on the market – including Giro’s own excellent ProLight SLX IIs – and these will hold their own. If you’re not sold by the rather ostentatious silver/black versions we tested, they have four more colourways available including a significantly more demure all black version, so there’s probably something to suit everyone no matter how wild or conventional your tastes.