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Tech Feature – Giro launches full line of cycling shoes

When was the last time you bought a new pair of road shoes, tinkered with the cleats for a few minutes, and then promptly proceeded to log nearly twelve hours of hard alpine asphalt riding in them over the course of one weekend? For that matter, has someone ever handed you a brand new pair of mountain bike shoes three days before your first one-hundred-mile mountain bike race, and then you went on to win said mountain bike race, wearing said shoes, in record time?

Giro picked one of the world's most beautiful spots to unveil its new shoe lines.

The latter honor goes to Levi Leipheimer, winner of this year’s Leadville 100 race. As the story goes, Giro product managers handed him a brand new pair of Giro Code mountain bike shoes literally in the airport as he was departing California for Colorado and the race. Wearing the brand new shoes, he set a new course record.

And although not entirely planned, the former experience is mine, wearing the new Giro Factor road shoes. Giro marketers chose Livigno, Italy as the venue to introduce to the world their new line of seven shoe models (four road and three mountain). Naturally they mapped out some riding. However, they didn’t plan for unexpectedly long routes, chilly weather, and challenging climbs.

Fortunately it all worked out for the good – I suffered no tingly toes, hotspots, heel lift, blisters, or other symptoms of ill-fitting footwear. From my perspective at least, Giro has clearly done their footwork in terms of fit and features.

It’s no surprise coming from a company that’s already known for class-leading helmets and a relatively new but increasingly popular (and high-performance) line of gloves. Over the course of the weekend it became clear that between Livigno and Levi, the California-based company put a lot of work into cobbling the new kicks.

True, every foot is different. Different folks need different fits. In fact, another editor flatly stated over breakfast that the mountain bike shoes weren’t working for his low-volume, narrow feet. But after twelve hours in the Factors, I’d say Giro is on its way to kicking down the cycling footwear door and their competitors should take note.

Redefining stock comfort, one thing at a time … for a long time

In taking the decision to build shoes, Giro designers leveraged every advantage they could find. One advantage was time – with no high-pressure timeline for introduction, they spent a full two years just building the shoe last. A last is the nylon, foot-shaped form around which a shoe is built. After fully sixteen revisions and a range of inputs, they settled on medium-volume lasts for the new shoes. They also made separate, differently shaped lasts for the two women’s shoes in the line (one road and one mountain, with more on the way).

Spending this kind of time just refining a foot model seems silly, especially when stock foot forms can easily be sourced off the shelf. But company designers wanted precise fit, securely molded heel cups for retention, and adequate volume to accommodate a range of foot sizes and a range of insoles.

Part of the insole option comes directly from Giro, who designed a new insole system to go with their new shoes. Called the SuperNatural Fit Kit, the system includes a stock insole that mates via Velcro to any of three different included arch supports. The arch supports dock underneath the insole (keeping the contours under your feet smooth and soft) and come in a range of low, medium and high. They’re made from firm but forgiving foam to conform to different feet.

Furthermore, knowing that many riders are turning to custom orthotics for improved comfort and arch support, Giro shoes are designed to fit with either their stock insoles or with aftermarket or custom orthotic insoles. Normally I can’t stand shoes without installing my own orthotics, but Giro’s high arch supports in the SuperNatural kit actually nearly did the trick for me, making those long hours on the bike comfortable.

The final piece of Giro’s fit puzzle included extensive attention to the carbon fiber soles (or plates) on top of which all the shoes are built. Company designers sought light weight, usable stiffness for power transfer, and sensible fit. To that end, they enlisted help from Easton carbon fiber engineers. Easton and Giro are part of the same sporting goods company. Easton tested a range of competitors’ carbon soles for weight and stiffness, then designed their own to minimize weight yet retain stiffness where it was needed. They even used real time digital foot pressure mapping to understand more clearly the loads exerted on the sole of a cycling shoe.

As a result, Giro’s Easton-branded carbon soles are quite flat across their width and they are very thin at the toe and heel. They’re also competitively light and stiff, and just 6.5mm thick above the cleat, making for a very low stack height. The design contrasts with many shoe makers who have turned to cupped or concave soles with carbon that curves up around the edges and perimeter. Giro feels that designs like this inhibit comfort by confining the wearer’s feet to a rigid, unyielding “tub” of sorts. Giro wanted their soft, pliable upper to extend all the way down to the shoe sole so that any foot volume “spillover” would be free of pressure points.

Also in contrast to certain shoe designs, Giro wanted a neutral platform, free of any built-in varus or valgus wedge or cant. It’s become common for bike fitters to wedge shoes and cleats to correct perceived irregularities in rider’s pedal strokes. Some shoes have this built in. But after consulting with Todd Carver of Retul bike fitting (preferred fitter for RadioShack, Sky, HTC-Columbia, and others), Giro decided to create neutral shoes. They felt that if bike fitters wanted to add wedge correction after the fact, that was their decision but they didn’t want to force a fit on customers that didn’t need it (or didn’t know, or for that matter didn’t care).

So, about those shoes

Giro’s got four road models and three mountain bike models coming to stores in February 2011.

The Prolight SLX is Giro’s flagship, ultralight road shoe. Claimed weight on a size 42 hovers just over 200 grams, and the retail price will be $350. Levi Leiphiemer already made these shoes famous by taking them on a certain cycling trip through France in July. They feature titanium hardware (including cleat inserts and D-rings for the three Velcro straps). The uppers are made from very light, thin (1.1mm), and supple microfiber called Teijin AG100 that is rarely used for cycling shoes. The sole is Giro’s top of the line, 60-gram Easton EC90 SLX with high-modulus carbon. The SuperNatural Fit Kit footbed system is included.

I rode the Factor, Giro’s fully featured $280 pro-level road shoe. If the Prolight shoes are like Giro’s ultralight Prolight helmet, the Factor shoes equate to their Ionos helmet which features more adjustability, more robust construction, and generally more of an “all-day” piece of gear. The Factor shoes claim roughly 250-gram weight, a ratchet buckle closure plus two Velcro straps, and Giro’s slightly heavier Easton EC90 carbon sole. This shoe comes with the SuperNatural Fit kit.

For $200, you can get all the fit technology of the top-end shoes (minus the SuperNatural Fit kit) in Giro’s Trans shoe. Slightly heavier materials keep the cost down but the shoes are based on the same architecture and patterns as the lighter, most costly models. Even so, the Trans claims a weight of just 270 grams, which for anyone counting, is about 60 grams less than many premium Italian shoes that cost twice as much. The sole is a carbon/glass fiber blend.

For women, there’s the sweet-looking Espada, built on a female-specific foot form (aka, last). It’s a $200 shoe that mimics the Trans in terms of materials. More women’s shoes are in the pipeline.

And on the mountain side, the models are the Code ($280) and Gauge ($200), and the Sica for women ($200). They all feature injection molded outsole lugs, carbon sole plates, scuff-guard armored and more supportive upper material. Their blend of competitive weight (about 350 grams) and features will make them equally at home on the race course or on epic trail rides.

One step at a time

Only time will tell if Giro shoes ultimately live up to their splashy Italian introduction. Company designers pointed repeatedly to Leipheimer’s notoriously finicky involvement with shape, features, and fit. He figures prominently in photography and literature. And nobody will disagree with a pro rider adopting new shoes – it’s a rarity. But who’s to say if his demands align with the needs of average cyclists everywhere? And will the shiny shoes hold up for the long haul?

So far, I’d say Giro did fine work melding magic and performance for super elite racers with comfort and traditional construction for weekend warriors. I for one managed to soldier through a demanding saddle schedule with no discomfort and growing admiration for the fit details. And keep your eyes open – competition on the footwear playing field is only going to get hotter.

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