The young American, leading the 2012 Giro d’Italia after winning the opening stage time-trial in new footwear concealed beneath shoe covers, had just completed his first road stage in Giro’s elegantly simple, lace-up Empire shoe when, at the finish in Horsens, he was taken down for the second time in two stages.
His regular road shoe, Giro’s Factor, had been too badly damaged in a finish line collision for him to wear again, caused by Roberto Ferrari’s exuberance a day earlier.
Lacking a spare pair of Factors, Phinney pulled on the striking silver shoes that Giro had made for him as a one-off, intended for time-trial use only: their attempt to create a smoother aerodynamic profile by ridding the shoe of the bumpy exterior that comes with buckles and straps.
With Phinney at the centre of attention for the third day running, his shoes unexpectedly became the story as the race paparazzi rushed to photograph his injured leg. “He had no choice but to line up on day two with the Empires on,” says Giro’s Eric Horton, who had worked with Phinney since the previous Christmas to develop the shoe.
“That was his only pair of shoes. In the meantime, we were scrambling to get him a pair of Factors as fast as we could. We didn’t know if he could ride the Empire shoes in a road stage for five or six hours, even though he’d told us that he’d been training with them on his regular rides and had been getting more and more comfortable with the lace-up shoes.”
Radical design, as previously noted in this column, can be polarising. The return of a lace-up shoe to the peloton ran counter to conventional wisdom. Lace-up shoes were a dated technology, in the view of those who objected to Phinney’s footwear in the often shrill environment of social media. Others, says Horton, approved of its minimalist design, one he describes as a “simple silver bullet”. In either case, it convinced Giro to put into production a design that had only ever been intended for Phinney.
“Some people absolutely loved it, and some absolutely hated it, but we knew right then that we had to go forward with this project. The first crash set the whole thing in motion. Had that not happened, I’m not sure that the product would have been commercialised. There were some of us inside [Giro] who felt very strongly about it, but the senior team wasn’t totally convinced that we had a viable product. It took this series of events.” He pauses. “That’s the real story.”
Two years later, the Empire begat the Empire SLX, pictured above. The story of the shoe’s genesis – a commitment to modernise the lace-up and rid the design of the traditional failings of poor form, stretched laces, and uneven tension – is intriguing.
December 2011. The holiday season finds Taylor Phinney at Giro’s headquarters in Santa Cruz, sharing ambitious plans for the season to come. He intends to win a Grand Tour time-trial, and to earn selection by USA Cycling for the London Olympic Games and world time-trial championships. He is in need of a TT specific shoe to help him achieve his goals. By mid-March, he is riding regularly in a size 46 prototype.
“The initial intent with the project was an athlete-only, one-off special thing for him, with the intention of getting him into our regular, in-line shoe programme, but he’d have something special just for time-trials. We didn’t think that he would wear them beyond the short time-trial events. We had no intention of commercialising the product. This was only to woo Taylor, frankly: to show him our commitment and belief in him as an athlete, that we would do something special, just for his focussed events.”
Things have escalated since. Bradley Wiggins, more of whom later, surprised and delighted Horton and his team by rolling out last season in a white Empire SLX. Unlike Phinney, Wiggins had no commercial relationship with Giro in 2014. The American refers to the Empire as “his shoes”, Horton reports. “When he sees other athletes in the peloton wearing the Empires, he jokes with them: ‘How do you like my shoes?’”
Broke? Fix it
While Phinney, whose early athletic career revolved around football rather than cycling, needed little persuasion of the merits of a lace-up, others did. Horton was aware of the failings of earlier lace-up designs and set to work on eliminating them from the Empire.
Giro had a significant head-start in having already developed a standard last – the mould around which the upper is formed – that suited Phinney. He was satisfied with the design and performance of the Empire’s carbon sole, too, though the lay-up has been refined for the 175g Empire SLX pictured.
Most important, Horton says, was the development of a microfibre upper that not only would prove comfortable and hold off the rain without deteriorating, but which would hold its shape when the last is removed. This is the critical moment in the development of any cycling shoe and the make-up of the material he describes as the ‘special sauce’. Giro tested up to ten different microfibres before settling on the one used in the Empire.
“The leathers of yesteryear would sort of collapse. Every time you put your foot in the shoe, you would have to stretch and move the material out of the way and that would cause pressure points especially along that lateral pinky toe and forefoot area. The technology that goes into these modern microfibres really retains all the lovely suppleness of leather, but then also maintains that ability to hold its shape. That’s crucial. That’s where you get the comfort.”
Unsurprisingly, the performance of any lace-up shoe depends heavily on the lace. This was another area in which multiple iterations were tested. Traditional, cotton laces were rejected early in the process in favour of a nylon lace, which would not stretch or deform in the wet.
Critically, a flat lace was selected, generating sufficient friction with the round eyelets (seven, after prototype shoes with six and eight eyelets were shelved) to retain tension. This interface, and its infinite adjustability, depending on the tightness of the shoe required, is what provides the lace-up shoe with an advantage over its competitors, Horton argues. “You can map the instep of your foot with laces in a way that you just can’t do with three straps or with a BOA system.”
He concedes that finding the required tension setting with a lace-up shoe requires three or four rides, but argues that once the required level of tightness is found for the forefoot and mid-foot, only the tension in the upper eyelets needs to be adjusted. He also discovered a slight asymmetry in his left and right feet, and requires more tension in the left. The ability to ‘customise’ tension, combined with a choice of insole height, offers what might be described as a Taylor-ed fit [oh dear – ed].
The SLX shoe pictured was introduced last year, having met a challenging design brief to create a 175-gram racing shoe. Various upgrades to Phinney’s first shoe were deployed to shave the grams, including titanium hardware and a new lay-up for the carbon sole.
The greatest weight saving, however, was wrought from a lighter micro-fibre upper, which rendered a saving of between 25g and 30g over that used for the standard Empire. How? It is thinner: 1.1mm, compared to 1.4mm. Horton is confident that the SLX will still prove durable. Phinney and Wiggins, among others, will put that theory to the test.
Wiggins again. How does he comes to be wearing “Taylor’s shoes”, even though Wiggo favours the pristine white?
“We noticed that he was wearing the shoes probably about the same time as you did,” Horton laughs, “so we were quite surprised by that and frankly flattered.” Giro had their people talk to Wiggins’ people and the world time trial champion is now well-supplied. The commercial negotiations required to make Wiggins an official ambassador for the product are on-going.
The Empire shoe, one suspects, will continue to develop. A raft of new colours follows an early design decision not to undermine the performance enhancements of a modern lace-up by giving it the appearance of a retro shoe. “We feel confident that there is going to be a number of other, high-level competitors coming to the market with lace-up shoes,” Horton says.
The recent dominance of the buckle and BOA, of the Velcro strap, will not go unchallenged, if his theory is correct. Phinney and Wiggins may be among those who applaud that.
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