There aren't many shoe designs that really rock the boat. Most just shuffle around some existing technologies in new and interesting ways, but not the Giro Empire VR70 Knit. Before these showed up at the office, I had no frame of reference for what a knit cycling shoe would feel like in my hands, let alone on my feet. Shoes are supposed to be made of leather, rubber, plastic and carbon fiber. Socks are supposed to be knit.
But the Empire VR70s are more than a pair of socks with cleats bolted to them. Most of the shoe feels traditionally rigid thanks to the thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) structure that partially surrounds an underskin of Giro's DWR-treated Xnetic knit fabric. TPU is a close relative of the skateboard wheel. It's rubbery to the touch, but has relatively little stretch to it. The material is especially thick around the base and the heel, but it’s thin and generously vented on the sides where lightly perforated sections of the Xnetic fabric show through. And like the TPU exoskeleton, that knit structure is totally seamless. That's part of this shoe's genius. Its body can be shaped from whole cloth, so to speak. And unlike nearly any other textile you'll find in footwear, there's no pattern to be cut out so there's far less waste.
Of course, they're strung up with regular old laces. The VR70's concept might not actually work any other way. Though the uppers are more rigid than you'd think, the material is thin. A buckle or even a Boa dial would likely create a pressure point that I think would negate the comfort advantages of this type of construction. Traditional laces suit the function as well as the form of the VR70 Knit.
The sole is built around Easton EC70 carbon, and it is unapologetically stiff. On the outside of that carbon is a scant array of Vibram rubber knobs and, despite the optional toe spikes, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more minimal outsole this side of an XC race.
The most strikingly unique facet of the VR70 Knit is its ankle cuff. The knit body that composes the bulk of the shoe is nearly as stretch-resistant as canvas. The material around the ankle is just as thick and coarse, but it forms and stretches like nothing you'd see on a traditional shoe. It's why you will either love or hate how the VR70s work out on the trail.
That elastic cuff makes putting on these shoes feel like putting on a pair of perfectly fitted socks. The rest of the uppers are supple enough that I felt no pressure points, and the traditional laces made it easy to keep it that way. But the cuff is what really stands out. While other shoes have a discernible rim where they stop below the ankle, the VR70s just blend into it. It's a solution to a problem that I didn't know I had. Without a substantial edge around my ankle, the rest of the shoe feels like an extension of my foot. Though I said at the outset that these are more than a pair of SPD socks, that's almost what they felt like when I was pedaling. At that supple cuff, nothing uncomfortable digs in anywhere. And below it, the seamless lowers evenly hug my feet. But it's not the kind of hug I wanted to wriggle out of on a hot day. I could literally feel a draft when riding with the VR70s at speed.
When I was not pedaling, that SPD-sock feel wasn't as ideal. The lack of rigid ankle structure has a few not completely unexpected consequences. Though there is still a recognizable padded depression to cup the heel, it's lower and shallower than on most shoes. And tightening the laces just pulled my foot down to the sole instead of cinching the uppers around my ankle. When hiking up even moderately steep trails, it was hard to keep my heels from trying to pull out. That issue is compounded by the fact that the stiff sole refused to flex with my foot. Combined with how sparingly Giro applied the Vibram rubber tread, it seems these boots were not made for walking. But I did a fair bit of hiking anyway in my early months with the VR70s, and after a little under a year of wear, I've noticed a piece of the outsole starting to peel off next to the cleat. And that's not new to me. My duck-footed hiking method has killed several shoes the same way. My solution was to stay on my bike when riding these shoes. I had no stability or retention complaints when pedaling or descending. That one-with-the-shoe feeling was never compromised in the pedals like it was on the ground.
There are plenty of shoes that are more geared toward hiking. Riders who opt for shortcuts up switchbacks or trails ‘down’ ridgelines will want something with more substantial ankle support. Honestly, I usually count myself among them. But some rides don't demand that many dismounts. I look forward to those rides much more now that I have these shoes. Riding with the VR70 Knits is like going to the office wearing my flip-flops. I might not be ready for every situation I encounter, but I'll be way more comfortable than the person sitting next to me.