Giro’s much-lauded Empire SLX has long been a favorite of ours. It’s reasonably light, stiff af, real darn pretty looking (or not). I also gave the even lighter Prolight a try, but as much as we enjoyed it I always deferred to the Empires on most days.
The Empires haven’t really changed much since its 2012 debut. It doesn’t need to, but the Santa Cruz firm is ready for its next flagship: The Imperial.
Giro calls the Imperial “professional-grade” road cycling shoes. Okay that just reminded me of those GMC commercials and thank goodness for not dropping the phrase “mil-spec” into the copy. But I get it, it’s made for them pros, and also the rest of us mere mortals.
At a glance, the biggest difference is the new upper material and the lack of shoelaces. The upper uses what Giro calls Synchwire SLX that features an ultralight monofilament mesh with welded film of strategically-placed Teijin TPU reinforcement and bears much resemblance to the airy upper of the Prolight.
Secondly, the shoelaces are gone and have been replaced by two BOA IP1 dials. I really liked the shoelaces, but I also dreaded those instances in which I needed to stop to readjust my shoes too.
Moving on down, Giro brings back the same adjustable Supernatural footbed and Easton EC90SLX2 cabin plate with replaceable heel pads on stainless steel hardware. At a claimed 215 grams in size 42.5, the $425 Imperial is about 40 grams heavier than the current Empire SLX.
If you are a diehard shoelace fan, the same shoe, minus the dual BOA dials, will also be available as the new $325 Empire SLX. At 185g (sizes 42.5), it is also lighter than the Imperial and only 10 grams heavier than its previous edition. Both the Imperial and the new Empire SLX are available today and stay tuned for our review.
At 198g/pair in size 42 with laces or 300g/pair in size 42 with a Boa dial, these Specialized S-Works EXOS kicks sure don’t weigh a whole lot.
FWIW an Apple iPhone Xs weighs 174g. Let that sink in for a moment.
Only 500 pairs of these $700 über-light EXOS 99 will be made available from Specialized dealers so don’t sit on these. The slightly “heavier” S-Works EXOS with Boa IP-1 dial is available now in sizes 36-49 for $500.
Exceptional lightness, rock-solid foot support, heat-moldable fit, replaceable hardware and modern styling would be enough for Bont Cycling’s newest road cycling shoe, the Helix. But the Australian company also adds a revolutionary “twist” on the well-established Boa dial, employing a single, foot-encircling cable that hugs like a slipper and holds like a rivet.
While this tester ranked the Helix highly across a litany of traditional performance metrics– not the least of which being a reported 230-gram weight for size 42 – it is the unique, single-dial Boa cable system that marked the shoe’s most memorable feature over many miles on the road and the velodrome. Wrapping from the top of the shoe through the sole beneath, the continuous cable design delivers comfortable and even pressure while facilitating easy and full-foot fit adjustments on the fly.
Announced in March 2018, the Helix shares a similar silhouette to Bont’s previous range-topping racing kicks, the Vaypor S. Yet the cosmetic similarities betray significant differences under the surface, with the Vaypor S leveraging a dual-Boa closure across the top of the foot and the Helix, its foot-encircling, single-cable design.
“The Vaypor S has been our standard for race fit but I still wanted to find a way to improve upon it, particularly for riders with a low volume foot. The cable integration system has allowed us to keep the weight low, while adding even more to the concept of custom fit. Working with Boa and taking the wire completely around the shoe, we are able to ultimately fine-tune the fit and control the volume adjustment,” said Bont CEO and designer, Steven Nemeth, in the March release announcing the Helix.
This quick-to-adjust dial proved very convenient between efforts at Portland Oregon’s Alpenrose Velodrome, where Bont’s track-specific Vaypor T model is a frequent sight among elite riders. The ability to quickly toggle between extra tightness for races and a more relaxed fit for recovery is a great feature, and the foot-enveloping nature of the closure system nicely distributes the pressure of an extra turn of the dial.
Other high-end cycling models might feature a combination of closure systems across the top of the foot, requiring more time and dexterity to ratchet up the fit in the moments before a hard effort. Not so with the Helix, which quickly revealed itself as a track-friendly companion whose design readily drew the curiosity of other riders.
It’s not just trackies that can benefit from the Helix single-Boa system. Imagine quickly ratcheting up for extra stability at the foot of a decisive climb, or spending just a moment to dial back a couple notches when you are holding your spot in a paceline.
Perhaps owing to Bont’s experience with track-specific footwear, however, the Helix felt extremely solid in sprints. With a bathtub-like shape, the monocoque carbon-fiber sole provides excellent stability by cradling the sides of the foot. This is particularly evident for the rear of the shoe, where the visible part of the sole nearly envelopes the entirety of the heel. The sole also properly angles the arch of the foot in line with the knee for better pedal rotation, and features an intricate grid system for careful placement of the cleat.
The shoe’s upper includes a bonded-in, Kevlar-like fabric that prevents stretching and further secures the upward part of the pedal stroke. And within the Helix is a do-it-yourself custom heat molding sole, which further cradles the foot.
All of these features add up to a feeling of serious security when a user is really putting down the hammer. But the Helix doesn’t skimp on ventilation either, with mesh intakes integrated into a protective bumper at the front of the shoe and ample perforation above the toes. On long road rides and sunny days, the Helix was noticeably cooler than this tester’s typical high-end cycling footwear.
This tester also had the opportunity, unfortunately, to test the Helix’s crash worthiness during an early-season pileup at the track. In a crash that burned through the palm of a glove and most of a kit, the Helix emerged scuffed but totally functional. It’s hard to rank long-term durability in just a few months of testing, but my expectation is high for long-term use of the Helix.
Are these the shoes for you? Cycling shoe preferences, like any other piece of apparel, are extremely personal. Bont is very thoughtful in its design approach, using anatomically correct lasts and implementing ideas like a generous toe box. The company also provides an online sizing tool to determine what should work for the buyer. Yet the best test, of course, is one you can do in person.
What isn’t up to opinion, though, are the metrics on this shoe. Light, stiff, stable, user friendly…what more can you ask for?