A tale of two lace-ups: Giro Empire ACC and Quoc Night shoe review
Giro’s Empire re-ignited interest in lace-up cycling shoes when it was unveiled in 2012, and in the time since there has been a dramatic increase in the number of premium lace-up shoes on the market. One of the most recent additions is the Night from the British shoe company Quoc.
At face value, it appears to share many of the features of the Empire, so our Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom spent some time with each to prepare this review.
I started road cycling in 1987, a time when the classic era of cycling was slowly giving way to modern innovation. Toe clips, down-tube shifters, true leather chamois, high spoke-count wheels, raw alloy components, and steel frames were still in common use, so I was able to directly experience some of that classic gear before a new wave of thinking overhauled it all.
In retrospect, it may seem a little surprising that I never owned a pair of lace-up cycling shoes, but by the time I was ready to buy my first pair (early ’89), laces were looking outdated. It seemed foolhardy to consider anything other than cutting-edge Velcro for the closures of my new shoes (which were made by Sidi and would be partnered with Look’s new clipless pedal system).
From that point on, the tearing sound of Velcro would punctuate the end of my rides until the new millennium, when the industry moved ahead with fresh innovations in the form of ratcheting buckles, and then, reel-and-line devices. Those new closures managed to emulate much of the ease and convenience of Velcro while addressing at least some of its weaknesses.
Throughout all of this innovation, laces never truly disappeared from cycling shoes, but they were never a feature for performance-oriented shoes. That is, until the 2012 Giro d’Italia, when Taylor Phinney unveiled the Giro Empire, a new set of racing shoes with laces. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the shoe would go into production — Giro itself was still very new to the road shoe market — but it marked a turning point in shoe design as road cyclists found a new appreciation for laces.
Six years on, the Empire has not only continued in Giro’s shoe catalogue, but has grown into a family of three distinct models: the original incarnation is now referred to as the Empire ACC; the SLX is a lightweight variation; and the E70 Knit is a new comfort-oriented version. The number of premium lace-up shoes on offer from competing brands has also increased noticeably, and while laces have yet to supplant Boa’s near-ubiquitous reel-and-line as the closure of choice for road cycling shoes, consumers are benefitting from a wider range of choices.
One of the latest entries to this growing niche comes from Quoc, a British company that has been selling lace-up cycling shoes since 2009. In the past, the company has focussed on urban cycling; the new shoe, dubbed the Night, is Quoc’s first road cycling shoe, and at face value, it appears to be a direct competitor for the Empire ACC.
However, after spending a few weeks with each set of shoes, I discovered that aside from sporting laces and sharing a similar aesthetic, the Empire ACC and Night are very distinct products.
OG versus the new kid on the block?
I think it’s fair to say that, after resurrecting interest in laces and after several years in the market, the Empire deserves to be considered the archetype for a modern lace-up road cycling shoe. The impact of the Empire has been so great, though, that it’s easy to overlook the fact that Giro is still a relative newcomer to shoes. The once-devoted helmet manufacturer unveiled its first shoe in 2011, so compared to other brands such as Sidi, Giro is still in its infancy.
Quoc’s first shoes actually pre-date Giro’s by a couple of years, however the company, which takes its name from its founder, Quoc Pham, has been devoted to lace-up shoes for all of that time. So while most road cyclists won’t recognise the company or its shoes, the development of a road cycling shoe with laces is a natural progression for Quoc.
At face value, Quoc’s Night seems to have a lot in common with Giro’s Empire ACC. Aside from laces, both shoes have carbon outsoles and a traditional last with a narrow instep and pointed toe box. But take a closer look and the differences start to emerge. So too does the notion that the thinking behind each product is really quite distinct.
Materials, features, weight and cost
The uppers of the Empire ACC and Night are both constructed from microfibre. An additional mesh lining is used for the fore- and mid-foot, while an extra layer of microfibre is used to line the rearmost part of the shoe. Whereas Quoc uses three pieces to construct the upper of the Night, the upper of the Empire ACC is fashioned from just one.
Running a hand over the shoe reveals a very obvious difference in the feel of the uppers. The Empire ACC is stiffer than the Night; perform Cinderella’s test, and the Empire ACC requires a little more effort to slip on, feeling more like a pragmatic boot compared to the supple and somewhat luxurious contours of the Night.
The rear part of each shoe is relatively unyielding, and cups the heel with sure intent. The collar of the Night is more accommodating though, accounting for at least some of the difference in the effort required to fit a foot in each shoe.
The amount of toe spring and heel lift is comparable for the two shoes while the outsole of the Night measures just a few millimetres wider. When viewed from above, however, the Night is roomier about the mid- and fore-foot with a milder taper for the toes, all of which could be felt within moments of tying up the shoes.
Seven pairs of eyelets are provided for the laces of the Empire ACC compared to six for the Night. However, the latter has two rows of double-eyelets — one set at the midpoint and another at the top — that Quoc refers to as its “patented Lock-Lace system”. These points effectively trap the lace and encourage the uppers to react rather than the laces stretching whenever the rider is pulling up on the pedals.
Giro and Quoc both provide an elastic loop on the tongue of each shoe for tucking away the laces once the shoes have been tied. The heel pads are replaceable on both shoes and there is a three-bolt mounting system for road cleats.
On the scales, the Night was a little heavier than the Empire ACC — the pair of size 45.5 Night sent for review weighed 626g compared to 601g for a pair of size 45 Empire ACC.
As for colours and options, the Night is available in black, white, and coral pink, but there is a second version with a black all-leather upper that costs a little more. The Empire ACC is available in five colour combinations (black/black, black/white, white/black, red/black, blue/black) and another three unique reflective finishes (frost reflective, silver reflective, and reflective daze). In addition, the other Empire versions have their own colour option for buyers to consider (Empire SLX and Empire E70 Knit) along with the various colour options that apply to each.
Each pair of shoes is supplied with two pairs of laces and a set of inner soles. For the Night, the foam inner is a rudimentary offering with a subtle metatarsal pad and mild arch support. Giro’s inners are also made of foam and have a metatarsal pad, however the arch support can be adjusted thanks to a system of three interchangeable inserts (S/M/L). Giro also supplies a modest shoe bag with the Empire ACC.
Retail price for the Giro Empire ACC is AU$360 / US$275 / £260, while the Quoc Night costs AU$389 / ~US$310 / £219. Shoppers have a choice of 10 sizes for the Night (37.5-46.5) while the Empire ACC ranges 41-48 with smaller and/or half-sizes available in some markets.
Giro’s Empire ACC is a pragmatic but narrow racing shoe
According to Giro’s marketing, the Empire ACC pushes the “boundaries of high-performance cycling shoes” with a variety of features suited to a wide range of road cyclists. In general terms, I think the Empire ACC delivers on these promises, but with one caveat: the shoe is very narrow, so it won’t suit every individual.
Indeed, the Empire ACC is the narrowest road cycling shoe I’ve ever experienced. Prior to wearing these shoes, I had been grateful for a pair of feet that were able to fit into any road shoe without a great deal of trouble, so I was really surprised when they proved to be too narrow for me.
There is always an amount of tightness associated with any new pair of shoes, but after a week of trying to break-in the Empire ACC, my feet were simply too sore to continue. The breaking point came during the course of a four-hour ride in hot conditions that had me dousing the shoes under a tap and fantasising about a cold bath for my feet during my final hour on the bike.
It was the front of the shoe that was too tight. The Empire ACC crowded my toes and placed too much pressure on my lateral forefoot. What began as a sense of tightness developed into a profound hotspot that no amount of wriggling could alleviate.
In this regard, the unyielding uppers proved to be a curse. It didn’t matter how much I loosened the laces; the Empire ACC continued to provide the same sure hold on my feet. For those shoppers with narrow feet, I’m sure the Empire ACC will satisfy anybody looking for a stiff and secure shoe.
Leaving the fit of the shoe behind, there were a couple of features of the Empire ACC that impressed me, starting with the loop of elastic that Giro refers to as its “lace garage”. The length of elastic is generous and the tab of material that is attached to it makes it easy to locate and open up the “garage”. As a result, it only ever took a moment to “park” the laces, and there they remained for the duration of every ride.
The other standout feature was the reflective finish, which effectively turned the shoes into a set of warning lights for the bike. I was consistently surprised by how bright the reflected light could be, and there were times when I’d call it dazzling. Of course, that all depends on the observation angle, so it’s not the kind of thing that could ever replace a set of lights on a bike. But as an additional measure to improve any cyclists’ visibility, I’d count it as almost invaluable.
Compared to a shoe with Boa closures, the Empire ACC required more time to put on and take off my feet. Part of this was due to the extra manual effort required to adjust and tie the laces, but I also spent more time ensuring the tension was perfect before getting on the bike. That’s because I was acutely aware of the fact that I wouldn’t be able to make any minor adjustments like I could with Boa closures.
As a result, I found myself missing the simplicity and convenience of modern closures to some extent but I wouldn’t count it as a turn-off. I was more disappointed by the absence of any kind of meaningful grid on the sole of the shoe for positioning cleats. For those using Shimano’s cleats (that are very compact) Giro’s grid markings will probably be adequate, however there are not enough meaningful reference points for larger cleats or Speedplay’s mounting plates.
Otherwise, Giro’s Empire ACC is a sound race-oriented offering. The quality of construction is very good, which is to be expected for a shoe in this price range, so it promises to be very robust. For those that are curious about laces or are attracted by the classic styling of the Empire, the only real issue is how well the shoe will fit.
Quoc’s Night delivers more room and plush comfort
In many ways, the Night proved to be the antithesis of the Empire ACC. Where the Empire ACC was stiff and narrow, the Night was plush and comparatively roomy. There was much less crowding of my toes and the width of the shoe was a closer match for my feet. With that said, I wouldn’t characterise the Night as a wide shoe, and the toe box isn’t as generous as something like Bont’s Vaypor S.
When deciding on a size, Quoc recommends adding at least a centimetre to the length of the foot, and provides a chart for converting that length to a shoe size. That formula worked well in my situation; it also does a lot to take the guesswork out of ordering a pair of shoes online.
The uppers of the Night were very flexible; compared to the Empire ACC, it was like wearing a pair of sneakers on the bike. I was worried that this might translate to a lack of support, but that was never the case. Instead, I had a lot of freedom to move my feet around, which was welcome on long rides, but will disappoint buyers that prefer the security of a stiff shoe.
The Night still managed to provide a reasonably firm hold on my heel, but it wasn’t as confidence-inspiring as the Empire ACC (or, for that matter, the Specialized S-Works Sub6 tested by my American colleague, James Huang). This is not a shoe that will satisfy sprinters, but then, Quoc’s marketing doesn’t pretend that it ever will. As for the actual performance of the shoe, my heel never slipped from the shoe, and my pedal stroke never seemed to suffer.
As supple and accommodating as the Night was, I found the fit was marginally narrow for my right foot (which is a few millimetres wider than my left). This wasn’t something that I noticed straight away, and for rides less than three hours I never had a problem. But once I started spending four hours or more in the shoes, a hotspot consistently developed on the side of my foot. Thus, for those riders that normally require wide shoes, the Night may prove to be too narrow.
The grid on the bottom of the Night was pretty good. All that was really missing was a set of numbers to provide a better point of reference when comparing the position of the cleats on each shoe, or, when making adjustments.
The Night features a generous reflective strip on the heel of the shoe to improve the visibility of the shoes at night, and while I applaud this feature, Giro’s all-over treatment for the Empire ACC is far more impressive.
The elastic strap that Quoc provides for tucking away the laces wasn’t nearly as convenient to use as Giro’s “lace garage”. There was no tab to make it easy to locate and the smaller, tighter loop of elastic meant that it was more difficult to poke the laces through it. And somehow, it always seemed to get trapped under the laces as I pulled the shoe on, so it really needed to be re-positioned a little lower on the tongue.
I spent the entire review period riding in warm-to-hot conditions without ever feeling like my feet were in danger of overheating in the Night. That’s probably enough to suggest that Quoc’s ventilation strategies worked well, but I’ve yet to experience a cycling shoe that I’d describe as “breezy” on a warm day.
The quality of construction of the Night was very good, just like the Empire ACC. After a few weeks of wearing the shoes, they still looked new, and while that’s not enough to make any predictions about the long-term durability of the shoe, I see no reason to question it, either.
Summary and final thoughts
When the Empire first appeared on the market, it might have been easy to dismiss laces as a passing fad. However, too many years have passed for that to be the case any longer. That the number of lace-up shoes has grown in recent years is enough to cement the return of laces to performance-oriented road cycling shoes.
Devotees can point to the promise of extra adjustability and a reduction in the size of local pressure points, but compared to other closures, laces still suffer from a lack of convenience and on-bike adjustability. With that said, the magnitude of any of these strengths and weaknesses will vary according to the needs of the individual, so there is no winning argument. What is clear, though, is that lace-ups have enriched the marketplace, giving road cyclists more shoes to choose from.
It should also be mentioned that just because a generous number of eyelets are included for each shoe, riders aren’t obliged to use all of them. Runners have employed modified lacing for years – including staggered and skipped patterns – to help fine-tune the fit of their footwear, and the same strategies can be used here as well (albeit with less effectiveness depending on the rigidity of the uppers).
While the two shoes both have laces and share a similar aesthetic, Quoc’s Night makes for a pleasing contrast to Giro’s Empire ACC. The two shoes are really designed to serve the needs of very different cyclists: race-oriented cyclists with narrow feet are likely to be impressed by the Empire ACC, while the Night will be a better fit for those riders looking for a more supple feel, a slightly wider last, and a greater degree of freedom for the feet.