Knit materials are supposed to be the next big thing in cycling footwear. They’re highly tunable, so designers can offer zonal stretch and stiffness exactly where desired, they’re potentially much more breathable than synthetic leathers, and the manufacturing process produces less waste than traditional methods. They can even be made in a wider range of wild designs and colors, too.
Thus far, only two companies have jumped aboard the knit bandwagon for cycling footwear: Giro with the Empire E70 Knit, and Fizik with the Infinito R1 Knit. Giro and Fizik take very different approaches to the concept, though, with very different outcomes as a result. Do the new knit shoes offer any real-world advantages to their traditionally made counterparts? Yes and no.
The thinking behind knit
Knit uppers have been the rage in general-purpose athletic footwear for the past several years, but it’s only been very recently that the technology has made its way into cycling shoes. Given the claimed benefits, though, it’s a wonder it hasn’t happened sooner.
Conventional cycling shoe uppers are traditionally made from some type of synthetic leather, whether it’s cut in a single piece from a larger roll of material, or stitched and/or bonded together from multiple smaller pieces. Oftentimes, the interior of the shoe is line with an additional layer of mesh for added comfort. From there, the patterns are wrapped around a last and placed in a heated mold where the materials take on a foot-like shape. After the upper cools, it’s bonded to the outsole.
Knit uppers, on the other hand, are more akin to fancy socks, with individual yarns woven together to form the final pattern. That flat shape requires a trip through a heated mold like with other materials, but knitting the upper is still a more direct method of manufacturing and produces a lot less waste than cutting patterns out of big rolls. Designers can also engineer specific areas of stiffness and flexibility into knit uppers by selectively altering the knit pattern and yarns as desired; areas that need to be more structured can be made with a denser weave, for example, while other areas can be left more open for added comfort and flexibility.
Of course, there’s also the potential for some wild aesthetics in knit uppers by changing the yarn colors and weave patterns (as well as some killer combinations if you choose your socks carefully).
If you’re going to roll with some color, you may as well go all-in. I was admittedly pretty unsure of how these @girocycling Empire E70 Knit shoes looked when they first showed up, but after swapping the black laces for some pink ones, then adding some killer socks from @hbstache, the combo seems just right. #sockdoping
Not surprisingly, knit materials are also inherently more breathable than traditional synthetics. Whereas cycling footwear companies will often add a number of laser or mechanical perforations (or separate mesh panels) into synthetic leathers to improve airflow and breathability, knit materials are riddled with holes by nature.
Giro and Fizik have both brought knit technology to cycling footwear recently, and both of their new knit shoes are adaptations of existing models — the Empire E70 Knit being a variation of Giro’s classic Empire, and the Infinito R1 Knit bearing a close resemblance to Fizik’s standard Infinito R1. That said, the way each company is using knit technology is quite different.
Giro’s “Xnetic Knit” uppers are made of a blend of nylon and polyester fibers, with the nylon fibers concentrated in areas that need a bit of extra rigidity. The entire upper edge of the shoe uses a denser weave pattern for durability, while other areas, such as on the sides, use a more open knit to enhance airflow. Additional layers of thicker polyurethane film are thermally welded into select areas to give the upper some extra structure, and to prevent unwanted stretching. Out back is a conventional molded plastic heel cup to help stabilize your foot while pedaling. The interior of the heel area is lined with a layer of nylon mesh (along with a bit of padding), but everything from the ankle forward is left in its raw state.
Rather than figure out a way to attach a bunch of complex closure systems, Giro equips the Empire E70 Knit with a simple lace-up design, complete with metal eyelets and a handy elastic strap on the well-padded conventional synthetic leather tongue to keep the laces from flopping about during a ride. To help keep your feet from getting instantly soaked with rain and road spray, the uppers are treated with a durable water-repellent (DWR) coating.
From there, the entire upper is bonded to the same Easton EC70 carbon outsole as what Giro uses on the midrange Trans Boa and Sentrie Techlace models.
Fizik takes more of a hybrid approach for the Infinito R1 Knit. The uppers are fully knit, and like the Empire E70 Knit, Fizik alters the weave density and pattern to selectively provide zones of extra stretch. Also like on the Giros, the Infinito R1 Knit is built with a conventional internal heel cup to provide additional stability.
However, whereas Giro uses additional reinforcing layers rather sparingly on the Empire E70 Knit, Fizik bolsters nearly the entire top half of the Infinito R1 knit, as well as the edge of the toe box and lower half of the heel area. The unaltered knit material is still visible from the outside around the toe box and upper heel area (where the additional give is presumably needed most), but rather than leave any of the knit raw against your socks, Fizik lines the entire inside of the Infinito R1 Knit with mesh.
The Infinito R1 Knit’s upper design is certainly more complex than that of the Empire E70 Knit, but the shoe is also more complex overall. Whereas the Empire E70 Knit is a straightforward lace-up shoe, each Infinito R1 Knit uses two separate Boa IP1-B dial closures. There’s also a separate “Dynamic Arch Support” panel at the arch that is meant to provide more specific tunability in that area without overly affecting the tightness around the toe box; the rearmost Boa dial basically just cinches the shoe around the ankle. According to Fizik, this two-zone system provides a wider adjustment range and more independent tightening around the ankle and forefoot.
Down below, and just like Giro, Fizik takes the completed hybrid knit upper and bonds it to a shared outsole. In this case, it’s the same vented carbon fiber plate used on the standard Infinito R1.
The two companies’ differing takes on knit cycling shoes yield obvious differences visually, but also in terms of weight and cost. Actual weight for a pair of Empire E70 Knit shoes (size 43.5) is 517g — about 35g heavier per shoe than the Empire ACC. A pair of similarly fitting size 42 (they run quite big) Infinito R1 Knit shoes comes in at a heftier 562g, for a weight penalty of about 50g relative to the standard Infinito R1.
Retail prices are much more divergent, with the Empire E70 Knit shoes fetching US$200 / AU$300 / £200 / €229 at full retail, while the Infinito R1 Knit is roughly double the cost at a whopping US$450 / AU$500 / £350 / €380 per pair.
On the road
It might seem odd to compare two pairs of cycling shoes that are so different in design, construction, and price. But in fairness, shoes are such personal items that it’s arguably illogical to declare winners and losers for the category in general. But regardless, it’s still interesting to look in more detail at how knit technology has altered the shoes on which each of these are based, as well as whether knit cycling shoes make any sense for you.
The Giro Empire E70 Knit looks a lot like other Empire models in terms of overall shape and design, but in reality, the knit upper yields a surprisingly significant change in both fit and feel. Giro uses the same last for both the standard and knit versions of the Empire, but since the knit material doesn’t “spring back” as much as standard synthetics after the last is removed post-molding, the sides of the toe box end up notably more vertical. The Empire E70 Knit is still relatively narrow as compared to some other cycling footwear brands, but given the slightly boxier shape and the subtle stretch from the neat woven fabric, the knit version feels downright roomy when worn back-to-back with the standard Empire.
All of this is great news for riders who want to like the standard Empires, but can’t get their feet to fit into that unusually confining shape (myself included). Riders with any sort of lumps or bunions (myself included) will also find that the Xnetic Knit is more accommodating of slight anatomical anomalies without the need to do any spot-stretching.
Giro’s strategically placed reinforcements for the Xnetic Knit uppers seem to work. Despite the added stretchiness and give in certain key areas, the Empire E70 Knit doesn’t feel any less secure than standard Empires. That said, the stock footbeds provide only marginal arch support (as with all Giro road shoes, to be honest), and at least for me, the medium-width heel cup could also be a bit more snug. That slight bit of heel movement was hardly disagreeable while riding, though, and once I added some aftermarket Solestar insoles, I found the Empire E70 Knit to provide more than enough support for everyday riding — and definitely far more comfort than any other Empire I’ve used in the past.
Breathability is one area where the Xnetic Knit upper is absolutely superb. Even in high heat and humidity, you never get the sense that your feet are struggling to stay cool while wearing the Empire E70 Knit. The sole only has the tiniest little opening under the toes, but the uppers are so well vented on their own that you’d be hard pressed to keep your feet from freezing even in moderately cold conditions.
As for that DWR coating, it’s about as effective as you’d expect in this application – which is to say not very well. These knit uppers are about as watertight as cheesecloth, after all, and coating or no coating, the holes are pretty big; your little piggies will be swimming in a steady downpour just as they would in any other shoe. But on the upside, the knit uppers’ more porous nature let them drain and dry out faster than standard synthetic uppers.
It’s quite a different story with the Infinito R1 Knit. Fizik’s less radical use of knit material here makes for a more structured hold than what you get on the Empire E70 Knit, but it’s also less able to shape to your feet since the stretchy areas are so much more limited in terms of coverage. Fizik’s knit feels stiffer and less conforming than what Giro uses, too, and the difference in overall fit and feel between the Infinito R1 Knit and the standard Infinity R1 isn’t nearly as drastic as one might expect.
Unfortunately, that restrained approach costs the Infinito R1 Knit in other areas. All of that additional reinforcement makes the Infinito R1 Knit a lot less breathable than the Empire E70 Knit, and seemingly even less so than the standard Infinito R1 as well. The open weave pattern on the edges of the Infinito R1 Knit looks like it’d be cool from the outside, but the interior lining presents another barrier to airflow, and the laminated areas elsewhere can feel thick and stifling at times.
Given that the Infinito R1 Knit is based on the standard Infinito R1, it’s no surprise that they fit very similarly. Carrying over are the same aggressively tapered toe box shape, narrow overall width, and highly curved outsole. Got flat and/or wide feet? Don’t even bother with these. Truth be told, the Fiziks don’t actually measure any narrower than the Giros, but since the uppers are a bit stiffer on the Infinito R1 Knit than the Empire E70 Knit, they effectively feel a touch more confining.
Heel hold has thankfully improved over the R1 from a couple of years ago, with a more secure hold that’s far less prone to slipping than before. But does that fancy Dynamic Arch Support panel work as advertised? Well, given that it’s fully stitched around its edges and doesn’t truly move independently of the rest of the upper, I’d say no. Fizik’s replaceable heel tread is still as hard as ever, too; on hardwood or stone flooring, you may as well be wearing tap shoes on an ice skating rink with a layer of ball bearings in between.
That all said, the Infinito R1 Knit is arguably the better-looking of the two knit shoes here, at least if you prefer the classic aesthetics of conventional high-performance road shoes. The Empire E70 Knit shoes never let you (or anyone else) forget that you’re wearing something different — and even the wilder color options can look fantastic if you’re careful with sock choice — but the Infinito R1 Knit is more subtle in how it goes about its business.
To knit or not to knit
Between the Empire E70 Knit and Infinito R1 Knit, I’d argue that Giro has made the more convincing case for knit uppers. The Empire E70 Knit is more notably different from the standard Empire models in terms of fit and feel, and makes it clear how the woven construction has something more to offer as compared to conventional synthetics. And while they’re a fair bit heavier than other Empire models, they’re also less expensive, with no appreciable downsides.
The Infinito R1 Knit is undoubtedly a beautiful looking shoe, but it’s harder to justify the upcharge relative to the standard Infinito R1. The knit version isn’t significantly more comfortable, it’s heavier (although, again, so is the Empire E70 Knit relative to the standard Empires), and the heavyhanded construction methods Fizik uses here makes for a shoe that feels hotter, not cooler.
Knit technology is only just starting to make its way into the cycling footwear world, but if the general athletic shoe market is any indication, it’s bound to make further inroads in the years ahead given the enormous potential of the material. Potential is the key word here, though. It’s one thing to be different in order to make a positive change, but another thing entirely if you’re different just for the sake of being different.
With the Giro Empire E70 Knit, it’s easy to see how knit technology can make cycling shoes better; but unless you’re just drawn to the unique aesthetics of the Infinito R1 Knit, you’re likely better off with the standard Fizik Infinito R1 shoes instead.