Giro Imperial shoe review: Finding balance between weight and support

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When it comes to road shoes, there’s a sweet spot between slipper and structure, malleability and support. Giro thinks it has found the middle of that Venn diagram with its new Imperial model. Have they?

Giro’s new Imperial is what you’d get if you mated its own Prolight Techlace with a Factor, cut holes in the sides and filled them with mesh, and added a couple of Boa dials. They’re light, with a lovely, pliant upper, a stiff sole, and an easily adjustable double-Boa lacing system. Most importantly, they do seem to hit that sweet spot between minimalism and structure that so many shoes are going for these days, providing the support you need for long days with the ability to conform to different foot shapes.

I’ve been riding in them for about six weeks, and they’ve become my go-to road shoes. Here’s why.

Giro Imperial tech details

First, let’s get the jargon and trademarks out of the way. The core of the Imperial’s construction is the use of a material called Synchwire, which is a monofilament mesh reinforced with thermal welded Teijin TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane).

Translation: The Imperial’s construction is based on a layer of mesh-like fabric that’s partially covered in tougher, but still very malleable, TPU material. The two are welded together into a one-piece upper, so that the mesh bits look like windows through the TPU material. The TPU adds support and durability in key areas. The mesh is non-stretch and serves to increase the upper’s ability to conform to your foot, plus let lots of air in and out. The only seam is on the heel, where it’s covered by the heel cup’s fabric.

That clever upper is synched down by a pair of Boa IP1 dials. These are the ones you can micro-adjust in both directions. Soft lace guides are used to cut down on hot spots over the top of the foot.

That fancy new upper is matched with an Easton SLX2 carbon sole, which has replaceable heel pads. Inside the shoe is Giro’s SuperNatural Fit Kit, which has adjustable arch support.

The thin upper and carbon sole combine for a total weight of 215 grams per shoe, in a size 42.5. This puts them within spitting distance of most other lightweight road shoes, but still 65 grams off the new S-Works Exos. This is very much in line with the whole concept behind these shoes: Giro didn’t go chasing the lowest weight. It was the Prolight Techlace for that. These are intended to be a bit more durable, and offer more support.

The Giro Imperial’s price is $425 USD/ €429/ £374. They are expensive.

Giro Imperial ride review

The construction of the Imperial may be new for Giro, but the fit and function feel quite traditional. There’s more structure and support than on Giro’s own Prolight Techlace, but the light, slipper-like feel is retained.

I’ve ridden in a lot of lightweight shoes. Most recently, James and I tested the Specialized S-Works Exos, which is a somewhat fundamental re-think of how a road shoe should fit, and how it should hold on to your foot. Those shoes felt different from the very first time I put them on; the Imperials, for me, felt immediately like home.

This is partially because I already ride in Empires quite a lot, so I’m used to the Giro shape. But it’s also because, unlike a lot of lightweight, mesh-filled shoes, the hold and fit on the Imperials doesn’t feel compromised by thin material.

The Synchwire upper is thinner and lighter than what Giro currently uses on its Empire SLX model, but it doesn’t stretch at all. Giro has been clever with its placement of thicker bands of material – they run down and away from the Boa lace loops, so that as the Boa is tightened is pulls evenly across the foot. The heel cup is well proportioned, neither too narrow nor too wide, and feels like it would accommodate a wide variety of foot shapes.

In short, the Imperials have the support of a heavier shoe, particularly in the heel, but conform to your foot like a light one. It’s a good balance, but it must be said that the Imperials still don’t hold your foot as firmly as something with more structure – think Sidi, or any other shoe with a natural upper.

The same can’t be said for the rest of the fit. Giros are always a bit narrow, and that continues with the Imperials. The twin Boa dials allow you to crank down on the shoe if you have a low volume foot, and do so without creating hotspots. The upper is flexible enough that a wider or oddly-shaped foot may get along with them, too. But as always, try before you buy.

I like shoes with two Boas. I have a high instep, so I need to be able to leave the top one looser while clamping down on the lower one, down by my toes. Shoes with a single dial rarely offer the adjustment variation between upper and lower foot that I need.

These are summer shoes. When I talk about mesh panels above, I mean actual, see-through mesh. Want to change the color of your Imperials for the day? Simply wear socks of a different color. They’ll show right through the side panels. The result is as much ventilation as you could possibly desire; a good thing when it’s toasty, but of course a bit less desirable if you’re trying to keep your toes warm.

Giro talks quite a lot about durability, and “standing up to elite racing and training.” Basically, they’re proud of the fact that the materials used in Synchlace are more damage resistant than the uppers used on some of their other lightweight shoes (and those of their competitors). Synchlace doesn’t seem to cut or scratch easily, and what marks do find their way onto the toes are usually easily buffed out with some soap and water. The soles, too, are tougher: They used more resin to protect the carbon.

After a month and a half of heavy use, the toes on mine are scuffed (I have toe overlap on one bike) but not cut. The material certainly seems more durable than the stretchy stuff on Specialized’s Exos shoes, but it’s still thin.

These aren’t going to last as long as a pair of Sidis or something. Any shoe at this weight isn’t going to be passed down to your grandkids.

The new Empire SLX

There’s not a lot to report about the new-look Empire, which also launches today. Basically, they just updated it with the new Synchwire upper. I haven’t yet ridden them, but assuming the changes mirror the Imperial, the new upper should provide a firmer hold than the current SLX, at a similar weight.

Weight is a nifty 185 grams (size 42) and they’ll set you back $375 USD.

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