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In 2009, Quoc Pham set out to build a better urban cycling shoe. His first offerings were stylish and classic-looking laced leather numbers, before expanding to include the suede SPD-compatible Derby and the more casual, sneaker-like Hardcourt Hightop and Urbanite boots.
So in 2017, with the unveiling of the performance road shoe, the Night, it was something of a reinvention for the company – now named simply ‘Quoc’. The Gran Tourer, launched on Kickstarter in March 2018, is arguably Quoc’s best-received release to date, continuing the brand’s love affair with lace-up closures while adding an adventurous spirit.
Since Giro released the Empire in 2012, the laced cycling shoe market has become an increasingly crowded space. There’s a lot to like about laces – they’re light, offer a more precise and tuneable fit than most velcro or BOA closures, and can be more accommodating of unconventional foot shapes. After a long search for a comfortable road shoe I transitioned to laces with the Empire in early 2014, and haven’t looked back.
As the cycling industry has shifted its attention to gravel and adventure riding, with ever-increasing ardour, it was natural that laces went along for the journey. The well-established Giro Empire VR90 is a leading model in that category, with newer offerings like Rapha’s Explore and Quoc’s Gran Tourer completing a triptych of high-end lace-up models trying to achieve roughly the same thing.
Quoc is by far the smallest of the three brands, but that isn’t to say that its offering is less considered. It was, according to Quoc, an 18-month process of prototyping to bring the shoe to market, with two key areas – the outsole and midsole – consuming the bulk of the development timeline.
When the rubber meets the road
Closures may be what anyone notices first, but the core of any cycling shoe is its sole. On a road shoe, the design brief is comparatively simple – ramp up stiffness, pare back weight – but when you add grip and need to consider walkability, things get a little more complicated.
The Gran Tourer’s rubber outsole uses what Quoc calls a GravelGrip formula, constituting a fairly open tread design that sheds mud and dirt well, only getting overwhelmed in sticky mud or treacherous clay. There’s no way to fit spikes at the toe, which might rule them out for some cyclocross riders, but that’s only likely to be a dealbreaker for a small minority of riders and riding conditions.
True to its name, Quoc’s GravelGrip is grippy, adapting well to different surfaces including polished concrete and stainless steel – you won’t go skating into a urinal trough wearing these, which is a happy bonus, both in a pair of shoes and in life more generally.
They’re also less jarring underfoot when walking on footpaths and around town, making them the most conventionally shoe-like performance cycling shoe I’ve ever used, and the only one that doesn’t seem like it’d be a massive pain in the arse to wear for a full day at the office. (Note: I’ve also used Chrome and DZR urban shoes extensively, which have a slight edge off the bike, but don’t offer nearly the same level of performance as the Quoc Gran Tourers on the bike).
Part of the credit there should go to the carbon-composite mid-sole, a feature carried over from the Night road shoes. Rather than adopting a stiffness-at-all-costs approach, Quoc’s midsole has a bit of flex in it, improving the Gran Tourer’s walkability substantially, and making them a good choice for touring and bikepacking adventures. They’re not perceptibly mushy when riding, but back to back with a pair of Empire VR90s or Rapha Explores, there’s a little less zing to the power transfer. It didn’t bother me – indeed, I almost preferred it, but your results may vary.
When it comes to weight, the Gran Tourers tip the scales at 360g per shoe, excluding cleats (for the size 42.5 I reviewed). That’s just 20g or so heavier than Giro’s Empire VR90 or Rapha’s Explore — perfectly respectable.
The uppers are a nod to the company’s roots, both visually and technologically. Quoc Pham, the company founder, is of Vietnamese origin, and the uppers feature a subtle Vietnamese Tigerstripe camouflage pattern on two of the four colour-schemes offered. But despite the company’s Vietnamese heritage, it’s a distinctly British brand, so it makes sense that there’s a lot of consideration given to how the shoes perform in wet conditions.
Ventilation is minimal – small pores are lazer cut into the seamless upper, the sole is completely sealed, and the tongue is gussetted to block ingress of water. I’ve been kicking around in these shoes since March, so I’ve yet to see how they perform in the heat of an Australian summer, but they’ve certainly done a good job of keeping my feet dry through the depths of winter.
The Gran Tourer’s uppers are also hard-wearing, and easily wiped down to keep them looking fresh. A rubberised skirt around the base of the shoe’s upper provides extra protection and aids in waterproofing – below the black line of rubber, the shoe is completely waterproof.
Of course, all the nice design touches in the world can only be appreciated if the shoe fits comfortably, and it’s here that the Gran Tourer has some quirks. The sizing range is more limited than that offered by bigger companies, with no half sizes available – the run is from 37.5–46.5, with jumps of an entire European size. And compared to more mainstream brands that are widely stocked in local bike shops the world over, Quoc has just a handful of retail partners, meaning it’s most likely to be an online purchase.
There is attentive customer support to help with fit questions, as well as a sizing chart, but there’s really no way of knowing exactly how a shoe will fit before pulling it on. I’m a 43 in a Giro, and Quoc suggested a 42.5, which was both roomier in the forefoot and felt a touch longer. Quoc says that the shoe can accommodate feet up to an EE width, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that it felt comparatively cavernous beside the narrower Empires I’m used to. At first I felt the shoe was a half size too big, but I’ve grown used to it — whenever I switch back to my Empire VR90s, I now feel too cramped in the toebox, making me wonder whether they were really just too tight the whole time.
Heel hold is relatively discreet, relying more on the lacing to keep the shoe in place and movement-free, with the supple uppers conforming well to the contours of the foot. Quoc’s patented lacing system is more clever than the company’s rivals, however, locking tension off in certain areas and offering a firm, repeatable hold. It takes a bit of time to get used to, especially if you’re swapping between a number of other laced shoes as I am, but I’ve come to really like it. Lace ends are tucked under an elasticated loop on the tongue, as with most other laced cycling shoes.
Whilst the fit of the shoe may be a little ambiguous, I feel firm in my conviction that the ‘Natural Fit’ insole is a weak point. Other than a raised metatarsal button in the midfoot, it’s almost completely flat – if you’ve got high arches, you’ll not find much to like here. The lack of arch support, for me, manifested in instability in the pedal stroke, and regular hotspots across the mid-foot.
I persisted with the supplied insoles for a few weeks, before giving up and swapping the insoles over to a pair of G8 Performance orthotic insoles with substantially more support, which also took up some of the excess volume in the shoe, improving the fit and pretty much solving any discomfort.
Compared to the clever adjustable insoles offered by Giro and Rapha, or the variety of footbeds offered by Specialized, Quoc’s modest offering feels like a misstep on an expensive pair of shoes. For what it’s worth, when I asked Quoc about this, they offered that they “might offer adaptable arch insoles in the future” – read into that whatever you like.
I’ve been, for the most part, really impressed with the Quoc Gran Tourer, and they seem to have been pretty rapturously received elsewhere. They also exceeded their Kickstarter target, suggesting that the shoe now has a decent number of satisfied riders getting about in them. The Gran Tourers have become my go-to for long days, especially if I know that I’m going to be doing a bit of walking.
They’re not a cheap shoe by any stretch. The £219.00 asking price puts them at around US$275 / AU$400, which is firmly in the upper echelon of the market – slightly more expensive than Rapha’s Explores and more than a third more than the Empire VR90s. However, they offer a feeling of luxury, both in their on-bike comfort and their presentation, which includes nice packaging and a shoe bag. The durability of the shoes has also proven excellent over the course of my testing, extenuating some of the expense.
That said, if you’re ponying up that much money for a pair of cycling shoes, you would expect them to be pretty much perfect, and the basic insole strikes me as beneath the level of the rest of the shoe.
Fit is a personal thing – I get it – and perhaps Quoc’s insole works for a lot of riders. It didn’t work for me, but unlike offerings from Rapha or Giro or Specialized or Shimano, there’s no attempt to accommodate a diversity of different fits. I’m fortunate that I had a spare set of insoles that I like, to untap the potential of what are otherwise excellent shoes, but I shouldn’t have had to.
The Gran Tourers come pretty close to giving me just what I want in a pair of gravel shoes. I just wish the same consideration had been given to the insole as has been to the excellent outsole, midsole and upper.