Giro's Empire VR90 shoes are super-comfortable with no lack of stiffness from the carbon sole. Their treaded grippy sole makes them ideal for cyclo-cross racers, adventure cyclists and mountain bikers, as well as a stylish alternative to regular road racing shoes.
Giro made waves in the cycling world when it reintroduced laces to a top-end carbon fibre race shoe a couple of years ago, and the Empire has gone on to be hugely popular. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and other shoe brands (Specialized, Bontrager, Northwave...) have since brought out lace-up shoes. Laces are very much back in fashion then.
The VR90 is basically the off-road version of the Empire. The same EvoFiber material is used in the construction of the upper, with rows of small ventilation perforations, and the same laces and lace-retaining loop on the tongue.
Underneath, the same Easton EC90 carbon fibre sole is modified with a recessed two-hole SPD drilling and a chunky Vibram rubber tread. There are two stud mounts at the front and you get some studs in the box, along with spare laces and some different inner sole inserts to customise the fit.
In use, the VR90 shoes are stiff, offering all the power transfer any racer needs, yet the fit and comfort is fantastic. They offer all the performance of a top-end road shoe but with the practicality that a rubber tread and SPD cleat offers for when you're off the bike, making them ideal for touring, audax and winter club rides with a coffee shop stop.
Okay, so the laces take a little more time to do up and to get the tension across the top of the foot just right compared with buckles and straps, but unless you're doing a triathlon it's of little consequence. After a couple of rides you get the knack for applying just the right tightness and you never look back.
The laces allow you to tailor the fit of the shoes with more precision than straps or buckles, too. With regular shoes you have two or three main contact points where the straps hook over the top of the shoe; the VR90s have seven points of contact across the upper. That spreads the pressure more evenly, moulding the upper to your foot.
Laces are not going to force ratchets and dials out of a job anytime soon. Not being able to make easy adjustments on the move will be a deal-breaker for some. But because the shoes are so comfortable, I never actually missed not being able to make on-the-fly adjustments. They're simply so comfortable you forget about them very quickly.
Another benefit of the laces is simply that they're lighter than many shoes with buckles or dials. Weight for a pair of size 45 shoes is 640g. There is arguably less to go wrong as well – there's much less chance of a lace snapping in a crash than breaking a dial or ratchet.
The upper is well shaped. It compares favourably to other Giro shoes, and shoes from other brands I've tested recently, including Sidi, Fizik and Specialized. There's just enough give and stretch in the upper material to adapt to your feet, but without allowing your feet to squirm around inside when pushing hard on the pedals. Giro's SuperNatural Fit footbed also uses interchangeable arch supports so you can customise the fit.
Get a grip
The Vibram rubber tread provides loads of grip when you're scrabbling up a rooty and rocky climb, and the tread pattern clears quite easily so you don't carry around too much extra weight. The studs are definitely to be used if the cyclo-cross course has any steep banks that require dismounting, and are useful if heading further afield over more challenging terrain than the local school playing field typically used for cyclo-cross races.
The shoes clean up well after muddy rides: the upper scrubs up well, and they dry out quickly after a soaking in the rain. This colour option is a practical one for British winter riding and cyclo-cross, but there are brighter (louder) colours available if you want to stand out.
I've been racing cyclo-cross in these shoes all winter, and they've been flawless. Away from racing, I've also used them for mountain bike rides, where they're also brilliant, and the grippy sole is ideal when the trail forces you to dismount and push. But I've also been using them on the road too, because they're so comfortable and practical when you're off the bike.
But damn, they are expensive.
All the performance of a top-end carbon road shoe with the practicality of a treaded sole
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Giro Empire VR90 Mountain shoes
Size tested: 45
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
Giro says: "The Empire™VR90 is one of the lightest options available on dirt and sets the standard in high-performance off-road shoes. Highlights include a lightweight laced one-piece upper for unrivaled comfort, an Easton® EC90™full carbon outsole and molded Vibram® rubber tread for relentless grip. The upper is made of our breathable Evofiber™synthetic upper by Teijin® for superb fit and support that won't stretch out with wear or weather. Our adjustable SuperNatural Fit footbed lets you fine-tune the fit and arch support, for maximum pedaling efficiency."
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
One-piece upper design. Premium Evofibre breathable Teijin microfiber. Sport laces – hold a knot, durable and light
SuperNatural fit kit with adjustable arch support with X-Static anti-microbial fibre
Easton EC90 carbon fibre. Molded rubber high traction lugged outsole and mid-foot scuff guard. Accommodated steel toe spikes
Have survived loads of cyclo-cross races and more punishing mountain biking riding with no sign of wear.
Stellar performance, and ideal for cyclo-cross racers but with comfort that makes them ideal on the road as an alternative to slippery soled race shoes.
The laces are still working fine despite being jetwashed and plastered in mud a few times, and the rubber sole is holding up well.
Light enough that you really don't notice them when riding.
The comfort is the most appealing aspect of these shoes, the laces allow you to get the upper tightened down just enough, but not too much. No heel lift either.
They're jolly expensive.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Perfect for cyclo-cross racing but also adventure and general 'cross riding, and ace for mountain biking.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Great fit, comfort, stiffness and grippy sole.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
You can't make adjustments on-the-fly.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your score
If you can ignore the price, these are stunning shoes, and there's nothing much else like them on the market.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo-cross, commuting, touring, mountain biking
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.