With a lightweight but durable upper, a stiff carbon sole clad in soft Vibram rubber, and a lace-up closure, the Giro Empire VR90 shoes are a great option for cross-country riding, and good for fair-weather cyclocross. More aggressive trail riders might find the shoes lacking in protection on the sides of the feet, but the uppers have shown resilience from standard wear and tear.
Following on the success of its road lace-up Empires, Giro starting riffing on the design for MTB shoes in late 2013. A limited edition Empire VR90 followed last year, with this production shoe available now.
Four BikeRadar testers have worn the shoes for months, in everything from casual off-road riding to eight-hour cross-country races to trail riding to cyclocross. Our consensus is that they are fairly stiff but quite comfortable on the bike. For those doing lots of hike-a-bike, you'll probably prefer something with a more flexible sole. But for short scrambles the Empire VR90s work great, with the almost-gummy Vibram outsoles gripping well on rock and the light weight almost disappearing from your feet.
My test pair of 45.5 shoes weighed 700g. I normally wear 45, but like most testers I had to go up a half size because the VR90s fit snugly through the forefoot. While many other Giro shoes come in wide options, the VR90s do not.
So, about the laces. They work surprisingly well. Of course you're familiar with lacing up your street shoes. The main questions we had were, will the laces come untied while riding or get tangled in the chain or pedals, and will they loosen up or need to be retied mid-ride? The answer to all of that is no. 'Set it and forget it' is usually a good sign with soft goods, be it clothing, helmets or shoes, and that applies here. That's a good thing, too, as you can't exactly retie shoes on the bike like you can tweak a Boa dial or a ratchet buckle.
Internally, the Empire VR90s have a neutral fit, and the instep can be adjusted via Velcro wedges on the bottom of the anti-microbial insoles.
The Teijin microfiber uppers proved easy to maintain. After muddy rides I would just scrub the shoes with a brush and soapy water after washing the bike. The absence of seams on the uppers makes for an easy clean; the laces and eyelets make for a little more work, but clean up fairly easy, too.
The outsole heels on one pair of test shoes delaminated, peeling away from the rest of the shoe by a 1cm or so. This pair was replaced, as Giro said would be done for any customer. No other tester experienced this.