Combining old-school looks with new-school tech, the Giro Empire VR90 is a very desirable shoe. There’s no doubting Giro has worked hard to create a shoe for which performance, comfort and efficiency cannot be faulted. The problem lies within the retention system. The laces, whilst providing a very secure closure will limit the Empire’s appeal for some riders due to the added faffage.
Laces can get clogged in mud
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The Giro Empire VR90 shoes were selected for an Editor's Choice award (opens in new tab) in 2020. This year's list contains 78 items which scored a 9 or 10/10 with our tech team - this gear is the best of the best, and has received the Cycling Weekly stamp of approval.
Coming across like the love-child of a football boot and a 1960’s cycling shoe, there’s no mistaking the distinctive Giro Empire VR90. Giro’s main focus had always the helmet market, but since 2010 the Californian company has been steadily producing a varied range of cycling shoes – and the Empire sits firmly on the top branch of the off-road tree.
The most noticeable feature of the Empire is the decidedly low-tech looking lacing that provides the main retention for the shoe. The use of laces in this way is both refreshing and retro. The Empire is certainly the antithesis for all the futuristic dials and ratchets found on most rival brands high-end offerings. These aren’t just ordinary laces, however – they’re robust Sport Laces that hold a knot well without resorting to employing knots more useful in fishing.
The Empire isn’t just an exercise in style over substance though. Hidden underneath the sticky Vibram rubber tread is an Easton EC90 full carbon sole unit. This provides the Empire with an incredibly stiff pedalling platform. The upper is made from soft, perforated synthetic leather and thankfully has a reinforced toe to guard against stumps and rocks.
Giro has adopted a slightly narrower last than some other manufacturers, and as such the fit around the whole foot is a little tighter. Luckily I was aware of this having ridden in plenty of pairs of Giro shoes previously and so went up a size from my normal 44.
Fortunately the upper has enough ‘give’ to ensure that my feet remained comfortable throughout the testing period. Giro provides a set of its SuperNatural customisable insoles so I could tailor the support for my arches properly. This helps to stabilise the foot through the pedal stroke and to increase comfort – vital with such a stiff sole.
Talking about the sole, it certainly is stiff enough to eliminate any thoughts of unwanted flex during race efforts or longer rides. The Empire is a shoe favoured by a lot of bikepackers, they (and I) definitely appreciate the fact that the sole eliminates any hotspots that might be caused by long periods of pedaling.
The Vibram sole offers ample grip in most conditions, too. For those conditions when you might slip and slide, Giro provide some steel toe spikes for extra grip.
This brings me to the laces. I really wanted to love the Empire but it’s the one feature that has left me blowing hot and cold. When tensioned correctly the laces provide the Empire with a very even and comfortable level of security. And yes, they do make the Empire a pretty light shoe for off-road use.
However, I’m yet to perfect the ability of setting the tension ‘just so’ on the first attempt. Often I had to adjust and re-adjust before I’d be happy, sometimes even stopping on a ride to redo. This might just be my obsession with perfect tension, but it sure does add to the usual pre-ride faffing.
The other problem I encountered with the laces was adjustment and removal during muddy or cold rides. It’s much easier to undo a ratchet or dial with frozen hands, or when the shoe is covered in mud.
They do come with a cool shoe bag though.
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