Retro meets future with Giro's top-end race shoe.
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 MTB. 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.
Giro Empire VR90 MTB construction
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. But these aren’t just ordinary laces – 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 another set of Giro shoes previously and so went up half a size from my normal 44. Even then they felt a little on the snug side. 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. Plus the Vibram sole provides ample grip in most conditions. And for those conditions when you might slip and slide, Giro provide some steel toe spikes for extra grip.
The fly in the ointment
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. Yes, when tensioned correctly they provide the Empire with a very even and comfortable level of security. And yes, they do make the Empire a very light shoe (349g per shoe)
But… I’m yet to perfect the ability to set 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 with the laces is with 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.
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.