Giro Empire VR90 Review
Compare prices at 2 resellers Pros: Lightweight, comfortable, stiff, great power transfer, vibram soles, customizable insoles
Cons: No on-the-fly adjustments, limited foot protection, expensive
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Giro Empire VR90 is an XC race inspired clipless mountain bike shoe with a lightweight and minimalist design that does not compromise on comfort or performance. Our Editors' Choice award winner, the Empire VR90 is one of the lightest, stiffest, and most comfortable shoes in our test selection. While the Empire VR90 is at home on the race course we found it to double easily as road, gravel grinding, or cyclocross shoe and found it to be comfortable enough for everyday use on any length of XC trail ride. The styling and minimal foot protection of the Empire VR90 definitely won't make this the first choice of enduro or gravity oriented riders, but anyone who likes to lay down the power will appreciate the performance of this shoe.
We found the Empire VR90 to work best with small platform clipless pedals, and also with pedals with no platform like the Shimano XTR M9100 Race. We put the Empire VR90 through its paces for countless hours and miles, everything from quick backyard laps, all-day backcountry epics, long road, and gravel rides, even raced them to the podium at the Lost and Found Gravel Grinder and the Downieville Classic All-Mountain World Championships.
The Easton EC90 carbon sole of the Empire VR90 provides the stiffest sole and some of the best power transfer of any shoe in our test selection.
The uncompromisingly rigid sole transfers all of your energy directly into the pedals no matter how long you mash on the pedals or how hard you sprint. There is the slightest bit of flex up towards the toe of the sole to aid in off the bike walkability, but otherwise, the sole is all business. The Shimano S-Phyre XC9 is equally stiff and another great option for the XC racers. The Scott MTB Team Boa features a slightly less stiff carbon sole in a somewhat heavier package at nearly half the price.
Comfort is one of the Empire VR90's strong suits; in fact, it was the most comfortable shoe we tested. The glossy synthetic leather uppers look stiff but are quite supple and conform to your feet over the course of your first couple of rides. The Supernatural fit customizable footbeds allow you to choose between three sizes of arch support to dial in the fit to your liking. There is virtually no padding in this shoe, except the tongue, and around the upper ankle cuff and heel pocket, which keeps the shoe light and molded to your feet. This model offers little in the way of protection from rock or debris strikes, although a rubber rand and light reinforcement of the toe box offers some protection in that area.
The shoes look reminiscent of a lace-up pair of soccer cleats, and we have to admit that we were skeptical of the lack of on-the-fly tension adjustment. We were surprised never to need to tighten them mid-ride, even on three plus hour trail rides, a 90+ mile gravel race, or on a road/gravel century ride, you tie them tight and put the laces under the elastic and you're ready to go. They are ventilated with hundreds of small holes perforated in the uppers on both sides of the foot and the tongue and while it looks inadequate, we didn't find these shoes to be notably hot on the feet. The cleat mount area offers a range of adjustability in the sweet spot for most riders, although riders who like their cleats way back may be left wanting more(and would also be looking at different shoes anyway).
The regular fit Empire VR90 shoes have a snug fit that works best for people with narrow to average width feet. They also make a High Volume (HV) version for riders with wider feet.
Vibram rubber bonds to the Easton EC90 carbon sole of the Empire VR90 with a tread design that features larger lugs under the heel and ball of the foot on either side of the cleat mount area with smaller lugs wrapping up under the toes and a strip of rubber under the mid-foot/arch area.
The rubber outsole isn't full coverage, and some of the carbon sole is visible and potentially vulnerable to damage if walking on rocks. That said, the Vibram rubber is very grippy and provides ample traction on all hard surfaces. The large lugs of the outsole also offer bite in soft and muddy conditions and are not prone to holding on to mud or other trail debris. The Empire VR90 has little flex in the toe, similar to that of the XC oriented Sidi Cape, and lost points for walkability accordingly, although the grippy rubber outsole still makes for a high level of confidence when the terrain forces you off the bike.
The Empire VR90 is an impressively light shoe, weighing in at 388g per shoe for our size 45 test pair.
We have put the Empire VR90 through literally thousands of miles of riding, and they look almost the same as the day we pulled them out of the box.
The one-piece glossy "premium Evofiber breathable Teijin Microfiber" synthetic uppers clean up very quickly and are only stitched on the back of the heel and around the tongue, so there is little stitching to rip or pull out of the shoes. The upper material is incredibly resistant to abrasion, and our test pair shows no signs of wear whatsoever, even in the strike-prone pinky toe area. The laces are still in perfect condition as is the Vibram rubber sole and there are zero signs of the sole delaminating from the uppers. The exposed portion of the carbon soles do show some minor scratching from contact with rocks while walking, but that is to be expected, and that is the extent of the visible wear on these shoes. The Empire VR90 has seen lots of use and still basically look brand new.
The Empire VR90 doesn't come cheap, but this is one of those cases that we think you get what you pay for. The Giro shoe offers the best power transfer, most comfort, surprisingly good traction and durability, all in a lightweight package. We don't take the Editors Choice award lightly, and the Empire VR90 deserves it — it's worth every penny. The Empire VR90 also comes standard with an extra set of laces, a toe spike kit, and a zippered carrying bag.
It was a good battle, but in the end, it was the Empire VR90's combination of weight, comfort, power transfer, traction and durability that made it our Editor's Choice, award winner. It doesn't come cheap, but we feel it is worth the expense for its outstanding performance for riders of nearly all disciplines. Enduro or aggressive all-mountain riders seeking more foot protection will likely look elsewhere, but for everyone else, we don't think it gets any better than the Empire VR90.
Other Versions and Accessories
The Empire VR90 is also available in a variety of colors to suit a range of tastes. The Empire is available in regular and High Volume (HV) widths. Toe spikes come with the shoes, and additional sets are available for $15.00. Replacement laces are also available in a variety of colors for $6.00.
— Jeremy Benson, Dillon Osleger