Stuff Fatty Loves: Giro Empire VR90 Mountain Bike Shoes

10.16.2015 | 10:37 am

[Disclosure: I paid a discount rate (~50%) for my first pair of Empire VR90s, though I paid normal retail price at a LBS for my second pair and for The Hammer’s pair.] 

I was in big trouble last year: I was not enjoying mountain biking. Not enjoying it at all. Why? Pain. Big-time pain. Every single ride. I could not find a pair of mountain biking shoes I could comfortably wear all day. 

And I tried. I tried Specialized shoes (several, actually). I tried Shimano. I tried Bontrager. I tried Sidi. 

The suffering would not go away

Finally, I tried some Giro Code VR70s. And with a little help from a local cobbler, I was able to start riding again. More or less.

You may have noticed, though, that this year I haven’t been complaining about my feet at all. That’s because I finally found some shoes that work perfectly for me. Work so well, in fact, that I went ahead and bought a second pair. And a pair for The Hammer. And the road version of the same shoes.

I’m talking about the Giro Empire VR90

IMG 3547

I love these mountain bike shoes. Love them. Let me tell you why.


In general, I’m hesitant to recommend anything based on fit, because everything fits people differently. That’s why, even though I use one particular kind of saddle (The Selle Italia SLR) on every bike I own, I never talk about it: it’s not going to work for everyone.

So it’s entirely possible that these VR90s aren’t going to make your feet as happy as they make mine. 

However, I think it’s a lot more likely that they will fit you well than that they won’t. Why? Because of the laces. Yup, this old-as-dirt fastening mechanism is also the most customizable fit system you could ever imagine. I keep my shoe loose at the front of my right foot, very loose at the front of my left foot, and otherwise snug them in good and tight.

Pain problem: solved. 

Laces Questions

Now, when I first got these MTB shoes with laces, I was worried about a few things:

1. Would the laces get caught in the chain? Nope. The shoes come with a little bungee you stick your tied lace under, keeping everything all nice and tied-down, like this:

Thumb IMG 0156 1024

2. Would I have to double-knot the laces? Nope. At first, I always did double-knot the laces, and then worried about what a pain it would be to have to undo the laces to take the shoes off if I got a rock in the shoes during the ride. Then, as an experiment, I stopped double-knotting the laces, to see how often they came undone. The answer? Never. By the time I got to the Leadville 100, I didn’t even double-knot them for an eight-plus-hour race.


They didn’t come undone the whole day, even with the extensive hike-a-biking I had to do.

3. Are they slower to put on? Yes, they do take longer to put on, snug up, tie, and cinch down than velcro / ratchet / wire-and-dial systems. About a minute longer, I’d say. If that bothers you, these may not be the kind of shoes you want to go with. For me, it’s time very well-spent.

4. What about when the laces break? Of course laces don’t last forever, although the laces I have on my silver VR90s have gone through a full season of near-daily use without looking frayed or ready to break. That said, the VR90s come with a second pair of laces. And unlike other fastening systems (ratchet and velcro systems have problems and dial-and-wire systems are always jamming), lace setups take little time and no tools at all to replace.

And, for what it’s worth, changing the lace colors lets you really customize the look of your shoes:

Thumb IMG 0154 1024

The Hammer likes the orange laces that come with the black shoes; I went with the black.

More About Fit

Giro does a nice job on accomodating a lot of different kind of feet, and it doesn’t end with the laces. The VR90s also come with a couple of different thicknesses of footbeds and different height arch inserts:

Thumb IMG 0161 1024

By mixing and matching and experimenting, you’re pretty likely to find something that works for your feet. 

Easy to Clean 

One thing I did not expect to love about the VR90s is cleanability, but in fact these shoes clean faster and easier than any MTB shoe I’ve ever had. The one-piece Evofiber upper means you don’t have a bunch of mesh for crud to get caught in or leather to take care of. You just spray it with some Simple Green (or Windex or water) and wipe it down with an old t-shirt.

Below, my left shoe is dirty from a few rides, my right shoe is what they look like after about fifteen seconds of attention with Simple Green and a rag.

Thumb IMG 0159 1024

Easton Carbon / Vibram Lugged Outsoles

I do not like hard plasticky outsoles on my mountain bike shoes; I’ve slipped and fallen while hike-a-biking too many times. So I love that Giro uses Easton Carbon outsoles paired with Vibram rubber lugs. Even hiking for about a mile (like at Leadville), I felt sure-footed, while the stiff carbon keeps my shoes from bending while I pedal. 

Wrapping Up

Shoes are something you don’t think about at all when mountain biking — until your feet hurt, at which point your shoes are all you think about.

And since moving to the Giro Empire VR90s, I don’t think about shoes anymore. 

I love these things.


  1. Comment by One Eyed Jack | 10.16.2015 | 10:55 am

    The downside is with the silver and green we need a whole redesign of the FC Kit.

  2. Comment by Tom in Albany | 10.16.2015 | 11:05 am

    Disagree Mr. jack of spades/hearts. Matching is irrelevent, IMHO!

  3. Comment by NDE | 10.16.2015 | 11:40 am

    I own the black and love them too. Then I saw the Bike Mag version and want those too! Then I saw the purple Grinduro version and want them as well!

  4. Comment by Bart the Clydesdale | 10.16.2015 | 11:45 am

    You are supposed to clean Mountain bike shoes? Wow learn something new everyday.

  5. Comment by UpTheGrade, SR, CA | 10.16.2015 | 12:16 pm

    I’ve had the same pair of Mavic shoes for over 10 years, which I use on MTB as well as road. They are comfortable (a loose fit) and easy to care for.

    However, whenever I ride more than 70 miles I get foot pain at the ball. I’ve alleviated this to a large extent by wearing super thin socks, but not completely. Evidently, my feet swell tremendously on long rides, especially if I’m standing and pumping the pedals. The next shoes I buy will have a very wide toe section.

  6. Comment by ChinookPass | 10.16.2015 | 12:37 pm

    Nice recommendation, Fatty. Looks like a worthwhile product I will definitely check out!

    But really who cleans their shoes?!

  7. Comment by PantWaste | 10.16.2015 | 12:51 pm

    I have those shoes as well. My toes kept numb on rides over 20 miles with my old shoes. I just did the 100 Miles of Nowhere in these and my toes were happy the whole time. I also have wide feet and these shoes fit me great. I second your endorsement of them.

  8. Comment by MattC | 10.16.2015 | 12:58 pm

    Agree on NOT cleaning your shoes. In fact, I’d argue that after a certain amount of time (typically I’d say it must be at LEAST a few years), it’s the crud that is preserving and holding the shoes (and my car)together. Besides…we’re in a drought of historic proportions here in CA…can’t afford water to clean shoes. Or car. Or water the dead lawn.

  9. Comment by owen | 10.16.2015 | 1:01 pm

    As I get older I have found the key to happiness is comfortable shoes also. Thanks to you I have found Altra running shoes and for cycling Northwave have a similar wide toebox that has allowed me to cycle again.

    I’m glad you like the Altras. Northwave is one shoe brand I have not yet tried. Knowing another oldster with similar shoe tastes likes ‘em is a good recommendation for the future, though. Thanks! – FC

  10. Comment by Joe | 10.16.2015 | 1:07 pm

    FWIW, the Selle Italia SLR that you never talk about brings up 83 results when using the google search bar you have. As a long time reader, it’s one of the bike components I most associate with you along with NiteRider lights as those are two things you really haven’t changed over the years.

    I really appreciate your gear posts because I’ve yet to feel let down from any single thing I’ve purchased that you’ve been stoked about. So thanks to you and everyone who makes awesome bike related things and then hooks you up with them!

    Thank you, that’s really kind of you to say. I hadn’t realized I’ve mentioned the SLR so many times. I know that it is one thing I’ve been very happy with; I haven’t changed from the SLR since 2007. – FC

  11. Comment by davidh-Marin,ca | 10.16.2015 | 1:38 pm

    I wouldn’t tell the FSi you’re replacing the seat. It might retaliate and let you down……a hill. That’s one smart bike.

    You know, I actually still have the stock saddle on the F-Si. It’s fine for short rides; it’s only when I go longer than 5 hours that it really chafes. – FC

  12. Comment by Jeff Dieffenbach | 10.16.2015 | 2:54 pm

    Other Fatty-associated products (without a search of any sort):

    = Root beer Gu
    = Honey Stinger waffles
    = Jaybird headphones

    There’ll be more soon. I’ve actually made a list of things I’ve been wanting to talk about. – FC

  13. Comment by Sarah | 10.16.2015 | 3:26 pm

    One of my friends just started wearing the Empires and swears by them. Now that Fatty, the multiple- award- winning cycling blog mega- celebrity blogger has recommended them, I’m sold.

    The only problem… they don’t sell them in a small enough size for my tiny Asian feet! I need a 37!

    Ugh, that’s frustrating! The Hammer just squeaked by with the 39 she wears — and that’s men’s sizing, because for some reason there isn’t a woman version of the shoe. Perhaps it might be worth checking them out at your LBS anyway; The Hammer generally wears 38 but 39 has worked fine in these shoes for her. Likewise, I generally wear 42 but wear 43 in all Giro shoes. – FC

  14. Comment by McCranker | 10.17.2015 | 1:48 pm

    And another vote for how great these shoes are. Also, I find them to be well ventilated and love the interchangeable front cleats. Swapped in some shorter soccer cleats instead of the metal cleats that came with the shoe.
    I have a pair of the Giro Terraduros which might be even more comfortable…but they are heavier and not as stiff as the Empires.
    Giro has been doing some good things lately.

  15. Comment by Silvia Taiè | 10.18.2015 | 1:30 pm

    Hi! Do you know any urban biker community in Europe? Thanks!

  16. Comment by Shugg McGraw | 10.19.2015 | 4:42 am

    Duh, I have a pair of the road shoes. I’m always vaguely concerned that the laces are going to jam in the chain. I didn’t know about the bungee bit. Thanks Fatty. If you could inspect the rest of my kit to explain how it works I’d be grateful.

  17. Comment by amy thompson | 10.25.2015 | 5:03 pm

    If you want the security of a double knot with the easy release of a single knot, check this out:;_ylt=AwrTHQ2pXS1WOjwA1TlXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEydGw4M25xBGNvbG8DZ3ExBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDQjA5MzJfMQRzZWMDc2M-?p=Tying+Shoes+Without+a+Double+Knot&fr=yfp-t-901#id=14&vid=9734823ee13f28fc84841541fb8bb833&action=view
    I learned this about 10 years ago, but wish I knew about it when my kids were young.


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