Gleefully proclaiming the return of laces to shoes feels a bit like shouting at the forest to watch out for trees, but some fanfare is warranted for the launch of Giro’s brand-new lace-up VR90 mountain bike shoe.
Why? Because it is exceptional.
The VR90, launched officially on Monday, is a mountain bike spin-off of the company’s popular lace-up Empire line. It has sticky, but not particularly aggressive, Vibram rubber lugs. It can take toe spikes, should one want to take it to the cyclocross course. Its upper is supple, made of the same Teijin microfiber used on the new Empire SLX road model — a bit thicker, of course, than on the road version. It has rubber scuff guards in most of the right places, a Vibram plate at the mid-foot for sure-footed dismounts or rock scrambles, and a bit of outsole rocker that makes walking comfortable despite an ultra-stiff Easton EC90 carbon sole.
For the cross-country or light trail rider, this is a fantastic combination: an exceptionally supple one-piece upper, one of the most comfortable I’ve ever used off-road, held together with a fine-tunable closure system (laces), stuck onto a stiff base that is covered in one of the grippiest, longest-lasting rubber compounds available today. What’s not to love?
Weight is 321 grams for our size 43.5 test pair; Giro claims 315 grams for a 42.5. That impressive light weight is made possible by the simple closure system and lightweight upper material.
First rides in the VR90
I put the VR90 through three long, high-mountain trail rides since they arrived last week, about 12 hours total ride time and 15 hours chamois time.
(The three hours of scrambling up rocks at treeline, hanging out in the woods eating sandwiches, and sitting in a coffee shop in Nederland, Colorado caffeinating for the ride home are relevant for this particular review.)
The shoes never missed a beat.
Frankly, it was no surprise. I’ve been in a special-edition, lace-up Giro mountain shoe all season, including a long day in Leadville. That shoe, like the VR90, is based on the road-going Empire.
I’m sold on laces; Empires are my preferred road shoe, and the Empire MTB was my preferred mountain shoe all summer. The ability to fine-tune fit for each eyelet is fantastic, and the laces never once came unknotted. And I’m no boy scout.
Fit doesn’t present any surprises. They are true to size; I am comfortable in a pair of 43.5s, the same size I wear in Specialized, Bontrager, Scott, and others.
Let’s work from the bottom up. The Vibram sole is excellent; the rubber is sticky, particularly on slick rocks and roots. There’s a reason Vibram is so popular with the flat-pedal crowd: the stuff sticks like nothing else. The outsole lugs are not aggressive, but they don’t need to be. The grippy rubber compound provides traction more than the shaping.
As a result, the VR90s don’t grip as well in soft, loose soil (I ran them without the toe spikes, which would probably help) as they do on hard rocks and roots. They’re adequate for loose, soft-soil hike-a-bikes, but not the best.
Underneath the Vibram outsole is a high-performance Easton EC90 carbon sole, which is stiff enough across the entire foot to make walking long distances uncomfortable. A slight rocker in the outsole helps here, but those without perfect-fitting shoes may experience some heel lift while walking up steep pitches.
The upper has a few patches of scuff-guard rubber, on the toe and heel, to improve durability. The toe bumper is particularly good, wrapping all the way up in front of the shoe for full frontal coverage.
However, durability of the Tiejin microfiber upper is slightly concerning. The bits of the shoe that will take the biggest beating are covered in rubber, but there’s still quite a lot of soft, supple Teijin acreage along the sides and top of the foot. I ripped a rather large hole in the outside of the old Empire MTB shoes (see photo above) — hopefully the new upper proves a bit burlier. Wrapping the rubber a bit further around the outside of the foot, covering the piece of the shoe where the Giro logo currently resides, would have dramatically improved durability without harming fit.
Durability questions aside, the upper is phenomenally comfortable. It doesn’t require any break-in period (my first ride in these shoes was seven hours long, without issue), won’t stretch over time, and conforms to the top of the foot perfectly. It conforms better than any mountain bike shoe upper I’ve ever used, actually.
The laces certainly help, here. I have a high instep, for example, so two or three laces in the middle of the foot are left a bit looser to provide extra room. It’s an issue I struggle with when using some strap and buckle shoes.
For the right rider, a cross-country or light trail type who doesn’t smash his or her feet into sharp rocks very frequently, VR90 is a truly exceptional mountain bike or cyclocross shoe, far more comfortable than most of the overbuilt of-road shoes I’ve used in recent years. The laces are not a gimmick. The Vibram sole is the perfect compliment to the comfy upper. The sole is stiff enough, while still providing a bit of much-appreciated give. Best of all, the VR90 looks damn good.
Sadly, the electric orange color sent out to media will not be available to consumers. It’s possible that Giro will add colors later on, but for now only black and grey will be sold. Both will set you back $300, and will be available later this fall.