Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Minimalist Shoe Review: VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Trail

I don't know about you guys, but I just think that shoe looks great. 

I absolute love running trails. I also love running barefoot; in fact, I much prefer running barefoot to any footwear option I have discovered up to this point. Well, that creates a bit of a conflict. I was recently given the privilege of testing out the newest trail offering from VIVOBAREFOOT, the same specialty running shoe manufacturer who produced the awesome Neo that I reviewed back in the Summer. Needless to say, I was totally excited to get my feet into this new minimalist off-road offering and down the closest trail.

I spent a lot of time building the repertoire for this review mainly because I don't have a proper trail very close to my house. The nearest one is a nearly 20-minute drive from my house, and driving in order to run and eventually drive back is something I have always seen as a contradiction. This meant that testing the Neo Trail, as it is called, was going to be spread out over a several weeks - far longer than I wanted to wait to do a write-up. For full disclosure, I have yet to get a chance to run in the real slop with the Neo Trails, which you will see is what is truly appears designed specifically for. I will update this review as my experience with the Neo Trail grows.

With the newer, thinner insole removed, the sockless-friendly Neo Trail is significantly more inviting than its predecessor, the original Neo.
Interesting choice of materials, but I totally dig the result. This shoe looks rugged but maintains the svelte profile of a racing shoe. I honestly can't say enough good things about the NT's looks. VIVO nailed it!

Initial Impressions
The Neo Trial looks all criss-cross strapped, rugged and utilitarian. The first thing I noticed that "stuck out" was the sole. One word: "gnarly." And by "gnarly," I am not making a lame attempt to sound like Johnny Utah from Point Break.

"Whoah." - Keanu

I am talking about the intensely "gnarled" lugs on the Neo Trail. These are one step shy of full-on cleats. I also couldn't help but notice the rock plate in the arch (more on that later). With the extremely grippy lugs on its underside and the low rise, it definitely looks the part of a legitimate trail racer. I totally dig the appearance and get the impression that it will have appeal to a broad range of trail runners who are style-conscious. I really love the colorway that VIVO sent me, too, which is awesome!
A tad of toe spring; it was not noticeable while wearing the shoe.

Uh... yeah! This ain't your Daddy's minimal trail running shoe. Check out the rock plate: arch protection that is just in the right place. It looks small, but it sure seemed to do the job for me.
First Fit
With its slightly thinner insert, minimalist nuts will be pleased at the initial fit of the Neo Trail. In addition, with the insert removed, the footbed is much more "sockless friendly"; it's significantly kinder to the bottom of my feet than the original Neo's cross-hatched footbed. The materials used on the seamless interior are also a departure from that of the Neo with an apparent eye toward greater ventilation. All this I would consider to be a step forward for the brand, and I hope to see further progressions in later iterations of this shoe and others in the VIVO lineup.

Seamless interior for great sockless comfort. The liner is a perforated synthetic material instead of the microfiber of the standard Neo which means the shoe was easier for me to get on and off.
What wasn't great, however was that VIVOBAREFOOT somehow inexplicably decided to give the NT a more traditional (read "narrower") toe box. What in tha??!?! Maybe it's just my perception, or maybe it's the different materials or factory variations, but the front of this shoe definitely has a more traditional narrowing of the toe box. I don't believe this to be a deal breaker, but it is disheartening considering that the original Neo was  highly praised across the board for it's fit and roominess inside. Why do we have to go messing with a good thing? The shoe is still zero-drop and super wide at the collar which is cool.

On the Road
The Neo Trail is a pretty narrowly specialized trail shoe, so I was surprised to find them so easy to wear on the streets. Now, that is not to say that I would choose to put in significant miles in the NT on daily road runs, but you should have no problems hoofing it the 1/2 mile to your favorite dry creek bed or down the mile of asphalt in the middle of your mountain park trail.

On the Trail
Just as I expected after first laying eyes on them, the Neo Trails were right at home on the trail. Also as expected: Grip for days! I could not determine a single glaring deficiency in on-trail performance for the NT (other than what was already mentioned, namely the toe box width.. The ground feel is slightly more dampened than in my Merrell Trail Gloves, and the lugs allow rather large gravel to be dashed across with ease, unnoticed by my soles. Taking on steep inclines is really where the NT shines! I think VIVO has found the perfect balance of connection with the running surface and still being able to run fast and free. I had no problem maintaining good form over some pretty gnarly bits of surface.

Note: Unfortunately, I was unable to test out the NT in truly challenging trail conditions, but I will be sure to update my blogpost as soon as I get the opportunity to do so.
Trying to show the depth of the lug tread when viewing the shoe from a profile.
A lug detail. You can see the Jade-colored rock plate in the background. It came in quite useful on the jagged rocks and roots on our Tennessee trails.
Criteria Rankings
Width/Toe Box - 7/10: Down from the Neo's perfect score, it's still wider than most anything non-minimalist. 
Flatness - 10/10: No support or real cushioning of any kind. Just how we like it!
Ground Feel - 9/10 - 
Weight - 6/10 - I like 'em airy, and the NT cannot be described that way. But there is a price to being gnarly.
Durability - *
Flexibility - 7/10 - Pretty ideal for a trail shoe.
Attractiveness - 9/10 - I really dig the rugged look of the NT. The multiple colorways just sweeten the deal.
Price - 5/10 - $130.00. A little steep... until you compare it to the competition (Sonic Glove, etc.). Even then, it's priced just above it's adversaries.

Verdict - The VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Trail is a strong addition to VIVO's growing line of attractive, well-made minimal shoes. Just two unfortunate flaws keep the NT from winning absolute rave reviews: the toe box and the weight. Of course, those trail runners changing over from the typical trail running fare will not be so down about the weight, but all I know is that a pair of NTs are a few ounces heavier than their direct competition (NB Minimus Trail, Merrell Trail Glove - or actually Sonic Glove due to the fact that both it and the NT are water resistant). With the competition heating up and lots of hype accompanying future minimal shoe offerings from New Balance, Merrell, and others, it will be really interesting if the Apple/Macintosh of minimalist shoe makers can stay at the tip of the spear. A good place to start would be shaving weight and making sure future shoes have more room for my toes to splay.

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