Opinionated World

Footwear

Vivobarefoot Trail Freak – Are You Ready To Compete?

It’s been nearly three years since Vivobarefoot released the Neo Trail in mid 2011 and just over two since the lighter and more breathable Breatho Trail hit the shelves. They’ve seen small revisions along the way – mid 2013 in the case of the Breatho Trail – and both of them have been very popular.

Now though, they’re replacing the two of them with just a single model. The Trail Freak.

From the off, my concern was whether they’d go with the ultra lightweight characteristics of the Breatho or the waterproofness of the colder weather Neo Trail. They can’t do both and they haven’t.

Vivobarefoot have chosen to go for a lightweight shoe with maximum breathability. I can see the logic – if you’re trail running in the wet, you’ll end up with soggy feet regardless of whether your shoes are waterproof or not so it makes sense to use the better selling and more popular shoe as a base.

There’s not much sign of evolution from the Breatho Trail – more of a redesign from the ground up. Or rather, from the sole up. If you detached the uppers from both shoes and compared the sole and sole separator, you’d see no difference besides the colour.

Vibrant, stand out - these will get you spotted.

Vibrant, stand out – these will get you spotted.

Speed laces mean they weigh less and are quicker to put on.

Speed laces mean they weigh less and are quicker to put on.

That’s no downside, because there is no need for them to adapt in this area. They’ve used it throughout their off-road lines – in the Off-Road Mid, Off-Road Hi, Synth Hiker, Breatho Trail, Neo Trail, Hybrid and the currently un-released Tracker. It’s a great sole that provides plentiful grip in almost every situation while maintaining the flexibility and minimal weight required in a barefoot shoe.

The Trail Freak adopts the same mesh used in the newest Breatho Trail – a material Vivobarefoot label as ‘duo reflective mesh’. This picks up light from a distance and, as you’d expect, is reflective. I’m still unsure of the purpose of this, but I guess I’d rather have it than not, since it adds no weight.

That’s where the similarities end and without comparing both models, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing on the upper was the same at all. The biggest change is the removal of conventional laces in favour of a speed-lacing system. Not only does this reduce the weight by a small margin but it also means you’ll never have to stop to re-tie an undone lace. It’s another bonus for those of you who always tuck your laces in.

An easy pinch and push of the fastener tightens the shoe – they’re drastically quicker to take on and off as well, supposing you’re un-doing the laces each time. I did find that I wanted them a little tighter and that was only achievable by pulling the lace itself, before pushing the fastener down.

Agility on the trails remains as good as ever.

Agility on the trails remains as good as ever.

Over the top of the mesh, on the sides of the shoe is a hexagonal ‘printed structure’ that is designed to be flexible, yet strong and still allow for a natural and secure fit. Their words, not mine. The Trail Freak remains flexible, but not quite as supple as its predecessor – though my Breatho’s have done a lot of mileage.

The shoe itself looks a little larger too and the weight tells the same story – the Trail Freaks have gained around 20 grams or so to come in at 265g. At this weight, we’re around that of the Neo Trail which weighs just 10 grams more. Around the front of the shoe is an extension of the printed structure, which acts as an abrasion guard. This follows the sole line, with a cut out to allow for the bend of your foot, and joins up at the heel.

The printed structure adorns the upper, above the mesh.

The printed structure adorns the upper, above the mesh.

Vivobarefoot have managed to shed a bit of weight in some areas and gain it in others. The collar was previously a relatively thick and comfy lycra and is now a vastly thinner, narrower piece made from the same material. This is most noticeable in the heel, where the thickness is reduced closer to the Vivobarefoot One. One big difference is on the inside though – the whole interior is now softly lined so you no longer feel the stitching from the upper. If there was ever a chance of a rub from something even slightly rough, that is now completely negated.

But doing that adds weight and you can feel the additional thickness on the upper – squishing the material between forefinger and thumb highlights this and so the weight saving on padding is cancelled out by the newly plush interior.

On wet ground, you'll inevitably end up with wet feet regardless of your trail shoes being waterproof.

On wet ground, you’ll inevitably end up with wet feet regardless of your trail shoes being waterproof.

So where has the Trail Freak fattened up? It’s tough to tell. The upper has significantly fewer pieces of material and therefore stitch lines which, all combined, should give the shoe a lesser weight. There are also no plastic lace hooks at the top of the shoe, which should act as a further weight reduction. Everything in the Trail Freaks makeup point towards weight loss and yet the opposite is true. I can only put it down to the thicker lining.

We’re talking about small margins here, 20 grams is very difficult to notice, nearly impossible even, when you put the Trail Freaks on. Let’s list a few more positives.

Vivobarefoot say the lycra lining allows for superior comfort and it most certainly does. As I mentioned before, the interior is now significantly softer which is a welcome addition. While it generally won’t matter too much, over a long distance any rough surface can result in a blister, so unlike the Breatho Trail, I found the Trail Freak to be comfortable with bare feet. That was really my only gripe before and it’s fixed now.

The Trail Freak provides adequate warmth throughout the year.

The Trail Freak provides adequate warmth throughout the year.

What Vivobarefoot have done is create a professional level off-road running shoe with a little bit of extra comfort. It would be similar to a Formula One car having a bit of padding on the seat rather than just a hard shell. The drivers would probably thank you for it but the performance of the car would be unaltered.

They’ve also changed the aesthetics of the shoe completely and it really fits in with the ‘look at me’ aspect of pro-athletes and their brightly coloured footwear. Never will you see Cristiano Ronaldo wearing a dull black boot, or Usain Bolt running the 100 metres in anything but yellow, orange or gold shoes. In that respect, the Trail Freak is a huge improvement – one that will surely get you noticed in a competition or a photograph.

The off-road sole remains.

The off-road sole remains.

But taking the same shoe into a casual environment is, in my opinion no longer much of an option. If I were to choose one word to describe the aesthetics of the Trail Freak, I would choose ‘garish’. A deliberately bright, attention seeking shoe. That’s the reason it works well on a running track, but the reason it doesn’t with a pair of jeans. It’s a shame.

Vivobarefoot would tell me that they make a casual range of shoes – and they’d be right. They’d also tell me that off-road shoes aren’t really the right sort of footwear to be wearing on tarmac and in a supermarket – they’d be right again. What they’ve done though is taken away the option of doing it. And the Breatho Trails remain super cool in a casual environment, regardless of the sole or their intended use.

Fortunately for those of you who would wear the shoe outside of the trails, there’s also going to be a blue/green option. The same colours used in the current Hi-Vis Breatho Trail and also The One.

The additional 20 grams fortunately makes little difference here.

The additional 20 grams fortunately makes little difference here.

When you consider the purpose of the shoes and what they’re for, the story is different. Their comfort, continued lack of weight, flexibility and breathability all equal something that is simply better than before. They’re not as heavy as the Neo Trail (quite) and they’re more comfortable than the Breatho Trail. As always, they felt great from the off and I was pleasantly surprised how dry my feet stayed despite running through exceptionally boggy ground on a number of occasions. Which returns me to my previous point – is there a need for a waterproof trail shoe?

I took the Trail Freaks out for a run in very cold, wintery and wet conditions and didn’t get cold feet. I wore a thin, wicking sock and nothing more. Yet, with the same socks my feet were very cold while wearing The One and just as cold in the Breatho Trail. The additional lining has made the shoe a whole lot warmer and for an additional 20 grams or so, I’m happy for it. What this means is that the Trail Freak is usable for much more of the year and, unless you want to, there’s less of a need for a second, warmer and more weatherproof pair.

Vivobarefoot have replaced their two popular trail running shoes with a single model and despite going much more in the direction of one of them, have somehow (just about) pulled off a shoe that neutralises the need for both. There’s a twist though. Vivobarefoot tell me they’ll be making a winter version of the Trail Freak. Rather than two separate models, there will be two different specifications of the Trail Freak. The winter model will re-equip the waterproofing, include a thermal sole and will be dual layered with foil and Thinsulate.

The Trail Freak takes the best bits of the Breatho Trail, combines it with the best elements of the Neo Trail, removes what wasn’t good and therefore makes a shoe ultimately better than both. The winter specification goes much further than the Neo Trail ever did – because of the improvements in the summer edition, they needed to. I can tell you the colour scheme on the winter model is also much more neutral!

The Trail Freaks hit the shelves very soon and will more than likely retail at a similar price to the Breatho Trails at £85 which will make them a worthy investment for anyone looking to upgrade, replace or buy their first pair of trail shoes.

Update

The Trail Freaks are now available to purchase at the price point we expected – £85 – in both the red and blue colourways.


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