The new edition of the Merrell Bare Access is a complete overhaul of the original and mostly for the better. The coarse mesh upper with synthetic leather overlays has been exchanged for a two-layer mesh with plastic overlays. The midsole continues the zero drop tradition, but does have some slight structural changes that will be covered in more detail later. The most dramatic changes were made to the outsole. Vibram rubber hides a majority of the EVA midsole, while the coverage of its ancestor was limited to the high wear areas. This new generation puts the Bare Access in a good position to compete with similar "transitional" shoes like the Saucauny Kinvara.
The Upper and Interior
An upper should secure the sole to the foot and protect the foot from weather, debris, and other environmental hazards. It should accomplish this with a minimum contribution to weight and without impeding the motion of the foot or toes. The first edition Bare Access did a good job of achieving these goals, but did have some issues. While the issues were very minor, I will cover them as a point of reference. The original upper consisted of two main layers, a coarse cloth mesh outside and a fine cloth mesh inside. The coarse outer layer was durable but allowed too much debris to pass through. The debris was then trapped against the inner mesh until it worked through to the interior (think shoes full of grit if running on an unpaved path). Also, the upper provided structure through four synthetic leather overlays on each side. For me, these overlays caused pinch points when the material around them flexed and they remained rigid. The forward most set of overlays would even intrude into the toe-box just before "toe off" while running. The overall impact of these issues was small. I wore the originals frequently during training and completed a 50 mile run on crushed gravel with no blisters and relatively happy feet. The uppers of the new BA2.0 solve these minor issues and add some visual polish as well.
When I first unwrapped the BA2.0, I was immediately struck by the improved appearance. The fine mesh overlay has a bit of sparkle to it, and there are some added color accents on the TPU overlays. These little touches go a long way in improving the appearance of quality, but the improvements are more than skin deep. The soft portion of the upper has been completely rethought and is comprised of three layers. The outer layer is a fine cloth-like mesh that looks like the plastic mesh seen on some other brands, but should be much more resistant to wear and tear. The middle layer is a soft foam grid that provides some structure but remains light and breathable. Inside is another layer of fine soft mesh used on the exterior. This configuration has eliminated previous problems with debris intrusion while maintaining breathe-ability. The TPU overlays are a significant improvement over their synthetic leather ancestors. They are light and flexible, and they have been arranged in a pattern that eliminates any pinch points. Overall, these have to be my favorite upper out of all the road shoes I have worn.
Also worth mentioning is the design of the heel cup. The BA2.0 carry the "heel strap" that is standard on the Merrell Barefoot line. This overlay wraps around the heel and provides a secure feeling to the fit and provide most of the structure for the heel cup. The interior of the rear portion has an additional layer of soft material that should reduce friction if worn without socks. However, I have had some durability problems with that layer of cloth in both editions of the shoe.
When I first donned the new pair of Bare Access, I noticed what seemed to be more "structure" to the midsole than existed in the original version. Structure is not always a bad thing. When running on a foam cushion, certain areas will tend to compress more than others and therefore need some additional structure. The original Bare Access had almost no structure. They had completely flat EVA midsoles. I actually had a problem with the original design when the interior portion of foam began to break down before the exterior, and I experienced a roll-off effect. The updated midsole does have slightly more structure under the arch, but it is insignificant and just enough to offset the internal roll-off that I experienced in the pilot version. However, I was troubled by what felt like a hump in the lateral midfoot section of the midsole when I first stood in the shoes. When I ran in them, the hump sensation mostly faded away. While these midsoles are thick relative to other shoes in the minimal line, they are not overly soft. The midsole provides a firm surface for the foot to stabilize against and offers protection from gravel and other terrain hazards.
The outsole of the BA2.0 was completely overhauled. The new version is almost fully covered by durable Vibram rubber where the original only had Vibram coverage in high wear areas. The original Bare Access had asymmetrical rubber coverage on the heel with more rubber on the lateral edge than the medial. For me, this configuration of rubber combined with a soft, flat midsole led to excessive compression of the medial midsole. The additional rubber on the inside edge helps the midsole maintain its shape throughout the running stance and prevents excessive caving towards the inside.
While the additional rubber helps support the midsole, it also creates a new problem with traction on wet asphalt. One would assume that addition of more rubber and lugs would improve traction, but that has not been my experience with the Merrell Barefoot line. The Vibram rubber that Merrell uses is extremely durable, but is also very hard. I think that the hardness of the rubber prevents it from shaping to fine contours of the gravel used in some asphalt pavement. The original Bare Access had fewer problems with traction. The exposed EVA and softer rubber allowed good traction in wet conditions. If it has rained in the past twelve hours, I will usually choose a different shoe for that day's run. I have had the same issue with the Trail Glove and Road Glove, but I was also able to run 700 miles on the road in Trail Gloves before rubbing a hole in the rubber.
If you want to transition into minimal footwear or work toward a more barefoot-like form, this shoe would not be my first recommendation for you. For learning proper form, you need more direct feedback from the ground beneath your feet, and these shoes do not provide much of that. For learning form, I would recommend the Merrell Vapor Glove. The best route for learning proper form is to start from zero and build up. Until good habits of form have been established, switching back and forth between low and high heel shoes may hinder the transition. This slow build up will also give your calves time to adjust to the lower heel of minimal shoes. Once your calves and form have adjusted, you may find that your feet have trouble recovering rapidly enough to handle higher mileage. A shoe like the BA2.0 may help reduce the stress placed on your feet and allow you to continue increasing mileage.
What excites me about the Bare Access?
When I first transitioned to running in minimal footwear, I ran all of my road miles in the Merrell Trail Gloves. I started by running as little as a quarter mile and worked up to as long as 18 miles. Once I was running long distances on the road again, my feet were tiring faster than the rest of my body. I had to make a choice between sacrificing some training performance or reintroducing a more padded shoe into my rotation. My priority was building mileage to prepare for a 50km trail race, so I chose to add the Saucony Kinvara to my shoe rotation. I like the Kinvara, but they are soft shoes and the thicker heel still allows me to fall into a lazy form. As hard as I try, I still have a slight heel strike and any amount of heel-to-toe drop makes it worse. That is what excites me about the Bare Access, it is a relatively light weight shoe with zero drop and some cushion. Wearing the BA2.0, my feet seem to land nearly flat or at least more so than the Kinvara. The Bare Access 2.0 have mostly replaced the Kinvara in my shoe rotation.
Note: The Bare Access retails for $90 and can be found at Zappos.
Official Specs from Merrell
The best of all barefoot worlds, our Bare Access shoe has a 0mm drop to let your feet land flat, and uniform toe to heel cushioning – an ideal feature for longer distances, harder surfaces or transitioning to barefoot running. Its breathable upper adds to your foot freedom with its feather-light construction.
UPPER / LINING
• Barefoot construction
• Mesh and synthetic upper
• Reflective details for increased visibility in low light
• External heel stability arm
MIDSOLE / OUTSOLE
• 0mm Drop / 8mm Cush / 13.5mm Stack Height
• Integrated microfiber footbed treated with Aegis®
• Merrell Bare Access 2 Sole / Vibram® Pods
Men’s Weight: 7oz (1/2 pair)