For me the NB Minimus Cross (the "MX20") were "Like-At-First-Sight." When I first opened the box I grinned at the design. We've got simple, clean lines, no flashy distractions or garish colors, and a cool contrast from the upper to the sole. I actually said out loud “I dig it.” But would my initial impression of them stand up to further scrutiny? Find out after the jump!
Before I say another word, (full disclosure) I have to say that I love the NB Minimus Trail (the MT10). As a fitness instructor, it's my go-to shoe for work. Is the NB Minimus Trail the perfect minimal shoe? Certainly not. But for the kind of things I do it's the best thing I have seen yet. I say this now because it might sound like I'm going a little hard on the NB Minimus Cross, but it's because I know that NB Minimus got it so much more right: New Balance's own shoe is the standard I hold them to, and I think that’s fair.
UNDER THE HOOD
Like I said, I loved the aesthetic of the Minimus Cross immediately, but when I lifted them out of the box I was troubled by a few things. Firstly, and most noticeably the rubber of the sole is entirely too stiff. Bending it between my hands took more effort than I expected, and considerably more effort than say the Vibram sole of the Minimus Trail. As seems to be the standard for most of New Balance's Minimus line thus far (In 2012 we'll get a zero heel-to-toe differential shoe via the forthcoming NB Minimus Zero, of course), the Minimus Cross sole features a 4mm differential between the heel and forefoot, which matches the Trail. But that’s where the similarities end. This rubber is somehow softer to the touch, but less bendable, kind of like what I said about the rubber of the Teva Nilch outsole.
One continuation from previous NB Minimus iterations is the soft, nearly seamless liner that makes it comfortable with or without socks. Just like I found with the Trail though, there is an annoying sticker on the inside of the upper that will feel slimy against your bare skin. The good news is, like with the Trail, it can peel off. It will take some elbow grease, but I got mine off just fine.
What next struck me as odd was the padded thickness of the upper, especially the area around the ankle. Why does a cross-trainer need thick padding around the ankle? Comparatively, The NB Minimus Trail is designed to run in rugged, harsh terrain but it's upper is a thin, cushion-less mesh.
I couldn’t figure out the need for this padding on a minimal shoe, so I looked at what they said about it on ShopNewBalance.com:
With its padded collar and deliberate lace placement, the New Balance MX20 is engineered to keep your ankle stabilized in an ideal position. Tremendously comfortable, it also offers lightweight enhancements like rubber outsole insets for optimal traction. This revolutionary shoe brings barefoot-caliber performance to your gym and circuit workouts while still providing the protection and versatility of more traditional trainers.
Ah-ha! So, now I see what the deal is. The NB Minimus Trail was designed with the involvement of an Ultra trail runner Anton Krupicka who had very specific ideas about what a minimalist shoe should be (Many of them the same ideas that lovers of birthdayshoes.com keep clamor about). With the NB Minimus Cross, New Balance took a big step back and decided to listen more to conventional wisdom about what a “cross trainer” shoe should be.
Don't misunderstand me: there is no marshmallow cushion under your foot in the Minimus Cross. The padding is all wrapped around your ankle and in the tongue. This is something I would expect from most other cross-training shoes, but not from the NB Minimus line. At this point I can't help but wonder if there is no over-arching set of design principles behind the NB Minimus line when they can make such large steps forward with one shoe, and then retreat straight back from their own advances on the next.
Finally, I was surprised to see how small the vertical height of the toe box was. I think one of the things NB Minimus did so right with the Trails was the roomy toe box, and the use of the lightweight, stretchy mesh over your toes allows for maximum foot flexion possible, at least in a shoe that stops short of toe pockets. The Minimus Cross is quite the opposite. The first moment I put them on I could feel how inhibited my toes were by the low height, and thicker fabric.
In the picture to the right I have the toe box of the Minimus Cross side by side with the orange Minimus Trail, and you can see the difference is significant. Visibly it’s lower, but it doesn’t stop there. That black fabric is much less stretchy and friendly than the orange mesh in the Trail, making it feel even tighter.
My first workout in these was a simple mile run, and I didn't like it at all. The stiffness of the sole and the tightness of the toe box made me feel more like my feet were just lumps of rubber, and not fully functional cogs in the running machine.
The second workout I did in the Cross was a high volume of burpees and one-handed snatches. Both movements involve jumping, and by the end of the workout both of my arches were cramping badly. I couldn't help but feel that there is just too much shoe there, and my feet are stronger than that, and used to wearing much less. The sense I got was that my feet were aching because they were straining against the material of the shoe, and not allowed to do the job they are used to doing because they just didn’t have the room to do it.
Though I would not say this is a good “barefoot shoe” option, it is a step in the right direction compared to most traditional shoes. On a positive note, like many other attempts at minimal footwear these will certainly make a great transitional shoe, much like what I said about the Nike Waffle Racer Zoom or what Britt said about the NB Minimus Road. By lowering the heel-to-toe differential relative to other traditional footwear, the Cross can be good for those who need a middle ground to allow their Achilles to lengthen and their calves and feet to strengthen up. And like the Nike Waffle, this one strikes me as a shoe that will get better and better as you break it in and wear it down. The outsole is soft enough that after six months of running and jumping in them you will probably have a solid minimal shoe and you will want to cry when it finally dies, like I did when my Waffles finally croaked.
Of course, six months is a long-time to wait!
My favorite use for these! When my girlfriend saw them come out of the box she commented that they looked more like a Vans skate-style shoe than an athletic shoe, and I had to agree. So, the first time we went out for dinner and a movie I took it for a spin with a black t-shirt and jeans. As you can see from the pics, it works well. My lady liked the look, and I actually got a compliment from a complete stranger too. And a member of my classes actually went out and ordered a pair online after seeing me wear them this way. No kidding. For this kind of use, just walking around town, they were plenty comfortable too. I didn’t mind that my toes were restricted while just hanging around, and the heel is low enough that it doesn’t alter my gait in any major way.
When Justin first wrote about the Minimus Trail, I was instantly a fan, and bought it the very day it hit the shelves. Since then, every other NB Minimus that I see seems a bit out of sync. I just don't understand how a company that got things so right with one shoe could throw out so many of their own best design innovations and start from scratch on a cross training shoe. Why try to reinvent the wheel? Why not take what was worked about the NB Minimus Trail and adapt it to a cross-training setting? The choice to not use Vibram rubber outside of the Trail also seems like an odd one.
At any rate, this shoe will not be making it into the regular rotation with my Minimus Trails, Komodosports, and Inov-8s as shoes to teach my CrossFit classes in, but I have already worn these out on weekends a few times, and the slick black with the red sole is an eye-catching combo that seems to turn heads. So, if you want a good casual shoe to wear with jeans or if you’re looking for a good transitional shoe to wear until you're ready for the real minimal shoes, these are the shoe for you.
If you're looking to pick a pair up, you can grab them at ShopNewBalance.com for about $85.