New Balance FuelCell Propel 200KM Review

NB Propel_Banner

Note: This is yet another discovered unpublished review from November 2019. The Propel is impossible to find these days but I figured I should still post this up for completeness sake. Due to the MCO lockdown to arrest the scourge of COVID-19, all outdoor activities were barred since early March and only lifted May 4th. With the write-up already completed last year, I was able to get reacquainted with the shoes and grab a few shots with the iPhone 11 before “AirDropping” them to the iPad for editing. So here’s the short write up on the shoes having logged 200km in them.

When I started running back in the early ‘90s, Nike and New Balance were the only 2 brands I wore. NBs were made in the USA then and they were built like Volvos. Indestructible yet really comfortable, NBs were one of the most innovative shoe companies at that time. As they got overly engineered and chunky – they had ENCAP, C-CAP, Rollbar, Abzorb – and that’s not counting the needlessly complicated nomenclature, I stayed away from the brand. If you’re interested in NB history, check out this Sneaker News article.

So after being off my shoe rotation for much of the 2000s, I got reacquainted with the brand when they released the Zante in 2015 which featured a then new midsole foam called FreshFoam (FF). The FF was an improvement over the stiff and firm RevLite material. The Zante had a fantastic upper construction and were made without superfluous materials. I liked them enough to own 2 pairs even though I found them to be a bit too minimal for marathon use. My next pairs of NB would happen only in 2018 with the Beacon [review], followed by the Rebel and Propel In 2019.

With that bit of backstory out of the way, let’s move along with the Propel.

The selling points for the Propel are their lightweight cushioning properties and accommodating upper, built on a stable platform of FuelCell midsole foam. Launched as the training companion to the more performance oriented Rebel, the Propel simply offers fantastic value to the budget conscious runner, without sacrificing the key elements that make a shoe great. Despite all the positives, tough luck finding them in Malaysia. The Propel and Rebel were on the shelves for such a limited period of time and sold at full RRP that finding and making that purchase decision a ridiculous proposition. Luckily, wide versions of the shoes were available discounted from an online shopping portal and that was how I snagged my pairs.

There’s really nothing much to write home about the Propel, really. It’s a simple shoe, a daily trainer in the mould of the Pegasus, Launch, GoRun Ride Hyper, and Solar Glide. The problem is, NB’s range of shoes are so bewilderingly wide that unless you’re a geek, the Propel will be lost in the sea of 840, 890, 880, Arishi, Echo, Beacon, Tempo, And Roav, just to name a few.

How good is the Propel? Good enough to displace the Zoom Fly 3 [review] as the daily workhorse and long run shoe. Much more forgiving than the lower slung Boston 5-8s, the Pegasus 35 (I don’t have the 36 which retained much of the 35’s setup), and the Dynaflyte 3. That said, the true-to-size NB are less suited for up-tempo workouts, the domain of the aforementioned shoes from adidas, Nike and Asics.

NB Propel_1

At a surprising 8.25oz, the Propel is lighter than the Pegs and Epic React [review], most daily cushioned trainers from Asics, adidas and Brooks. Given its wallet friendly price tag, the Propel’s upper isn’t something fancy nor refined as the Rebel’s excellent knitted upper. Just the usual breathable engineered mesh with hints of trace fibre stitching. I wish there is another row of lace eyelets to accommodate a  runner’s knot, so good thing the Propel already have good heel fit and laces long enough to triple knot!

propel4

There is a thin layer of external welded overlay around the toe cap but an external heel counter is noticeably absent. The almost-too-generous fit (the shoes are wide version) turn out to be a blessing as they allow me to swap out the stock insoles for the more supportive ones from Spenco as I slowly worked through my post-injury routine. My ankle has since mended enough for me to revert back to the stock insoles.propel7

Moving down to the flared midsole, you’ll find sculpted sidewalls both on the lateral and medial sides that offer all the stability the runner needs – going around corners are all well handled. I can say confidently since a single 2K loop of my daily running route entails negotiating 12 turns! The Propel’s FuelCell midsole offers enough cushion for the long miles and is stable enough for all but the wobbliest of runners. At 200km, there are some minor creasing observed on the midsole due to compression. That’s totally normal for a midsole this soft.

propel1

The 27mm/21mm stack height isn’t particularly high, thus the shoes’ impact dampening isn’t in the realm of a maximalist shoe like Hoka. Not to worry, you’ll still get a nice step-in feel.

propel5

propel6

Flip the shoes over and you’ll notice the full rubber contact outsole with multi-directional flex grooves, including a massive longitudinal one reminiscent of Asics’ Guidance Line. This is one flexible shoe. Along with the Floatride Run Everyday, the Propel has one of the best traction out there, grippy on all the surfaces I run on – tarmac, gravel, steel gratings and sand – wet or dry. If there’s a negative, it’s the somewhat less stellar heel durability as you can see in the photo below, expected perhaps, due to the softer rubber used. They should still last me 450-500km and as I’m working to regain my fitness, I’ll take comfort over durability.

propel2

propel3

There’s really little to complain about the Propel. The earlier comments about the one-less eyelet, heel wear and the (almost too much) roominess were me really nit-picking a super affordable pair of shoes under RM300, after rebates and discounts. The Propel gets my thumbs up. Good luck trying to find it.

Summer Rubbers

Warning: Old news to the sneaker heads and shoe geeks.

Every runner by now would’ve followed the recent development surrounding THAT shoe. News outlets hoping to channel traffic to their sites then chipped in with their opinion pieces and predictions (more often than not bearing clickbait titles) about impending bans on the Nike Next% and next-gen AlphaFly. Only a handful (this article is one of the few) really offer any intelligent discussion or putting the whole subject.

On Jan 31, World Athletics finally released a statement concerning the allowable parameters for competition shoes. Plenty of interesting points in there.

With the April 30th deadline approaching, shoe companies are rushing their prototypes into production. Good for us! If you’ve missed out on the shoe announcements, here’s a recap of what were announced (and seen) over the past few days, starting with the Big Daddy of them all.

Nike
What’s new: Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%.
RRP: Rumoured to be similar in price tag to the current Vaporfly series, limited release Feb 29 to coincide with the US Olympic Marathon Trials.
New Tech: Atomknit, upgraded stack height.
Carry-over Tech: Carbon plate, ZoomX midsole, Zoom Air (pod-shaped)
Comments: To be released alongside track spikes and the Air Zoom Tempo Next%, a new performance trainer (thought to be Turbo 2 replacement). I hope the Next% will not be discontinued because I think they’re already rad enough for me 😀
Nike Media Release
Reviews: None available, yet.

Skechers

What’s new: Speed Elite Hyper
RRP: US160, available Feb 17
New Tech: Carbon plate in a winglet configuration, Goodyear rubber outsole
Carry-over Tech: Hyper Burst midsole, M-Strike Geometry, mono-mesh upper.
Comments: Reviewed to be the most similar in feel to the Vaporfly.
Skechers Media Release
Reviews: RoadTrailRun | Doctors of Running

Saucony
What’s new: 3 shoes -> Endorphin Pro, Endorphin Speed, and Endorphin Shift
RRP: US250, USD200, USD180 respectively. No release dates announced.
New Tech: Carbon plate (for Pro), TPU plate (for Speed), PWRRUN PB (for Pro) midsole, SpeedRoll Geometry
Carry-over Tech: PWRRUN (for Shift)
Comments: Released as a trio for racing, speed work and training respectively, the 3 shoes are accorded fresh and light pastel colorways. Couldn’t locate Saucony’s Media Release, so here’s one covered by Canadian Running Magazine
Reviews: None available, yet.

Brooks
What’s new: 2 shoes -> Hyperion Elite and Hyperion Tempo
RRP: USD250 (Elite) and USD150 (Tempo), selected release Feb 27 and Jun 1 respectively.
New Tech: Carbon Plate, DNA Zero midsole (for Elite), DNA Flash (for Tempo)
Carry-over Tech: Brooks’ underwhelming look.
Comments: Boring utilitarian look. Believe In The Run guys weren’t impressed with the harsh ride. Brooks’ reported lifespan of only 100 miles!
Brooks Teaser | Forbes Coverage
Reviews: Believe In The Run (Hyperion Elite | Hyperion Tempo | RoadTrailRun (Hyperion Elite | Hyperion Tempo)

New Balance
What’s new: FuelCell TC
RRP: USD200
New Tech: Carbon Plate
Carry-over Tech: FuelCell nitrogen infused midsole seen in the Propel and Rebel.
Comments: Plenty of design cues carried over from the Rebel but without the lateral flange. Unable to find any news from NB so here’s some coverage by RunnersWorld.
ReviewsRoadTrailRun

adidas

What’s new: AdiZero Pro
RRP: Euro 180 (approx USD196), selected release Apr 1, worldwide May 15.
New Tech: Carbitex Carbon Plate
Carry-over Tech: Continental rubber outsole, Boost heel midsole, Lightstrike forefoot midsole.
Comments: Lightstrike isn’t new. It’s featured in the current AdiZero RC2 flat. They look pretty good, although I doubt they’ll be as featherweight as the Nike due to the continued use of Boost midsole.
Adidas Media Release
Reviews: None available, yet.

Spyshots on social media have emerged showing the rumoured Hoka Carbon Rocket X (Hoka already have the Carbon X and Carbon Rocket), Mizuno and Asics.

New Balance Fresh Foam Beacon – 120K Review

The Beacon may be well received by the running shoe geeks (RSG), but they weren’t really in my list of to-try shoes simply because I already have more than enough for the current training cycle. But as fate would have it, while poking around Rakuten, as any RSG worth his salt is wont to do, I spotted the shoes going for just RM260 including shipping! It was quite an easy decision to make *shrugs*.

9 days later, the package arrived. I did the usual unboxing just to check the product, marvelled at their lightweight feel and excellent upper construction but resisted taking them out for a run. I fully intended to use them only post-GCM19 as recovery shoes.

As luck would have it, the shoes were called to active duty just a month later. It was clear by then that the Rival Fly (RF) that I bought (also very cheaply from Japan) needed more time breaking in and the Zoom Fly (ZF) would not be working as go-fast tempo shoes on the roads that I run. My daily route consists of 12 90-degree turns each 2K loop, and the ZF isn’t suited to quick and constant changes in direction. I’d long ago retired my tempo shoes for GCM18 which was the Zoom Elite 9 (ZE9), something I initially hoped the RF would replace once broken in. Unfortunately, I couldn’t wait for the breaking-in period and after testing the Beacon out on an easy 10K, I was knew enough to know that they would be great for tempos.

The shoes are everything that others have written about – light, superbly constructed upper that’s breathable, accommodating fit. At 7.5oz (US9), 26mm/20mm stack heights for a 6mm heel to toe drop, (per Runningwarehouse specs), there’s nothing superfluous about the Beacon. They fit true to size too. You would think that not having any overlays would render the shoes unstable and sloppy but you’d be wrong. It could take the twisty roads, return a good feel of the road for a fast push-off yet providing adequate cushioning for races up to the Half Marathon from the get-go. They’re surprisingly stable too. Efficient and lighter runners will have no problems taking them to the full distance.

As mentioned earlier, the mesh upper is light and breathable. I believe they’re even lighter than knitted options that we see so prevalent these days. The stock laces are rather long and has a bit of stretch. I found myself having to tuck the extraneous parts under to prevent them flopping around. The padding around the collar and on the tongue are just nice and I’ve absolutely no complaints there.

For midsole duties, NB uses what they call Fresh Foam Ground Contact (FFGC) and they’re essentially a more durable version of the traditional FF. Visually, the stack height of the Beacon appears thick but they don’t feel that at all mainly because they’re anything but mushy. They don’t ride anything at all like the Pegasus Turbo nor Clayton 2 but there are some similarities to the Epic React, which incidentally was one of my favorite shoes.

The lateral side of the midsole features concave hexagonal cut-outs.
The medial side, on the other hand, has convex cut-outs, hence the stability without the need for a medial post.
Another view of the convex design of the medial side. Clearly shows how NB builds stability into a neutral shoe like the Beacon.

I’ve only ever worn 2 other NBs the past 5 years – the OG Zante and the Vazee Pace. Of these 2, only the Zante is made of FF, with the Vazee built on top of Revlite midsole. While I prefered the Zante over the Vazee, running in both always beat up my legs. The Beacon’s FFGC, however, has that extra bit of cushioning and over the several 13-14K tempos I’ve ran in them, my legs didn’t protest as much compared to the Zante days. I was still able to resume my easy running the very next day. The sweet spot of the Beacon is really in the midfoot area. If you’re predominantly a midfoot striker, you’re going to be in for a treat – that’s where the shoe’s cushioning and responsiveness are best experienced.

Just like the upper, the Beacon’s outsole is also a design in simplicity. 90% all-foam with the 2 small areas of rubber plugs, to provide durability on take-off and landing. The exposed foam areas wear rather well. Even though there’s noticeable wear in the center of the push-off area, I suspect the phenomenon is akin to that of the Epic React where the rate of wear tapered off after the initial 100km. Photos below show their state of wear after 120km. There should be no problems hitting 350km and, if lucky, 400km. It’s appropriate to mention that I’ve yet to run in wet conditions in the shoes to be able to comment about their traction.

While I’ve mostly employed the Beacon as faster paced shoes, they’re versatile enough for easy days as well. That said, I prefer softer shoes for those ambling miles.

Other than online sources, and perhaps NB’s factory outlets, good luck finding the Beacon now. You might as well wait for the Beacon 2 coming out sometime Q3 or check out the Fuelcell Rebel. The New Balance Beacon gets my firm recommendation.

New Balance Fresh Foam Zante

I can’t imagine how long I’ve put off this review. Now, before that statement made you think that NB served up a lemon in the form of the Zante (pronounced “Zantay”), let me assure that it’s not the case. It’s been one of my firm favorites in the last 2 months of my GCAM15 training. I liked it so much that I wanted it to be my marathon race shoe but it wasn’t to be. It’s evident from the photos below how much I’ve put the shoes to use.

Named after a gorgeous island in Greece, the Zante was one of two shoes launched by NB early 2015 (the other being the Boracay, another famous island destination in the Philippines) that saw a departure from the confusing nomenclature used by NB.

If the term Fresh Foam (not related to a certain golden hop/malt based beverage) sounded familiar, you’d be right. The midsole material was first used on the NB 980. I’ve not worn the 980 and although reviews were generally OK, it was widely panned for wrong marketing – it was neither as plush nor soft as the marketers made it out to be. The Boracay, with a retweaked midsole, has since replaced the 980, while the Zante is an entirely new shoe marketed as a go-fast option.

Link to the Irish eBay site.
M625. Be very afraid of the asking price!

It’s been ages since I last owned a pair of NB. I was a fan of the venerable brand back in the days (my favorite was the M625 you see above, a lightweight performance trainer). NBs were still made in the USA then and had a classy boutique in the KL Plaza. And they were the Volvo of running shoes – built like a tank.

Fast forward 23 years later, my idea of fun shoes are those made with simplicity in mind. Keep the upper design and construction simple, avoid excessive overlays, do away with plastic inserts here and there, and I’m generally good. Which is why I reach out to the GOrun 4, Boston Boost 5, Kinvara 5, Ultra Boost (for recovery runs) the most often. The Zante joins this list of favorites.

The Zante is a really simple shoe. Very simple breathable upper that fit like sock, single density foam, full contact outsole. Herein lies the mystery. Despite the simple take on the construction, the shoe weighs in at 8.25oz for US10, which is around the Kinvara 5’s. 8.25 is still light but if you’ve ran in the Zante, you’d have thought it was a sub 8oz shoe.

The front mesh is  very breathable while the dark section has a tighter weave.

There’s only a sliver of reflective element resides on the lateral side of the toebox in the form of a two-pronged fork. The upper is stretchy and never once did my toes felt cramped. I like how the tongue padding is kept just nice to prevent any pressure from the thin laces on top of the foot. The tongue is connected to an inner sleeve which means no sliding around – no stopping to readjust the tongue which means the wearer can just enjoy the running experience.

Tongue is integrated with the inner sleeve.

 

The internal heel counter is soft compared to the monstrous types seen on the Kayano 21, for example. There’s no rubbing whatsoever, and the best thing is the absence of unnecessary weight. The collar isn’t notched, and the padding not overboard. Heel lock down is fantastic as it is.

The removable insole is soft and perforated, and feels like that of the DS Racer.

The Zante has stack heights of 23mm and 17mm (heel/toe) for a 6mm drop, not too low to turn off traditionalists. The midsole foam has a honeycombed pattern – concave on the lateral side, convex on the medial.

As mentioned earlier, the outsole is a full contact one, made up of hexagonal lugs. The lugs aren’t that deep nor are they of the hard-wearing variety. They have a nice grippy feel on all the surfaces (wet or dry)  I’ve run on, from synthetic track, sandy road shoulders, hard tiles to tarmac. After 190KM logged, you can see that it wears better than Skechers’ foam but inferior to the Continental rubber used by adidas in the higher end models. I reckon I could push the mileage to 400KM before the forefoot lugs are sheared down to the base.

Forefoot wear is obvious but quite even.
Wear signs on the outer heel of the left shoe.

With the full contact outsole and a substantial toe spring, which you can see from the photo below, the Zante treats the wearer to a fast and smooth ride. The Zante feels more balanced shoe than the heel-heavy Boston Boost 5, more responsive than the Kinvara 5 and fits better than the GOrun 4. There’s not a stitch on the Zante that’s wrongly put together and it’s easy to see why that even at the beginning of the year, Competitor.com awarded it their Road Shoe Of The Year. I’ve ran my 10K PR and have enjoyed nearly every run from track workouts to 23K in them.

It’s unfortunate then that I’m unable to wear them for the marathon owing to its firmer forefoot cushioning. While ideal for races up to the half marathon, I’ve experienced some forefoot soreness after 21K. Faster and more efficient runners may be able to take it further than I could. If you belong in that category, you’re going to really enjoy the Zante for all its worth.

The New Balance Zante retails at RM439.00 (going rate for shoes these days!) and is already available at all NB and MarathonShop outlets.

Originally published: Jun 23, 2015