Considering how long Vibram has been the foremost brand among minimalist runners, and knowing how countless barefoot aficionados have used them for everything from road 10Ks to mountain ultramarathons, it’s almost unbelievable that the company has never intentionally designed a model of its FiveFingers specifically for running until this year.
In fact, runners have embraced other Vibram FiveFingers models – in particular the KSO and KSO Trek - so passionately and been so pleased with them that Vibram was arguably taking a risk in marketing a completely different model to this demographic. After all, if the new shoe wasn’t clearly better than the current ones, it would be seen as a disappointment. Thankfully, Vibram was more than up to the task, and has designed a product that truly stands out as the footwear of choice for distance runners, particularly those who favor roads over trails.
Even the name is a home run: when I first saw the 2010 product catalog more than a year ago, my immediate response when I saw the word Bikila was, that’s absolutely perfect. You can’t pick a better way to identify a game-changing barefoot running shoe than to name it after the most famous barefoot runner of all time - one who almost single-handedly changed everything the world thought about the way running should be. It’s no secret around here that I’ve been a fan of Abebe Bikila for years – so to say that I was excited to try a product from one of my favorite companies that was named after one of my all-time favorite runners would be a bit of an understatement.
By now you’ve probably gathered that my bar of expectation was set pretty high with this model, and thankfully, the Bikila didn’t disappoint – which is a good jumping off point for us to get to the review.
As I mentioned in my first impressions post, the Bikila’s overall appearance is probably as close to a traditional running shoe as Vibram will ever get. It’s got classic racing shoe styling that makes you want to take them right out of the box and run a marathon (in fact, that’s exactly what I did).
The upper of the Bikila is made of a very thin, breathable, and abrasion-resistant stretch polyamide fabric with minimal seams in comparison to the KSO. This construction was most likely born from user feedback, as one of the more common complaints about running in KSOs is that some of upper’s multiple seams can become abrasive over long distances. The only forefoot seams on the Bikila are on the toes, and I haven’t noticed any discomfort at these areas after over 100 sockless miles.
Vibram’s running-specific design of the upper is evident in the Achilles notch at the back of the shoe, which provides the same feel around the tendon as a traditional trainer, but without restricting any range of motion. They’ve also included reflective accents on all sides for enhanced safety on the road in low light, and demonstrated nice attention to detail with TPU reinforcement around the toe caps (beyond the normal upward curvature of the outsole around the toe ends) to prevent puncture or tearing.
The interior surface of the upper is without question the most comfortable FiveFingers model I’ve ever worn. The ankle collar has thin padding, and the entire sockliner and insole are covered with a very soft material called Dri-Lex that feels like smooth cotton but wicks moisture like an advanced tech fabric. The padding goes down the top of the foot as far as the first seam line, with the single layer polyamide fabric covering the rest of the foot and toes. It’s both airy and extremely comfortable, and the combined feel of these two materials is just as pleasant at mile 26 (or beyond) as it is at mile 1.
It’s a good thing that the upper is so comfortable on bare feet, because the overall fit seems slightly more snug than either the KSO or KSO Trek. This might be partially due to the fact that the fastening strap on the Bikilas doesn’t wrap around the heel as those other two models do. I was initially concerned about some heel slippage without that wraparound component, but I haven’t experienced any difficulty this way at all, even during my speed workouts at the track. However, because of the slightly different fit of this upper, if you’re accustomed to wearing toe socks with your Vibrams, or if you’re an “in-betweener” when it comes to sizing, I’d recommend sizing up for the best fit with the Bikilas.
Although the top of the shoe looks dramatically different than any other FiveFingers, it’s the underside that demonstrates the biggest departure from “classic” Vibrams. The Bikila is built on an entirely new platform than previous models, with plating protection to distribute impact forces, and a podded outsole giving ideal traction where you need it, while allowing greater flexibility for the remainder of the foot. The pod areas are 4mm thick, which combines with the 3mm (non-removable) insole to create a total thickness of 7mm; for some hardcore barefooters, this dimension is cause for concern, but from my experience I’d say the ground feel is exactly the same or better than my KSOs, and definitely better than KSO Treks. I suspect it’s the gaps in the outsole podding along with its much improved overall flexibility that result in such enhanced ground feedback.
Weight of the Bikilas is 6.0 oz, which is 0.3 oz heavier than both the KSO and Trek, but the difference is so marginal that I honestly don’t notice it. From an overall performance standpoint, the fit and comfort improvements on the Bikila far outweigh (so to speak) the concern of carrying an additional fraction of an ounce on your feet. Without question, these are the most comfortable FiveFingers I’ve worn to date; using both the KSOs and Treks, I typically have some chafing issues (particularly around the toes) on multi-hour runs, but the Bikila is a model I can wear for a 30-miler, then keep on my feet to walk around in afterward. I’ve never had the feeling of “I need to get these off my feet” at the end of a long run, which is probably my most reliable indicator of exceptionally well-built footwear.
All things considered, Vibram took a considerable risk with the Bikila; there was ostensibly no reason to say, “Here’s a new model you should use for running, even though we realize that everybody loves running in our existing models anyway.” It was a bold step for them to do a top to bottom overhaul of its basic design and construction, adding a list of novel features and stylistic changes that could have potentially been rejected as unnecessary or insignificant in comparison to the original. The fact that they went ahead and did it speaks to their confidence that the new product would be something worth getting excited about.
From my standpoint, they were absolutely successful, and the FiveFingers Bikila is a shoe that’s worthy of its ambitious name. It’s an absolute state of the art minimalist running shoe that’s loaded with innovations which make it worth the slight price increase - $100 compared to $85 – over the KSO. It performs well on both road and trail (although I’d still give the edge to the KSO Trek for a pure trail runner), and – most pleasingly of all - takes everything you love about running in Vibrams and makes it even better.
The Vibram FiveFingers Bikila retails for $100 from TravelCountry.com as well as other online retailers.
RELATED: Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS review
*Product provided by Vibram USA
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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