It’s fair to say that I was initially a little bit apprehensive about testing this particular shoe. After all, I’m the guy who raved about the Vibram FiveFingers Bikila when reviewing it last year, and who consequently referred to it (several times, in fact) as the gold standard for minimalist road running. From my experience, there simply wasn’t very much to find fault with.
So when Vibram announced the release of the FiveFingers Bikila LS this spring, I envisioned two possible scenarios: 1) they’d make changes to the shoe that I didn’t like, which would make for an awkward review, or 2) the changes wouldn’t be significant enough to distinguish the Bikila LS from the original Bikila, in which case I’d have difficulty in deciding which model to recommend.
|Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS|
As it turns out, I was kind of an idiot, because I completely didn’t expect scenario 3): that they’d make substantial changes which represent a noticeable improvement over the original, while making the shoes more accessible to a wider range of minimalist runners. But that’s exactly what Vibram has done with the Bikila LS – and it’s also a good reminder to me that this company might never cease to impress me.
|Bikila LS on left, original Bikila on R|
The best news of all is that even with notably altered appearance, Vibram maintained pretty much all of the construction aspects of the Bikila that I liked – and since most of those similarities are on the underside of the foot, we’ll take this review in the opposite direction than usual, starting from the bottom up:
|Bikila LS on top, original Bikila on bottom|
I could also save us both a lot of time by referring you to my original Bikila review, where I describe the outsole and midsoles in greater detail. The Bikila LS shares the exact same 4mm anatomically podded outsole design, and the same 3mm polyurethane midsole that is thickest under the ball of the foot to support the impact zone of forefoot running. The midsole and sockliner are covered with the same soft Dri-Lex material for comfort and moisture-wicking performance. Standing height (outsole plus midsole) of the Bikila LS is 7mm, and its overall weight is 6.0 oz, which are identical specs to the original Bikila.
|My Salinas Valley test lab|
One note about the outsole performance and durability: most readers are well aware that the vast majority of my mileage is done on dirt. One of the most frequent questions I had after reviewing the Bikila was how long its outsole would last on asphalt – and obviously, I’m not the most qualified person to speculate on that. However, many other people asked whether the outsole was sufficient for trail running, to which I’d say this: for smooth fire roads and groomed trails, it’s fine. For technical trails or thickly gravelled fire roads, I do notice a decrease in both traction and protection compared to Vibram’s KSO Trek or Trek Sport. I’d wager that the long-term durability is pretty good; my current Bikilas have at least 300 miles on them, and signs of wear on the outsole (see earlier photo) are relatively modest.
It’s not until we get to the top of the shoe that you notice any difference between the Bikila and the Bikila LS. On that note, take a wild guess: do you know what LS stands for? Lace system! Because, you know … this one has laces. That’s the big, obvious change in this updated version, and we’ll return to it in a second – but first I’ll point out some changes that are harder to see.
|Sockless in Salinas|
Material construction of the Bikila LS upper has the same Coconut Active Carbon fiber that’s used on the Trek Sport, and which has natural breathability and odor resistance. It’s a very comfortable material, but this change was kind of a wash for me; I really love the thin microfiber upper of the original Bikila, and I wouldn’t say the LS is an improvement from a comfort standpoint. I wear both models without socks, and I’ve done marathon distances in each of them without any hot spots or irritation from the uppers.
|Polyurethane dots on toes at left; TPU overlays on toes at right|
Another subtle change is visible at the toes, where the tear-resistant TPU protection that looked like clear stickers on the Bikila has been replaced with a set of small raised abrasion-resistant polyurethane dots. I haven’t had an issue with the clear TPU, but I’ve seen reports of them tearing along the edges on occasion, so I’m guessing this is Vibram’s response to that known issue.
|Thicker heel collar on LS at left; thin collar on original at right|
Behind the heel, the collar of the Bikila LS is slightly thicker and wider than the more form-fitting Bikila, which is probably built to accommodate a wide variety of foot sizes and shapes. Speaking of variety …
|Lace system and tongue allow for wide foot opening|
… that is the main advantage the lacing system provides, and that’s the main advantage of the Bikila LS over the Bikila. On the original, the upper had a very secure glove-like fit, but some users found it too constricting across the top of the foot in comparison to other FiveFingers models. People who had a wide midfoot or a high instep had difficulty with the fit of the Bikila, and there really wasn’t any adjustability aside from the top strap that only made things tighter. Again, this wasn’t an issue for me, but it was probably the biggest complaint I’ve heard about the Bikila.
With the Bikila LS, you open the top like a traditional shoe, and use the laces to customize the tightness however you like. It’s significantly easier to put this model on your feet than having to wriggle your toes into the original Bikila. Once your feet are in, you tighten the laces against a thin tongue which sits very comfortably against the skin, with the same soft lining underneath as the rest of the sockliner.
Having a lace system also eliminates the strap loop on the outside of the foot, which some users had reported as a location of minor irritation when the strap was pulled too tightly.
For a couple of reasons, I love the fact that Vibram decided to go with speed laces on the LS rather than traditional tie laces. The main benefit is a functional one, as the elasticized laces are very effective at evenly distributing tension across the top of the foot. However, there’s also a high-performance element to this system as well – namely, the ability to put the shoes on quickly.
Speed laces were born in the triathlon world to decrease transition time from bike cleats to running shoes; with the Bikila LS, whether they intended to or not, Vibram has created the world’s first purely minimal triathlon shoe. They’re super-light, incredibly comfortable without socks, and able to be put on in a flash; if I ever return to my triathlon background, I’m definitely using the Bikila LS as my race-day shoe.
|Ready to race!|
Needless to say, Vibram has raised the road minimalist shoe bar – one that was already set fairly high by the Bikila - substantially with the Bikila LS. It maintains all the ideal aspects of the Bikila, and incorporates a significant design innovation to successfully accommodate a larger variety of users. If you’re currently happy with your Bikilas, I can’t honestly say the lace system is sufficient reason to upgrade – but if you’re on the fence between which one to buy, or if you suspect that you’d have a hard time fitting into the Bikila, the Bikila LS is an easy bet that doesn’t cost you any more money than the original.
The Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS retails for $100 from TravelCountry.com.
*Product provided by Vibram
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at email@example.com.
Get updates as soon as they're posted! Click here to subscribe to Running and Rambling. Check out the Running Life book for a collection of our most popular columns.