Category: Performance Trainer – Gait: Neutral – Weight: 258gr – Drop: 10mm (30/20mm)
Last year was a very good one for New Balance, as it introduced completely new models and significantly upgraded several of its traditional lines. Fresh Foam got the boost it needed (Fresh Foam X) and acquired new performance characteristics. But the year’s highlight was surely FuelCell. The company presented its very own super foam and the first two models that contained it (Rebel and Propel) proved that NB did its research well. In addition, it looks like FuelCell can be “tuned” to quite a degree and can be used in more ways than one, depending on need.
Touching on a slightly different subject, the market is on a new path in midsole design. We all know that for the last three years Nike’s Vaporfly has redefined the long distance performance category. Going against everything that was considered a given until then, the combination of a thick midsole plus carbon plate, proved absolutely successful, without doubt. Be it lab findings and records broken one after the other, or the public’s unanimous approval, this new reality is here to stay.
Therefore, it was to be expected that other makers would respond to the new call and come up with their own distance racers. From a commercial standpoint this category may not be as attractive – after all, we are talking about expensive and not widely distributed shoes – but they do represent the cutting edge and showcase each manufacturer’s abilities. In addition, more common everyday models may also benefit from this technological advance in the future.
New Balance was very quiet and discreet while it prepared its own model, more so than other companies. There were no prototypes during races or camouflaged testers leaked to social media. When the company was good and ready, it just marketed the shoe.
But, which shoe? Currently, there are two different models with carbon plates on NB’s lineup: FuelCell TC (Training & Competition) and FuelCell RC (Racing & Competition). The first one is designated as a trainer and is available for purchase right now. The second is the racing counterpart and is expected later in the year. Under normal circumstances, it would have been available already, but the cancellation of major races has changed conditions and pushed back deadlines – no one is in any hurry. And if we would think of the TC as merely the hors d’oeuvre before the main meal (RC), as things stand today, most of us will be well satisfied with what TC can bring to the table, right now!
Upper and Fit
TC’s engineered mesh is very thin (it is almost translucent, as you can see in the photo the white color assumes the hue of the underlying sock), it is soft and breathable and has a sort of structure in its weave for increased durability. The toe bumper is very thin and pliable, merely shaping the toe box.
The middle section is free of structural elements, while the shoelace area is made of somewhat more substantial material. The tongue has no foam at all, just a type of suede covering its top, yet the thin flat laces seat properly upon it and exert no pressure at all.
The rear section is more structured. The collar is medium-hard, with a thin layer of padding covering the inside. Its tail curves out to provide more room and comfort to the achilles tendon area, yet it has no negative effect on fit at all.
In general, TC’s upper is particularly simple, almost minimalist, as it seeks to achieve a balance between training and racing. The mesh is so light and pliable that it seems more fitting for a race shoe. On the other hand, its shape is molded to be roomy and adjustable, as well.
Even though the width of the toe and midfoot sections are about average, the type of minimal fabric used allows one’s foot to move at will. If you have a narrow foot you may find it somewhat too roomy, particularly in the front, but the mesh fabric is so pliable that you can tighten it to the point that it hugs the foot satisfactorily. In the back section, the heel certainly sits well inside the collar, but when taking curves at speed, it proves to be a bit unstructured.
As a trainer, TC is very comfortable – it literally “disappears” on your foot. There are no possible friction points and even the sliver-thin tongue does not transmit any pressure coming from the laces. The design of two holes per eyelet does its part by lowering strain on the top of the foot.
When going fast, the TC feels somewhat more comfortable than desirable, particularly around curves. This is due to its thick and very soft midsole, of course, but it also lacks the tight fit needed in such conditions. Still, by tightening the laces further, the fabric’s structure allows it to close around the foot and provide for a more stable fit. (Perhaps, some overlays in the middle, or a slightly stiffer collar, could have been combined with the very thin fabric).
Yet, and I stress it again, FuelCell TC is the trainer of the line even if it can perform well as a racer, too, as we’ll see later on. On the other hand, a runner with a wider foot will surely appreciate its roominess, since most shoes in this category are narrow.
Sizing for the TC is completely normal.
Not that it really matters, but I would personally prefer a less discreet upper, something more vibrant and “inspired”, in line with the bold nature of the sole. I have always been a fan of white shoes, even before they became fashionable, but this particular combination of white and black is a bit ho-hum, for such a shoe.
Sole and Ride
FuelCell is by far NB’s softest and springiest foam – and in TC it is amongst the 2 or 3 softest foams that I have ever tried. I’m not sure if its tuning is different in comparison with the likewise very soft Propel, or if the extra 3mm in the heel make a difference (I don’t think so), but the feeling I get when walking, or just squeezing it between my fingers, is almost identical with that of the ZoomX. They are similar even in the wrinkles created on their sides after just one run. Sole thickness is not huge, as in other carbon plated shoes, although the monochromatic sides make it appear greater at first glance – I’d call it conventional, really.
The sole incorporates a spoon-shaped carbon fiber plate, starting high up in the back section and descending just above the outer sole at the forefoot. It restrains the foam by not allowing it to compress and spread out uncontrollably, while it also contributes to energy return, to a degree. Oddly enough, it’s not quite clear how these plates actually work and what is their exact function.
Moving on to the outsole, we observe a rather distinctive pattern. From the front to the middle the entire surface is covered in thick, medium-hard rubber, which bends upwards at the sides. Obviously, this has to do with providing better stability to the FuelCell foam. Two additional rubber pieces are situated at the back section, leaving the foam exposed in the middle section.
As a mainly training model, TC has to be durable, thus the need for so much covering at the bottom. This is also where the extra weight comes from (the RC model will feature a different pattern). Anyhow, the shoe has a good grip, and even after using it for 100 km (62.5 mi), the bottom showed almost zero wear, even in the exposed foam middle section.
There is also a characteristic “fin” in the middle of the outer side, something that is also present in the Rebel, an element which provides additional stability. It mostly goes unnoticed, in practical terms.
As is to be expected from its carbon plate, TC is totally stiff in the front. Nevertheless, rocker is less pronounced than in other, similarly stiff shoes. I don’t know if this is by design, i.e. to make it friendlier to everyday training use, it certainly does not affect its transition on the road.
I have worn the TC in all kinds of runs on paved roads and hard cement surfaces – everything except track workouts. This is a really fun shoe. It does not matter how fast you go, TC can handle everything from recovery runs all the way to just above threshold (e.g. 10K pace). Foam, plate and shoe geometry are so well combined and tuned that you get a feeling of rolling along almost effortlessly.
There is plenty of foam compression and unlimited cushioning, yet full control is always maintained because of the carbon plate. It propels you easily and speedily, and with greater stability than you would expect. The heel may sink somewhat in the foam, but if you do not heel strike overly hard, it won’t bother or slow you down. Truth is, the more forward you land, the more balanced your step becomes. Given the 20mm of foam at the metatarsals, the rubber underneath and the lowering of the plate, the forefoot tightens up nicely and makes for a more natural feel. Even so, you still get lots of cushioning at the forefoot.
When it comes to energy return, FuelCel is comparable only to ZoomX (comparing only the shoes that I’ve tried, anyway). There is a lot of it and it’s noticeable even in slow runs. Most other foams require “charging” in order to give you some bounce – you got to give, in order to take back. Unlike them, however, FuelCel is lively even during a lazy, slow easy run.
With a very soft and rather narrow sole compared to more traditional trainers, one would expect the TC to be more unstable in slower tempos. However, the combination of carbon plate and outsole create a really nice balance – you never feel that you are fighting against the shoe. The wider midfoot, and possibly the “fin”, may help here. Now, if you are a heavy heel striker there is an initial mushy feeling and, as with many other shoes, you must find your own sweet spot.
All in all, the New Balance FuelCel TC is unbelievably comfortable and easy going as a trainer. There is simply no comparison with other shoes which seem to get out of sync if you don’t go fast.
Yet, TC stands for Training & Competition. It would make no sense to create such an elaborate shoe structure if there wasn’t a second personality to it.
So, go for anything around a tempo run – the shoe delivers! Ok, lots of other shoes do the same, you say, but with the TC things go so smoothly and you roll along so well, that the only thing you have to worry is your breathing. As you step up, the bounce increases further, the foam acts more controlled, your landing moves further forward and, finally, you get the sense that the shoe does all the work for you. This is really a fun-to-run shoe!
But, if it does so well even at a faster pace what’s the need for the upcoming RC? The answer is that the TC has two characteristics which may slow it down under certain conditions. First is its looser upper fit, particularly when going around curves: it is just not on a par with what its midsole can deliver. It won’t really slow you down, but you would certainly prefer a more secure, more stable sensation from the upper, so I believe that the upcoming RC will be considerably tighter on the foot.
The second is its weight: TC may be relatively light for a trainer, but it’s not so light as to be a true performance model. Early in the run, the weight can be counterbalanced by its easy rebound lift but later on, however, when fatigue sets in, the extra grams become noticeable. Maybe we have all become spoiled by the prevalence of very light shoes, but the fact remains that TC’s double personality as a trainer/performance model comes at a price. Still, I believe that many runners will not even notice the extra grams, particularly if they have never used featherweight shoes.
Let’s move on to what most of you are waiting for: the comparison with the Vaporfly.
I have not yet tried any other carbon-plated shoes except for Zoom Fly – and it doesn’t count, since its foam is in a whole different category. But the feedback from those who have, indicates that, to date, FuelCell TC is closer to Nike’s model than anything else.
Both shoes produce a very similar ride sensation, their softness and the way their plates work makes one think they have both come out of the same lab. TC’s cushioning is in fact closer to the 4% rather than Next% – reasonable, since the latter has a 10mm thicker sole.
But is TC equally efficient? It’s not an entirely fair question, since the proper comparison would be with the RC, but since we asked it let’s try to answer it.
With the exception of professionals and top tier amateurs, TC can certainly be used successfully as a long distance racer by everyone. So, Next% is naturally a better racer, primarily due to its lower weight. Those extra 70 grams of the TC on your feet make a big difference, one that you will certainly notice during the last kilometers of marathon, or even half marathon races. Personally, I noticed the extra weight even towards the end of more demanding long workouts.
Furthermore, VF is faster also because of its much more aggressive rocker design up front. The New Balance model features a milder and more gradual geometry, lacking the propulsive, “throw-me-forward” sensation typical of the Nike.
Finally, Next% has a more racing fit. Its upper fits like a glove and the inelastic VaporWeave provides better hold. Of course, these characteristics do not appear in the 4%.
However, the TC does not give up without a fight!
It is much better than Vaporfly in stability, both at the heel and the midfoot. It has a wider base, more rubber at the outsole, the arch does not overflow and it feels much more confident at the turns. If you are a heavy heel striker you will appreciate these benefits even more.
Another big plus is that TC can accommodate all types of feet shapes and sizes, while the Nike is significantly tighter in the middle and back (even more so with the 4%). Of course, this is key for non-race/training use.
Finally, TC will provide all the benefits common to both models even at lower speeds. As I mentioned before, VF is tuned for speed: if you’re not moving along at a good clip, it seems to short-circuit and get a bit clumsy. In contrast, the TC can handle everything equally well.
Putting it differently, in theory the Zoom Fly is the trainer counterpart of the Vaporfly, but on the road those two models behave very differently, and more so in their 3rd edition. In fact, Vaporfly’s true counterpart is none other than the FuelCell TC. Going even further, we would say that if Nike’s model did not exist, New Balance’s TC would have produced a wow factor almost equal to that of the Vaporfly when it was first introduced. We may not have lab findings and data for TC’s running economy/efficiency, but we can surely describe and evaluate the sensation we get when we wear it. Pretty clear, right?
As you doubtlessly have figured out by now, the FuelCell TC has me enthused as few shoes before. I have enjoyed every kilometer running with it, in every type of training.
And don’t let the T (Training) in its name confuse you, because for the vast majority of runners this shoe is definitely a distance racer, as well. It gives you everything you need for a marathon – in heaps! All this does not change from the fact that its “purebreed” racing version, the RC, is upcoming. If anything, it makes me even more impatient to find the same characteristics evident in the TC, but at a lower weight and a more competitive/racing fit. But that’s a story for another day.