Better performance with more trampoline and less marshmallow.
New Balance’s first entry into the super shoe sweepstakes is the Fuel Cell TC. I first saw prototype variants of this shoe line being raced by elite athletes last year (2019). The production launch consists of two models the TC (Training & Competition) and RC (Racing & Competition). I am testing the Fuel Cell TC in this review. The Fuel Cell RC is expected to be released later in 2020.
I categorize “super-shoes” to be models that combine new high-tech foam with some sort of fibre-reinforced plate. Combined, they promise more efficiency than the “conventional” models that came before them. The category was kicked-off by the Nike Vaporfly series and now joined by models from other competitors such as Saucony, Asics, Hoka One One and New Balance. Also, I have tested and/or reviewed every model of the NB Fuel Cell running shoe lineup on my blog, so I am curious to see how the TC compares to those.
The upper is engineered mesh with no overlays, save for a laminated section around the eyelets and throat opening, and the NB five point logo across the forefoot. The mesh is very compliant, with a sock-like fit and plenty of room in the toebox. It uses a double-hole eyelet system to keep the laces more on the outside of the shoe. This pattern doesn’t restrict lace movement like it does on the Nike Epic React, but it’s still a bit fussy. The tongue is non-gusseted and missing a centering loop. Despite this, I didn’t have any issues with the tongue falling sideways. The padding ends about 5mm from the edge of the tongue, leaving a thin layer of material that is prone to creasing if you’re not careful to ensure the tongue is not folded when you put the shoe on.
The minimal padding extends around the heel collar. Coupled with a semi-stiff heel counter, the combo gives it a good wrap and grip against the heel. I had absolutely no heel slip issues. There is a slight flip at the rear, to keep the upper away from the Achilles tendon.
Midsole / Outsole
The midsole is where the magic happens. NB is able to tune the Fuel Cell compound for different rebound and the TC contains the softest version I’ve tested. Combined with a very tall stack height, this results in a linear and deep cushioned feel. There is a carbon plate embedded within the midsole. Unlike other plated shoes, the plate is of moderate stiffness and allows the shoe to bend and flex to a certain degree. As with other recent Fuel Cell shoes, there is a distinctive lateral wing that juts out near the middle outside of the platform, creating a very wide midfoot platform. In contrast, the heel profile is relatively narrow.
The insole is very thin, with low arch structure. It’s printed with a heat map, suggesting where the pressure points are. A fun touch.
The outsole rubber is a thin layer that covers the front two-thirds of the shoe. It’s complemented with two small rubber sections on either side of the heel. Despite minimal tread depth, the rubber proved to be quite grippy, at least in dry conditions. In the tested Neo-Flame colourway, the outsole is colour-matched with the white midsole. There is a nice iridescent sheen on the midsole, much like the NB Fuel Cell 5280.
The TC has stack heights of 36mm rearfoot and 26mm forefoot, for an offset of 10mm. My mens size US 9.0 example weighed 264g / 9.4oz per shoe.
The Fuel Cell TC is among the softest shoes I’ve tested. Unlike other max-cushion shoes, the foam provides a high amount of energy return. Think more trampoline, less marshmallow. Combined with the very tall stack and carbon fibre plate, it gives the TC a very unique ride and cushioning experience. It’s a little disconcerting at first, not being able to bottom out the cushioning and feeling a bit isolated from the road. While I consider the amount of cushion beyond what I need for a full marathon, it does soak up the shock extremely well. Coupled with the great bounce-back, the miles just roll away underfoot. It is awesomely fun on descents, where you can really take advantage of the shock attenuation and fly down hills without fear of reprisal via impact forces. They also give speedwork a unique feel, since the usual shock and pain associated with faster pace is basically gone. That said, they are a bit on the heavy side to be the ideal speedwork and interval shoe.
The transition and gait mechanics are… normal. The carbon plate is bendy enough to allow the TC a normally positioned flex point. I think its main function is to stabilize and even out the pressure applied to the super soft Fuel Cell foam. From mid-gait to toe-off part of the cycle, the TC feels totally conventional.
I found the rearfoot to be somewhat unstable on the roll axis. Even with a plate, the tall stack of resilient foam results in some squish if you lean on either lateral or medial side. The mid-width heel platform adds to this effect. Heel strikers with less than a beautifully neutral stride may notice this instability more than others. The TC feels similar to shoes with rounded heel profiles, such as the Fuel Cell Rebel and Brooks PureConnect. I find that type of design is more appropriate for uptempo models like the Rebel. Whereas the TC is definitely a long-distance shoe where this issue has more time and miles to manifest.
The combination of a wide, lower stacked forefoot platform caused me to prefer running the TC with a pure forefoot strike. The level of cushion at the front suited my preferences more. Avoiding substantial heel loads minimizes the roll instability issue. This approach, along with the energy return, made the TC feel lighter than a mid-9oz shoe normally feels.
Our mental model of “racing gear”, whether it’s running shoes, bicycles or cars, in something that is light, super-stiff, responsive and unforgiving. Something that only the most elite of athletes can wield and tolerate. Shoes like the TC really turns this model upside down. Thanks to innovative technology and design, the Fuel Cell TC has seemingly endless cushioning while still delivering high performance. This is especially good news for us mere mortal weekend warriors. I’m looking forward to the RC later this year.
I purchased the NB Fuel Cell TC at retail for this review.