*Review from Edition 28 Trail Run Mag available at www.trailrunmag.com/subs
How do you follow up a hit record? That is, the original Salomon S/Lab Ultra (this new one is, well, new, even though it has the exact same name- they dropped the ‘2’ designation) was the best-selling S/ Lab shoe of all time. It obviously hit the mark on trail and on the showroom floor. So when something’s working what do you change in the quest for never-ending improvement?
With facilities like Salomon’s — think full-scale lab set up like Bond’s ‘Q’, but with a foot fetish — you don’t just delve into the finer detail of changing a colour here and a bit of material there — you embrace the risk and crack into changes that you are chancing will ultimately ride another wave of success. Of course, you also consult one of your stable of trail-knights, in the form of François D’Haene, whose ten cents (or thousands of dollars) worth of design input obviously worked wonders for him: he won the 2017 UTMB wearing a pair of the new version S/Lab Ultra. Talk about field testing with trail-cred. But how does that translate to weekend warrior?
While plenty loved the original — they were ‘fast’, light, stable, with good grip — there was also a back-row chorus of complaints, the major downfall being poor cushioning up front, leading to a slightly rougher ride: not great for long runs, which these were designed for.
This iteration went hardball on that issue in particular, designing in a new ‘Energysave’ foam insert in the forefoot teamed with EnergyCell+ foam in mid unit. None of our investigations could decipher what the specific technical qualities of either example of marketing nomenclature were, but the result is a better ride as you strike down at mid-front foot. Instead of the midsole being regular dual-density EVA, the more resilient PU material is meant to provide longer-lasting cushion, during both singular efforts and throughout the shoe’s lifespan. As you run further, the insert will not feel as ‘thin’ or ‘bruisey’ as I find many other racing-style Salomons can. While the firmness of the insert is apparently about the same as the old EVA, on wear test it did seem to give a better, more cushioned (marginally) ride.
But Salomon didn’t stop at slipping in a few new comfort pillows; this shoe has a different last, different outsole, different upper and has stacked on a small bit of weight (although barely noticeable). So rather than an iteration, and despite being already lauded by so many, Salomon threw the ‘don’t fix what ain’t (that badly) broke’ rule out the window and essentially overhauled their star shoe not just with a face lift but with a biomechanical upgrade. Brave move.
While the internal changes are perhaps the most significant performance enhancers, the most visual change is in the upper with two SensiFit straps that envelop the foot on both the lateral and medial sides. These overlay the primary upper, and are secured in by the drawstring Quicklace system, apparently a design addition direct from Francois, who needed more secure fit up top for his thin feet. For us regular punters the straps work well, providing a secure fit no doubt — but they also concentrate the tension along two specific planes across the forefoot, rather than spread the load evenly down the full foot. The integration with the lacing system is sweet, but also seems to make finding the correct snug factor more fiddly than usual. On the plus, the forward-facing lace garage on the tongue is better than the old version, which faced down and was fiddly.
The strap and lace system at front combines with an EndoFit bootie style design in the rear, the heel cup thin but supple, comfortable and quick wicking.
Staying topside, and the super fine mesh of the upper keeps dust out while the thin but durable TPU rubber overlays give excellent structure and support. The upper materials are highly hydrophobic, another design integration direct from D’Haene, and even when it was pouring or there were river crossings aplenty, I found the upper drained well.
The overall fit maintains Salomon’s traditionally slimmer line, although as someone who rubs a bit raw in a lot of Salomon models, these felt like they had more give up in the front carriage in terms of width, marginally less cut-in on the little toes, and less of an hourglass build underneath, giving an overall better fit for this average-size-footslab trailite.
Back to under the bonnet, and while the new Energysave forefoot insert undeniably delivers a better ride, it remains slightly firm and has less trail feel than its predecessor. These seem less stiff than beefier Salomons, but the overall response and ride as you pummel over, up and down the rougher stuff is less sensitive. You have to work that touch harder to take on board what the trail is doing beneath you. Of course, it’s all about balance and the upside is a lathering of increased protection compared to sibling models with a Profeel film protecting you from sharp intrusions. It’s just that from an agility perspective, these have the edge taken off them. This then affects stability, but it must be said, only a smidge. I still find them over most terrains to be a solid performer and indeed, of the Salomon models I own suited for longer haul running — perhaps bar the Sense Pro Max — these are my favourite ride. The 8mm drop over a 26mm/18mm heel-toe sits sweetly for this reviewer, too.
Perhaps co-designer D’Haene slots his own creation on the trail shoe ladder of judgement best: “Not all benefits [in a shoe] can be developed at the same level so some need to be prioritised. Performance was the key priority. So it had to be lightweight, but at the same time remain comfortable and deliver protection over long distances. It’s kind of like a Formula 1 car adapted to long distance and paths.”
We reckon the Formula 1 analogy is a stretch. V8 Supercar maybe — a little less refined, but still has the ability to go damn fast all day long. Especially if your name is D’Haene.
UPDATE: I’ve been drawn back to running in the S-Lab Ultra a fair bit since testing (a good sign if I’m choosing to wear a shoe repeatedly outside of testing responsibilities) and for me, it’s still (along with the Sense Pro Max) one of the best all rounder Salomons for my feet. The other longer term outcome is that they still haven’t managed to get much longevity from the upper – mine starting to disintegrate after roughly 250-300km, which when you think about the distances trail and ultra runners knock in to, isn’t much. A few other comments on the inter webs confirm other wearers have had the same issues with lack of durability up top.
GREAT FOR: longer to ultra distances, forefoot comfort, grip, protection, all-round solid performance, fire trail through to mildly technical lines.
NOT-SO-GREAT FOR: super bitey technical, trail feel, wide feet, long term durability.
TEST CONDITIONS: mix of super to middling technical singletrack, some fire road, some door-to-trail.
TESTER: Chris Ord, TRM Editor.
TESTER MECHANICS: midfoot striker, prefers technical.
Conditions: shoes were provided for wear test by Amer Sports Australia