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Tested: Maximalist Shoes of 2014

There are few debates more polarized in the running world than the one between maximalists and minimalists. It seems everyone either subscribes to the super-cushioned cult or the minimal movement, and there’s not much common ground in between.

After the minimalist craze of the past few years, more top shoe brands are entering the maximalist fray. So we reviewed the latest beefed-up options to get to the bottom of the dispute. Or at least add more fuel to the flame.

Hoka One One Conquest ($170)

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Intended for: Road

This is the Cadillac of road runners. The Conquest—the latest edition from the brand known for its trademark giant foam—is Hoka’s first attempt at a road shoe. Perched on a 29mm stack, the Conquest has twice the cushion of most normal road trainers. This makes it a great option for runners who log a lot of miles and want some extra cush or for those returning from injury.

Noticeably narrower and slightly less cumbersome than Hoka’s trail-shoe options, the Conquest still has a boxy, stilt-like effect. With that said, it’s also astonishingly stable thanks to a new Rmat® midsole-suspended cradle system that cups your foot. This shoe is laterally stiff and so cushioned that there's very little ground-feel, which might turn off some runners.

I found the shoe to be quite comfortable thanks to a seamless upper. Take note: the collar and tongue are uncushioned, and although I didn't have any problems with this, it could chafe some runners. All the more reason to try before you buy. The Conquest's Race-Lace system (similar to Salomon's Speedlaces) did cut into the top of my foot, but this was easily fixed by swapping in a pair of normal laces (included with every pair of shoes).  

The Conquest’s 4mm drop and rockered forefoot accelerate your transition from ground-strike to push-off, delivering on the promised feeling of “weightlessness.” Hoka devotees will notice the new foam is less plush than that in other Hokas, but this shoe is still a great combination of cushion and responsiveness for the road. Alberto Salazar told us, ”The more you run, the more support your foot needs.” This is a big-mileage shoe for any road runner looking to extend their long run in search of racing glory.

Important note: Hokas run at least a half size larger than the number on the box, so be sure to try these on for sizing before you buy.

Weight: 11.8 oz.; Drop: 4mm; Geometry: 25/29mm

Brooks Transcend ($160)

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Intended for: Road

The Brooks Transcend, the company’s first foray into the maximalist market, looks a bit like it arrived on a spaceship from the future. The Brooks Super DNA midsole is 25 percent more cushioned than any of Brooks’ other offerings. Its rounded heel and 8mm drop helps you roll through your gait cycle and allows the shoe to maintain Brooks’ quick-footed lightweight feel. It’s a traditional road shoe that doesn’t compromise its midsole responsiveness for unnecessary cushion. 

For this shoe Brooks departed from a traditional shoe post—designed to keep you in proper biomechanical alignment—in favor of a new technology it calls “Guide Rails” to protect against pronation and supination. These rails are specialized plates along the upper on the outside of the shoe. The rails act like bumpers, so if your foot doesn't roll in or out, you won't notice them. If it does, they'll keep you from over-pronating or over-supinating.

The shoe’s plush upper feels downright luxurious, but I found the shoe could use a little more room in the toe-box. Runners with narrow feet shouldn't have any problem with the fit, but if you have wide feet, definitely try before you buy. The Transcend is a wonderful option for a focused road runner who wants a bit more cushion, but who isn't ready to make the jump to a Hoka One One.

Weight: 12.2 oz.; Drop: 8mm; Geometry: 22/30mm

Altra Olympus ($130)

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Intended for: Trail

Named after a peak on the edge of the Salt Lake valley, the Altra Olympus is the first maximally cushioned, zero-drop shoe. The heel is at the same height as your forefoot, as it would be if you were running barefoot. Altra believes this promotes proper biomechanics.

The wide toe box allows your toes to naturally splay, good for anyone with wide feet or runners who battle neuromas. The foot feel is soft and slipper-like, even without socks (if you choose to go that route). 

The Olympus forefoot rocker—like a early-rise ski tip—helps initiate your stride. And the Olympus’ wide platform makes it a very stable ride despite its relatively high stack height. If you charge downhill, or hope to, the Olympus will gobble up terrain like no other. The price for that, however, is less return of energy from the midsole. At times this shoe feels like riding uphill on your big travel freeride bike: the shock absorption is great until you have to climb. That means it can have a wet-shoe feel on the flats.

Our major gripe? The Olympus' tread looks more like what you'd expect on a road shoe. It wasn’t tacky enough for rock, and it wasn’t toothy enough for steep dirt trails. Finally, I found its tongue needed to be a bit longer and wider, or it needed an offset loop, to keep debris out. On long runs, I inevitably got rocks in the shoe.

Weight: 11 oz.; Drop: 0mm; Geometry: 32mm

New Balance Fresh Foam 980 ($110)

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Intended for: Road

Of all the new maximal shoes this year, the Fresh Foam 980 doesn’t feel like it belongs in the super-cush category. It has the slimmest profile of the crop and really doesn’t comply with it’s marketing copy of “soft, pillowy, and cloudlike.” What this shoe lacks in “pillowy” however, it makes up for in proprioception. That means it provides superior ground-feel than its competitors. Combine that with how light this shoe is, and you have a fast, lightly cushioned racer. 

Fresh Foam 980’s 4mm drop encourages a mid-foot strike and a quick cadence. A comfortable fit with a thick cushioned tongue, it features an elegant single-piece midsole and outsole that provide long-term durability (a technique made possible by new 3D-printing technology). The breathable upper uses welded overlays to eliminate seams and possible hot spots for blisters. It has a narrow forefoot, and sizes a little small—you should probably size up at least a half size when you buy.

The Fresh Foam 980 is the fleetest maximal shoe on the market today. It’s super responsive, light, cushioned, and wonderfully flexible for a maximal shoe with a lot of midsole. When your training volume increases and your long runs get really long, this is the high-mileage workhorse you’ll be happy to own. 

Weight: 8.8 oz.; Drop: 4mm; Geometry: 22/26mm

Vasque Ultra ShapeShifter ($170)

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Intended for: Trail

The “Ultra” in the name denotes who this shoe was made for—ultrarunners. The super-cushioned ShapeShifter subverts the traditional construction methods (and associated construction waste) by attaching the shoe’s upper directly to a one-piece injection-molded EVA outsole. This method eliminates the midsole and the insole entirely. Take note: that also means this shoe won't work for those who run with orthotics.

The Ultra ShapeShifter features a roomy stretch mesh sock upper and the Boa L5 lacing system. The latter is brilliant for on-the-run customization, and anyone who prefers their shoes loose for uphills and tight for downhills. Simply bend down and twist the mechanism to tighten your shoe to your preferred snugness. Because the laces are thin (about the size of fishing wire), they can cut into the top of your foot if they're too tight. 

The one-piece sole is malleable and conforms to the trail, and I found it gave me great traction even on loose kitty litter. It’s also a fantastic buffer between you and the hard ground, which increased my downhill running speed. Eliminating the layering comes with the added benefit of giving the ShapeShifter good trail feel for a shoe that lifts you 28mm off the ground. 

The biggest downside: I found the fit to be quite odd. The front of the arch/midfoot was much narrower than any other shoe I've worn. I couldn't run more than a few miles in this shoe, and if you have wide feet, either consider another option or definitely try before you buy. 

Weight: 10.6 oz.; Drop: 6mm; Geometry: 22/28mm

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Tour de France 101

This year’s Tour de France has proven mysterious to even the most knowledgeable cycling fanatics, with both pre-Tour favorites Alberto Contador and Chris Froome out of the race due to heavy crashes. So we imagine that to the outsider, the race must seem almost incomprehensible. Presenting a beginner’s guide to the world’s most important cycling stage race.

#1: Does the race take place exclusively in France? 

Nope. It often starts in a nearby country, a tradition that dates to 1954, when the race set off in Amsterdam. This year, it began with three days in England, starting in Yorkshire and ending in London.

The Tour frequently passes into neighboring countries throughout the event, especially the mountains of Italy and Spain. This year’s edition also swung through Belgium for what became a contentious and slippery day on the cobbles.

#2: How many racers compete?

A total of 198 racers line up at the start. There are 22 teams, with nine riders per team. Throughout the event, racers drop out because of injuries. Riders must also finish within a certain percentage of time of the stage winner or they’ll be eliminated from the race. The percentage of time varies, depending on the difficulty of the stage.

The race jury can grant exceptions to riders who don’t make the time cut. And if more than 20 percent of riders miss the time limit, generally they are exempted. That’s why, on mountainous stages, you’ll often see a large group of riders, known as the autobus, group together at the back of the field—it’s safety in numbers.

#3: How does this stage racing stuff work? How do you win?

Each rider is timed on every one of the 21 stages. A rider’s time is added up from stage to stage for an overall elapsed time. The racer with the fastest elapsed time over three weeks wins the race.

So it’s possible to lose a lot of time one day, make it up throughout the length of the race, and still win. Maybe the best example came in 1958, when Frenchman Charly Gaul started the final day in the Alps 15 minutes behind but, thanks to atrocious weather, made up all but 28 seconds of that time. He went on to win the overall.

#4: Is it true that a racer can win the overall without ever winning a stage?

Yes. While it’s considered good style to win at least one stage en route to an overall win, it’s not a requirement. All that’s necessary is a racer finish with the fastest elapsed time over three weeks. 

Only six racers in 101 editions of the race have won the Tour without winning a stage. Spaniard Óscar Pereiro did it most recently in 2006, while three-time Tour champ Greg Lemond took his final victory in 1990 without a stage win.

#5: Are there time bonuses for winning a stage?

Through 2008, time bonuses were awarded for both pre-set sprint intervals along a day’s course and for the fastest finishers. Intermediate sprints earned the top three racers 6, 4, and 2 seconds, respectively, while the first three racers to finish a stage took 20-, 12-, and eight-second bonuses.

Race director Christian Prudhomme eliminated the bonuses in 2009, arguing that the true winner of the race should be person who clocks the actual fastest elapsed time. Both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España still award bonuses, and some argue that the extra incentives make for more exciting races. 

#6: What’s with all the special jerseys?

The yellow jersey, or maillot jaune in French, indicates the rider with the fastest elapsed overall time in the race at any given point during the Tour. It is awarded after each day’s finish. If a racer wins a stage but isn’t the overall leader, he is awarded a maillot jaune for his win, but he won’t get to wear it the next day, the overall leader will. 

Concurrent to the overall race, there are three additional competitions in the Tour. The green jersey, or maillot vert, is awarded based on a point system for winning sprint stages. The racer who wears the polka dot jersey, or maillot à pois, is called the King of the Mountains. He earns the jersey by accruing points for reaching the tops of designated mountains first. And the young rider classification is awarded to the racer under 26 with the fastest elapsed time, who wears the white jersey, or maillot blanc

#7: Is the course the same every year? How do they decide on the route?

The course, often referred to as the parcours, changes every year, though given the long history of the race, towns and climbs cycle in and out from year to year. Towns bid to host race starts and finishes, which can bring in great revenue because of the influx of teams and spectators. The course is announced each fall, usually in October, in a gala celebration.

#8: How fast do the racers go?

On flats, the peloton moves along at around 30 miles per hour. On mountain stages, racers can descend in excess of 60 miles per hour. The fastest Tour de France on record was in 2005, in which Lance Armstrong averaged 25.882 miles per hour over the 2,241-mile course.

#9: Why do they shave their legs?

Arguably the biggest reason racers shave is because, in case of a crash, it’s easier to clean the wounds with no hair. Shaved legs are also said to be more aerodynamic, and though some people claim the differences are insignificant, Specialized recently refuted that. And if they’re honest, most cyclists will tell you shaving is also about identity.

#10: How do they go to the toilet?

Given that Tour riders can spend five or more hours a day in the saddle, it’s reasonable to wonder how they take care of business. Generally, the peloton will agree to stop somewhere discreet alongside the road for a “nature break,” when riders can go without being left behind. In some cases, if the race is on, riders will just go from the saddle, with other racers taking care to stay out of the way.

#11: How much money do you get if you win?

Winners of each day’s stage are awarded €22,500 (~$30,000), while the team time trial pays €25,000 (~$34,000). Overall winners of the green jersey and polka dot jersey take home €25,000 each, while the overall winner of the white jersey gets €20,000 ($27,000). There’s also an award for the most aggressive rider (€20,000), which is decided by a jury of eight cycling specialists, and for the fastest overall team (€50,000).

The grand prize for the racer who takes top honors at the Tour de France is €450,000 ($610,000), though traditionally he will share it among his team.

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Tour d'Attrition

The 2014 Tour de France was turned on its head once again Monday after Alberto Contador crashed on the rain-slicked descent of the day’s second-rated climb and was forced to abandon the race.

Though he remounted the bike after the crash and tried to soldier on, he eventually succumbed and discovered later at the hospital that he had fractured his tibia.

The two-time Tour champ’s departure comes just five days after Chris Froome went down on wet roads and was also forced to quit. Contador and Froome took the start line on July 5 as the favorites, though Vincenzo Nibali and his team Astana commandeered the race lead in Stage 2. Contador and Froome were the only two racers in this year’s Tour who had previously won the event, and their departures ensure that the race will have a new champion.

After last Wednesday’s treacherous cobbled stage, there was much handwringing over whether or not the pavé has a rightful place in the Tour. Critics argued that the rough roads were too dangerous for the high speeds and nervous racing of the Tour and that they put the lightweight GC contenders at too much risk.  

The whole discussion misses the point, especially in light of Contador’s crash. On Stage 5, it wasn’t the cobbles that caused the chaos, but the rain: Froome, Valverde, and Van Garderen all went down on rain-soaked smooth pavement.

Similarly, the wet roads and heavy rain surely contributed to bringing Contador down. In the same way that no one is likely to argue that the race should skip the mountains in the name of rider safety, there shouldn’t even be a conversation about whether cobbles are appropriate.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme put it best after Froome’s unfortunate crash. He said he was sad to see the Brit leave the race, but maintained that the winner of the Tour de France must be a complete rider

A bit of luck helps, too.

And as always, one rider’s misfortune is another’s advantage. With both Froome and Contador gone, Nibali, who was already looking ready for the fight, now has to be considered the top contender to win the Tour de France. The Italian was expected to grapple with Contador on today’s final climb to La Planche des Belles Filles, but with the Spaniard out, Nibali rode away with the race to regain the yellow jersey and consolidate his lead. He now sits two minutes and 23 seconds ahead. 

Other, lesser favorites also benefited, including American Tejay Van Garderen, Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, Omega Pharma’s up-and-comer Michael Kwiatowski, Dutchman Bauke Mollema, and Belgium’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck. All of those racers moved up the standings.

After Nibali, Team Sky is arguably the biggest beneficiary of Contador’s departure. When Chris Froome went out of the race, many questioned whether Sky had made a mistake leaving home Bradley Wiggins.

However the team rallied around super-domestique Richie Porte, and the Aussie has ridden consistently to silence the doubters and move to second overall on GC. Besides, given how harsh the race has been to past Tour winners, Wiggins may be lucky to be sitting comfortably at home.

With the two biggest favorites out, it’s easy to write this race off as over. And it’s true that Nibali now seems a shoo-in for the win. But given the tumult of the first 10 days of racing, the only thing that seems certain about this Tour is that nothing is certain.

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Just Add Water

It's hot. Time to take to the water. But before you hit the beach, the river, or the bar, make sure you're ready for the sun and the sand. These 10 products will help:  

Battenwear Overhang Shorts ($207)

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Battenwear’s 100 percent cotton Overhang shorts look like casual sixties surf trunks, but they’re cut to move: an extra diamond-shaped panel in the inseam allows for deep knee bends. Add a nylon belt and zippered pocket in the front, and you’ve got the only layer you need for that beach-volleyball-bouldering-BBQ triathlon.

Helinox Chair One ($100)

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Camp chairs are typically uncomfortable or heavy or clunky—or all of the above. Not the Helinox Chair One. With minimal effort, it transforms from a hoagie-size bag into a sturdy mesh lounger. The aluminum poles are strong enough to hold a 320-pounder, while the chair itself weighs only two pounds. Most important, it’s damned comfortable. Taut shock cord makes the bomber seat feel spring loaded, and the backrest has just the right amount of give.

Carlisle Taboo Paddle ($85)

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You’ll be hard pressed to find a paddle that’s more versatile than the aluminum Carlisle Taboo. Others may weigh less, but the 13-ounce Taboo’s detachable parts let you reconfigure it from a kayak paddle into a 75- or 82-inch SUP stick. Even better: it won’t break the bank.

La Maquina Longboard ($995)

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These days, many surfboards are mass-produced by machines. But most beach communities still have a few dedicated local shapers—guys like Kyle “Juicebox” Johnson, who has been handcrafting longboards in Santa Cruz, California, for the past four years. His La Maquina longboard has the look and feel of a traditional log, but the way it accelerates after takeoff is decidedly modern. Credit the flat nose and wide front half, which increases the planing area as you move up the board. It trims great down the line and still turns like butter.

Jackson Karma RG Kayak ($1,249)

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The initials in Jackson’s Karma RG kayak stand for “rock gardening”—where paddlers use whitewater skills to play in coastal surf zones. But this boat’s utility goes way beyond dodging submerged boulders and charging sea caves. The flat hull is great for beginners, while deck rigging and a nine-inch rear hatch make it perfect for multi-day river trips.

Alite Meadow Mat ($39)

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Sure, a cotton blanket is a decent picnic ground cover—until it gets wet. That’s why we like the Alite Meadow mat for any outing that involves boats or swim trunks. It’s mostly waterproof, looks and feels nicer than a tarp, and features tie-down loops to keep the wind from blowing lunch into the river.

Watershed Goforth Drybag ($100)

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Watershed makes some of the burliest bags around, so it’s no surprise that the U.S. Navy had it design one for soldiers. The beefed-up Goforth drybag is lined with 420-denier ripstop Cordura and can be strapped to your waist or the rigging of a SUP.

Dafin Fins ($65)

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Using rubbers of varying stiffness, designer Andy Cochran formed these exceptionally powerful and lightweight Dafin fins to be rigid and flexible in exactly the right spots. No surprise they’re the official swim fin of the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

Hydro Flask Growler ($50)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/hydro-flask-growler-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Sunshine and fresh air create a natural thirst for craft beer. They’re also beer’s worst enemies. Thankfully, we discovered the Hydro Flask growler, made from double-walled, vacuum-sealed stainless steel. We were able to fill the 64-ounce vessel the night before a rafting trip and still enjoy pints of cold, hoppy beer at the end of a hot day.

Surf Grass Mat ($40)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/surf-grass-mat-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Peeling off your wetsuit while standing on asphalt or gravel is one 
of the worst things you can do for its longevity. We’ve been known to strip down inside plastic tubs, but the purpose-made Surf Grass mat offers 
a tidier experience. The inch-thick synthetic turf is also good for getting sand off your feet.

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