Road Gear

Stress Test: Specialized S-Works Road shoes

After over a year of riding and racing, it's clear that Specialized’s top-of-the-line shoes are capable, comfortable, and built to last

It’s likely to come as a surprise to our readers that the one piece of kit I test more than anything — more than bikes, helmets, even jerseys — is shoes. Between road and mountain bike shoes, across an array of price points, I’ve ridden in dozens of different brands. Countless pairs.

If you look at the WorldTour peloton these days, the two most popular shoes are the Shimano SH-R321 and the Specialized S-Works. Though in my years of testing, I keep going back to the S-Works shoes as my baseline, my race-day shoe, and my shoe for long days in the saddle. It’s light, at just over 400 grams, the upper is exceptionally comfortable, and the Boa closure system is dialed — pun intended.

The Specialized S-Works Road shoes were featured in our 2014 Buyer’s Guide as our Editor’s Choice and then again in our 2015 Buyer’s Guide, the only change over the year is that the S-Works Road shoe has become less expensive. Now at $360, the S-Works Road shoes are still quite expensive, though there is plenty of technology trickling down across the Specialized line, and riders wanting a less-expensive shoe can score the slightly heavier Pro or soon-to-be-released Audax shoes. Each currently, or will soon, retail for $250, and each weigh about 500 grams for the pair.

In different brands of shoes I wear anywhere from a 42 in Shimano to a 43 in Pearl Izumi — funny that the outliers share the same ownership. I typically wear a 42.5, and that’s precisely where I land with Specialized S-Works Road shoes.

The Boa system of the past was a pain to maintain and even worse to replace, should the wire break. The current model that Specialized uses, the S2 reel, is a closed system so replacing the wire is as easy as removing the entire dial and installing a new one with a new dial. In the year and a half of use, I’ve never had to replace the S2 reel. Boa has stepped up its durability, and the retention system is lightweight.

Although there has been a laced-up revival in cycling, with the Giro Empire line — which I’ve tested extensively — I like to fine-tune tightness with just a few clicks of the Boa reel.

The uppers are one of the shining features of the S-Works shoes. They lack seams almost entirely, with different panels of the material bonded together. The heel has a raised dot pattern, designed to more securely hold the heel in place, but these dots wore off within a year. Shimano’s cat’s tongue heel design holds up better in our testing.

The sole is stiff, yet I’ve never suffered hotspots, a problem I’ve had with Shimano shoes of the past, although I haven’t had any serious time in the new R321 shoe yet.

The carbon sole shows the battle scars of a year’s worth of adventures but no serious damage. The S-Works Road shoes have held up for a year and half of road and more foolhardy endeavors blurring the line of “road” riding. Even the heel lugs, which are replaceable, are fairly durable. Yet, another tester had some issues with a heel lug coming loose just weeks after receiving his shoes. Fortunately, this was remedied by tightening the screw holding it on the sole.

The Specialized Body Geometry SL footbeds are well-built, and certainly not the generic footbeds you find in most shoes, though the Body Geometry SL footbeds do not have tunable arches, like Shimano, Pearl Izumi, and Giro. Out of the box, Specialized S-Works road shoes come with the lowest arch support, but upgrading to the blue or green footbeds with medium and high arch supports, respectively, will set you back an additional $30. I ride in the medium blue footbeds exclusively, and often move them into other pairs of test shoes when needed.

The Specialized S-Works Road shoes have a mountain bike counterpart, the S-Works XC which shares most of the features with the S-Works Road. While the S-Works XC fits identically and is quite lightweight, the carbon sole has little protection from rock strikes. It’s a race day-only shoe and certainly not something that can survive over a year’s worth of abuse on Colorado trails.

If the white and red doesn’t float your boat, there are also white/black and all-black options. Specialized will be releasing a high-visibility yellow and an electric blue color of the S-Works Road shoes for those who like to stand out.

Just looking around a local group ride, and it’s plain to see that the Specialized last fits a wide variety of riders, and its stiffness and finish are suitable for everyone from the fastest guy to the town line to the casual coffeeshop connoisseur. Regardless of how you ride, or what color you pick, the S-Works Road shoes are almost sure to please.

Suggested retail price: $360
We like: Comfortable, light, and stiff. Pick three.
We don’t like: Non-tuneable arch support, heel grippers wear out.
The scoop: The best road racing shoe on the market. If the price is too steep, Specialized has plenty of lower-priced options.