Specialized S-Works 6 XC shoe review: a top choice for gravel and dirt roads

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One unexpected benefit to the rise of gravel riding has been the renewed relevance of cross-country mountain bike kit, especially for footwear. Trail riders may be gravitating towards more walkability and comfort instead of thinly veiled road shoes with tread, but those carbon fiber slippers that are only modestly useful for riding off-road are just the thing for gravel riders who are more concerned with maintaining the efficiency of their road shoes, and only have occasional need for ambling about.

If riding on gravel or dirt roads is your thing, and you prefer a two-bolt pedal system over the various dedicated road designs out there, it’d be hard to find shoes better than Specialized’s S-Works 6 XC — but be prepared to pay a pretty penny for them.

If you were to strap a S-Works 6 XC shoe to one foot, and a standard S-Works 6 road shoe to the other, you would be hard-pressed to tell them apart based on fit and feel. Other than a bit more padding around the heel collar, a more closed-off perforation pattern (presumably to help keep dust from entering the shoe), and some barely-there armoring around the edge of the toe box, the two shoes are virtually identical from the sole plates up, and that’s a very good thing in this case.

That standard S-Works 6 road shoe is one of the best-fitting I’ve ever used, and Specialized uses the same mega-snug heel cup and non-stretch Dyneema fabric panels around the ankle area on the XC version. Combined with the dual Boa S2-Snap dials, the result is an incredibly secure fit; heel lift is wholly non-existent. Combine that with the extremely stiff carbon outsole, and it’s an easy recipe for efficient power transfer.

That ironclad hold is in no way overly confining, though. The upper is pleasantly form-fitting through the mid-foot area, and unlike many high-end cycling shoes, the toe box is unusually roomy so your toes have plenty of space to roam about. Those Boa dials make for fast and precise adjustments if your feet tend to swell during a long day in the saddle, and although they lack a quick-release function, the open wire loops still allow for easy exit when you’re done for the day.

Just as you’d expect from any shoe wearing Specialized’s flagship label, the S-Works 6 XC is also impressively light. Whereas a pair of size 43 S-Works 6 road shoes tip the scales at just 440g, titanium cleat inserts limit the weight gain on the S-Works 6 XC variant to just 126g for a total of 566g, including insoles.

The usual array of Specialized Body Geometry features are present and accounted for. Integrated into the molded carbon fiber sole is a generous (but not overly so) amount of arch support. The forefoot is slightly canted to supposedly better align your knees during the pedal stroke. The pleasantly shaped footbed incorporates a little bump behind the toes that Specialized says improves blood flow and prevents numbness.

The uppers are still perforated on the Specialized S-Works 6 XC shoes, but the holes aren’t quite as big as they are on the S-Works 6 road shoes. Still, breathability on these shoes is pretty good. The holes readily let in water, though, and it’s slow to drain. And despite appearances, they’re quite easy to keep clean (I just haven’t bothered).

As always with footwear, whether those features are a good thing will depend on your personal anatomy. But that said, they’ve proven effective for me, both in terms of measured pedal stroke alignment and general comfort level.

All of the above could be said of the standard S-Works 6 road shoes, however, and what obviously sets the XC apart is the tread. Specialized doesn’t cover the entire surface with rubber in the interest of weight savings; rubber is heavy, after all. But what’s there is logically placed, with widely spaced lugs straddling the cleat pocket, softer rubber at either end, a reasonably sized patch under the mid-foot in case you miss a pedal, and threaded fittings for toe spikes should you need a bit more purchase in soft conditions.

It’s hardly sufficient for long, romantic hikes through the woods, and the exposed sections of carbon are prone to damage if you spend any time walking on actual gravel. Nevertheless, the S-Works 6 XC is still far better than dedicated road footwear, and also better than many other XC-specific shoes.

Specialized uses a non-stretch material called Dyneema around the middle and rear of the shoe. Combined with the dual Boa closures and unusually tight-fitting heel cup, the result is an ironclad hold on your foot.

Even when clipped to a smaller two-bolt pedal — such as the Shimano PD-A600s I used for testing — it’s tough to tell a tremendous difference from a proper road pedal with its larger surface contact. The S-Works 6 XC’s stiff carbon sole deserves much of the credit here, but the tread lugs that come into contact with the pedal body are also made of a higher-density material to minimize the squishiness often associated with using mountain-bike pedals. Unfortunately, this will deteriorate over time as the tread lugs wear from walking, but in the several months I’ve been using my test shoes, the tougher material used on those two blocks does a good job of keeping that wear at bay.

Unfortunately, though, none of the lugs are replaceable, so if you find yourself on-foot often, don’t expect your money to stretch too far. In comparison, Sidi’s mountain bike shoes might have a woefully inadequate tread design, but at least the blocks are replaceable so you can prolong the suffering.

The same complaints aimed at the standard S-Works 6 road shoes apply here as well, too.

Like most cross-country mountain bike shoes, the tread on the Specialized S-Works 6 XC is fairly minimal so as to reduce the shoes’ overall weight. What’s there is quite effective, but the exposed carbon is definitely prone to damage.

Not everyone will appreciate that radically shaped heel cup, and indeed, some might even find it downright painful. The tongue could also do with a bit more of a cutout for the front of your ankle, and those tiny perforations don’t exactly make for an especially airy feel in hot weather.

Needless to say, there’s also the question of the S-Works 6’s heady price tag. These suckers are damned expensive at US$400 / AU$500 / £310 / €350, but they’re nevertheless among the very best shoes I’ve used for the job.

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