Specialized S-Works 7 road shoe review: Same performance, more comfort

By most accounts, Specialized knocked it out of the park with its S-Works 6 road shoes: they’re light, ultra-stiff, highly supportive, well ventilated, and comfortable. So where does Specialized go from there? Why, to 7, of course.

CyclingTips US technical editor James Huang shares his early thoughts on the latest S-Works 7 model, which Specialized claims to offer a more refined fit and improved comfort than its predecessor, as well as some trick new machined aluminum Boa dials.

Related: Specialized have also released the S-Works Evade II aero road helmet.


A more forgiving PadLock

Specialized’s footwear team undoubtedly considers the new S-Works 7 shoe to be a ground-up redesign of the existing S-Works 6, but in reality, it’s more of an evolution. As it was, that shoe offered an incredibly secure fit, a roomy toe box, excellent ventilation, outstanding arch support, a feathery weight, and a super stiff carbon fiber outsole.

The problem, however, was that the fit was perhaps too secure.

Notably, some riders found the unusually tight-fitting PadLock heel cup design to be a bit too tight. Some also felt that the fancy non-stretch Dyneema panels around the ankle weren’t sufficiently form-fitting to evenly envelop the foot. And so, it was back to the drawing board.

For the S-Works 7, Specialized relaxed the taper of the PadLock external heel counter so it didn’t pinch down as radically around the heel as before. Meanwhile, a new mesh Dyneema material still limits stretch around the ankle, but it now gives a little along the length of the foot. And while the forefoot area was already plenty spacious, the new shoe features more upright sides and just a hint more room around the big toe.

Specialized says this isn’t the result of a last change, however. Rather, the move to a laminated TPU mesh material for the uppers in place of a more traditional synthetic leather results in less “pull-back” during the molding process.

One final measure taken to improve comfort is the relocated Boa hardware. According to Specialized, a number of different tongue redesigns were investigated to help alleviate pressure on top of the foot, but in the end, it was determined that simply relocating the hard plastic bits did the job. Nevertheless, the tongue on the S-Works 7 feels a touch stiffer than the one on the S-Works 6 — thus distributing pressure over a larger area — and also seems to be backed with a little more padding.

The toe box is roomier than before, too, with extra space around the big toe and taller sides in general. The new S-Works 7 is pictured on the right; the previous-generation S-Works 6 is at left.

Speaking of Boa, Specialized partnered with the Colorado company to develop a new S3 dial that is used exclusively on the S-Works 7 shoe. The most striking change is the use of machined, anodized, and laser-etched aluminum instead of the usual plastic. It certainly affords a more premium appearance, but the knurled circumference also lends a particularly sure grip. According to Specialized, the design is sealed better than other other Boa models, and the sturdier internals will also maintain their sound and feel for a longer period of time.

As with the Boa S2-Snap dials used on the current S-Works 6 shoes, the new S3 dials are not equipped with a quick-release function. But never fear, open guides on the medial side of the shoe let you easily unhook the wire as needed to help get the shoes on and off. In the event one of the dials is damaged, the cartridge design is once again easily replaceable, too.

The new Boa S3 dials feature machined aluminum construction and grippy knurled edges. They feel and look expensive, probably because they are expensive.

Finally, there’s an updated carbon fiber outsole. Specialized’s arbitrary Stiffness Index creeps up from 13 to 15, but it’s unlikely anyone will notice whatever measured increase in bending rigidity Specialized may have achieved here. The real story is the strategically engineered flex zones at the outer edge of the plate, which the company claims help relieve hot spots.

Actual weight for a pair of size 43 shoes is 478g (38g heavier than the S-Works 6), and the size range is quite generous, spanning 36-49 (with half-sizes from 38-47), and three widths. Five colors are on tap — white, black, red, a red-to-purple fade, and a yellow-to-pink fade — although the two additional width options will only be offered in black. Retail price for American buyers is US$400 and AUD$500 for Australians; pricing for other regions is still to be confirmed.

On the road with the new S-Works 7

I’ve spent a lot of time in both the standard S-Works 6 shoes and the lace-up S-Works Sub6 model since their inception, and in fact, the latter is my go-to choice on the road when there aren’t other shoes I need to test.

Heel hold has always been super snug, so much so that the shoes can be hard to put on, but I never found it bothersome, even on longer rides. Clearly, not everyone has had the same experience, and the S-Works 7’s new heel shape indeed feels less confining than before. Heel hold is still outstanding, but it’s not quite the vise-like grip it used to be. Whether that’s a good thing will depend on your own feet, of course, but it’s impressive nonetheless that Specialized has managed to maintain similar levels of security while also being more accommodating.

Specialized once again makes use of non-stretch Dyneema fabric for its top-end road shoe, but it’s now a mesh construction that allows a bit of fore-aft stretch for a more conforming fit. The previous S-Works 6 shoes (at right) held tight, but some riders found the more densely woven Dyneema material to be too stiff.

That said, fans of the old PadLock shape should keep in mind that Specialized is likely to adopt this update across the board, so now would probably be a good time to start scouring eBay to build up your personal supply (but keep your hands off of any 43s that you see, please).

The new mesh Dyneema panels around the ankle still lock your feet in as firmly as ever, but they do feel more fabric-like and pliable relative to the S-Works 6. As with the updated heel shape, riders who don’t have any issues with the current shoes (myself included) aren’t likely to gain much benefit from the update, but it doesn’t seem to hurt, either. As promised, though, the relocated Boa hardware and revised tongue construction let you crank down the dials a bit tighter without generating discomfort.

Arch support is built directly into the carbon sole, as is usually the case with Specialized’s Body Geometry footwear.

As for the new outsole, any zonal flex that might be on hand here wasn’t noticeable to me, but that might change with more extended use (not to mention longer rides when it isn’t in the middle of a Colorado winter). For now, we’ll call it a draw. Current weather conditions also made it impossible to accurately gauge the new shoe’s ventilation performance, but given how well the previous version worked in the heat, I expect the S-Works 7 to be at least on-par, especially given that the perforations in the tongue are bigger than they used to be.

And what about those fancy new aluminum Boa S3 dials? They certainly offer a more premium feel, and look undeniably trick. But from a functional standpoint, I don’t see much of a significant performance gain over the old S2-Snap version. If anything, some might actually prefer the plastic model’s lower profile, as the S3’s aluminum dials definitely stick out further. Be that as it may, that impression may change over time, but it’s perhaps worth mentioning that my S-Works 6 shoes are now two years old, and those dials are still going strong. And if they do give up the ghost, Boa’s generous replacement policy should have me covered at no charge.

Genuinely better, or just different?

Specialized’s footwear team undoubtedly spent a lot of time and energy developing the new model, but as far as my feet go, the new shoes feel more like an S-Works 6.3 than a full-blown redesign. But given how good the previous version was, I’m not going to complain about modest improvements.

A few weeks of riding is hardly sufficient for a properly comprehensive evaluation, but it’s been so far, so good here. From what I can tell at the moment, current S-Works 6 owners shouldn’t feel compelled to upgrade right away, but when the time comes — and assuming your budget will allow it — these would be an easy choice.