Specialized S-Works Exos road shoe review: Ultralight, but not for everyone

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Making a road shoe that’s lightweight is one thing; making one that’s lightweight without sacrificing functionality is another entirely. Specialized claims to have done just that with its latest S-Works Exos road shoes, which use a genuinely novel construction and some seriously out-of-the-box thinking to hit a remarkable weight target. Indeed, they’re as feathery as they’re claimed to be, and they’re also remarkably comfortable. However, they’re also unlike any other cycling shoe on the market, and you’ll definitely want to try them on before plunking down your credit card.

Back in the early 1990s, I had a pair of decidedly unusual road shoes from Nike called the System Ultra. Carbon fiber wasn’t widely used then, so in an effort to improve rigidity without adding thickness, the fiber-reinforced nylon sole was built with a pronounced beam that ran all the way from the cleat area to the heel (and interestingly enough, that three-bolt cleat area was also perfectly flat and required proprietary cleats).

Up top, things got even weirder.

The uppers were notably lacking in any sort of structure that you normally find in high-performance cycling shoes today, and instead used an airy mesh throughout, strategic panels of non-stretch material, and three Velcro straps. One of which wrapped around the back of your heel to hold that area of your foot in place as there was no conventional heel cup.

The Specialized S-Works Exos is unlike any other road shoe on the market – which is a good or a bad thing, depending on the shape of your foot and how you like your road shoes to feel.

They weren’t the most supportive shoes I’d used, but they were supremely comfy, and I wish I still had them, if only for nostalgic purposes. As it turns out, they were so short-lived (and seemingly quite rare) that an online search for images only turned up someone’s eBay auction.

Specialized’s new S-Works Exos shoes are obviously very different from those old Nikes, but I couldn’t help but think back to those shoes as I was going through this review process, because they’re similarly wacky.

Much like the System Ultra, there’s no hard plastic heel cup to be found here. Up front, the entire toe box area is enveloped by a layer of stretchy material borrowed from the separate lace cover that Specialized once included with its S-Works Sub6 lace-up shoes. In the middle are multiple layers of non-stretch Dyneema fabric, plus a single center-mounted Boa IP1 two-way micro-adjustable dial that tightens up an unusually short tongue area.

Unlike other S-Works shoes of late, the Exos has no hard plastic heel cup – either external or internal. In fact, there’s barely any structure to the shoe at all, either in that area or elsewhere.

Down below is a lightened version of the carbon fiber plate that Specialized uses for its S-Works 7 shoe, with four giant holes along the outer edge to shave precious grams, titanium inserts for the three-hole cleat area, and a pared-down tread around the toe area (the replaceable heel pad is shared with the S-Works 7).

Even the Body Geometry footbed is lighter than usual, boasting the same shaping as standard Body Geometry insoles, but made with a lower-density foam.

As expected, all that gram-shaving adds up big-time. Specialized claims that a pair of size 42 S-Works Exos shoes tips the scales at a scant 300g. Actual weight for my size 43 samples? Bang-on at 315g. For the sake of reference, a comparable pair of Specialized S-Works Sub6 shoes comes in at 348g, and Giro’s feathery Prolight Techlace is just a single gram heavier at 316g.

Retail price is a heady US$500 / AU$600 / £450.

So weird, but mostly in a good way

Even when just pulling the S-Works Exos shoes out of the box, they immediately come across as… unusual. Without the structure that you normally find in more conventional road shoes, they look rather wrinkly, and the Dyneema center section almost feels like paper in your hands. You can squish them flat like a pair of ballet slippers.

But it’s also impossible not to notice how light they feel when you pick them up.

The toe box area is radically stretchy, which feels weird at first, but is supremely comfortable out on the road.

Getting them on your feet is somewhat different than usual, too. The heel area wants to just crumple under pressure — hence the little pull tab on the back to facilitate the process — and since the throat of the shoe is shorter than typical, it’s a little harder to get your foot into the S-Works Exos in general. The instant-release function on the Boa IP1 dial helps immensely, but as I said in my review of the S-Works Sub6 lace-ups, I once again feel like Specialized missed a grand marketing opportunity by not including a branded shoehorn (made of FACT carbon fiber, natch).

But once they were on, I’m not sure I’ve ever worn a pair of cycling shoes that were so damned comfy. The stretchy toe box, in particular, is a revelation. So you say your forefoot is more squared-off or wider than how road cycling shoes are usually shaped? Or you’ve got some problematic bunions, maybe? Your prayers have been answered, at least as far as that aspect of life is concerned.

Previous complaints that the plastic heel cups on Specialized’s S-Works 7 and 6 generations are too aggressively shaped can be cast aside as well, seeing as how there’s no heel cup at all. Narrow heel, wide heel, bone spurs, whatever — with no hard points back there, there’s simply nothing to potentially irritate sensitive areas.

Specialized builds the middle part of the shoe with high-tech Dyneema fabric, which is paper-thin, yet extremely resistant to stretch. It’s not unlike paper in some ways, though, so it’s very difficult to completely eliminate wrinkling in something this complex in shape.

Naturally, Specialized’s usual Body Geometry features are still present and accounted for, such as the generous arch support built into the carbon sole, the varus wedge that cants your foot slightly outward, and the subtle bump in the insole that supposedly keeps your toes from falling asleep. As always, whether those features work for you is a matter of personal preference, but given how many shoes Specialized has sold to date with all of these items included, they at least seem to be working for most people.

Pedaling away

How a cycling shoe feels in your living room and how it feels while riding are often two different things, but it’s mostly good news here.

The shoes’ Dyneema center section does a surprisingly good job of holding that area tight, and the well-shaped upper wraps evenly around my feet. The lack of structure results in some unsightly wrinkling up around the front of toe box, but there’s no wrinkling elsewhere that might otherwise indicate a sloppy fit. Overall, there’s a general sensation that there’s nothing on your feet, and my hunch is that it has far more to do with this light-handed hold and the wispiness of the upper materials than the shoes’ actual weight. The strategically placed padding around the edges of the ankle opening and in the tongue does an admirable job of providing a bit of additional coddling comfort, too.

Could this shoe have been constructed without Dyneema? My hunch is yes, but it likely would have ended up feeling pretty different.

Despite having all of those extra holes in the sole, I also didn’t notice any difference in stiffness relative to the S-Works 7 (or the S-Works 6, for that matter). The platform feels as solid as ever, and anyone worried about flex should cast those concerns aside.

What I did notice, however, is how all that minimalist construction makes for a supremely airy shoe; seriously, nearly the entire upper is practically transparent. In fact, Specialized should almost consider pitching these as a hot-weather shoe rather than a lightweight one, as never have my feet been so cold in such moderate temperatures. I honestly have yet to wear these on a truly hot day, but when that day comes, these will absolutely be the first shoes I reach for.

Ok, so these are starting to sound like super shoes, no? Not so fast.

There’s only the slightest bit of structural reinforcement around the front of the toe box. As a result, there’s bound to be some wrinkling of the fabric.

Specialized footwear design director Rob Cook mentioned to me shortly after the shoe’s debut in February that the development timeline on this model was actually delayed by a full year, purely because of how many additional prototypes had to be made (and tested) compared to a more typical shoe. Without a heel cup, and without any additional structure elsewhere in the shoe, it was far more important to get the shape right.

But the light feel that results definitely isn’t going to be universally satisfying, and I, for one, found myself missing that aggressive plastic heel cup found elsewhere in Specialized’s S-Works road range. The stretchy toe box didn’t bother me one bit — and in fact, I’d like to see the concept expanded — but I often found myself wishing for more stability out back.

Without a structure to help hold my heel in place, I ended up cranking down on the Boa dial more than I would have preferred in an effort to lock down the rear of my foot. However, this just ended up placing more pressure on the top of my foot instead of improving the heel hold. This issue will undoubtedly be exacerbated for people with narrower heels (and I’d put myself in that category); riders with medium-to-larger heels might not have the same issue, as the volume of the rear of the shoe might suit their anatomy better.

“It feels like you’re riding flats with one of those PowerStraps over the top of your Vans,” said CyclingTips editor-in-chief Caley Fretz. “Your toes wiggle around, and your heel doesn’t feel all that secure, but the middle of your foot is locked in. That feeling is not necessarily a terrible thing, but it’s just very different from any shoe I’ve worn before.” Caley has a narrow heel and also ended up cranking down on the Boa more than he’d have liked, which he says put too much pressure across the middle of his foot.

Specialized didn’t pare weight at all cost, mind you. There’s still some high-density foam padding around the edges of the ankle opening, as well as in the tongue.

Riders with particularly wide or high-volume feet will also want to note that the transition between the stretchy toe box area and non-stretch Dyneema midsection offers one potential pinch point. Up front, it’s so accommodating that you can almost go down a half-size, and in the midsection, you can easily adjust things with the Boa dial. But right at that transition, the overall girth of the shoe is fixed, and if it doesn’t work for you, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Finally, I have some serious reservations about the long-term durability of these things. That stretchy toe box is fantastic for comfort, but the material feels pretty fragile, and there’s only the slightest bit of reinforcement around the forward edge. Got toe overlap on your bike? Look elsewhere.

I’m also not down with Specialized’s decision to pare down the tread at the toe. I understand the desire to shave grams, but let’s get real here; most of the people wearing these will be paying for them with their own money, not getting them for free in a sponsorship deal. And while it’s nice that the heel tread is still replaceable, my test sample is already showing wear where the forward edges of the carbon sole are exposed. Given the premium price tag associated with these, it’d be nice to see some effort paid to making them last longer.

Mixed opinions

Let me state for the record that Specialized shoes are generally some of my favorites: they fit me well, the Body Geometry features suit me, and I usually find them to be very comfortable and supportive for long rides. Currently, my go-to pair is an older set of white S-Works Sub6 lace-ups that I’ll be nursing for as long as possible.

But all that said, neither Caley nor I could quite fall in love with these. Riders looking to shave every last gram, or are specifically looking for an ultralight feel, will find an awful lot to like here. That Specialized managed to provide as much support as it did given the feathery weight is an impressive feat, no doubt.

To be clear, I like these quite a bit. If Specialized can just add a heel cup to these without changing much else, I’ve little doubt that I’d be in love.


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