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A battle of the Big S’. While these two mega-companies typically work closely together, they’re direct competitors when it comes to footwear. And with both companies recently launching new premium performance off-road shoes pitched at cross country, cyclocross and gravel racers, it was time to pit the two against one another.
Both Shimano’s S-Phyre XC901 and Specialized’s S-Works Recon look fairly similar on paper, but as James Huang and myself have concluded independently of one another, there’s a whole lot to separate them.
Both the Shimano S-Phyre XC901 and S-Works Recon are the latest performance off-road shoes from their respective companies. Look to the professional riders using either brand in gravel, cyclocross or cross country disciplines, and you’ll find these shoes in use. For example, Mathieu van der Poel races in the S-Phyre XC901 for both CX and XC, whereas Annika Langvad and Jaroslav Kulhavy will be found wearing the S-Works Recon in upcoming (and past!) XC World Cups.
- What: Pro-level cross-country, gravel and cyclocross shoes. For use with two-bolt SPD-style cleats.
Shimano S-Phyre XC9 (XC901)
- Price: US$425/AU$500
- Weight: 690g (EU43)
- Highs: All-day comfort, stellar off-bike-traction, easy to take on and off.
- Lows: Loose feeling fit, some off-plane rocking at cleat.
- Specialized S-Works Recon
- Price: US$400/AU$449
- Weight: 610g (EU43)
- Highs: Stability and efficiency matching road pedal systems, weight.
- Lows: Hard and slick tread, tongue pinches.
Both shoes are effectively modified and more rugged versions of their respective road counterparts, the Shimano S-Phyre RC9 and Specialized S-Works 7. The soles suit SPD-style two-bolt cleats, and tread surrounds for pedal support and traction off the bike.
Both shoes feature carbon soles with the highest grade of stiffness offered in each company’s off-road range. Both feature dual-Boa closures, too – although the S-Works adds a Velcro strap at the toe box. And both shoes come with a hefty price tag — US$425/AU$500 for the S-Phyre XC9 and US$400/AU$449 for the S-Works Recon.
And that’s about all these two have in common.
Both may feature Boas, but they’re different. Shimano equips the widely used IP1, a plastic system that offers dual-direction micro adjustment and a fast release by pulling up on the dial.
Specialized has exclusive use of a new, aluminium system – it’ll certainly take a heavier hit than plastic, but it also lacks a quick release function. Instead, Specialized makes it easy to release the wire loop, for faster entry and exit from the shoe. Still, the Shimanos are faster to get in and out of.
Weight-wise, the S-Phyre XC901 shoes sit at 690g (inner soles alone are 34g), while the S-Works Recon are a more impressive 610g (inner soles: 24g).
Traditionally speaking, Shimano and Specialized shoes fit similarly and work with a wide range of foot shapes. Both James and I tested the regular widths of each model, however, there are wide versions offered in each.
The Shimanos are certainly more forgiving in fit though. With a wider fit across the foot, the Shimanos simply provide more wiggle room. Toe box width is a little wider, the toes taper a little less, and the heel cup is more relaxed.
By contrast, the Recon aims to lock your foot into the shoe. A deep, surrounding heel cup holds the back of the foot extremely snug. Thankfully it’s not quite as extreme as the old S-Works 6 — those gave me blisters due to their aggressive heel hold.
The Specialized’s toe box is shallower, and the Velcro strap can be used to make it narrower, too. And then the tongue design works to pull the foot down and firmly against the angular innersole.
Both James and I experienced some pinching from the Specialized’s tongue design, only noticeable when dropping your heels or when walking. No such issues were experienced with the Shimanos.
The two companies take different strategies for their innersoles. Shimano provides a footbed with a Velcro-based, interchangeable wedge support. Three wedge heights are provided. Specialized uses lighter inserts, with more aggressively supportive versions available aftermarket at a fair price. Much like the rest of the fit, the Specialized is somewhat more polarising, but certainly more supportive if it fits.
SPD shoes typically offer more fore-aft cleat adjustment than road systems, and the S-Phyres are not lacking in this department. However, the S-Works take it to another level — you’re certainly unlikely to ever need the extremes of the available adjustment range.
Both of these shoes are unquestionably stiff and efficient when spinning circles, but the Specializeds offer something else.
Simply, I’ve never had a mountain bike pedal system feel more like a road system than when using the S-Works’. It’s a seriously awesome feeling when stamping on the pedals.
Part of that is the S-Works’ more rigid hold of the foot. You’re really locked into that heel cup, and the whole shoe prevents the foot from collapsing under load. It’s such a tight fit in fact, that you almost need to slide your foot forward when taking the shoe off.
Another aspect is Specialized patented Body Geometry sole, which puts the whole sole on a cant in relation to the pedal. While it’s not for everyone, James and I find it provides a more efficient feel to the downstroke in seated pedalling. By contrast, Shimano — and just about everyone else — keeps things flatter, and aims to achieve a similar slope through raising your arches.
While road pedal systems use a large cleat to provide off-plane stability, mountain bike systems often use the shoe tread that surrounds the cleat. Somewhat unexpectedly, the Specializeds are better here too.
Partly due to Specialized’s use of a harder tread, and likely also related to the tread height, the S-Works interact with pedals systems far more snuggly. In fact, there’s no discernible off-plane wiggle when used with Shimano SPD pedals. Ironically, you do feel a little of that movement when combining Shimano SPD pedals and the XC901s.
The previously mentioned pinching on the S-Works only happens when you exaggerate dropping the heel. Here a slightly uncomfortable pinch is felt above the tongue, but after a few rides, I was all but forgetting the issue.
And finally, while both shoes offer impressively low stack heights (effectively the height of the shoe’s sole), it’s Specialized’s that pulls ahead and at least in theory, offers a better controlled lever between the pedal and the knee. The Specialized Recon’s are quoted at 5.5mm versus Shimano’s 5.9mm figure for the XC9.
The Shimanos still feel like a premium performance shoe in every sense, but do so with a little more freedom in foot movement. The heel is also similarly more relaxed but still resists heel slip well.
The Walking (or running)
Walking and running in the Specializeds isn’t as nice as in the Shimanos. Shimano’s Michelin-branded rubber tread offers better traction on both hard and sick surfaces. Such is the difference, that the S-Works can even feel slick walking on clean tiles, while the Shimano’s tackier nature provides a confident step.
Similarly, the more forgiving fit and lack of tongue-pinching from the Shimanos makes them more comfortable for extended hike-a-bike sections, steep run-ups and especially when climbing down things.
On the flip side, neither shoes offers replaceable tread, and the harder and blockier construction of the S-Works will be more durable. Still, I put my previous XC9 shoes through hell, and while other parts of the shoe didn’t fare so well, the tread remains intact.
Both shoes are compatible with toe spikes, however, out of the box, they’re fitted with plastic nubs. This will be a worthy upgrade with either shoe if you’re racing cross.
For my flat feet and fussy, bony ankles, the Shimanos were simply more comfortable. And with most things you wear, comfort should take precedence over all else.
Both of these shoes proved great for their intended purposes and depending on what feel and fit you desire, you can’t go wrong with either.
If you’re after a road pedal-like feel out of a mountain bike pedal system, I’d argue there’s no finer choice than the S-Works Recon. For example, if I were racing gravel with rare off-the-bike sections, I’d choose the crazily-efficient-feeling S-Works.
Most of James’ Boulder-based gravel riding meets that description, and so his preference is for the Recon. “They feel more like a road shoe, but with just enough tread for me to amble about if needed, and SPD compatibility so I don’t have to worry about mud.”
My rides often involve exploring gravel roads and technical cross-country jaunts, so the Shimanos’ comfort and unquestionably better off-bike-traction win out. I’ll take the Shimanos, thanks.