Specialized S-Works Exos Evo review: the lightest off-road shoe?
Placing them onto the scales my eyes widened and I found myself doing a double-take. These do in fact have a tread and aren’t just a road shoe, right?
The scales read 502 grams for the pair (EU43), making the new Specialized S-Works Exos Evo the lightest SPD off-road shoe I’ve ever used.
And as you’d expect for an S-Works shoe, such paltry weight doesn’t come cheap.
- What: Specialized’s new cross country mountain bike and gravel race shoe that’s said to be the lightest and most comfortable option yet.
- Key features: Same two-bolt SPD carbon sole as the S-Works Recon combined with the feathery material upper of the S-Works Exos.
- Weight: 502 g (pair of EU43).
- Price: US$425 / AU$550
- Highs: Comfortable to the point of often feeling like you’re wearing nothing, stretch zones at toe box, the lightest option out, superb stiffness, decent off-bike grip.
- Lows: Need to be cranked onto foot for a secure hold, lack of heel cup means a loss of stability, rubs the back of my ankle, price.
Achieving such an impressively low weight means removing something, and the S-Works Exos’s defining feature is an upper that lacks any form of rigid or moulded material. In fact, the whole upper, including the heel, can be squished down as if it were a ballet flat.
This upper consists of stretch-resistant and almost paper-like Dyneema fabric stitched and bonded with stretchy material in the toe box. Even the heel cup, or lack thereof, is Dyneema stitched in a way to offer some vertical support. Unworn, the Dyneema portion of the shoe tends to sit in a creased state, and even when cinched onto the foot some creases are still present.
The shoe is tensioned with a single Boa Li2 dial and this sits on top of a well-padded and reinforced tongue.
The pre-existing road version of the S-Works Exos offers a lightened footbed and carbon sole, while the new off-road Exos Evo simply re-uses the feathery footbed and stiff carbon sole of the S-Works Recon. This sole provides a dual-compound rubber tread that’s softer and grippier at the toes and heel, and harder at the pedal surface. The midfoot is covered by rubber, and replaceable toe spikes confirm the racing intentions.
The road version of the S-Works Exos is built super minimalist, but Specialized has beefed up this off-road version somewhat. There’s a lightweight toe bumper, while the lower part of the upper is given a rubber-like TPU coating for increased abrasion resistance.
All up these features lead to the 502 g figure first mentioned, a number that’s the lowest I’ve ever seen for an off-road-focussed SPD shoe. For comparison, a pair of Giro Empire VR90 is about 630 g. Shimano’s S-Phyre XC9 (previous-gen) is 690 g. Rapha’s new Explore Powerweave is 713 g. And Specialized’s own S-Works Recon shoe previously held the low-weight benchmark at 610 g.
Slipping on the Exos Evo
Slipping your feet into the Exos Evo is a unique experience as the shoe wants to crumple with your foot. There’s a small pull tab at the back of the heel, and it’s there for a reason. This isn’t the easiest or fastest shoe to get on, but once you’re in you simply press down the Boa and wind it a few short twists.
What’s immediately obvious is how free my feet feel within the shoe. Never have I worn a pair of racing shoes that feel so non-existent, so open, almost as if I’m just wearing a thick sock.
My feet are rather average in size (to the point that I fit sample-size shoes), if not on the shallower and narrower end of things, and I tend to get on with most standard fit shoes. With the Exos Evos I have wiggle room without needing to use any of the stretchy material around the toe box, and it’s certainly a more generous fit than a snug shoe like the S-Works Recon.
So much to love, but a few steps from perfection
Specialized claims this to be the most comfortable off-road race shoe they’ve ever created. And while I mostly agree with that claim, it greatly depends on how you define comfort.
Sitting around at a cafe? Yep, these are the most comfortable. They almost feel like a well-worn pair of Ugg boots, but they’re not too hot for summer.
Flowing through the woods while holding a tempo pace? Yep, also the most comfortable I’ve experienced from the Big S. That open fit, Body Geometry arch support, extremely low weight and high stiffness all combine to make a shoe that makes me giddy and wanting to tell strangers about my footwear.
What about smashing the pedals as if you want to break your chain? Nope. A shoe with a snug and more restrictive hold is likely to be more comfortable in this case. And I’d want a shoe that doesn’t rub the back of my Achilles when my toes are pointed down.
OK, let me rewind a bit. The Shimano S-Phyre XC9 has been my shoe of choice for cross country and rough gravel riding over the past few years. The Shimanos are not as good as the S-Works Recon for smashing roads and smooth gravel, a shoe that feels as good as a road shoe in these scenarios. But when the terrain turns rough or technical those S-Works Recons have me feeling like I’m locked in and unable to flow with the bike or help steer with the edges of my feet, and that’s why I prefer the Shimanos.
The Exos Evo is quite a contrast to the locked-in S-Works Recon. The shoe itself is just as rigidly and stiffly held to the pedal as the S-Works Recon, but your foot isn’t. The bag-like material surrounds the foot more than it hugs it. The foot almost feels free within, and the upper effectively goes where your knees and ankles go.
At first I wasn’t enamoured with this freedom and could feel my foot sliding as my wheels broke traction or my suspension hit heavy compressions. And then I tightened the shoe. I cranked down on the Boa dials to the point where it felt like they wouldn’t go further and I waited for foot numbness and pain to set in. But amazingly it never did. The well-padded and -reinforced tongue kept me amazingly comfortable, while the increased tightness removed the disheartening sliding feel within.
Off the bike, and despite the lack of a real heel cup, the Exos Evo offers less detectable heel lift than the more rigid S-Works Recon. I believe the reason is simply related to how the Exos’s upper conforms with the foot, while more contained racing shoes tend not to move with you. Add in the rather generous lugs that, while not being the grippiest on the market, do the job, and I didn’t mind being off the bike in these.
And while it’s too early to make conclusions about long-term durability the early impressions are positive. The carbon soles are already quite scratched (normal for an XC race shoe), but despite laying myself down on rocks a couple of times the uppers show no signs of irreversible scuffing. Meanwhile, the tread durability is the same as the S-Works Recon.
So far this all reads like I’ve found a replacement to the faithful Shimano S-Phyres, but unfortunately the Exos Evos carry some notable trade-offs.
That free-as-a-bird fit comes at the expense of stable power delivery. Jumping out of the saddle sees the upper collapse inward with the foot, and there’s no resisting material or heel cup to counter this force.
Likewise, the unrestricted fit of the toe box area equally means there’s nothing holding down the ball of the foot. There’s no means of retention in the area and it contradicts what Specialized’s new S-Works Ares road shoe claims to achieve for beneficial power delivery.
In balance with the shoe’s comfort these negatives aren’t deal-breakers, but unfortunately that material-based heel cup is. I tend to pedal with my toes slightly down and this angle seems to bring the back of the shoe in contact with my Achilles tendon. As I write this I’m aware of the small blisters that have formed, and there’s no obvious way to prevent the shoe from contacting the area. Now, this is certainly a personal issue, one I also had with a pair of S-Works 6s, and while Specialized’s more recent releases seemed to have resolved the issue, it’s sadly back with the Exos Evos.
Impressive but not for everyone
I’ve never ridden an off-road shoe that feels as impossibly non-existent as the S-Works Exos Evo. Minimalist and stiff, these shoes make you feel fast. And yet, all it takes is an all-out sprint or a little too long pedalling with my toes down to become acutely aware of what I’m wearing and what I’m missing.
Much like James Huang concluded in his review of the Exos road shoes, these aren’t going to be for everyone. Those that tend to spin the miles are likely going to love that unrestricted-feeling fit, while those that like to have mini tantrums through their pedals are probably going to miss a shoe that offers an actual heel cup, some retention over the mid-foot, and the stability that such things bring.
And if you do decide that these are SPD (or comparable off-road pedal) nirvana, you’ll still have to accept the price. And judging by how the Exos design hasn’t trickled down through Specialized’s road shoe range, the tech in these featherweight kicks is likely to remain unaffordable to most.