Specialized S-Works Vent shoe review: Airy like Exos, with fewer compromises

These things should come with shoe covers and a warning.

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Specialized’s range of S-Works road shoes has quadrupled in recent years, and you would be forgiven for being a little confused. If you’re a powerful sprinter, you’ve got the S-Works Ares with its ironclad hold. Looking for the ultimate in low weight? Then the S-Works Exos is for you. If you want one road shoe for everything, the standard S-Works 7 is your answer. But if you’re after the best breathability, the S-Works Vent would be the top choice.

[ct_story_highlights]What it is:The summer-specific version of Specialized’s S-Works road shoe family.||Primary features:Ventilated carbon fiber sole, mesh-infused microfiber upper, Dyneema non-stretch reinforcement, dual Boa S3-Snap closures, external heel cup and toe cap, integrated arch support and forefoot wedge.||Weight:498 g (actual weight, per pair, size 43)||Price: US$425 / AU$575 / £399 / €409||Highs:Exceptionally airy yet still highly supportive, slick-looking aluminum Boa dials, low weight, and excellent stiffness.||Lows:Really only ideal for very hot conditions, less compromised than the Exos but still less structured than the standard S-Works 7, white color option won’t look shiny and new for long, very expensive.[/ct_story_highlights]

The S-Works Vent isn’t fundamentally changed from the standard S-Works version, although there are a number of key differences that are specifically geared toward keeping you comfortable in hot and steamy weather. 

Starting down below, the carbon plate features a dramatically open architecture. Instead of just a single small opening under the front of the toes, there’s a rather large one, plus similarly generous ports underneath your pinky toe and down the middle of your foot. What once was solid carbon fiber is now just a thin layer of mesh, and the included insole is fully perforated to make sure all that incoming air actually has somewhere to go, too.

Up top, the standard S-Works 7’s perforated microfiber is similarly replaced by big swaths of open mesh all around the toe box, in the tongue, and along the inner side of the shoe. There’s also a plastic external toe cap with two more mesh vents, and even the lining of the shoe is made of mesh instead of the S-Works 7’s more durable synthetic leather. 

Otherwise, the fit of the two shoes is identical, as is the dual Boa S3-Snap dial closure system (with an additional Velcro strap up front), the tight-fitting external plastic heel cup, and all of the usual Specialized Body Geometry features (including arch support built directly into the carbon plate, the built-in forefoot wedge, and the raised metatarsal button on the insole). 

Whereas the standard S-Works 7 upper is almost entirely perforated microfiber, the S-Works Vent incorporates an awful lot of mesh.

Actual weight is 498 g for my size 43 test pair — 20 g heavier than the standard S-Works 7. Retail price is roughly on par with other S-Works models, though, at US$425 / AU$575 / £399 / €409.

Almost too airy

True to claims, these things are seriously well ventilated. On one test ride in particular, with temperatures hovering around 36 °C (97 °F) and moderate humidity, pretty much every part of my body felt uncomfortably hot — except for my feet.

The mesh is so open that you can constantly feel air moving across your skin, and worrying about your feet getting sweaty is simply a non-issue. The ports in the plastic toe cap are particularly effective given that I could actually feel air blowing in between my toes. In fact, the airflow is so effective that I’d argue Specialized should include a pair of shoe covers (or toe covers, at least) since it’d be so easy for your feet to get cold if it’s even moderately cool outside.

The plastic cap is required to help the toe box keep its shape given all the mesh used in this area. It’s also easy to clean if you have toe overlap and occasionally rub against the tire.

Quite impressively, Specialized hasn’t omitted much relative to the standard S-Works 7 to get the S-Works Vent to this point. 

The heel fit is still the best in the business — at least in my opinion — with not a hint of unwanted movement, the uppers are snug and secure through the midsection, arch support is outstanding, and there’s a lot of room in the toe box for your little piggies to wiggle around. The overall width is pretty average, however, and while I still sometimes wish for a more squared-off toe box (as used by Bont), what Specialized uses here is at least much less tapered than what you find in a lot of Italian brands. And while the toe box shape is the same as usual, there’s still effectively a bit more room since the mesh in that area is so accommodating.

The Swiss cheese-like carbon plate doesn’t feel any less stiff, either, despite Specialized giving the Vent carbon sole a 13 rating on its stiffness index, as compared to the standard S-Works road shoe’s 15. 

The carbon plate is dramatically cut away to help pull air in underneath your foot. Although Specialized rates the stiffness of this plate at 13 instead of the standard S-Works 7’s 15, it’s unlikely anyone will really feel any difference.

I wouldn’t say the S-Works Vent doesn’t make any compromises at all, though. Although Specialized still infuses a layer of non-stretch Dyneema in the midsection to combat stretch, there’s less of it than usual and that area just doesn’t feel quite as structured. That’s unlikely to be a concern for general road riding, but sprinters and riders who generally prefer a particularly locked-in feel might want something more substantial. 

There’s also the matter of how well this mesh will hold up over the long term. Generally speaking, I haven’t found the sort of mesh used in the uppers to wear unusually quickly. Keeping them clean is another matter entirely, though, and if you’re the type of rider who isn’t afraid of the occasion hike-a-bike in road shoes to get to a particularly sweet section of terrain, keep in mind that even the most innocuous-looking pebble is apt to punch right through the mesh used in the carbon sole. On that note, consider that Specialized pared down the size of the tread in the toe area, too.

That mesh up front also results in more wrinkling around the toe box, depending on how your feet are shaped and how you tighten your shoes. This isn’t a functional issue, of course, but some folks might find it off-putting regardless.

The machined aluminum knobs of the Boa S3-Snap closure dials look neat, but I’d still prefer Boa’s Li2 dial with its pull-to-release function.

On the plus side, the S-Works Vent’s external plastic toe cap is easier to keep clean and less prone to scuffing than the bare microfiber material used in the standard S-Works 7 if your bike has toe overlap. And while Specialized doesn’t offer the Vent in nearly as many colors as the S-Works 7, there’s at least a black option if you don’t want to worry about your shoes looking ratty after a few months of use.

And this last complaint isn’t a big one, but it does apply to the S-Works range in general.

The Boa S3-Snap closures that Specialized uses look fantastic with their machined aluminum dials, they’re exceptionally grippy (even when your fingers are wet), and the dual-direction micro-adjustability holds firm. I still miss the pull-the-release function that’s included in other Boa dials, though.

A niche item, but a superb option if that niche is you

A few other shoes came to mind when I was testing the S-Works Vent in terms of how well they keep your feet cool in the heat: the Specialized S-Works Exos, the Giro Imperial, and the Fizik Vento Powerstrap R2 Aeroweave

Of that bunch, the Exos is clearly the climber’s special with a barely-there upper and the most minimalist feel. The Fiziks? They’re another top choice in ultra-hot weather with a little more structure, although the woven material is arguably too coarse if you’ve got sensitive feet. As for the Giros, I’d say those fall somewhere in between the Exos and these Vents in terms of support, with a softer upper and a gentler hold around the heel, and a lot less built-in arch support. 

Specialized’s external heel cup provides one of the firmest holds in the business.

Ultimately, which of those is best for you will depend on which ones fit your particular foot shape the best. Either way, all of these strike me as filling a rather narrow niche. Then again, foot comfort goes a long way if you live in an area where it can get so hot that your neighbors are frying eggs on the sidewalk. 

None of these shoes — the S-Works Vent included — are ideal for year-round use if you live in a more temperate region, but as the saying goes, if the shoe fits, wear it.

For more information, visit www.specialized.com.

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