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There was a time when it was very easy to understand the hierarchy of Specialized road shoes: S-Works was the top model, and that was that. The family has grown significantly in recent years, though, with the ultralight S-Works Exos aimed specifically at climbers, and the S-Works Vent targeting riders who struggle to keep their feet cool in hot weather. Both of these are in addition to the standard S-Works 7 model. Now, we have yet a fourth S-Works road variant — the S-Works Ares — designed specifically for sprinters.
[ct_story_highlights]What it is: An S-Works road shoe purpose-built for sprinting, but good for everyone.||Features: A novel strap and upper configuration, dual Boa Li2 dials, unidirectional carbon fiber plate. ||Weight: 514 grams (actual weight, per pair, size 43)||Price: US$425 / AU$575 / £375 / €420||Highs: Remarkably secure and uniform hold, surprisingly comfortable, good weight, excellent arch support.||Lows: Polarizing aesthetics, a bit warm, tricky to keep clean, unproven long-term durability.[/ct_story_highlights]
A growing family
It turns out that we weren’t all that far off with the speculative article we published in 2019 on the “S-Works Sprint” shoe, and the leaked image indeed depicted an earlier prototype of the Ares. But while the original intent never changed — improving how well the rider’s foot is secured to the plate — the end result is obviously very different to where Specialized started.
The core feature of the Ares is its unusual closure design, which is built around Boa’s latest Li2 dials, but with a more circuitous wire path and a novel strap layout.
The main strap is anchored much further back than usual, starting relatively narrow at the heel cup, and then flaring out where the two ends overlap over the instep. The orientation is designed such that it pulls your foot back into the heel cup more than just squashing down on to the underlying plate.
Up front, the forefoot strap is similarly unconventional. Instead of a standard eyestay — the split that runs lengthwise along the top of the foot — what you have on the Ares is more akin to an old-fashioned sandwich wrap, with two overlapping tapered flaps held together by another Boa Li2 dial.
Adding further structure throughout the Ares is a snug-fitting external plastic heel cup — now a characteristic feature of Specialized’s high-end road shoes — and multi-layer laminated straps with a film of non-stretch Dyneema polyethylene fabric hidden in the middle.
The Ares isn’t only about a secure hold, though. Of all the four shoe models that now comprise the S-Works road family, and despite the focus on sprinting, Specialized has also paid a surprising amount of attention to comfort.
Lying underneath this novel strap arrangement is a stretch mesh sockliner. While this is hardly the first time such a setup has been used in a cycling shoe — Mavic uses it in its Comete Ultimate shoes, and my ancient Nike System Ultras from the early 1990s featured a similar concept — it’s fairly common in modern running shoes. The idea is still the same either way, with the sockliner providing a smooth and uniform interface immediately around your foot, and the surrounding straps serving as a sort of exoskeleton.
Together with that arrowhead-like Boa wire path, the straps are also designed to distribute pressure over a far greater area of your foot than usual, while the sockliner design and textile wire guides also eliminate a lot of hard points that might potentially irritate various tendons.
Serving as the foundation for the whole thing is the same unidirectional hollow carbon fiber plate used on the S-Works 7 shoe.
Naturally, Specialized’s long-standing Body Geometry features are still carried over, including the generous arch support incorporated directly into the carbon plate, the 1.5° forefoot varus wedge (that the company has long claimed to improve leg alignment and power transfer for most riders), and a subtle metatarsal button in the insole to keep your forefoot from collapsing under pressure.
Taken all together, Specialized contends that the Ares is “the most efficient and powerful performance shoe ever made,” as well as “the ultimate balance between unprecedented power transfer and all-day comfort.”
The Ares is available in four relatively sedate colors to start (wilder combinations are pending), and in sizes from 36-49, with half sizes from 38-47. Retail price is US$425 / AU$575 / £375 / €420. Actual weight for my sample pair is 514 grams in size 43.
Maybe not what you’re expecting
When you think about efficiently transferring power through a cycling shoe, you’ll probably focus on two things: sole stiffness, and an ironclad hold on your foot. By those measures alone, I wouldn’t say the S-Works Ares immediately comes across like the pinnacle of sprinting footwear when you first put it on. The plate is certainly extremely rigid, but Bont’s carbon bathtub feels more unyielding. And although Specialized says that it “essentially eliminates foot roll within the shoe”, both fellow tech editor Dave Rome and I independently noted that our feet had more freedom to move inside the shoe than we expected based on the marketing materials.
But then again, neither Dave nor I are world-class sprinters, and at least if you go by the opinions of Deceuninck-QuickStep star sprinter Sam Bennett, stiffness isn’t everything.
“The main thing I noticed with my last shoes, and then previous shoes I wore before that, anybody can make a shoe tight around the ankle, and they also seem to focus on keeping that part into the shoe,” he said during a semi-private Zoom video call between Specialized representatives and a small group of media. “But a lot of the time, you’re looking for traction in the shoe and around the ball of the pedal, and that was just something we weren’t really getting from other shoes.
“I found that I had to really claw my toes into the shoe, and [push] them up against the top and bottom of the shoe to really get traction and to get power down to the axle of the pedal.”
In other words, what Bennett suggests is more valuable when sprinting (or for efficient power transfer in general) is not so much sole stiffness or absolute foot stability, but rather restricting movement of the foot inside the shoe in general. When viewed through that lens (and after doing a few more all-out efforts myself), the Ares starts to make more sense.
Coupled with the large surface area of those straps and that clever triangular Boa wire path, the hold on your feet inside the Ares is supremely uniform around your foot just as promised, and not just around the main strap, but also up front where many other shoes can feel a little more spotty. While that provides the secure hold that Bennett so values, what I think will be more applicable to everyday riders is the unexpected level of comfort that goes along with it.
Like most riders, I tend to tighten my road shoes pretty snugly around my heel and instep to more firmly anchor the ankle area, often leaving the forefoot section looser to give my toes some wiggle room, and then snugging everything up as needed on the road. But because the Ares upper shrinks around your foot so evenly, what I’ve found is that I can just tighten everything up right away — to a degree that I’d never consider with other shoes, even my beloved S-Works Sub6 lace-ups — and they’re still cozy hours later.
Interestingly, Specialized says that pressure mapping data collected during the development of the Ares actually showed the hold to be more uniform than lace-ups.
“I did do some laces, not the [S-Works] Sub6, but some mountain bike shoes I have,” said Specialized’s head of human performance, Todd Carver. “Shockingly, the mapping was worse. I thought it was going to be the gold standard, actually.”
Further helping matters in that department is Specialized’s strategic placement of non-stretch and stretch materials. Everything involved with power transfer and foot holding gets that layer of Dyneema material I mentioned earlier. However, the lateral side of the forefoot strap is shaped like a broad-based Y, with the space in between the two arms made of a far more forgiving material, somewhat like what Louis Garneau did with its Air Lite II, but in a less conspicuous manner.
Most people aren’t likely to notice this. But if you have even modest Tailor’s bunions like I do — or any sort of anomaly in that area — having that sort of built-in relief is a godsend. And even if you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll find the Ares to be mighty comfortable, too.
“These are the most comfortable Specialized shoes I’ve ever slipped my feet into,” Dave Rome admitted, “and are perhaps the first shoe I’ve used that could draw me away from my beloved Shimano S-Phyres.”
Keep in mind, though, that while the middle of that Dyneema Y offers an impressively accommodating amount of stretch, that still doesn’t change the overall width of the shoe, and if you need a little more forefoot room outside of that panel, you’re not going to find much.
Either way, there’s even a degree of adjustability to how the main strap holds. If you want to tone things down a little, you can simply slide it slightly further down on your instep as you tighten the Boa dial. However, if you want ultimate hold (and are OK with potential impingement on your extensor tendon), you can pull up higher to more securely lock your heel in place.
“We’ve tried to balance the needs to have a comfortable shoe for the bulk of the racing and also be able to really secure the foot for high-acceleration efforts,” Specialized footwear category director Nick Gosseen told me. “This shoe is a prime example of how we’ve taken the knowledge from building generations of road shoes, and combined it with some more progressive innovations, to come up with something that we feel can benefit a wide range of riding styles and foot shapes.”
Speaking of foot shapes, it’s important to point out that everyone’s feet are different, and what works for me isn’t necessarily what will work for you. While this is always the case given the variations in last shapes between all the different brands, this goes double for Specialized shoes. Those Body Geometry features — the varus wedge, in particular — seem to agree with most people, but they’re not universally beneficial, and in some cases, they can even be counterproductive. The “try before you buy” mantra should certainly be followed here, ideally with some actual pedaling.
As impressive as the new S-Works Ares is so far, keep in mind that Dave and I have only been using them for a couple of weeks each. We haven’t noticed any major issues in that time, but we both see a few areas that give us some pause.
First and foremost, the sockliner design may be a big part of the shoe’s impressive comfort, but we worry how well it’ll hold up over time given that you have to yank on it pretty hard to get your foot inside (a shoehorn is very helpful). The liner’s tight fit also demands a similarly tight-fitting sock to prevent bunching around the heel.
“It feels like I’m reaching its limit each time I put the shoe on, and it’s already begun sitting a little more loosely as a result,” Dave said. “The more I ride the shoes, the less I worry about that last part. Still, a stretchy material isn’t likely to last as long as a more rigid one.”
“After the shoes went through our field testing program, the mesh liner earned our confidence to be durable enough to last the life of the shoe,” Gosseen contends. “We tested with and without the heel tabs and found they weren’t adding as much functionality as we’d hoped.”
Another source of concern is Specialized’s use of textile guides for the Boa wires instead of more durable injection-molded plastic ones. Although that choice reduces the number of hard points on the upper that can potentially concentrate pressure on a rider’s feet, prior experience with other shoes that have used textile guides wasn’t always so rosy. Although it took years, the Boa wires eventually started to saw through the loops, and while the Boa dials and cables are easy to replace, the loops aren’t. Nevertheless, Specialized says our worries are unfounded.
“The thing that’s really hardest on the textile guides is friction, not tension,” said Specialized footwear developer Ashley Sult. “I don’t think we have a lot of friction in our guides while riding, and so I think from what I’ve seen in hundreds of hours [of testing] is that we’re at very low risk of seeing those failures.”
That may be, but there’s one issue that seems like it’ll be a lot harder to overcome. Plenty of road riders prefer white shoes for style reasons (myself included), but anyone falling in that camp also has to admit that it’s awfully hard to keep white shoes clean. And in the case of the S-Works Ares, that’ll be doubly difficult given the fabric sockliner.
“We’ve been geeking out a lot about the knit shoes and knit cleaners, and we found some good success there,” suggested footwear product manager Stephen Quay (Specialized employs a lot of people in its footwear department, if you can’t tell). “There are solvents that can help pull [road grime] out of the mesh, and I’ve actually just done some dish soap and baking soda in a water mixture, and that works wonders.”
Nevertheless, these are clearly going to require even more attention than usual if you like to keep your kicks clean, so choose your color wisely.
Last, but certainly not least, all of that overlapping material has a negative impact on ventilation.
“These shoes don’t breathe well,” Dave said. “They feel hot as a result of the multiple points of material overlap and the fact that the upper extends further up your foot.”
Specialized clearly sees fit to grow the S-Works road shoe family considerably, but doing so also raises the question of how much diversification is really necessary (or useful). The S-Works Exos is genuinely silly-light for climbers concerned with every last gram, and the S-Works Vent is noticeably airier for riding in hot weather. But in my opinion, the lines get a little fuzzier between the standard S-Works 7 and this new Ares.
True, the standard S-Works is a bit lighter, at 478 grams vs. 514 grams for my sample set of Ares. Without a doubt, the Ares also sports a far more avant garde appearance that not everyone will like (and the giant S-Works logos don’t exactly help).
That said, the Ares is a fantastic shoe, but just like how bike categories are getting split into increasingly small segments, it calls into question the need for so many top-end models from the same brand. After all, the Ares unquestionably offers the best hold of all the S-Works models, but it’s simultaneously nearly as comfy as the Exos, is only marginally heavier than the standard S-Works 7, and while anything but bargain-priced, it’s only very slightly more expensive than the S-Works 7.
At least in my opinion, the Ares strikes me as the best overall of the quartet for performance-minded riders, and given that unusual combination of an ironclad hold with a coddling feel, there’s a good chance it’ll become my new go-to. But in the grand scheme of things, what I really hope for is that several of the key features on the Ares will make their way downstream into more realistically priced models in the Specialized range, such as the Torch family (and I can’t help but wonder what this would feel like if the upper were paired with the S-Works Vent’s cutout carbon plate).
It also seems safe to say that certain elements of the Ares will end up in shoes for other disciplines, such as gravel and mountain bike.
Nevertheless, can you imagine a shoe that holds nearly as well as the Ares and is similarly comfortable, but is maybe not quite as stiff, is a bit heavier, and costs half as much? Now we’re talking. But if you’ve got the coin, this new Ares is awfully good.
For more information, visit www.specialized.com.