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Gravel is an “experience.” At least, that’s how Specialized defines it when you are searching its website for a shoe to ride for those long, dusty miles. I actually tend to agree — gravel has become a catchall for any riding that is not exclusively on pavement or singletrack, and this often includes cobbling together routes on myriad surfaces. As someone who lives in a place where the paved roads are busy and the best mountain biking requires driving to a trailhead, I can craft epic gravel adventures from my doorstep. Aside from the bike, shoes are probably the most important gear choice I make for my gravel “experiences,” and I have landed on the best tool for the job: The Specialized S-Works Recon Mountain Bike Shoe.
What I love: The BOA dial system on the Recon is the smoothest BOA set-up I’ve experienced in a pair of cycling shoes. Now that BOA is the norm, it’s easy to compare. While some BOA dials require you to pull up in order to release them (and then tug at the stubborn laces to loosen them), the Recon’s BOA S3-Snap dials twist and turn seamlessly. Forward clicks tighten the shoe and they can be backed off by turning the dial the other way. If you want, you can unloop the laces from the retainer on the other side of the tongue to make it even easier to get in and out of the shoes.
The BOA system gets the majority of the credit for the snug yet flexible feel of the shoe, but it’s worth mentioning the wide, padded tongue and the spacious toe box’s contribution to keeping my feet planted to the insole. Couple that with the ridiculously stiff carbon fiber sole, and my feet feel like rocketships on the pedals.
Unless I’m cramming on a work deadline or beat-up from the weekend, my gravel rides tend toward the 3-4 hour range and include a mix of pavement, dirt road, and singletrack; there’s usually more than 2,500 feet of climbing involved, as well. Performance-wise, the S-Works Recon works supremely well in all of the places, for all of the distances. My feet feel well-supported, not suffocated, and the power transfer to the pedal never falters, whether I’m on a flat road, rutty doubletrack, or steep-AF dirt climb. I have, however, tried to take the shoe somewhere that it definitely does not want to go.
What bugs me: I can’t hike-a-bike in them.
Yes, the shoes have rubber heel and toe tread made from the company’s SlipNot material, but when I had to hike on slabs or loose rock, I slipped. A lot. The same stiff carbon sole that so effectively transfers power on the pedals does not like to hike up or down questionable rock gardens.
Can I walk into a cafe or brewery in the Recon? No problem. Along a firmly-packed dirt road? Of course. But once the terrain gets loose or rocky, the Recon gets sketchy. For being so pro at the rest of the gravel “experience,” I wish the Recon could handle being off the bike a bit better.