Specialized S-Works Ares Review: Discover the best
No matter your riding style the Specialized S-Works Ares is an amazing shoe.
This isn’t the first review of the Specialized S-Works Ares shoes. If you’ve read anything else about them you’ve likely seen them referred to as the sprinters shoe from Specialized. That’s a misconception though. The Specialized S-Works Ares shoes are actually the best shoes for most people and my favorite shoes ever.
Let me start by saying that I am not a sprinter. I’m lightweight and I sometimes spend my time climbing mountains and often spend my time seeing how far I can ride. At the height of summer fitness 150 miles is a long but not especially scary day. My real passion these days is seeing how many days in a row I can do 150 miles or more and where that can take me. If things go the way I hope they do this summer will see me travel across a state and maybe even come back the day after I arrive.
I’m not trying to brag here. This is what I find exciting to do on my bike and I’m lucky enough to be able to spend time exploring if I can physically do it. The point is that if you had told me that a pair of sprinters shoes would be my all-time favorite shoes, I’d have laughed at you. It’s as much of a surprise to me as anyone else that the Specialized S-Works Ares shoes are so amazing.
The main feature, in terms, of the construction is what I would consider a mesh sock. The Specialized S-Works Ares does not open up. Instead, there’s a soft and stretchy mesh material that almost feels like neoprene where you would typically find the tongue of a shoe. It’s a fitted feel, very much like a sock, and getting into it is a little bit of a chore.
Combined with this mesh section you’ll find a variety of Dyneema panels. As you move away from the top of your foot, and the center of the shoe, the fabric transitions from the mesh to the Dyneema. It’s the Dyneema that actually attaches to the ultra-stiff fully carbon sole. At the front of the shoe is a rubberized toe cap that should protect from toe overlap. At the rear of the shoe is a stiff plastic heel cup.
On the inside of the heel cup is a system Specialized refers to as the PadLock. Marketing copy says it’s proven to improve acceleration but what’s important is that it’s a cushion that locks your heel into the shoe. The entire arrangement feels totally comfortable.
As you move back up from the sole there’s a second layer of Dyneema panels that wrap around the shoe from both sides. The lower part of the shoe features a panel on either side at about the area where your toes meet your foot. These two panels form a connection with a BOA Li2 dial and hold the lower section of your foot.
Just above that lower closure is the beginning of the upper closure. On the inside of the shoe is a loop through which part of the BOA cable runs. Higher up the shoe there’s a pair of Dyneema panels with the actual BOA dial and another connection for the cable. The arrangement spreads an already spread-out tightening system so that it covers most of your foot. There are no hot spots and there’s also no need for more than the two BOA dials.
All the fancy construction aside it’s the ride that matters. It’s also the ride where the Specialized S-Works Ares shoes rise above everything else. Yes, the billing here is as a sprinters shoe but don’t expect anything crazy stiff. The Rapha shoes I reviewed last year are a much stiffer feeling shoe. Instead, the Specialized S-Works Ares use stiffness as a supporting feature.
Some shoes, like the Rapha Proteam Shoes, are a little bit one note. Stiffness is the defining characteristic. For some people that’s fantastic but for me I find it unnecessary in almost every scenario I find myself. The Specialized take on stiffness feels a lot better. There’s no doubt that the Ares is a stiff shoe. There’s no scenario in which I have ever detected any flex. Racing up the Alpe in Zwift is about as hard as I ever push a shoe and even in a scenario like that there’s no movement. The great thing about these shoes though is that the stiffness takes a back seat.
Instead of the stiffness, the primary sensation in the Ares is one of compression. The way a good set of bibshorts feels compressive is a great example of what I mean. There’s no specific area of pressure, just an overall solid, compressed feeling. It’s a bit overused to say they feel like an extension of my foot but that’s what they feel like. It’s not something I include in other reviews because it’s not something I expect is possible. Specialized nailed it.
Some of the details of how the feeling of compression comes together do deserve comment. The first thing of note is the fit. I wear a 9.5 in a street shoe. For cycling shoes my size is: Fizik 43, Bontrager 43, Shimano 44, Rapha 43.5, Giro 43, and for Specialized I needed to go up to a 43.5. I landed on 43.5 after having to send back a 43 despite the sizing charts listing a 43 as being the same length as the Fizik 43. They aren’t the same and even a 43.5 is tighter than I sometimes wear other shoes. In the case of the Specialized S-Works Ares I’m really happy with that tighter fit. The toe box is almost square and my feet feel great in a shoe that actually fits perfectly.
The other detail that makes things work is the BOA closure system. I’m a fan of the BOA system because of how precise it is. For the Ares the BOA system goes beyond convenience. It feels like the shoe design integrates the BOA dials in a way that is unusual. A lot of great shoes could switch to a different closure method and wouldn’t lose much.
The Specialized S-Works Ares is already kind of a challenge to get into. It’s a side effect of what makes the design great but if paired with a less convenient closure it would be too much. The BOA dials pull to release and at that point the whole top of the shoe can be completely opened without any trouble. It makes the whole shoe work. Of course, as is normally the case, once riding the BOA system means it’s easy to make precise adjustments to fit without stopping. That part isn’t unusual but it’s no less of a joy.
With an MSRP of $425 the Specialized S-Works Ares falls in amongst the pack. Top of the line cycling shoes from every company fall right around the $400 mark and the Ares is right there. There’s a few that are more expensive and there are a few that are less but $425 is pretty standard.
Value isn’t just about the bottom-line price. Of all the shoes I’ve tried at right around this price these are my favorite. That’s worth something but they also have some of the features I always like to see that help with a long usable life. The BOA system carries a lifetime warranty so if you ever have an issue BOA will help you out. There’s also a replaceable heel tread. In most cases though the first thing that ruins a pair of nice shoes is toe overlap. Specialized has done a great job protecting the toe of the shoe and that little bit of design thoughtfulness should help keep you riding in these.
If you are wanting top of the line road cycling shoes these should be on the short list.
The Specialized S-Works Ares might carry a sprinters shoe label but you can mostly ignore that. They are a little heavier than some of my favorite lightweight climbers shoes but they don’t feel heavy. I went to look at how they compare to the Giro Prolight Techlace and the Fizik Vento Powerstrap R2 Aeroweave while writing this section. I expected they would be as light as those shoes and when they weren’t, I was genuinely surprised. Despite not being the absolute lightest these are not a heavy pair of shoes. If you like a light shoe it’s a good choice.
The wide toe box and exceptional breathability also makes them a good choice for long distance riding. The outside of the shoe lacks a lot of the structure that can get in the way of breathability. There’s plenty of permeability for air. Combined with the lack of movement separate from your foot, and the room for your toes, I can’t wait to do long rides in these.
At the same time, if you want a super stiff sprinters shoe the Ares is an easy slam dunk in that role. I barely commented on that because that’s not what I need but I’m not discounting it.
Bottom line, I have a stack of shoes to choose from and these are the ones I’ve been grabbing for every ride.