Rapha Explore vs Specialized S-Works Recon Lace – two of the best gravel shoes around, but which is best?

Rapha and Specialized gravel shoes next to each other on gravel
The Rapha and Specialized shoes are both premium gravel shoes, but which is best? (Image credit: Paul Brett)

For two years the Rapha Explore has worn the crown as the top overall shoe in our best gravel shoes guide. The Specialized S-Works Recon shoe comes a close second though, and its latest Recon ADV gravel shoe also scored well in our review.

With the Rapha shoe being a laced offering, I decided to pitch it against the very similar Specialized Recon S-Works Lace shoe to see if the king can be dethroned and find out which of these fairly equally priced, high-end gravel shoes is the best.

The Specialized S-Works Recon Lace has an RRP of $325.00 / £300.00 / €330.00, while the Rapha Explore comes in at a marginally cheaper $315.00 / £245.00 / €280.00. Although it’s worth pointing out there are plenty of deals on both shoes, and I’ve added them below.

Rapha and Specialized gravel shoes front on view next to each other on gravel

Both shoes have a stylish gravel vibe and a load of performance features (Image credit: Paul Brett)

1. Fit and comfort

Both shoes fit my feet true to size, which was 43 EU (US 9.5, UK 9). In the original review of the Rapha Explore shoes, tester, Dean Hersey, noted that they had required a breaking-in period before they became increasingly more comfortable to wear. However, straight out of the box I found them to be one of the best-fitting and comfortable cycling shoes I've worn, and they needed no breaking-in. They didn't get an easy ride either, the first test being a hard-going gravel ride of around 60 km with a ton of climbing thrown in. It was also a very hot day and the perforated microfiber upper on the Explore doing the job perfectly well in keeping my feet comfortable and sweat-free.

The fit on the S-Works Recon is equally good, offering plenty of comfort and cooling. The shoe felt noticeably tougher (which I put down to the Dyneema material they are made from), so they needed some ride time to soften them up, but didn't make them uncomfortable or detract from the overall quality feel. The Specialized shoe also benefits from what the brand calls 'Body Geometry' with the insole designed to reduce hot spots and numbness and give better knee and hip alignment.

The lace closure might not be for everyone but I found it performed brilliantly on both models, giving a secure and tight feeling around the feet. Out of the two I preferred the look of the laces on the Recon with nice S-Works detailing and brass eyelets that complement the aesthetic. The Velcro strap on the Explore is also fairly redundant and I found it didn't make much difference to the fit.

Both shoes have a comfortable insole with arch support, and water resistance is similar on both models. The Recons have more holes for ventilation but are smaller than the Explores although neither is particularly waterproof and don't guard against big puddles or heavy downpours, but the minimalist holes on the Recon just look better to me.

Fit and comfort winner

The fit and comfort are excellent on both – so it's a tie.

Rapha Explore and Specialized Recon gravel shoes top down view of soles

Both exposed areas of carbon scratch badly but the Explore offers more grip with a full chunky rubber sole (Image credit: Paul Brett)

2. Pedaling performance

Both shoes offer an efficient pedaling performance, and I felt very little difference when clipped into pedals. Both shoes are geared towards slightly differing forms of gravel riding, with the more race-orientated Recon having an ultra-stiff sole and a stiffness rating of 13. This is the highest in the Specialized off-road shoe range and comparable to the majority of its road shoes.

The Rapha Explore has a shortened carbon plate which means it has more flex in the sole but is plenty stiff enough if you are hammering down the power. The Rapha shoes have just the right amount of compliance to make them more capable as a multi-day gravel performer, the thick rubber sole soaking up the trail vibrations with ease too.

The cleat position on both is very similar and pedal engagement is crisp with no issues.

Pedaling performance winner

A tie. Both shoes are equally capable across all genres of gravel riding, even with slightly different aims, I felt perfectly at home with both.

Side view of the Rapha Explore shoe in green

Both shoes have plenty of ventilation holes for cooling but both let water in  (Image credit: Paul Brett)

3. Durability

So far both the Explore and Recon have shown great build quality. I've not had as much riding time in the Rapha shoes, but what I've seen so far I they'll hold up just as well as their Specialized rivals, and they did receive top marks for durability performance in the original review from Dean.

My main gripe with the Recon is the exposed carbon sole taking damage very easily. Not that it hinders the performance, but out of the box the sole looks so good, but after one ride it was scratched and scuffed, and for $325 / £300 shoes it's far from ideal. This will happen to nearly all carbon sole shoes and is just an aesthetic gripe rather than a performance hindrance. However, the Raphas have a shortened carbon sole which is covered in its entirety in thick rubber with just the cleat plate exposed (which is also scratched), but it just means the sole is more protected and therefore in my opinion more durable.

Up top, both shoes have retained their shape well with no sign of damage or creases. The laces are still in excellent condition and the rubber toe boxes have both held their own against trail debris with no visible scuffing or damage. Both shoes also clean up well after riding in some pretty grim conditions.

Durability winner

The Rapha Explore takes this one – purely because of the exposed carbon sole on the Recons which is disappointing for a shoe that costs so much.

S-Works Recon gravel shoe side on in Olive Green

The S-Works Recon has some some nice details to compliment the overall look of the shoe (Image credit: Paul Brett)

4. Grip

Grip is a vital performance attribute for the best gravel shoes and the levels of grip from the rubber on both shoes are impressive. The thicker chunky soles on the Explores means they have a ton of grip giving a solid platform for hike-a-bike sections and have also remained in near-perfect condition thanks to the durable compound used.

The Recon grip is hard to fault too and the rubber is placed exactly where you'd want it. The extended rubber covering the foot arch works great while climbing fences or walking over logs. They do have studs up front for extra traction, and that's something the Explores miss out on. However, the pesky exposed carbon sole keeps coming back to haunt the Recons and means it's an easy win on grip for the Rapha shoe.

Grip winner

The Explore takes this round easily. 

S-Works Recon birds eye view

At 642g the Recons weigh in lighter than the Explores  (Image credit: Paul Brett)

5. Weight

The Rapha Explore shoes weighed in at 751g per pair, compared to the Specialized S-Works Recon Lace shoes at 624g. Although 63g per shoe might not sound that big a deal, when holding both pairs in your hands you can feel the difference. 

Both shoes have a similar look and the weight penalty on the Explore comes mostly from the extra thick rubber sole on its shortened carbon sole. While the Recon has a full carbon sole and less rubber. It's hard to notice any discernable difference weight-wise while riding, but if you're counting the grams, for say a gravel race, then the lightweight Recon will be more appealing.

Weight winner

The Recons win this round with a 127g weight difference between the two same-sized shoes (both fitted with cleats), but there are choices to make over grip and stiffness performance.

Rapha Explore top down view

The Explore still have enough to retain the crown of best gravel shoe (Image credit: Paul Brett)

6. Overall

The good news is that both shoes are excellent performers and are two of the best gravel bike shoes you can buy, so you really can't go wrong – whichever model you decide is right for you.

The Raphas edge the comfort, are more durable and have a better grip, while the Specializeds are lighter, have a better look and a more gravel race feel and the stiff sole makes them an efficient pedaling shoe – even though the sole takes damage easily.

I do love both shoes and they do have slight advantages/disadvantages over each other. However, I won’t sit on the fence and I would choose the Rapha Explore shoe as the overall winner, but with similar specs, the deciding factor could well be whichever model had the best-priced deal at the time of purchase.

Overall winner

The Rapha Explore gravel shoes takes the crown as the best overall gravel shoe we've tested.

Paul Brett
Staff writer

Paul Brett is a staff writer for BikePerfect.com. He has been an avid cyclist for as long as he can remember, initially catching the mountain biking bug in the 1990s, and raced mountain bikes for over a decade before injury cut short a glittering career. He’s since developed an obsession for gravel riding and recently has dabbled in the dark art of cyclocross. A fan of the idea of bikepacking he has occasionally got involved and has ridden routes like the North Coast 500, Scotland and the Via Francigena (Pilgrim Route), Italy.

Current rides: Marin Alpine Trail 2, Ribble 725, Cube Stereo 160

Height: 175cm