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Specialized S-Works EXOS EVO shoe review

Specialized’s S-Works EXOS EVO shoe is an ultralight, ultra-rigid yet surprisingly comfortable and tough XC/Trail shoe but does the performance justify the costs?

Specialized S-Works EXOS EVO
(Image: © Guy Kesteven)

Our Verdict

Extremely light and stiff race shoe with ultra-high-tech uppers for toughness, but sloppy fit potentially undermines all the advantages so be sure to try before you buy

For

  • Superlight
  • Incredibly stiff sole
  • Dyneema upper is super tough
  • Weatherproof and super-fast drying
  • Superfine dial adjustment
  • Titanium cleat plate

Against

  • Sizing larger than other S-works
  • No forefoot tensioning
  • Heel crumple and lift
  • Snapped pull strap

The S-Works EXOS EVO is the mountain bike and gravel version of the recently released $425 / £450 Exos road shoe. It uses a similar single Boa dial combined with a Dyneema fabric upper on the well-proven, ultra-stiff, ergonomically molded S-Works Recon FACT carbon sole recipe that has kept Specialized's other S-Works off-road kicks as some of the best mountain bike shoes available. Sloppy fit means it's not as promising as we had hoped.

Construction 

If you like your racing/riding shoes rigid then you’ll love the S-Works FACT sole unit that first appeared on the S-Works XC 6 shoe in 2017. The rock-solid composite layup is enhanced with a raised inner instep lip and comes with a stiffness rating of 13 on Specialized's scale. Tread blocks are minimal at the heel, toe and alongside the cleat slots and they aren’t replaceable. The twin-toe studs are removable though and the cleat bolting plate is titanium to save weight and prevent over-torque stripping. The slots also extend back further than normal for a more central position if that’s what your bike fit or preference suggests.

Specialized S-Works EXOS EVO use Dyneema fabric to create a durable upper construction

Specialized S-Works EXOS EVO use Dyneema fabric to create a durable upper construction (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

The upper is where things really change though. Again Specialized has already been using USM’s Dyneema ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMwPE) fiber-based fabrics in its mountain bike shoes since the 2017 XC6 and the 2020 XC7. However, the EXOS EVO uses much more of this high-tech synthetic (the fibers are drawn, heated, elongated, spun and then cooled creating molecular alignment and high crystallization through extremely long, molecular chains onto the polymer backbone) than before. That’s because it’s not just ultra-strong and flexible (it’s used in ship ropes), ultra cut resistant (it’s used in butchers gloves, motorbike clothing and bulletproof layers) and environmentally tough (it doesn’t absorb water and it’s very sweat, chemical and UV resistant) but it’s light enough that it floats, too. 

There’s zero stretch in the Dyneema but the outer forefoot is built from a slightly more elastic - it deforms gradually if you push it - micro-perforated, rubberized fabric. The coating continues over the Dyneema around the lower part of the shoe and then the Dyneema is multi-layered at the rear to make a stiffened heel strip (not cup). A ‘snakeskin’ style inner layer adds grip around the rear of the shoe too and there’s a rubber toe bumper for protection.

While previous S-Works shoes have used two Boa dials and a toe strap, the EXOS does all its tensioning through a single Li2 dial (the latest design with lower profile and finer dual-directional adjustment) centrally mounted on a padded tongue above two fabric cross over loops.

A single Li2 dial is centrally positioned and secures the Dyneema upper over the foot

A single Li2 dial is centrally positioned and secures the Dyneema upper over the foot (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Performance 

At a fraction over 550g for a pair of dirty EU44s with cleats in the EXOS EVO is over 100g lighter than the S-Works Recon XC 7. The soles are stiffer than most road shoes too, so in terms of pressed power transfer, they’re ridiculously rigid from toe to heel. That’s only apparent if you get the sizing right though as if you get the size that’s a snug fit in Specialized’s previous S-Works shoes you’ll be a size or more too large in the EXOS EVO. It’s not just that simple either as when we handed it to bigger footed testers some of them still struggled to get a good fit. That’s because not only is the upper unstructured, it's free to let your forefoot pull up or float sideways. The single Boa doesn’t tension the stretchy forefoot section and the strip heel doesn’t offer the same positioning or lateral support as a full cup either. Even with the snakeskin interior, that means there’s still a lot of heel lift if you try and run supe- steep sections in the totally rigid soles. The lack of support from the upper makes your foot more likely to slip and twist when scrambling too, potentially damaging tendons/ankles etc. Because the heel crumples rather than standing tall when you’re trying to get them on you end up pulling hard on the small fitting tab and one of ours ripped off in the process after less than twenty hours riding.

Specialized S-Works EXOS EVO

The rear tab on the heel broke off when pulling the shoes on (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

The fit-and-rip issues are a real shame as the rest of the performance of the upper is excellent. Wearing one EXOS EVO and one Recon XC7 showed that the EXOS is actually more splash/weather resistant. Because they don’t absorb any water they dry super fast too so you’re getting that weight win even in wet weather and they’re still smelling fresh even after the recent roasting weather. While we started using them carefully just for XC we’ve ended up kicking around gritstone enduro tracks in them too and while they’ve certainly taken some scuffs and knocks from trailside or flying geology you can’t tell at all from the uppers. While the tread compound on the cleat blocks is definitely brewed for durability not grip, they’re not lethally plastic like many cross-country shoes and the toe and heel are softer. You even get a skin of rubber under the instep in case you step on a wet root before the rest of the tread makes ground.

If you have a foot that naturally fits the front and rear of the shoe without any wrinkles or bagginess then the Boa dial helps get accurate upper foot tension. too. Compared to the double Boa and strap S-Works XC7 the fit bandwidth is far narrower though.

Verdict

The EXOS EVO is a potentially awesome cross-country, gravel or even light trail shoe for people who are prepared to pay top dollar for ultimate power transfer in a surprisingly weatherproof, durable and comfortable minimal weight shoe. That potential will only be realized if you downsize and have the right shaped foot though so trying before you buy is absolutely crucial.

Tech Specs: Specialized S-Works EXOS EVO

  • Colors: Silver/black
  • Sizing: EU38-46
  • Weight: 552g (Pair of size 44 with Crank Bros cleats)
  • Price:  $425.00 / £400.00
Guy Kesteven

Guy Kesteven is Bike Perfect and Cyclingnews’ contributing tech editor. Hatched in Yorkshire he's been hardened by riding round it in all weathers since he was a kid. He got an archaeology degree out of Exeter University, spent a few years digging about in medieval cattle markets, working in bike shops and warehouses before starting writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit he’s also coughed out a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too. We trust Guy's opinion and think you should, too.


Rides: Pace RC295, Cotic FlareMax, Specialized Chisel Ltd MTBs, Vielo V+1 gravel bike, Cannondale Supersix Evo Dura-Ace Di2 Disc road bike, Nicolai FS Enduro, Landescape custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg