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Deep Dive: Specialized S-Works EXOS Cycling Shoes

Can this shoe designed for cyclists work for triathletes? We take a closer look.

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Review Rating


Basics

One of the highest-end road shoes Specialized makes, these are designed for the high-performance cyclist. Ultra light, stiff, and molded to your feet, while the quick-release BOA system makes it feasible for triathlon transitions.


Pros

By far the nicest cycling shoe we tested

Extremely lightweight upper; super flexible and breathable

Carbon plate keeps shoe stiff for power transfer

BOA system is fairly fast for entry and exit

Cons

With shoe snugness, a flying mount is ill-advised

Needs some breaking at the heel

Price may be unnecessary


Weight

150g (size 42)

Price

$425

Brand

Specialized


A BOA-system cycling shoe for triathlon?! No way, crazy! But, wait, hear me out.

While Specialized makes a very high-end triathlon shoe, the S-Works Trivent, their marketing team claims that most of their triathletes actually race in the S-Works EXOS because of the popularity of the shoe and its high-end cycling features. It’s light, stiff, and, once you have the BOA quick release system down, it’s really not that much slower in transition. And the reality is you were probably bad at flying mounts anyway.

RELATED – Spring 2021 Triathlete Buyer’s Guide: Cycling Shoes

Specialized S-Works EXOS: The Basics

Earlier this year, Specialized released a new $425 shoe, making three shoes (including the EXOS) now in the $400+ range. The new Ares, which has a completely different style of closure (more like a sock), is supposed to be the most comfortable; the Vent has the most air flow; and the EXOS is the lightest at 150g. (They claim it’s the lightest shoe made with the BOA system.) 

On the EXOS, the BOA system uses a one-directional turn system to tighten and then a pull for quick release, which can take a second to get the hang of. The top is made of a proprietary Dyneema mesh, with an ergonomic footbed and a carbon plate in the sole that has a stiffness index of 13. The three-bolt system accommodates all major cleat brands.

Specialized S-Works EXOS: The Pros (for Triathlon)

This was, by far, the nicest cycling shoe we tested for the 2021 Spring Buyer’s Guide. While many tri shoes can feel a bit clunky and lacking in movement, the EXOS obviously brings the power transfer of a true cycling shoe. The main benefit for racing is that it manages to be both exceptionally lightweight and incredibly stiff. It does this primarily through an extremely lightweight upper made of that proprietary mesh, which both retains is shape and is breathable—always good for wet feet. It also incorporates with the mesh a kind of form fitted sleeve that keeps the shoe very snug. This is good in that it allows for a great feel for the bike and transfer of your power and effort (you barely notice the shoe is on); this is bad in that it can be tough to get on (more on that below). While I am a very small person and unlikely to lose much power through a less stiff shoe, even I could feel the difference in how my foot connected to the bike and how my work was all being transferred into the pedal. There are, however, some issues with using this shoe for tri. 

Specialized S-Works EXOS: The Cons (for Triathlon)

Don’t do a flying mount. For liability reasons, I need to repeat that again: Please, do not try to do a flying mount in this shoe. The BOA system actually works fairly well for small adjustments while riding and the quick release is very fast for getting it off—presuming you’re a capable enough cyclist to make adjustments to your shoes while riding—but the snugness of their form fit sleeve makes the shoe tough to simply pull on. It requires a little finagling and finicky tugging. That firmness and close fit also meant some breaking in was needed at certain hot spot points, like where the material rubs on the heel, especially if you accidentally tighten the shoe too much, which is surprisingly easy to do. The biggest con, however, is the price tag. It’s a very very nice shoe. Is it $425 nice though?

Specialized S-Works EXOS: Conclusions (for Triathlon)

OK, yes, the EXOS is not a tri shoe and it will take you probably 15-30 seconds longer to get on in transition than a simple one-strap closure. However, when you factor in how much better it will then fit over your 56 or 112 miles, the 30 seconds don’t seem like such a big deal. This is probably especially true for the biggest top-end cyclists who can truly feel the difference in power and performance. Of course, that’s the other caveat here: If you’re not a top-end cyclist who’s super picky about your cycling shoes, then these may simply not be worth the money—but then again, they’re also on sale right now.