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Specialized S-Works Ares shoes review

Hyper-focused race shoes, the S-Works Ares offer bags of performance, but at a cost

A black and white S-Works Ares shoe, being worn by a cyclist in USA-flag socks
(Image: © Will Jones)

Our Verdict

Exceptional race level performance but at some cost to comfort

For

  • Incredible power transfer
  • Unparalleled foot retention

Against

  • Not the most aesthetic shoe
  • Not the comfiest
  • Poor ventilation

Specialized makes some pretty fancy footwear, with more than one offering featuring in our list of the best cycling shoes. In fact, the brand's range of S-Works road shoes is seemingly evergrowing, with the Ares sitting alongside the S-Works Exos, S-Works 7, 7 Vent, 7 Lace, and a new pair on the way too. 

The S-Works Ares are, Specialized claims, the most efficient and powerful performance shoe ever made, and a full one per cent faster than any other shoe it has made before, which is why they’ve been most prominently seen on the feet of the Mark Cavendish, Sam Bennett and Legion of LA's fast-sprinting Williams brothers. 

Do they live up to their billing as a hyper-performance set of race shoes? Will their pursuit of performance come at the cost of comfort? What’s with the sock? Read on for answers to all those questions and more.

A pair of white and black shoes on a white background

The S-Works Ares cast an unconventional silhouette in the world of high end road shoes (Image credit: Will JOnes)

Design and aesthetics 

The S-Works Ares shoes cut quite a muscular figure in comparison to their more dainty siblings, primarily in my eyes due to the elevated ankle. It puts me more in mind of a football boot than a cycling shoe at first glance, though the twin Boa dials in a medial position at the front of the shoe would hamper efforts to do a good cross into the box (can you tell football isn’t my strong suit?).

The high ankle is by virtue of a tongueless, Dyneema-reinforced sock, so as to avoid any areas of additional pressure, and has the added benefit of providing greater ankle support. I didn’t in all honesty notice any additional feeling of support, but I was heartened to find the elevated ankle never rubbed on the bony protrusions of the ankle as I had initially expected them to.

The carbon undersole of a white road cycling shoe

Fore/aft cleat hardware adjustment and a replaceable heel pad feature on the hyper-stiff carbon sole (Image credit: Will Jones)

A focus on power transfer in balance with comfort is evident by the marketing surrounding foot positioning within the shoe, along with the construction itself. The carbon outsole has a stiffness rating of 15 (take that, Spinal Tap), the highest on offer, but it’s less the stiffness of the sole but the angle of it that intrigued me. A built in ‘varus wedge’ claims to offer better hip-knee-ankle alignment by tilting the foot slightly outward (apparently adding 10 seconds to exhaustion point at maximum effort). Furthermore, built-in arch support and a 'metatarsal button' (aka, a small raised bump) in the insole that aims to spread the toes to avoid hotspots all add up to what I was hoping to be a comfortable ride.

Cleat attachment features sliding mounting points to add further adjustability, and because these are a super-premium set of road shoes, the mounting hardware is also titanium. At first glance, the ground-facing heel pad appears to be non-replaceable, but on removing the insole, I found it can be replaced via a single screw.

Given the higher ankle there is a little more material involved in the construction, and as such the shoes came up on my scales at 487g (size EU43), which isn't class leading but you're hardly going to feel like a mob boss has given you concrete shoes either.

A pair of white road shoes on a scale

They're no featherweight, but they aren't heavy by any stretch (Image credit: Will Jones)

Performance

The S-Works Ares were almost comically difficult to put on when they were boxfresh. They loosened with time, but you’d do well to sort yourself out with a cheap shoehorn to help things along. I put this down to a combination of the high sock, but mostly due to an extremely rigid heel cup. The cleats had plenty of adjustment thanks to slotted mounts, and the markings on the sole, though a little faint, were usable enough to ensure a matching position.

To begin with the fit, which I didn’t massively get on with. The dual Boa dials add a decent level of adjustability, but having a single dial for the entirety of the lower foot makes finding that perfect fit a bit harder compared to my usual lace-up Empire SLX. I think this is somewhat compounded by the higher ankle design, which means the upper Boa is mounted higher up than on a standard dual Boa design, leaving the lower to cover more ground. Both dials are mated to wide straps which distribute the pressure on the upper foot well.

The heel of a white and black road cycling shoe

The firm heel cup offers exceptional retention (Image credit: Will Jones)

If the Boa cables were mounted further around the sides, it would offer some degree of width accommodation too, which brings me onto my main issue with the fit; they felt extremely narrow, and my feet aren't that wide. This was again compounded by the lower Boa being positioned at the widest portion of the foot, leaving me the option of tightening the lowers so as to leave the shoe feeling secure, but uncomfortable, or loosening them until they were comfy, but then putting up with a degree of internal movement.

On another note, the Varus Wedge was noticeable while riding, though not so much for a feeling of better leg alignment. My feet naturally pronate slightly, and having a shoe effectively tilt them further over placed the majority of my weight over the outside ball of my foot and within an hour or so of every ride my outside three toes went numb.

One final bugbear was the ventilation. The single frontal vent on the sole, with no exit point, left my feet feeling rather warm. In order to encourage any airflow through the shoe, I had to physically raise my toes to ‘open’ the vent.

While I didn’t get on with the fit, which, as with saddles, is a personal thing, the performance of the shoes was exceptional. The wide straps do allow you to tighten the shoes to a high degree and, combined with a tenacious heel cup, there is no foot movement even during all-out sprint efforts. The heel cup for me is the standout of the shoe, and the retention is noticeably better than my benchmark from Giro, though it does have less padding.

So good was the retention that, for the first time, I felt I could pull up with my heel and utilise my hamstrings effectively during steady-state high intensity flat efforts (TT simulation, essentially). The sole stiffness perhaps played a part in connecting heel to cleat with greater efficiency, but it wasn't noticeably stiffer than other high-end shoes, however much the stiffness index shouts. In all honesty for race-like efforts and maximum power transfer these were the best shoes I’ve used to date, but I wouldn’t be able to do use them to their full potential for more than an hour. The dials make the fit easily adjustable on the fly, though, if you’re one to tighten your shoes up before a big sprint.

One final point for riders in more soggy parts of the world: The integrated sock does have a tendency to retain moisture, so on wet rides the S-Works Ares did feel a little more soggy and cold than other shoes, but this could easily be alleviated by checking the forecast and remembering to put on some overshoes. They're also super tough to clean, so expect your white shoes to be paired with a grey sock after a few dusty or dreary days.  

A pair of white and black shoes on a white background

The lower BOA dial has to do a lot of work, and despite the wide straps I found it uncomfortable across the widest part of my foot (Image credit: Will Jones)

Verdict

The S-Works Ares road shoes are possibly the most uncompromising race shoes I’ve come across. They aren’t the most comfortable, at least not for my feet, and nor are they the most adjustable. What they do offer is absolute vice-like retention thanks to wide, stretch-free straps and a heel cup that locks your foot in place. 

If you’re racing, particularly something short and full of max efforts like a crit, then these will likely be a desirable option. What they offer in sprints or even seated all-out efforts is second-to-none. For longer days in the saddle though, or for those who don’t race, I’d be inclined to suggest opting for the S-Works 7 instead, or even the S-Works 7 Lace if you really need a fine-tune to your fit.

Testing scorecard and notes
AttributesNotesRating
Design and aesthetics Not ugly by any stretch, but a slightly cumbersome look7/10
ComfortFor my feet, in order to utilise their full potential, uncomfortable6/10
PerformanceExceptional foot retention and power transfer9/10
WeightNot class leading, but also not a deadweight around your ankles7/10
Value for moneyNot the most expensive shoes on the market, but being so race orientated mean they don't offer as full a package as their rivals8/10
Overall rating74%

Tech Specs: Specialized S-Works Ares road shoes

  • Weight: 487g (pair EU43, actual, without cleats)
  • Outsole: Carbon
  • Upper: Dyneema reinforced fabric and TPU
  • Retention: Dual Boa Li2 dials
  • Colours: White, Black, White/Black, Turquoise fade, Red fade, Red/Black

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Will Jones
Will Jones

Will joined the Cyclingnews team as a reviews writer in 2022, having previously written for Cyclist, BikeRadar and Advntr. There are very few types of cycling he's not dabbled in, and he has a particular affection for older bikes and long lasting components. Road riding was his first love, before graduating to racing CX in Yorkshire. He's been touring on a vintage tandem all the way through to fixed gear gravel riding and MTB too. When he's not out riding one of his many bikes he can usually be found in the garage making his own frames and components as a part time framebuilder, restoring old mountain bikes, or walking his collie in the Lake District.

Height: 182cm

Weight: 72Kg

Rides: Custom Zetland Audax, Bowman Palace:R, Peugeot Grand Tourisme Tandem, 1988 Specialized Rockhopper, Stooge Mk4, Falcon Explorer Tracklocross