The S-Works shoe is now a piece of cycling history. It has proven to be the footwear of choice for a substantial portion of the world’s best sprinters, climbers and all around strongmen of the peloton for nearly a decade, and today Specialized has unveiled it's most advanced dedicated racing shoe ever – the S-Works Ares.
The shoes claim a power increase of 7 watts, 14-second saving over 10km, and a 1% marginal gain on any shoe Specialized has ever made. To validate any of that we’ll need a little more time with them, and/or extensive use of a wind tunnel facility.
The really striking change, though, comes in the form of Dyneema-reinforced tongueless sock within the shoe, which means the shoe grips onto the ankle rather than using a conventional tongue closure.
The result, Specialized claims, is less impingement of the tendons around the foot when creating the tight fastening favoured by sprinters ahead of the Flamme Rouge. The design was developed in close collaboration with Tour de France green jersey winner Sam Bennett, using close analysis of sprinter’s riding at maximum intensity.
"Working with Sam Bennett it was the first time we've had a rider who's super analytical about the products and also really observant in what is happening in the peloton," says Rob Cook, Specialized’s Design Director. The key issue was matching the most efficient closure of a shoe in power terms, usually at its tightest, with long-lasting rideability.
"There was a lot we didn’t know, like he was saying that in a small race riders begin tightening their shoes five kilometres out, but in a Giro stage it may be 15km out, and in the Tour de France it could be 25km fully tightened," says Cook.
That tight closure created problems over a prolonged period of riding, "Number one – the tendons on top of the foot. When riders are exploding out of the saddle that creates so much damage," says Cook.
For normal consumers that explosive power may be less prominent, but the carry over for all riders is a closure system that should offer far more comfort. On our initial rides in the shoe that seems to indeed be the case.
Seemingly skipping from the S-Works 7 straight to an entirely new family of shoes, the Ares is a very interesting step forward for S-Works’ road shoe line.
The original S-Works shoe, which way back to 2004, was developed with the problematic World Champion Mario Cipollini’s personal feedback, wouldn’t look out of place amongst newly developed road shoes today.
Specialized were the amongst the early adopters of Boa Dial system, and their body geometry system fed nicely into the development of a rider-focussed shoe. Specialized were early adopters of ultra-stiff carbon soles and in more recent years coupled the S-Works shoe concept with custom heat-moulded insoles.
When Specialized purchased Retul, the potential for footbed heat-mapping hugely expanded the brand’s capability to design shoes around data from athletes the world-over. The result, few would deny, is a more rider-focussed design.
So no surprise that the S-Works shoe has been a favourite of Specialized athletes like Peter Sagan and Alberto Contador, as well as the entire Wolfpack at Quick Step.
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This year many anticipated an S-Works 8. However, it seems that rather than the Ares being a change of branding, the S-Works 8 may well be incoming, but the Ares represents a new family of shoes altogether.
"We've always done an S-Works that's trying to satisfy every rider that we could possibly have. We've just recently started to develop into different worlds, looking for what is right for different riding styles," says Cook.
On first impression, the Ares is certainly a lot to digest. More striking and simplistic in one sense, yet somehow less finished and ragged in the absence of a tongue. The technical offering also presents some interesting trade-offs.
For instance, Specialized has dispensed with the stunning silver metallic Boa dials on the S-Works 7 shoe. "With our S3 metal cap dial, which looks like a Swiss watch piece of jewellery, this added a fantastic finish but when you turn the dial, it only pulls the cable from one side," explains Cook.
"The Li2 dial actually pulls both cables simultaneously. So that kind of helps with the guide positions of the retention cables on the medial side of the shoe. You're getting an even pressure across both sides," adds Cook.
Beyond the closure benefits of the integrated sock, the Boa closure system enhances the stiffness of the shoe with a triangular retention system across the midfoot. Put simply it means the retention is applying more pressure to more surface area of the shoe. That in turn increases the stiffness of the whole system.
The overall gains in performance come largely from a claimed increase in stiffness. Specialized is placing this at 15.0 on the Specialized stiffness index – only time will tell what that index eventually tops out at, with many of us once presuming 10 was the upper limit. [Insert Spinal Tap gag here - Ed]
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Interestingly, perhaps in sync with the focus of the Specialized Aethos on weight and rideability ahead of aerodynamics, Specialized has not put out any particular figures on the shoe’s aerodynamic performance.
An added bonus of the shoe will be increased permeability to keep temperature low, and indeed the shoe's upper is covered in air holes. It seems to broadcast the shoe as a natural warm-weather choice.
This white Team shoe is emblazoned with a Specialized rather than S-Works logo, presumably to offer more brand exposure from team riders using the shoe. The white colour may also prove a little precarious for use in the rainy isles of the UK, though Specialized has placed a repellant treatment on the yarn of the sock to protect it a little from mud and grime. Nevertheless, the black colour scheme, showcasing the S-Works logo, may prove more popular for many consumers.
At a price of £375, the Ares shoe stands out as the most expensive S-Works shoe so far, with the S-Works initially coming in at £330.
That may be no barrier to them being a hit, of course. "I think we're gonna see over 50% of riders in the peloton in the shoe," Cook suggests.
Our initial impressions are certainly positive. The shoes have all the attention to fit and form that we’ve come to expect from Specialized’s shoe, and there is a palpable bump up in comfort and the rigidity of power transfer.
Perhaps it may take a while to get used to life without a tongue, but for our part this seems to be an interesting step for cycling shoes.
£375, Shop Specialized