First look and review: Specialized S-Works 6 XC shoes

Part of my haul from the 2019 Philippine Bike Demo Day expo was this unassuming black pair of shoes. It’s only upon closer inspection that they reveal themselves as something special.

Two BOA dials, a carbon fiber outsole with rubber lugs, a titanium cleat plate, an upper made of Dyneema, and the S-Works branding. This is Specialized’s top-dog cross-country mountain bike shoe of 2017: the S-Works 6 XC.

Had this pair been sold at retail, it would have cost PhP22,600. That’s more than US$400. Two years later, I got it for a mere PhP6,800. Apparently, when these flagship unobtanium cycling shoes go on sale, they really go on sale.

Having had middling success with the Shimano XC5 and Northwave Core Plus shoes, and seeing as these S-Works kicks have most of the traits I have not yet sampled in a cycling shoe, perhaps it was time I bit this (much more digestible) bullet and saw for myself what $400 worth of cycling shoe can get you.

Now, you can do a search on Google for reviews of these shoes; most cycling media outlets have already said their piece about them. I’ll just write about my experience with them personally.

Remember how I prize walkability in my shoes? It’s precisely why I got the Shimano RT33L and MT5. These things…don’t really fit that same bill. Basically, you can take the RT33, eliminate any and all give in its sole by replacing the material with very stiff carbon fiber, then shave off all the rubber on the outsole and give it raised rubber lugs as hard as the plastic ones on, say, Shimano’s old XC31 shoes. That is how the S-Works 6 XCs perform as a walking shoe: they can do it, but grudgingly. Walking polished office floors feels (and sounds) like walking in clogs; grip is quite limited. Worse, to satisfy Specialized’s lightweight remit, the upper and tongue are quite thin and tend to dig into your ankles – most felt when I have to articulate them to go downstairs! Thicker socks are a must.

I have not seen naked carbon fiber outsole on one of my own cycling shoes before.

I’d imagine these kicks would do better in the sticky mud of a cyclocross race or the loamy soil of a mountain bike trail. The lugs are beefy, and you can mount toe spikes for more soft-surface purchase. For my purposes though, these are essentially “walkable” road cycling shoes that happen to use long-lasting two-bolt cleats. That sort of makes sense as these are identical to the S-Works 6 road cycling shoes in basic construction. They were made for efficient pedaling; walking is much farther down the pecking order.

The revelation with the S-Works 6 XCs, though, is in how comfortable they are. At first, it makes little sense: How are shoes this stiff and unyielding more comfortable?

Taking the tape measure to them shows the narrowest part of the outsole yielding just about 6 cm of width, which isn’t special. It appears the secret of the S-Works 6 XCs is really three things: that famously tight heel cup; the shape of the outsole, not just the outright width; and the toe box design.

Much ballyhooed for its tight hold, the heel cup just works. Once the shoe is worn, it and my heel work together as a captive ball-and-socket joint. On my size 45 example, it’s not as unyielding as some people may find, but at the same time it doesn’t require that special “cat’s tongue” fabric on the inside for grip, either.

See how the carbon fiber actually reaches upwards from the sole…AND feeds into the shiny heel cup? It does the same to the Dyneema upper. Very clever, Specialized.

Specialized’s next party trick is in how that stiff carbon fiber outsole is shaped. With the XC5 and Core Plus shoes, the outsole is decidedly very flat. Coupled with the not-very-generous outsole width at its narrowest, and you have a recipe for unwanted forefoot motion. By comparison, the S-Works 6 XC seems to use its stiffness more intelligently, curling upward and bracing the foot crosswise along its length – effectively baking in some arch support. I suspect the unyielding Dyneema upper has something to do with it, too, as the wonder material is found precisely at the area where I’d been sore prior: the lateral forefoot.

The final trick: Unlike the heel and the midfoot, the S-Works 6 XC has quite a roomy, unrestricted toe box, and going up a size seems to have helped this more. This is in contrast to companies like Bont, where the entire outsole is essentially a little snug-fitting carbon bathtub for your foot. It works great for many riders, but some have complained of the edges of this bathtub leading to irritation on the perimeter of the foot. No such problems here. A short Velcro strap, similar to the Core Plus shoe, helps adjust the volume of the toe box, and it’s more effective in this application.

By the way, have I told you that this shoe has reflective logos?

While we’re talking about the upper of the shoe, two BOA S2-Snap dials provide the enclosure system. No quick-release mechanism means they’re fiddlier to wear and take off, but the system does provide even pressure across the top of my feet. Whatever ankle pain I was getting going downstairs was definitely not from the BOA dials; the tongue is just way too thin.

Top: Ergon Solestar IP3 insoles in a size EUR 44.
Bottom: Specialized Body Geometry low-arch insoles in a size EUR 45.

The S-Works 6 XC comes with the low-arch version of Specialized’s Body Geometry insoles. They seem to be made of a thin foam, but are more resilient, with heavier shaping than other shoes’. While they have nifty features, like a metatarsal button and some arch support, they can’t quite compare to Ergon Solestar IP3s in material stiffness.

So yes, the S-Works 6 XCs are generally terrible for my kind of walking. I pray for your ankles if you have to go down ten flights of polished stairs in these. Treated as a specialized (haha see what I did there?) cycling shoe that you can occasionally walk around in, however, these are excellent.

On the bike, it’s fascinating how quickly I forgot about them and simply went on with the business of pedaling. The heel hold is superior, the sole stiffness exemplary, the power transfer something to behold after persisting with cheaper, lesser shoes. Hammering away on the turbo trainer with a hard effort, my lateral forefoot displays some natural physical strain, but the shoe just sucks it up. That somatic whisper from the shoe saying that it’d take care of my forefeet for a long spell on the saddle – that was the all-important icing on a very convincing cake.

I dislike that Specialized is such a big patent troll, and that their bikes historically tend to be overpriced for what they offer, and that they can insist on proprietary technology. But man, are they great at identifying problems and addressing them with their own solutions and products. It helps that they’ve become much less egregious in the overpricing and proprietary tech fronts too. These S-Works shoes were obscenely expensive at launch, and their successors still are, but it’s quite obvious where the money was spent. Recommended.

First look: Northwave Core Plus cycling shoes + Shimano SH41 SPD adapters

The last time I wrote about cycling shoes, it was about the pain my feet had with my Shimano XC5s. Even after resorting to relocating the cleat closer to my midfoot, I still had lateral foot pain after extended rides.

JP Carino, head honcho of Gruppo Veloce Sportivo and La Course Velo, was kind enough to hook me up with a pair of Northwave shoes. He said he wanted me to give him an honest review out of them. I plan to do exactly that over the course of multiple months…but first, an introduction.


Among the Northwave models Gruppo Veloce Sportivo is bringing in, these are the entry-level offering on the road bike side, retailing for PhP7,000. They come in three colorways; mine are black with fluorescent yellow accents in a size EUR 44.

No cleats attached.
No cleats attached.
Not reflective, unfortunately. I checked. Still nice though

The upper is unique in that it’s not a natural or synthetic leather. Instead, it’s made of a textured, matte material that feels like an ultra-tough suede. On my black pair at least, the material hides dust and shrugs off potential toe-overlap scuffs pretty well, and Northwave isn’t fibbing when it says the upper is seamless.

At the toebox is a Velcro strap, while the rest of the tongue area is home to Northwave’s SLW2 ratchet dial closure system – basically their own take on the BOA system found on other shoes. Tightening the shoe is done by cranking down on the dial. The button on the side does two things: pushing it releases the wire tension one ratcheted click at a time, for controlled loosening of the shoe on your foot; pulling it totally disengages the ratchet and allows you to pull the shoe off.

I’ve had Italian bits and bobs on my bike before, and I think the Italians can be hit or miss with the coherence and garishness of their styling. These, though, hit the spot just right. There’s just enough visual pizzazz and color application to make the Core Plus shoes look unique.

Note the excess plastic flash on one of the cleat holes.

Underneath the whole shoe is what’s called an “NRG Air Carbon Reinforced sole.” Similar to Shimano’s entry-level road shoes, the Core Plus is shaped for both three-bolt road cleats and two-bolt mountain bike cleats…on paper, at least. The sole has five mesh-covered vents along its length, then book-ended by non-replaceable heel and toe tread pads.

It’s not perfect. One of the holes for road cleats had a bit of excess plastic flash. While it didn’t get in the way of the cleat bolts, it was surprisingly resilient. A sharp knife will take care of that, but worth noting.

Also, taking a tape measure to the Core Plus’ outsole yields 5.5 cm width at its narrowest…which is just a smidge better than the Shimano XC5s I had problems with. I now notice that this seems to be a pattern with quite a number of cycling shoe manufacturers.

As a road cycling shoe, the Core Plus is drilled for three-bolt road pedal cleats out of the box. I’ve mentioned Northwave claims the shoe is also compatible with two-bolt SPD cleat fitment. However, looking up the instructions online, installing them involves cutting into the midsole with a knife to open up a pocket. You then yank out the three-bolt cleat mounting plate, in exchange for an SPD cleat nut.

I’ve read many horror stories about this cutting process being very hard or borderline impossible to do, so I decided to go the more reversible “adapter” route instead.


Disappointingly hard to find locally, the SH41 adapters are basically hard plastic pontoons that allow any three-bolt road cycling shoe to accept two-bolt SPD cleats. One kit takes care of one pair of road cycling shoes.

You start by attaching this triangular mounting plate to the shoe’s cleat area with two of the bolts.
Then the main “pontoon” area goes on, secured by the third bolt.
You can then mount the SPD cleat into the recessed pocket of the adapter’s hard plastic pontoons.

As nifty as the SH41 adapters are, they aren’t perfect, either. Unlike proper SPD shoes, here you basically kiss all fore-and-aft cleat position adjustment goodbye. All you’re left with is adjustment of the cleat to have the shoe sit inboard or outboard. If you’re a fan of midfoot cleat positioning, these won’t give it to you.

Despite the cross-hatching on their surface, the hard pontoons themselves are nowhere near as grippy as the tread blocks of an actual SPD shoe. The same amount of care while walking around in road cleats still has to be taken. Then again, if you followed Northwave’s instructions and managed to mount the SPD cleats directly with no adapters, you’d gain fore-aft adjustment, but the cleat would scratch up everything you walked on as it’s not recessed any more. Pick your poison.


My feet are on the flat side, with an almost non-existent longitudinal arch. Where the XC5s were surprisingly constrictive in the EUR 44 size, these same-size Core Plus shoes are quite a bit roomier. Part of it may be due to Northwave equating EUR 44 to a US size 11, instead of a US 9.7-10 like everyone else does. Even so, these have a lot more room for adjustment, which makes dialing in the fit with the ratchet dial more effective.

The Core Plus shoes are designed with a forgiving heel hold, which should suit longer, more leisurely rides. This is personal preference, but generally a tighter heel hold is more desirable for racing. That said, I generally liked wearing these shoes a little on the loose side. The extra volume inside makes these Northwaves more comfortable right away over the XC5s. They’re better ventilated too, just short of the breezy Shimano RT33s.

SPD cleats and SH41 adapters mounted.
SPD cleats and SH41 adapters mounted.

So far, so good, and my first impressions are favorable. I will see what else I can find and report about them as I put them to use for most of my riding.

The clipless diaries, part 10: Forefoot woes

During the return half of the 7-Eleven Tour 2019 SCTEX race, I was demonstrably slower than the first half by roughly half an hour. The heat and incline certainly contributed to that, but I estimate fifteen minutes of that was all down to the pain on the outside edges of the soles of my feet, which slowly developed with each pedal stroke and inhibited me from putting out as much power as I could.

Approaching the finish line of the 2019 7-Eleven Tour at SCTEX, wearing the offending Shimano XC5 shoes.

I got the Shimano XC5 shoes to address what felt like the Shimano MT5s‘ apparent inability to keep their sole stiffness on a prolonged ride, resulting in pain. Yet here I was, wearing the XC5s, and my feet were still in pain. What gives?

Studying where along my foot the pain was located, and attempting to correlate it to the shoe, gave me some insights.

Apparently, the pain in both my feet was coming from the forefoot region, which to me is misleading terminology. From the word structure, you’d think the name “forefoot” was just your toes and the balls of your feet, but in reality the forefoot takes up almost half your foot’s total area.

Bones of a typical right foot.
Image credit: HSS.

It seems it is called the “forefoot” because of how the bones are structured to make up our feet. From what I understand, everything from your toes, to the balls of your foot, all the way to the long metatarsal bones that start making up the arch of your foot – all of those make up the forefoot. My pain was in the lateral metatarsal bones, which is a fancy, specific way of saying it was in the outside edges of my feet.

This also plays into a phenomenon called forefoot varus. From what I can tell, this simply refers to the natural tendency of the foot to angle slightly upward on the inside, such that more of a person’s body weight tends to rest on the lateral metatarsal bones. Many people have varying degrees of forefoot varus; my understanding is that people with perfectly straight forefeet aren’t all that common.

While pedaling, it is this forefoot varus that eventually leads to the foot getting loaded up on the lateral metatarsal bones, or outside edge of the forefoot. Ideally then, this varus is compensated for by your cycling shoes. Unfortunately, not all shoes are created the same, and certainly not all of them provide the same amount of lateral metatarsal support.

The easiest way of checking, I’ve found, is to look at the shoe’s outsole. As I have Shimano’s XC5, MT5, and the old RT33s, we can make a few comparisons between the three shoe models.

L-R: XC5, MT5, RT33

The XC5 outsoles are pretty narrow, tapering to an hourglass shape in their middle. While the XC5’s carbon-reinforced sole is quite stiff, because of the shape, there isn’t much of that stiffness supporting the lateral forefoot. Quite a bit of lateral forefoot “spills over” the sides of the outsole, measuring 5 cm wide at its narrowest.

After stopping for four minutes, I found the pain subsided enough for me to complete the remaining 10 kilometers of the 7-Eleven Tour 2019 SCTEX. There is something about the motion of walking and standing on the ground that relieves the lateral forefoot pressure, at least for me.

I’ve successfully completed a 210 km audax in the RT33s, and they are 6 cm wide at their narrowest. At the end of the distance, I remember the pain coming more around the balls of my feet, as the bones felt like they wanted to contort themselves around the small SPD cleat. Lateral forefoot pain was not a problem at all, though, as 6 cm of width is enough to sufficiently support my metatarsals.

If I was in the market for new cycling shoes, then, I would have to look at them having at least this amount of width.

The MT5s have the most generous outsole width of the three pairs of shoes, at 7 cm wide at their narrowest. Again, in my experience, I didn’t have lateral forefoot pain with these, but their relative lack of stiffness also isn’t ideal for my riding, and that factor would accelerate the same “contorting around the cleat” phenomenon my feet exhibit on longer rides.

Interesting findings, then. Now that I know the pitfalls of the XC5s, though, save for replacing the shoe wholesale, I wonder what can be done in order to address their shortcomings?

L-R: RT33, MT5, XC5