The gravel bike shoe market has exploded with almost every shoe manufacturer not just adding a token gravel option to its range, but releasing multiple often specialist shoe options. That means there is a wealth of choice no matter whether you prefer Boa dials or laces, chunky treads, or stiff soles.
For the fast action gravel riding and racing we like to ride, there are two shoes that are consistently our pick of the best gravel bike shoes. Shimano’s RX8s are a dedicated gravel shoe tailored specifically for the task at hand, while the Specialized S-Works Recons have proven to be top performers at elite level cross-country and cyclocross racing. So can Specialized’s over-achieving off-road race shoe beat the RX8s at their own game? Keep reading as we take Specialized and Shimano’s top gravel shoes and make them go toe to toe to find out which is best.
Design and specification
Specialized’s S-Works Recons are made from Dyneema, chosen for its hard-wearing, non-stretch and low weight. The Recons follow a traditional shoe format, with the uppers opening wide and a padded tongue up the middle. This is all cinched down using two fancy aluminium Boa S3 Snap dials, which offer tightening and loosening micro-adjustments, and cables that hook over their corresponding anchors.
Shimano’s RX8s are a little different; there is no traditional tongue, instead the Synthetic leather upper wraps over from the outside of the foot and is secured on the inside of the arch with a piece of elastic. The upper comes over the top of the foot and is secured using a figure of eight cable routing and a single IP1 Boa, which has dual adjustment and can be popped completely open.
Both shoes feature venting holes across the front and sides of the upper, and a Velcro strap across the toes for further adjustments. Both shoes are specced with a stiff carbon sole that runs the length of the shoe for maximum power transfer, but only the Recons have provisions for toe studs if you want to dabble in some cyclo-cross.
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It’s worth pointing out that both these shoes demand a premium price tag, however Specialized charges a lot more for its S-Works Recon with a retail price of £370. That’s a considerable amount of cash. If you are looking for the same performance and are happy to trade Boas for laces, Specialized’s S-Work Recon Lace is a great alternative, although they still cost £300. At a directly comparable price point to Shimano’s RX8s, Specialized offers the Recon 3.0 which foregoes the Dyneema uppers, super-stiff sole and fancy Boa dials of the S-Works model.
While the fancy materials, ultra-premium Boas, and general layout of the Specialized shoe is better than the RX8, it’s hard to justify the extra £150 asking price. The Shimano shoes are still very well made with the plus that they are also a bit lighter than the S-Works Recons by 46g.
Comfort and fit
Specialized’s hooked Boa system means they are extremely easy to get on and off as they allow the front of the shoe to completely open up. This is a significant boon when compared to the Shimano RX8s which require a little pitching and rolling to get your foot in. Luckily getting back out of the RX8s is an easier process thanks to the pop-open Boa.
Once on, both shoes tighten snugly around the foot with very even pressure and no pinching. Shimano is traditionally a narrower shoe so if you have wider feet you will probably get a better fit with Specialized, although Shimano does do a wider version.
Specialized’s decision to use two Boas really works in its favour though, allowing better zonal tensioning when first fitting or mid-ride. The RX8s can also be easily adjusted mid-ride, but having the option to tighten just the forefoot was something that I miss in the RX8s.
Specialized’s final party trick is the Body Geometry concept, which uses a combination of lumps and bumps to add support and improve blood flow. Like many people, I have always found the Body Geometry in Specialized’s shoes to work well. Specialized features Body Geometry across all its shoes too, which is a bonus for those who aren’t dropping S-Works money. It can feel a little aggressive sometimes when you first put the shoe on, but as soon as you clip in it all begins to make sense.
For me, the combination of a less narrow fit, double Boa and Body Geometry means the Specialized comes out on top. Everyone is different though, and if your feet are narrow the RX8s are likely going to work really well too.
On the bike both shoes are really stable and supportive, providing a great connection with our Shimano XT pedals and allowing you to take full advantage of the stiff soles and secure fit. Under power both shoes do a fantastic job of driving watts into the pedals, and in my experience offered equal performance. Over long distances though, the Recons’ slightly broader fit and flexibility with retention give them a slight comfort edge for me.
The Recons certainly feel a little smoother over rough surfaces too, although it’s hard to pinpoint whether that’s the broader fit distributing vibrations or the Body Geometry at work. The Recons also sit a little lower on the pedal for a slightly more planted feel, although this was only really discernible when I wore odd shoes for a direct comparison.
Being a MTB shoe, there is a little more protection with the Recons, and the stiffer toe and heel box will help deflect rocks a little better should your gravel ride start to get a little lairy.
Neither shoe is particularly notable for its walking ability, although the Specialized shoes are noticeably more sure-footed due to the wider pad positioning in the metatarsal area and broader heel and toe treads. Due to the shape of the narrowness of the RX8s they have a tendency to try and roll ankles on hard flat surfaces, although they certainly work a bit better on softer surfaces. Ultimately being stiff cycling shoes, this isn’t their strong point, so if your rides do feature a lot of hike-a-bike we recommend something like Rapha’s Explore gravel shoes.
It’s a close call, both shoes often surprised me with how stable and direct they felt whether I’m climbing or sprinting after friends, but for my feet the comfort of the Specializeds seals the deal here.
One of the most difficult things about determining what makes a good gravel product is that people’s interpretation of what gravel is, varies wildly. For some, it simply means riding a drop-bar bike on the occasional graded off-road section, whilst other riders are squeezing the biggest tyres into their frames and giving mountain bikers a run for their money.
Both the Shimano and Specialized shoes are excellent gravel shoes. Both are stiff, direct and well suited to stamping on the pedals, but the closer your interpretation of gravel gets to mountain biking, the more the Specialized S-Works Recons shine.
It’s very telling that I have had both these shoes at my disposal for a while and generally found myself grabbing the Specialized S-Works Recon. While most of this is down to the fit suiting my feet a little better, I also really like the extra adjustability of the double Boa, especially on long rides. The gravel around my parts is extremely varied, and having a little more protection, a more planted feel when on the pedals, and a sure-footing off them hasn’t gone amiss either.
The Specialized S-Works are very expensive, but they are cheaper than buying separate gravel and mountain bike shoes with no compromises in performance for either discipline. The RX8s are more of a one-trick pony, so if you’re looking for a dedicated gravel shoe and the narrower last is a good fit, the RX8s are still a fantastic shoe.
Tech Specs: Shimano RX8 vs Specialized S-Works Recon gravel shoes
|Shimano RX8 gravel shoe||Specialized S-Works Recon gravel shoes|
|Colours||Bronze, Silver, Black||Rocket Red, Black, Taupe/Doppio/Bronze, Tropical Teal/ Maroon/Silver|
|Retention||1 Boa (IP1), 1-strap||Two Boa S3-Snap dials, 1-strap|
|Outsole||Carbon fibre composite + TPU||Carbon fibre composite|
|Weight||565g (actual, size 43)||611g (actual, size 43)|
|Sizing||Standard: 38-50 Wide: 38-48||36-49|
|Price||£219 / $260 / €229.99||£370 / $425 / €430|