Specialized launched its off-road Levo series of Turbo electric-assist bikes last July in Europe. The US version of these pedal assist (no throttle) bikes just landed Stateside, a few weeks ahead of their spring 2016 consumer availability. Specialized recently hosted a media launch in Moab, Utah, to test these new e-mountain bikes on the area's legendary trails. To say that the bikes surprised many of us is an understatement.
While the marquee bike is the S-Works Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie, most of us were aboard the less expensive Expert and Comp models. I tested the Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie Comp, which retails for $5,500 US/ £4,000 / AUS $7,999.
All the FSR models feature 140mm front suspension and 135mm rear suspension, M5 alloy frames and the same motor unit, with the S-Works versions receiving an upgraded battery. All of the models use SRAM 1x11 drivetrains, and Guide four-piston brakes with 200mm rotors. The The Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie Comp is equipped with a SRAM GX rear derailleur, RockShox Yari fork and a Fox float shock.
E-bikes are not permitted on all of Moab’s trails, although they are allowed on the OHV trails that mountain bikers share with dirt bikes and other off-road vehicles. The combination of full suspension, 27.5+ tires and electric motor assist excelled: Specialized picked an ideal location to show off its impressive e-bikes.
Pressing the arrow buttons changes the assist mode among Turbo, Trail and Eco. Two LEDs indicate Eco mode
The Turbo Levo series feature three assist settings: Turbo, Trail and Eco. It’s easy to swap between modes using buttons on the left side of the battery unit. A center button powers up the battery with 10 LEDs showing current battery charge. Two buttons on either side of the power button take you up or down in electric assist and the LEDs show your mode when changing it, then the LEDs revert back to indicating battery life.
The system needs to read two things to engage, speed at the wheel and torque at the crank. For speed, Specialized integrated a pickup in the chainstay and a magnet into the brake rotor. To measure torque, the system has a built in power meter. Using those and the mode selected, it essentially matches your effort. You pedal harder, the system outputs more. When coasting the system is off.
An integrated approach
While riders can buy a Turbo Levo and go ride without anything else required, they can also personalize settings and run diagnostics thanks to an app that Specialized developed for the bike called Mission Control. Using the Bluetooth connectivity of the system’s brain located in the battery, Android and iOS users can adjust the level of assist in each mode, tune how quickly the assist is delivered, change modes, and run diagnostics on the battery and motor. The app also connects to Strava allowing you to automatically upload rides, even tagging them as e-bike rides.
The app also provides a setting called Smart Control where the rider inputs parameters based on duration or distance and preferred remaining battery life at ride’s end. By checking in with your phone every 10 seconds, the system will automatically adjust its level of output. For instance, you input that you would like to do a 30-mile ride and finish with 20% of battery charge left. Based on GPS information, to conserve battery life, the system will back off assist to ensure that you finish your ride with the requested battery charge. This essentially makes worrying about battery life a thing of the past.
Mission Control also displays battery and motor health, number of charge cycles performed and an odometer for the motor.
Specialized also worked with Garmin to allow Edge 1000, Edge 520 and Edge Explore 1000 users to pair with the Turbo Levo. Through Garmin’s Connect IQ app store, users can download a Specialized app that then displays assist mode, battery life, cadence, speed and power on screen. It also allows you to change assist modes on the Garmin’s touch screen instead of reaching down to the bike’s down tube buttons. For further ergonomic enhancement, Garmin’s Edge remote can be used to toggle between Turbo, Trail and Eco modes.
If you don’t have a newer Garmin, Specialized still has you covered. In the Mission Control app, you can use a 'fake channel' to display battery life using ANT+. It will show up in your cadence or power window, depending on what you select.
Battery charge time is three and a half hours from a completely flat battery to full. The custom lithium-ion battery is designed for 700 charge cycles, charging from empty to full. So, that’s nearly two years of riding every day using the battery completely each time out. Battery run times will depend on the modes used, rider weight and terrain, but typically 5,000 feet of elevation gain per charge is possible.
Hitting fast forward
Hitting trails, especially familiar ones, aboard an e-assist bike is as Specialized’s Sean Estes says “like fast forwarding through the commercials.” Climbs, pavement sections and traverses can be completed much faster, but downhills are at the same skill-based speed that a given rider would normally encounter. It brings the ratio of time spent on climbs and descents closer to 50/50.
This additional speed helps an e-assist bike rider to cover more ground per ride. For instance, on our second day of riding, we rode from our hotel in town to the top of Amasa Back and back. At the hotel, after lunch and a battery swap, we headed back out, riding from the hotel to the Slickrock Trail, playing for a long loop and riding home. Normally, either of those rides is an all-day ride. If tackling both, shuttles to the starts of the trails would certainly take place.
The 27.5+ tires are perfect for e-bike applications. The motor helps you to overcome the additional heft and the added footprint keeps the power moving you forward, not spinning the rear wheel. The wider tire also helps with control, something especially welcome when jumping aboard a bike that is 15 or more pounds heavier than your typical dual suspension mountain bike.
The Turbo Levo’s handling is excellent. If you’ve ridden the latest FSR 6Fattie, you’ll have a good idea. The Levo uses a 13.5in/342mm high bottom bracket, which is 11mm higher than the regular FSR 6Fattie. The Levo also uses shorter cranks to increase ground clearance — because you want to keep pedaling to keep the assist running, this becomes important.
While many scoff at the idea of an e-bike, it is worth noting that you still get a killer workout and one that you can adjust the level of electronic assist to your liking.
Wanna He-Man it? Turn down the assist to Eco mode and muscle the heavier e-bike up the climbs. Need an easy day after long travel or too much riding? Kick it up to Turbo. For most riding, the middle Trail setting is best. It doesn’t overdo the assist and seamlessly helps you overcome the additional weight of the battery and motor, while also giving you a boost that keeps things fun.
These settings are also useful as a handicapping tool. In a group of e-bike mounted riders, the fittest riders can do more work and the slowest riders can keep up on the climbs and flat sections. The fastest rider in your group ride will still be the fastest rider if your group was on Turbo Levos.
For the group of cycling journalists in attendance, we all noticed the extra miles and the bike’s extra weight in our arms, shoulders and upper backs. Clearing obstacles and piloting the Turbo Levo requires some work.
A hand-up or a handicap?
A conversation that came up as we pondered the Turbo Levo bikes was whether e-bikes are teaching good skills to new mountain bikers? Because you have the motor to help you out of tight squeezes, more obstacles are rideable. We all laughed at some of the ledges we were able to conquer. This will certainly instill confidence in tires and suspension, showing riders what a particular bike configuration is capable of. But the motor also allows you to approach a ledge with more caution, meaning that getting back on a regular mountain bike will require a recalibration and a refocusing on the momentum game that is so important.
On the upside, the Turbo Levo does like you to plan your shifts. With that much torque on offer, shifting under maximum load is unadvisable. The SRAM GX 1x11 drivetrain on the FSR Comp 6Fattie model did perform admirably in the sandy conditions but there were certainly some chunky shifts in our group when doing so under a big pedal load.
Mountain biking typically requires large spikes in torque and power for technical sections The Turbo Levo FSR rewards smoother delivery of power. Those spikes are greeted with a higher output from the bike’s motor but it can feel odd to pedal super hard out of the saddle, in a big gear.
Interestingly, while Specialized’s Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie bikes are certainly complex, I found myself just riding instead of worrying too much about suspension settings, gearing and the dropper post. On undulating terrain, you can leave the post just a tad low and the platform wide open and ride. This was much appreciated and leads me to believe that beginners will enjoy off road riding more by not having to constantly adapt their machine for the terrain ahead.
E-bike tips and tricks
Prior to riding, Specialized gave us some useful tips and tricks on riding the Turbo Levo. The first was to keep pedaling. The shorter crank arms mean that you’ll clear more than you think you might and that keeps the electric assist smooth. For quick stop/start situations, it’s better to brake while pedaling than it is to coast. This keeps the system working and ready for the next obstacle or hill.
Run a higher cadence, lower gear. The motor works better at a higher cadence. When dabbing, keep pedaling with other foot. It looks a bit funny, but it definitely helps.
You also need to tune the suspension around the heavier bike. Five psi or more should do it. Add two or three psi to the tires, too.
While they aren’t for everyone — or for every trail, please ride responsibly and only where e-mountain bikes are allowed — Specialized’s Turbo Levo FSR Comp is an impressive machine. It allows experienced mountain bikers to attempt new obstacles and cover more ground. Beginners can focus on skills instead of worrying about their fitness, something akin to the scores of people who visit lift-serve venues all over the world — the Levo just integrates that lift into the bike.
In terms of achieving the goals that Specialized set out for itself, this bike performs admirably. While certainly not cheap, it offers something entirely new, something that could appeal to many prospective mountain bikers as well as many current enthusiasts.