Thoughts on the Turbo Levo, a pedal assist electric mountain bike from Specialized
By Kurt Gensheimer
“Just try it.” I found myself saying those three words a lot to my friends over the past few months when they laid eyes on the none-more-black Specialized Turbo Levo, a curious machine I call a motorized off-road bicycle (MORB). The first reaction to my invite was a resounding “no way”, but after a couple minutes of cajoling and promising not to take a photo of them riding a MORB and posting it on the interwebs, they swung a leg over it and took off.
Every single person who rode the Turbo Levo came back with a smile on their face. Like my friend Jon said, “I’ve never not had fun on two wheels.” Obviously he’s never ridden a Segway, but my point is, even for purist mountain bikers who want to hate on MORBs, they have an undeniable novelty factor. Pedaling around with 530 watts of peak pedal assist electric power is like the hand of Jah giving you a gentle push from behind; it’s a sensation that’s hard to hate.
But based on a lot of interwebs banter, you’d think the introduction of MORBs is the reincarnation of Damien. The amount of hate these contraptions have generated in the mountain bike world ranks on the same level as those vocal Marin eco-zealots whose life goal is to keep mountain bikes off every single piece of singletrack in the county. While MORBs on non-motorized trails is a big no-no, especially in more densely populated areas, there are still many places where MORBs can be legally ridden. And one of those places is the mountain bike Mecca of Downieville.
For the past couple months I’ve been riding the Turbo Levo on numerous moto-legal trails around Downieville, shaking it down to see if this 48 pound behemoth is suited for gnar terrain and big rides. Although my buddy Evan called it a “48-pound dirt bike you can pedal”, it’s not that good. Yes, the Turbo Levo is fun, especially uphill on pretty steep pitches so long as it isn’t too technical. But once the terrain gets really steep and really technical, pushing a 48 pound hunk of battery and motor uphill is just as much a workout on your body as it is a workout for your lexicon of expletives.
The Turbo Levo can climb steeper and more technical terrain than your traditional mountain bike, but even the Turbo Levo has limitations. Because of its slack 66.5-degree head tube angle and abundant mid-ship weight down low where the battery and motor are, the front end of the Turbo Levo does not want to stay down, ever. You literally have to stick your crotch on the nose of the saddle to keep it planted, and even then, once the terrain gets steep, the weight it makes it want to flop over. Not a problem if the Turbo Levo had a throttle like a dirt bike, but because it’s only pedal assist, once the bike starts falling over, the next step is either turning around or pushing uphill.
Pointing the Turbo Levo downhill is moderately fun depending on the terrain. On wide open fire roads with big water bars to boost off, the Turbo Levo is a blast. All of that weight going downhill combined with 140mm front travel, 135mm rear travel and 27.5×3.0-inch tires makes it feel more like a mini dirt bike than a mountain bike. Because of the added weight and wider tires, the Turbo Levo has an insane amount of cornering bite and rolling speed, but because of the slack front end, the bike does like to plow in corners if you’re not in the front of the cockpit like when cornering a dirt bike.
In technical terrain, the Turbo Levo is much less enjoyable. One of the biggest criticisms of the Turbo Levo is its dangerously low bottom bracket. Although the crank spindle height is a respectable 12 inches off the ground, the frame itself hangs three inches lower, leaving the Turbo Levo with only nine inches of ground clearance. I’ve tagged a few rocks at speed with the bottom of the frame, and let me tell you, once a 48 pound bike changes trajectory, you’re simply along for the ride, going where it wants to go, and hopefully there isn’t a cliff involved.
Pedaling the Turbo Levo through sand is amazing, as it is effortlessly pedaling into a 20 mph headwind. The Turbo Levo is even great pedaling a flat tire five miles home because you forgot your hand pump. On the topic of flat tires, the stock Specialized Purgatory and Ground Control 27.5×3.0-inch treads are simply not up to the task for such a heavy machine. They’re tires designed for a mountain bike weighing 20 pounds less. Specialized was kind enough to send us a pair of Purgatory tires with their tougher Grid casing, but alas, even those tires suffered numerous punctures.
Of course the heart and soul of the Turbo Levo is its battery and motor. In typical Specialized fashion, the Turbo Levo sports a very beautiful and well thought out design. Most people wouldn’t even know it’s electrified; it looks like a mountain bike. The battery is totally integrated into the downtube, and the motor is packaged neatly into the bottom bracket area. As far as battery life, it’s not ready for big rides. Although most people will never tackle a 10-mile, 4,000 vertical foot ascent, in Downieville there’s climbs like that everywhere. Even when set at only 30 percent assist, after climbing for 90 minutes from town to the top of Empire Creek Trail, the battery was almost completely dead. Thankfully the ride home was almost all downhill, but I did run out of battery, and man, you do not want to pedal the Turbo Levo uphill with a dead battery. It feels like you’re towing a pissed off mule train.
The illuminated dial on the downtube shows remaining battery life and lets the rider set three assist levels, Eco (30 percent), Trail (60 percent) and full Turbo mode. For most moderate rides, Eco mode will get about five hours of ride time, Trail about half that and Turbo mode another half. But as I experienced, if there’s a lot of climbing involved, Eco mode will get you maybe two hours of riding. On the upside, it only takes about three hours to fully charge the Turbo Levo. There is also a Mission Control app for the Turbo Levo one can download to fine tune the bike, but really, I’m a Luddite, so I didn’t bother messing with the app very much.
Performance of the motor is only mildly irritating. Most of the time it works pretty seamlessly, but there is definitely some lag, which is acceptable. What’s not acceptable though is when the motor suddenly cuts out completely for as long as three seconds. Three seconds doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re downshifting on a super steep pitch trying to do everything you can to keep the bike moving forward and the motor cuts out, three seconds is an eternity.
The best way I can summarize riding the Specialized Turbo Levo is that while it makes the uphills more fun, it definitely does not make the downhills more fun. And when I ride, I ride for maximum downhill fun. When the Turbo Levo launched this past spring in Moab, Specialized founder Mike Sinyard was quoted as saying, “let the ride decide”. At least for this mountain biker, based on the ride, I don’t see myself buying a MORB anytime soon. But for some older folks or those with health conditions, it could be a great way to get out on MORB-legal trails and have a good time.
California Bill Categorizes E-Bikes
Last October, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 1096 that categorizes electric bicycles and where they are permitted. The bill was supported by PeopleForBikes, the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association (BPSA) and the California Bicycle Coalition, and creates three classes of e-bikes. Class 1 is pedal-assist with an assist limit of 20 mph. Class 2 is throttle-assist with an assist limit of 20 mph. Class 3 is pedal-assist, or a “pedelec” with an assist limit of 28 mph. Both Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes will be permitted on Class I Bikeways, or bike paths, defined by CalTrans as “a paved right-of-way completely separated from any street or highway.”
But the big question – does this legislation apply to trails? According to Morgan Lommele, e-Bike Campaigns Manager for the BPSA and PeopleForBikes, it does not. In a recent guest blog post for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) website, Lommele wrote, “Any claims that AB 1096 would create access for eMTBs on singletrack trails or other trails on public lands, whether they are currently open or closed to mountain bicycles, is inaccurate. Rest assured, AB 1096 does not open the door to unfettered and unmanaged eMTB recreation or jeopardize existing mountain bicycling access.”
Of course this bill does not pertain to singletrack trails legal for motorized use. However, unlike mopeds and dirt bikes, electric bikes in California are not subject to registration, licensing or insurance requirements. While some see this as good for the expanded use of MORBs, it should be noted that the California Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) program draws nearly $30 million annually through registration fees, all set aside for trail planning, development and maintenance. These funds are actively being used in the Downieville region by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship to maintain existing trails and build new trails for all trail users. The purchase of a MORB, which can cost as much or more than a dirt bike, contributes $0 to the OHV program. So for those in search of motor-assisted recreation, buying a dirt bike does more for the sustainability and support of trails in California than does buying a MORB.
To MORB or Not To MORB: THAT is the question
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