Specialized Turbo Levo
By Alex Boyce
If there is one bike brand determined to maintain a pioneer status when it comes to mountain bikes, it would be Specialized. Long known for the impact that their original Stumpjumper had on the still-infant sport back in 1982, though not always successfully, Specialized has nonetheless fought hard to lead in every new dirt bike category.
And so it remains true in the world of e-bikes. When they first rolled out their Levo back in 2014, no other big bike brand at the time had anything to compare, and in few the years since, the bike has only gotten better.
For 2019 Specialized brought a pool of journos to Croatia to get a first-hand look at the new Turbo Levo. It’s based around 29-inch hoops and both a carbon and aluminum frame with a completely new form factor. Headline specifications include a 700 Wh battery and Brose’s latest S-Mag motor, which was developed with Specialized and is given the 2.1 denomination.
Specialized used their latest frame-styling techniques borrowed from both their modern downhill bikes and the Stumpjumper. The mid-frame cross-brace of the carbon front triangle is just enough to add the right stiffness for the frame and shock support. The down-tube is very slim, and in the flesh it looks like a “normal bike.” We always like the low level of clutter on the handlebar, with their new display and just a small functional remote that is the best on
One key feature of the Levo is the range of adjustability to accommodate different wheel sizes. The 150mm travel fork can be extended to 160mm, with a fork upgrade for use with 27.5-plus-inch tires and a Flip Chip on the rear that adjusts the bottom bracket height accordingly.
The Brose motor is not only slimmer and lighter, but better integrated and optimally placed in the frame. The big S decided to stick with an 11 -speed drivetrain because they felt the 12-speed is unnecessary, and the heavier weight of the 12-speed cassette was not to the product manager’s liking.
Performance as much as style are always at the top of the list for Specialized, and the numbers behind their “stiffer, faster, better” claims are essentially a 66-degree head angle and longer reach compared to the previous models. The numbers follow Specialized’s range philosophy with handling being about stable speed and manageability. Their chainstay length is not a world-beating short stay, but it’s very good for a “quick in the corners and stable on the climbs” performance. The reach is long enough that the rider doesn’t feel cramped if they like to get aggressive, but not so long that one might feel overstretched.
This is where a lot of energy, design and research have taken place. First, the designers have ditched to the old-style cradle that held the motor; the motor is now directly attached to the frame. This creates space and also reduces weight, which has allowed Specialized to increase the battery capacity, working in conjunction with a new cell specification, 21700. This is where Tesla has decided to go with their car batteries. They are larger and actually cheaper to produce. The 700 Wh is a lot of juice!
Let’s be clear from the outset, we turbo’d around all day, and only at the very end of the day after non-stop riding did we get to 10-percent power left. It’s one of the longest-lasting batteries we have ever used, and it really shocked us how much energy we had left. We have tried a lot of combinations across the market, and this is a new battery performance standard that should make other brands pay attention.
The 2.1 Specialized motor, which is based around a magnesium case and Specialized’s own custom software, is fundamentally the best e-bike motor we have tried. It’s quiet, smooth, has endless power support throughout the cadence range, and consumes an acceptable amount of current (i.e., doesn’t suck the battery). As you ride uphill and reach the limit of the power compared to other motors, the Specialized 2.1 motor keeps on pushing, making climbing more fun than ever before.
The motor’s different power modes are very complementary to rider inputs and are tunable via the app. It’s not a free ride; you have to tell the bike what to do with your legs, but its sensitivity is excellent. When you pass the assist boundary, the transition is very smooth, also the power application sensation is one of the best we have felt to date.
Electronics have been moved to the top of the top tube, and this is where you find a small LED plastic display. It’s a reasonable solution, although we still prefer no display at all, but what is cool is within the app you can turn all the lights off and ride around in stealth mode. Alternatively, with the three LED combination, you can see which power mode you are in and how much battery is left.
“They have updated it with this version, and the rest of the industry is going to have to play catch-up for a while.”
We quizzed Specialized on hacking the electronics to make it go faster or whatever many riders try to do to their bikes to circumvent the speed rules. The system is now basically closed. All the apps around won’t be able to hack the bike in the same way as before. You need a PIN, which is printed on the bike to attach your app to the bike. We think this is all a good thing, because even dealers can’t hack the bike anymore; they can only access the bike’s settings according to the country they are in.
Also, it’s worth noting if you do try and hack the bike, your warranty is void and Specialized will know you did it. The intelligence of the system has jumped up quite a few levels. Also, your data is safe. Nothing you do with your rides or bike is shared with anyone, thanks to new European GDPR rules.
WHO IT’S MADE FOR
Based on price alone, the is an easy question to answer—the Levo is intended for the serious rider. However, this question gets harder to answer as time develops, because it seems each new Levo becomes a benchmark for the next year or two in the industry. The Levo will appeal to those who like to ride hard and verge on the more performance-oriented side rather than just cruising around and blasting descents.
The top-of-the-range version is pricey at $10,000+. The Expert level, which we tested, is more accessible and comes with the 700 Wh battery.
We rode a lot in every direction in Istria, Croatia. Our rides started in the morning and finished in the late afternoon. We rode up and down on some very beautiful trails, and no one changed their battery.
That was our first impression, then technically we found ourselves riding with a different feel compared to a 27.5-plus-inch bike. Roll-over uphill is smoother, grip, though, is similar we think, but the sustainability of the power inputs from your legs on steep climbs is greater due to improved motor performance as it cuts in. Gear shifting uphill is one click, so no chain grinding anymore. Cornering uphill is smooth and balanced, rider position is where you would expect to maintain forward momentum in difficult corners, and it rides much like a Stumpjumper, which is a good thing. We found shifting to be less straining on the chain, as you can only click one gear at a time, while the gear range fitted our desire for what we typically ride from a ratio point of view.
DOWNHILL AND TRAIL
Our test rides included lots of short trails and some Italian-style wooded descents with some rocky chutes and trails. A mix of riding gave us a good understanding of the balance of the bike and what you can do with it.
The Turbo Levo is not like other 29er bikes on the market that we’ve ridden. With the 2.6-inch tires and wide rims, it added to the 150mm of travel and updated geometry to give it a supple and smooth ride. We would like to tune the fork a bit for our own preferences, and we didn’t spend as much time on suspension settings as we would like; we were too busy riding, eating and enjoying the location.
The open head angle and specification of the frame layout give the rider a definite aggressive feeling if they want it. You don’t feel overstretched or uncomfortable, and the neutral point of balance on the bike is quite wide, which is a good thing. It gives the rider the ability to play more and move around above the frame, looking for a different feeling at different points of control they need not worry about to actually remain in control of the bike.
As the trail changes from up and down, the rider has a machine that adapts well to the different possibilities, stand up on the pedals to boost yourself through some trail sections or blast down steep sections; the new Levo has you covered. After one section in the trail network that got very rough rocky and fast, we found ourselves flying along probably on the edge of control and sanity, but never out of control. The larger wheel size gives you added stability and a sense of security when it gets sketchy.
Hanging off the back of the bike with larger wheels means we had a bit more contact with our shorts scraping the rear wheel. Maybe we were riding faster on steeper trails and were over-compensating. Whatever it was, we were super happy with what we could achieve on the test trails with the Levo.
Eventually, we’ll need more time on our home trails to really understand what the designers have come up with compared to the rest of the market. There are lots of new ideas in this product that need exploring and defining better. We felt there was a greater performance envelope to explore within the ride characteristics that we experienced during the short time testing.
During our time on the Levo, we found ourselves contemplating life and bikes. Our conclusion was simple—if this is the next stage on the road of bike electrification, then we are all going to have to accept that e-bikes are going to take over. Specialized is one of the market leaders. They have created their vision of what an e-bike should be four years ago with the first Levo. They have updated it with this version, and the rest of the industry is going to have to play catch-up for a while.
The open head angle and new layout gives the rider a definite aggressive ride feeling if they want it. You don’t feel over-stretched or uncomfortable on board, and the neutral point of balance on the bike is quite wide, which is a good thing. This gives the rider the ability to play more with the bike and move around more in the sweet spot of the bike’s balance. If you are experimenting with body positioning and trying to find the limit in corners or on jumps or climbs, the bike remains stable and gives constant positive feedback about where it is heading and what will happen next.
2019 SPECIALIZED TURBO LEVO
MSRP: Base, $4900; Comp Alloy, $5900; Comp Carbon, $6900; Expert, $8200; S-Works, $12000
Motor: Brose S-Mag, 250W mid-drive
Battery: 36V, 700 Wh
Charge time: 4–5 hours
Top speed: 20 mph
Range: 20-40 miles
Drive: SRAM XG-1175, 11-speed, 10-42t
Brakes: Code-R, 200mm rotors
Controls: 3-LED ride mode display, APP. Handlebar remote with walk assist.
Fork: RockShox Pike RC29, 150mm
Frame: FACT 9m Carbon w/M5 alloy rear triangle, 29 Trail Geometry
Tires: Butcher Gripton, 29×2.6”
Weight: 43.78 lb. (19.9 kg)
Color choices: Carbon/Monster Green, Stomr Grey/Rocket Red Sizes: 17”