Specialized Turbo: this one is all about speed…and style

It was a classic e-bike-versus-pedal-bike moment. The guy on the road bike was ahead by a few blocks, but lo and behold, by the time he reached the next intersection, he had fallen behind our e-bike. As he stopped next to us at the red light, he not only looked exasperated but downright befuddled. If we could read his mind, he was probably asking himself, “How could some overweight, dorky-looking guy on that city bike catch and pass me on my carbon wonder bike?!”
Being the honest guys that we are, we couldn’t let the guy torture himself any longer. “You know that it’s a cheater, right?” When our admission didn’t seem to register, we went the extra distance, “It’s an electric bike.” Mystery solved.
Welcome to the Specialized Turbo—no doubt, one of the best-looking electric bikes on the market today.

FROM THE BEGINNING

As most people in the bike industry know, Specialized is not a company that does anything with less than a full-on effort. And yes, it’s definitely rare that they’re found sitting on the sidelines while any two-wheel trend emerges, but that’s just what they did with the e-bike market. Though e-bike sales in Europe had been in full swing for almost a decade, Specialized thought it best to wait and see what kind of consumer and technology trends emerged. Knowing that Europe was driving the direction of e-bike technology and usage, in 2010, Specialized sent one American engineer packing to join a Turbo-dedicated team in Switzerland. After two years spent penciling frame designs and studying battery technology, the first iteration of their fast-looking Turbo hit European shores last year.
In the spring of 2013, the Turbo finally arrived in America where it became an immediate talking point in the still-nascent domestic e-bike market. Available in four sizes, the Turbo made waves as much for its styling as its $6000 asking price.

THE DETAILS

For their entry into the market, Specialized sought to deliver a bike that was made up of as much proprietary design as possible. As lead engineer Amber Lucas commented, “We’re bike freaks at Specialized, and it was important that we created a bike that we would and could be passionate about. When the first Turbo arrived and it ended up winning one of our lunch rides, well, we knew we had a bike worthy of being a Specialized.”
The Turbo begins life with a stout, curvaceous aluminum frame that rides on 700c wheels mounted with fat, 45c, slick tires. As is obvious from looking at all the bikes in this magazine, bike makers are choosing one of two places to mount their motor: in the rear hub or in the bottom bracket. Given the intended (road) use of the Turbo, Specialized opted for the former, because rear hub weight is not an issue on pavement and is also less impactful on the drivetrain. The motor has a 250-watt nominal rating (the power that can be sustained), with an allowance for spikes of up to 700 watts. To maintain its legally recognized status as a bicycle, there is no throttle on the Turbo; all forward movement is a result of your legs turning circles. Aiding in this department is the SRAM XO rear derailleur and 11-speed gear cluster mated to a single 48 tooth chainring.
In their typical attention to detail, the Turbo has something “cool” to find at every turn. The carbon fork with a 15mm thru-axle was a nice touch, as is the high-end headlight, which is standard equipment. Giving some credence to the retail price would be the high-end Magura hydraulic disc brakes with nicely sculpted carbon brake levers.

THE RIDE

The first thing we noticed about the Turbo is that, as the name implies, it is fast. Really fast. Okay, not freeway-speed fast, but fast enough that riding in the Turbo mode makes pedaling along at 28 mph relatively easy. The initial torque surge was actually enough to catch a few unsuspecting riders by surprise. What was also surprising was the level of physical workout we could get by trying to sustain that speed—don’t be fooled, there’s a reason these bikes are called “pedal assist.”
“For me,” the test rider said, “there is a pain scale when climbing. It starts with a little burn, elevates to my heart rate pounding, jumps to gasping for breath, and tops out at misery. The Turbo slices misery off the top, but leaves everything else.”
However, we also discovered a rather abrupt fall-off in the level of “assist” when we were in any mode other than Turbo. At full assist, the 50-pound bike feels “light” underneath you, but decrease the assist by even just one level and it suddenly feels like you’re pedaling a pro-level downhill mountain bike. Our best test came with a 200-pound rider on board who rode an 11-mile loop with 3000 feet of climbing. The ride took him 36 minutes to complete, and in the process, the battery dropped from 90 percent capacity to 20 percent, whereby he also realized that in a power-saving move, the Turbo mode ceased to kick in anymore.
Underneath a more adept roadie, there was nothing but praise when it came to tackling a steep hill. “It didn’t feel like pedal assist,” he said. “It felt like divine intervention! I don’t know what I was expecting from this bike, but it wasn’t this. It was really fun to ride.”

THE VERDICT

On more than one occasion we heard people who were looking at the Turbo ask what type of person would spend $6000 for an electric assist bike. The irony, of course, was that these same people were aboard $6000 (and up) carbon bikes with no power assist! Specialized said they are selling well, and for 2014, there will be a blacked-out version joining the Ferrari Red model we tested.
Like all the pedal-assist e-bikes we tested, every regular, performance-oriented cyclist (whose daily commute was outside the range of the Turbo) who rode the Turbo came away impressed—and smiling from ear to ear. To a man, none felt there was a place for a $6000 e-bike in their own stable (they preferred to save the $6000 for their next pedal bike), but everyone knew who the bikes could be perfect for: the rider who just wanted to go somewhere, the rider who cares about the destination rather than the ride. For sure, e-bikes are perfect for commuters or anyone with a physical limitation. One test rider did make the smart observation: “I would rather they spent less on the bicycle parts and provided a second battery so I could ride to the coast, switch to the new battery and then ride home. www.specialized.com

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