Electric Love | Life on the Specialized Turbo Levo

The Advent of Pedal Assist Mountain Bikes

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Our $5500 2016 Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie test bike. Photo by swap

A little backstory to precede my impressions of the Specialized Turbo Levo mountain bike if you will…

Years ago, when my dad was almost 70 years old, he caught the mountain biking bug and in order to spend time with him, my brothers and I also jumped headfirst into the world of pedals and knobbies. The climbing and suffering aspect of the sport didn’t appeal to us at all, and we often had mom drive us all to the top of Angeles Crest Highway so that we could ride downhill, all the way to our home in the foothills of Altadena, California. The times we spent riding with dad are some of the best memories of my life (he actually raced the Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze at 68!), but when he passed away it was pretty easy for me to lose interest in mountain biking.

Dad and I at the Moab Slickrock trail, circa 1992.
Dad and I at the Moab Slickrock trail, circa 1992.

Flash forward to three years ago, and that dreaded doctor’s appointment that all men in their 40s are supposed to have. You know, the one that includes a prostate check? To my dismay, my doctor told me that I was overweight, had high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol. Say what? He wrote me three prescriptions and gave me a pamphlet on becoming vegan. Long story short: after two days on the pills and a horrible motocross race in which I pulled off on lap five because I was tired, and I took my trusty old mountain bike down from the garage rafters and headed for the hills. It was time to exercise, for real!

Over the past three years, I’ve gone from being a 196-pound sumo hopeful that had to stop every half mile or so to rest, to a 175-pound bicycling fanatic. Cycling has improved every aspect of my life from my overall health, to the way I sleep; to my daily mood; to the way I ride a dirt bike. (And all of my health woes have cleared up without meds!) I still go really slow and look like a fat ass in lycra, but the bottom line is that bicycles have saved my life. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but you get the picture.

Back in April, I attended the annual Subaru Sea Otter Classic at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California. In addition to being there to turn in a miserable finish in the Men’s Cat 3 Cross Country race, I always like to walk the massive festival to check out the latest and greatest in the bicycle world. (One of my favorite things to do with dad back in the day was to peruse all of the anodized aftermarket parts at the bike shop, and waste money on cosmetic chi chis that didn’t improve my performance one bit.) In the days preceding the Sea Otter Classic, I had caught wind of the event’s inaugural pedal-assist race. A pedal-assist bicycle is equipped with an electric motor that can – in some instances – be controlled with a throttle. Talk about cheating! I was vehemently against the concept and spent much of the drive to Monterey Bay making fun of the concept with my carpool buddies.

The Specialized Turbo Levo, on display at the Sea Otter Classic.
The Specialized Turbo Levo, on display at the Sea Otter Classic.

As I cruised the festival, I stopped by to see my old friend Sean Estes, who runs the show in the mountain bike division at Specialized Bikes. We met years ago when Estes worked for Easton and the brand sponsored the Yamaha of Troy team with its massive oversized aluminum handlebars, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. When I asked him what was the big news for the brand at the show, he enthusiastically began to tell me all about the Specialized Turbo Levo pedal-assist mountain bike. ‘The power to ride more trails,” was the Turbo Levo catch phrase, and as my friend went on and on about how cool the Turbo Levo was, I interrupted him. “Okay, you’re either a great salesman or you really believe this stuff,” I said, still skeptical about the e-bike trend. That’s when he dropped the bomb on me…he was sending a test bike to TransWorld Motocross for us to play around on.

Now, I am all about trying out every bike – motorized or pedal – that shows up on our doorstep at TWMX, but after spending the better part of the previous three years building a fitness base that has allowed me to accomplish things on a bike that I never thought possible, the last thing I wanted to do was get spoiled on a bike that would do all the work for me.

That’s where I was wrong. The Turbo Levo is a mountain bike that has electric pedal assist…it is NOT a motorcycle, or anything even close to it. The battery powered electric motor only puts out a maximum of 530 watts, with an average of 250 watts when you push on the pedals. What does this mean? The Turbo Levo basically matches the effort that you put in – it will not do the riding for you. Sure, it can – in theory – make you twice as fast as you would be without pedal assist, but the bottom line is that you have to put in the work to make the bike go. The bike has no throttle, and power is only applied to the drivetrain when the torque sensors in the bike detect rider input at the pedals and movement at the rear wheel.

Of course, the first time I took the bike out, I set the Turbo Levo on the most aggressive setting. There are three basic settings: Eco, Trail, and Turbo…I chose Turbo. On Monday nights after work, we have a fairly good group of guys that cycle through the Calavera Hills trails near our office. Truth be told, a wide grin crept across my face when I roosted up the first climb, passing everyone in the group, including multi-time MTB National Champion Victor Sheldon. A few minutes into the ride, I began to feel shameful, though, as I was barely breaking a sweat while my friends huffed and puffed in full suffer mode. Curiosity about the bike was high, though, and when we reached the mid-point of our usual ride, I let several guys try the Levo out.

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BIKE Magazine General Manager Adam Watkins changed his tune about pedal-assist bikes after one run of a rocky hill aboard the Turbo Levo.

It’s a little-known fact that BIKE Magazine is our sister publication, and the title’s General Manager Adam Watkins is one of my favorite guys to pedal with. The insults and jokes from him about me riding a pedal-assist bike flowed like fine wine throughout the first half of our ride, but the look on Watkins’ face was priceless after I let him take a spin on the Turbo Levo. He wouldn’t admit to actually liking it, but he didn’t talk any crap after his brief time on the bike. Haha! For the second half of the ride, I turned the power to its lowest setting and found that I could still get my heart rate up there if I put forth a good effort.

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So that’s what it feels like to be a badass!

My next ride on the Turbo Levo came on my home trail in Corona. Skyline is a miserable fire road that varies between a 5-11% grade as it climbs to the Main Divide that separates Riverside and Orange Counties in the Cleveland National Forest. It’s about four miles to the top, and it’s the climb that I do most often to get in a great workout. On one afternoon, I needed to gather video footage of GEICO Honda’s Justin Bogle for the Doc Renegade video series that we were contracted to produce. The episode I was working on involved shadowing Bogle throughout one of his typical days in California. The day started out with a trip to the Lucas Oil studios to do some interviews for the National MX broadcast shows, then a trip to Orange County for an appointment with Doc G, and ended with a climb on Skyline with his trainer, National Champion MTB racer Ryan Federow. Knowing well that it would be impossible to keep the duo in sight up Skyline, I brought the Turbo Levo so that I could keep up and film while riding with them. Truth be told, it was pretty easy to keep up and I didn’t really break a sweat as I rode behind, next to, and in front of them with my camera. Going that fast up my normal hill did peak my interest, however, and I planned a full-effort trip the next day.

Ironically enough, when I returned to Skyline the next day and powered up the hill as fast as I could with the Turbo Levo in turbo mode, I passed Joel Titius, the guy who holds down the King of the Mountain honors at Skyline on the Strava cycling app. For comparison’s sake, my personal best time up the climb is 41 minutes. With the Levo, I still elevated my heart rate to the same levels and found myself breathing as hard as I usually do, but I reached the peak in a mere 19 minutes and change, some six seconds quicker than Titius. When I crossed paths with him on my way down, he laughed and asked if I had stolen his KOM, then encouraged me to let the new record stand. I didn’t of course, but it blew me away to think that someone could actually go that fast without the benefit of pedal assist. Oh, to be young, strong, and thin! Joel – you’re a badass!

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The Turbo Levo proved to be a gateway drug for my good friend, Kevin Stevens.

After some reflection on my race up Skyline, I decided that “The Power To Ride More Trails” really was a great slogan for the Specialized Turbo Levo. Having gotten quite the workout on the bike on my KOM-stealing jaunt up the hill, I realized that I could have ridden further, to the Hagador Towers, to expend the same amount of total energy it normally takes me to get to the top of Skyline on my “traditional” bike. It was all beginning to make sense…

A few weeks later, my friend Kevin Stevens checked in with me. A few weeks into a declared “lifestyle change,” Kevin was a few pounds into his self-imposed “I don’t wanna die” weight-loss challenge. Kevin has been a big guy for as long as I’ve known him, but one day something snapped (it wasn’t his belt) and he decided that it was time to live a healthier lifestyle. A better diet and daily exercise on a spin bike that he picked up on Craig’s List were in order, but I encouraged him to get back out onto the trails on his mountain bike. Ironically enough, I had sold him my old mountain bike a year or so earlier, and we had gone on a few short rides together. That all came to a halt when he snapped the subframe in half one day. Though I helped him get a replacement, he was too scared to break it again and had parked his mountain bike.

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That’s the look most people get on their faces when they first ride the Specialized Turbo Levo…

One afternoon, I finally coaxed Kevin into joining me on a ride through Chino Hills State Park. I brought the Turbo Levo for him to ride. Needless to say, he was blown away by the functionality of the bike, and he got a great workout as we completed a 26-mile ride through the hills. Like me, he found that he was able to get his heart rate up if he put forth a good effort on the Levo, and being able to go on a ride of that magnitude opened up a whole new world for my friend. Unlike the short jaunts he used to take up and down the main fire road, his first ride on the bike routed him up and down the fun singletracks that spread out through the hills on both sides of the park. I let Kevin keep the bike and ride it several more times, and he declared that it was his goal to someday be able to do such rides on a traditional mountain bike. I’m proud to say that he has since purchased a Specialized Epic cross country (non-motorized!) mountain bike, has lost 40 pounds, and can join me on my longer rides with shocking ease!

 

Turbo Levo changes lives.
Turbo Levo changes lives.

Having seen what the Turbo Levo did for Kevin, a great idea popped into my head. It’s been over 20 years since I rode mountain bikes with my oldest brother Jon, who is now retired, and has had a knee replacement, and a triple bypass heart surgery. With the good times we used to have together fresh in my memory, I convinced him to join me for a ride through Chino Hills on my Turbo Levo. Though we didn’t attack the downhills like we used to, getting to ride alongside my big brother again was amazing, and like Kevin before him, he found that the Levo made it possible to enjoy the sport of mountain biking at a level he wouldn’t have been able to on a standard mountain bike.

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Thanks to the Specialized Turbo Levo, my brother Jon was able to experience mountain biking again after many years away.

The next day, I posted this same photo on my Instagram and told the story about riding with Jon again, after so many years. Though the majority of the comments were supportive, I did have a couple harsh replies that were similar to the closed mind I myself had a couple months earlier. “Rad bike, cool technology, it can help some folks get outside, but in no way should it be on the trails. It is a moped, not a bicycle!” read one of the comments.

Mountain bikers, by and large, are tree huggers. Think about it; you’re outside, enjoying the benefits of exercise and surrounded by all that nature has to offer. Of course, there’s gonna be a lot of resistance from purists and elitists who think a pedal-assist bike is cheating; a motorcycle that will tear up trails and disturb the wilderness. Don’t believe me? Do a google search on pedal-assist bikes and you’ll see plenty of editorials from credible journalists who feel that if you are not in shape to pedal a standard bicycle, you don’t deserve to be out there at all. I’ve encountered some hate from fellow cyclists while I was out playing on the Turbo Levo, sure, but I’ve always made sure to only ride the bike on trails that are approved for motor vehicle use. And it’s always pretty gratifying to pass your haters going downhill, where the Levo boasts no advantage…

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Troy Lee himself is a huge advocate of the Specialized Turbo Levo and has likely sold over a dozen bikes for the brand with his enthusiasm. This is his personal ride, which is rumored to be the platform for a special TLD-edition that will be available in 2017.

But what is it like to ride the Turbo Levo? As I said before, the amount of assistance that the battery powered electric motor offers is completely tuneable. Specialized’s Mission Control app for smartphones connects via Bluetooth to the bike and allows you to really fine tune the bike’s response, acceleration, and power output. In the right (conservative) settings, I’ve managed to squeeze a 70-mile ride through the mountains out of my Levo. Based on the Specialized Stumpjumper, the Turbo Levo handles much better than you’d expect a 50-pound bike to, thanks to its generous suspension travel and confidence-inspiring 6Fattie tire platform. (The 3″ wide tires, in fact, are so amazing that I purchased a similarly equipped Stumpjumper 6Fattie of my own after riding the Levo.) The Levo is so comfortable descending, in fact, that I have used it to test run several tricky downhills near my home before attempting it on a “normal” bike. Furthermore, it makes downhill repeat runs much more manageable!

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Tom Milan, a legend in the Canyon Lake trail system.

Most recently, I loaned the Turbo Levo to Tom Milan, father of Garth Milan, my dear friend who I launched TransWorld Motocross with, some 16 years ago. Garth has gone on to become one of the most renown photographers in action sports, but we’ve kept in contact since his departure. Tom has been a gnarly mountain biker for as long as I can remember, and he has built much of the popular Canyon Lake trail system himself. Now in his 70s, Tom has found it tough to keep up with his younger riding buddies recently, and when Garth told me he was considering a pedal-assist bike I quickly offered ours up. Needless to say, Tom loved the Turbo Levo and was delighted to find that it allowed him to once again enjoy the sport that he loves so much. The best news I got about his time on our test bike, was that it allowed he and Garth to enjoy a long ride through the Big Bear trail system together. Last I heard, Tom is in the market for a Levo of his own.

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Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze Games hosted its first-ever pedal-assist MTB race in 2016. Photo by Carly Lee


Ther Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze Games is a popular mountain bike festival that includes racing of all disciplines on the world-famous mountain, and in 2016 it included a pedal-assist race for the first time ever. Spearheaded by Troy Lee (yes, that Troy Lee), the Electric Boogaloo was an invitational race that pitted 32 racers against each other in a Supercross-style format. (Four heats, two semis, and a main event.) With a personal invitation from Troy to compete, I made the six-hour drive to Mammoth with my fully charged Levo in the back of my truck. A little apprehensive about lining up next to guys like Victor Sheldon, Evander Hughes, and more, I found myself running in qualifying position early in my heat race. Out of breath and feeling like my heart might explode out of my chest, I felt a sense of relief when a skinny guy in lycra passed me on the uphill. My heart sank when Mike Metzger began to slow and I passed him and moved back into an advancing position, but I was off the hook when I got stuffed back to fifth at the finish, two turns before the checkered flag. In the main event, Victor Sheldon prevailed over Evander Hughes, proving that even on pedal-assist bikes, the fastest and fittest guys win.

So, you ask, am I a believer in the Specialized Turbo Levo? Hell yes, I am. Though it is rarely my first choice when I go into my garage to grab a bicycle to ride, I am not really its target consumer. For the right cyclist, the Turbo Levo opens up a whole new world of possibilities. The pedal-assist revolution is here to stay, folks, and Specialized seems to have a big head start when it comes to producing a great-looking, great-performing e-bike.

CLICK HERE for more information on the Specialized Turbo Levo.