Vital MTB first rode the Specialized Turbo Levo e-bike in the summer of 2015 when the bike was announced to the public in Leogang, Austria. We went in deep with the technology on that trip and realized the bike had potential. Specialized gave us another chance to get some time on the e-bike in the mecca of MTB that is Moab. We decided to take them up on the offer for more hot laps on the pedal-assisted machine in a place we had experienced without a motor. AJ Barlas, a ripping, full-time Whistler area resident who was part of Vital MTB’s Test Sessions, recounts his first e-bike experience on the Turbo Levo. -gordo
The mountain bike industry has undergone some serious adjustments over the past five or so years. The entire sport has diversified significantly and with every change there has been obvious speculation. While there are still a number of 26-inch wheel die-hards out there, the new geometries available for 29ers have made them loads more fun than when the “26 ain’t dead” trend began. Oddly, the 27.5 wheel size seemed to roll into the mainstream with far less objection, and now 27.5+ wheels are marching onto showroom floors to the sound of crickets by relative comparison.
This doesn’t mean all new advances in the bike industry slide through easier than the first major 29er push, and the e-bike is definitely a very contentious topic for the modern biker. Any e-bike-related post by major media seems to wind up with a lot of abuse directed at both the publication and the bike, but is it really necessary? I have been skeptical of the e-bike movement and, quite frankly, have paid it little attention. Why? I think because I’m honestly happy to go out and watch my heart rate climb and enter the spirit world. Up to this point, however, I was also naive and uneducated on the whole segment… until I sat here in Moab.
Since the 29er onslaught years ago, I’ve personally attempted to look at all pieces of equipment within the industry with an open mind. Even if I know that something just isn’t my jam, I’ve learned there isn’t any point wasting time stressing about it. So with this open mind I went to the desert and swung a leg over Specialized’s pedal-assist bike (aka e-bike), the Turbo Levo. This not only meant riding something that I was somewhat skeptical about, but also revisiting a place that I swore I would never return to. Hear me out.
Rewind Of Regret
I visited Moab for the first time only two summers ago. It was part of a U.S. road trip my wife and I were doing, with the key focus being the Enduro World Series event held in Winter Park. With that race being held in July, it meant that our travels were during the warmest weather periods of the region. Despite this, we figured we would be able to get a good ride in Moab. Looking back, maybe we shouldn’t have even had it on the list of places to hit during the summer.
After a night in the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City, we awoke to realize that we had actually camped in the wrong valley. This resulted in a drive back down toward SLC, skirting its perimeter as we made our way east along the highway before dipping south through the mountains toward Moab. The cold morning in SLC was quickly forgotten when we arrived to the desert heat of Moab. Despite the heat, my stubborn Australian personality kept on with the plan to ride the following day.
That following morning we rode out from our campsite at 6:15AM in an effort to make the climb up to the beginning of Porcupine Proper before it got too hot. As it turned out, damage control started before we even got to the trailhead, thanks to the combination of heat and the long climb messing with my better half; frustrating her more than I ever could. It wasn’t until we got to the highest point that she really simmered down with the views helping ease the anxiety. Despite the slight mental reprieve, we knew we were in trouble given the heat and the realization that we had a long way to go.
In the end we made it out, and my wife did so in a better state. After five hours riding in the dry, desert heat, three of which were in temperatures over 100 degrees F (40C), I found myself putting on a brave face in an effort to keep the lady happy and her stress levels low. Little did she know that I could feel my tongue swelling which affected my speech. I was a little concerned to say the least. We made it down safely and I pinned it for the Colorado River, dumped my gear and got after that water, uranium and all! Once a little cooled and able to make a little more sense, I bolted ahead to the campsite, drank as much water as I could stand, loaded up the truck and we left town quicker than a caffeine-induced greyhound jumps the gate after that rabbit!
Needless to say it was a pretty different experience to what most of our mates kept telling us about—one of whom lived in Moab for a good number of years. Whether it was the trail, the heat, or a combination of both, we vowed to never come back as we drove out of town, guzzling chocolate milk and Gatorades (a combination I wouldn’t recommend and another lesson learned!). We felt that although scenic, we had a decent experience to remember and called it “done.”
Fast-forward two years and I find myself back in Moab, only this time early in the spring and riding bikes that make the terrain a little more interesting. In a town that has been fairly outspoken regarding their stance toward e-bikes on the trails, here I am swinging a leg over one for the first time and giggling like a little school girl when the power kicks in—all within a half block from the main street. E-bikes, meet America; America, meet e-bikes.
Fast-Forward To The Future
The weekend prior to our arrival in Moab is when the town’s numbers swell and many a local informed our group of the tourist infestation. For the locals, and the folks of Western Spirit, it’s the beginning of “go season.” Although it’s early days, we see car after car in town loaded up with bikes. It’s a good feeling knowing that there are this many of “our kind” around at the moment, but I can’t help but wonder whether what we’re here for changes their view of what “our kind” is.
Despite the town of Moab being generally against e-bikes on the mountain bike trails, the amount of diverse user groups here results in there being as much, if not more, trail available to the e-bike via the multi-use, motorized trails. With 4×4, moto, and quad trail systems in play all over the area, the three trails that we rode—which included the world-famous Slickrock trail—weren’t even the tip of the iceberg. This is important to note, because despite e-bikes being the latest topic for salty mountain bikers to hit the forums armed with all of their keyboard warrior rage, it’s not illegal anywhere that is either designated for motorized use, or on trails that utilize land where a landowner has given permission.
Still, our group can’t help but feel a little confused by it all when we’re looking for loops that utilize motorized vehicle trails. During the tour on the Specialized Turbo Levo (Turbo being their brand of electric, pedal assist bikes and Levo being the mountain bike category) many “regular” riders were completely unaware that we were on bikes any different to what they were riding. Actually the only time people noticed anything that had them taking a better look was when we stormed past them up the dirt roads, or made it up features that are damn-near-impossible for the mere mortal. That’s where the e-bike is pretty impressive. Outside of these traits, I felt that the Turbo Levo was still a mountain bike, just with a little assistance for, what many feel, is part of the ride only taken (uphills) to get to the goods (downhills).
I found myself looking at technical and steep features in a completely different frame of mind after only an hour aboard the Turbo Levo. Rather than approaching such features with little enthusiasm, I began scouting for possible ways up. On slightly easier inclines, finding the trickiest, most ridiculous way possible was the play—this all with a cheeky smirk. After two full days and over 62-miles (100km) on the bike, I continued to find myself cackling at the top of such stupidly-difficult features in disbelief that they were now attainable.
The e-bike (and plus-size tires), while not for everyone, can make inclines that are beyond a rider’s natural ability completely possible, and the awkward, steep, and rocky multi-use trails of Moab are a perfect location to showcase this. Neither the elevation or the dry desert air were enough to tire us out on the trails and we ended the days with more in the tank than we would have normally. This after pretty much coming from the couch. Was it all easy though? Definitely not!
Thanks to the motor and the big box section aluminum frame, which also includes an additional aluminum housing to hold the motor, the bike weighs considerably more and requires added effort to muscle it around. Take it to terrain that contains a lot of rough, square edges and drops like Moab, or put it beneath a rider that enjoys picking the bike up often and the realization of how unfit the upper body is sinks in rapidly. For the less-capable rider I don’t think this would be much of a concern, given that they’re not yet looking to move the bike around or ride technical terrain like the majority of you reading this. But if you’re a rider that likes to get zesty and flick the bike on the trail, bring your big guns, because they’re needed.
Even on the climbs, this additional bike weight results in a need for a more demanding technique to get up technical features. Thankfully as long as the cranks are spinning, the pedal-assist motor will keep the power to the floor, and the 27.5 x 3.0-inch tires deliver gob-loads of traction. Just like the rock-crawling 4x4s with their monster rubber seen in the Moab area, the extra volume of the plus-size tires aids in making the seemingly ridiculous possible. In Specialized’s configuration, the MTB e-bike experience seems similar to the experience on a trials motorcycle. The climbs become some of the most enjoyable parts of the ride, just lighter, quieter (it’s near dead silent), and without the smell of exhaust. If a trials moto has ever been appealing to you, considering an e-bike isn’t such a bad idea.
Overall, I had a blast ripping around Moab on the Specialized Turbo Levo, and I think that you’ll soon see these for rent in local shops. They’re a great match for many people visiting, whether a mountain biker or recreational motor vehicle. Personally, I feel like this is the only way I would spend any real time aboard a plus-size bike too. The pedal-assist and tire combination seems to be a match made in heaven, especially when riding in Moab’s terrain.
My second experience in Moab was one that I enjoyed far more than the first, and I owe a lot of that to having an e-bike beneath me. I greatly missed the feeling of sliding around in dirt, but the constant surprises on the chunky, ledgy features that the area is known for were very amusing.
An Eye-Opener, But Not For Everyone
Right now, the Turbo Levo is not for me, but I really learned to appreciate the bike and its capabilities. I had a lot of fun on a genre of bike that I previously had a lot of reservations around. E-bikes aren’t for everyone, that’s without a doubt, but they are a very suitable tool for a number of riders and applications. Who are we (the core MTBers) to sit and force an opinion down the throat of those that want to get their kicks in a slightly different way? If we all focused on our own enjoyment more than something we don’t agree with, everyone would be better off. After all, no one likes having a religion forced upon them, and while regular tires and human-power mountain bikes are my way of life, I, and you, are in no position to tell someone it is the only way. After all, variety is the spice of life, and e-bikes are the latest hot sauce.
At the end of the day the new wave of technology-rich bikes aren’t impacting the trails any more than regular mountain bikes. They’re not likely going away, and they open up our great sport to more people. If everyone were to have a go on one there would be guaranteed moments where the fun meter would be in the red zone, causing many a rider to reconsider their stance on e-bikes.