Disclaimer: When an invite simply entitled “Back to the Future” came in from Specialized to go to Moab, Utah, for a few days to test out a new bike that it dubbed “the latest technological breakthrough in mountain biking,” it was the worst kept secret in the industry. This was the U.S. launch of the brand’s new, off-road specific e-bike. Heck, this super high-zoot Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie was already on the company’s website. Some media flat out declined participation and I almost did, as well. But, after some internal discussions at Dirt Rag headquarters I realized it was my responsibility as a journalist to attend so I could intelligently explain my stance on e-bikes with this experience in my pocket rather than having to shrug my shoulders when asked, “well have you ever ridden one?” (Until now, I had not.)
Here are nine things I learned:
1. E-bikes are fine (and fun) on OHV trails
Make no mistake, I had fun. But, I also fully believe in and support limiting e-bikes to OHV (off-highway vehicle) trails. The bike I rode isn’t the rattle-can e-bike we’ve seen from some other companies; it’s such a cutting-edge, extremely fast bike that savvy mountain bikers can actually keep up with and even pass dirt bikers on slower, technical trails. Specialized’s Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie is a full-on trail bike that you can go really fast on.
2. It does have a throttle
I was scolded for making throttle twisting motions with my right hand and talking about pinning it before I actually rode the bike. Sure, there is no twist throttle, but it’s still a throttle—only through pedaling to gain extra acceleration and power. But you have to give to get back. The harder you pedal, the more you’ll get in return power. The power is also adjustable with Eco, Trail and Turbo modes to meter output and battery life.
During the presentation, there were some mixed messages. The usual condescending phrases like “wives, girlfriends (or both), less fit or out of shape people and older riders who can’t keep up” were explained as target buyers, as well as concepts like, “This is a bike for everyone. With pedal assist you can do your normal four hour loop in two hours if you drill it—those long rides are now lunch rides thanks to so much additional speed uphill and on the flats.”
And then we went out and rode some of Moab’s really hard trails really fast: Sovereign, Amasa Back and Slickrock. Without a high level of experience you could get in real trouble riding one of these. The rides were not beginner-friendly, plus you had to pedal hard and work a near 50-pound bike through difficult terrain to get the benefits. And be careful with a soft half pedal on super tight switchback—the motor will kick in and lurch you forward.
3. In the proper setting, the Specialized Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie is really fun
Face it, we all like to go fast and that’s very possible on the Specialized. It uses the same chassis design and suspension as the standard Stumpjumper FSR 6Fattie with custom tuned damping for the additional weight (the Expert shown here is 48.5 pounds, size medium without pedals). It has normal trail bike geometry and a “classic” parts spec consisting of a SRAM XX1 or X01 drivetrain, depending on price point. It works and feels just like a mountain bike.
4. It’s hard work to ride one
Specialized explained it this way: “We didn’t want an electric bike; we wanted a mountain bike with pedal assist.” That’s exactly what this is. If you stop pedaling, the motor shuts off. What you put in is what you get back from the motor. “You get your watts back; if you push harder you get more power,” says Specialized.
But, just because there is a device on the bike that limits power depending on rider input rather than a twist throttle doesn’t make it not an e-bike. It is still an e-bike, just with a pedal-controlled throttle.
Speaking of, average power return is 250 watts but with some work you can reach a 500-watt return. In order to comply with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations and qualify as an electric bicycle and not a motor vehicle in the U.S., there’s a speed limiter and it’s 20 mph. Go above that and you’re pedaling all under your own power. No matter how much I wished and tried, the rear wheel wouldn’t kick up a rooster tail of dirt at any power under acceleration. The bike isn’t any easier to wheelie under power, either. It is, in fact, harder to wheelie.
It also takes a bit of relearning to ride one. The best way is to never stop pedaling, with a higher-than-normal cadence. Also, accelerate up to and over tricky terrain. To accommodate this style, the slight geometry changes are a 7 mm higher bottom bracket matched to 170 mm cranks (almost all mountain bikes have 175 mm crank lengths) for better ground clearance while pedaling. Everyone there also ran their Specialized Command dropper posts one click down while climbing and on flatter sections (about 10 mm lower than normal ride height); it was just more effective for some reason.
After two days of multiple rides I was pretty cooked because, indeed, I didn’t stop pedaling. I was on an electric assist bike so of course I wanted all the power I could get to go as fast as I could. Additionally, because of the weight, I was also using a lot more upper body strength to muscle the thing up and over stuff compared to a “normal” mountain bike.
While I was generally missing being on my “classic bike” (what Specialized has taken to calling the normal mountain bike we all know and love) a change of opinion came on Slickrock. With so much traction on those steep pitches, the assist was awesome to power up and over everything (note that Slickrock is open to motor vehicles and that motorcycle riders mapped out most of the original loops).
5. This is next-level technology
Specialized has never held back with cutting-edge technology and this is no exception. The aluminum frame has a downtube cutout that houses the eight-pound battery, which is clicked into place via a cam-lock and a 15 mm thru-axle. It locks in securely, doesn’t rattle and is not a structural part of the frame so the bike can be ridden sans-battery. Specialized designers were very specific in making this look like a “regular” bike so you won’t find any bulky display units, gadgets or thumb controls scattered all about the handlebars. The three modes are easily accessible by push button on the side of the battery. There is also a small handlebar remote available as an option, as well as a new Garmin computer that can control the modes on its touchscreen. Plus, Strava has now added a new “e-bike” tag to its dashboard to go along with this.
But, wait, there’s more. Specialized developed its own Bluetooth and ANT+ Mission Control phone app that becomes the system’s brain and talks to the battery. You can perform diagnostics, check the battery level, track rides, record your power numbers with the motor’s integrated power meter and even tune pedal assist output by changing mode outputs and how the power comes on. This feature gives you the ability to manually set assist response for each level. Stock setting is 20 percent for Eco, 50 for Trail and 100 for Turbo. I kept Eco and Turbo stock but inched Trail up to 60 percent for a bit more grunt.
There’s also a program called Smart Control that works like this: if you want to ride 25 miles and make sure you’ll have battery power the whole time, you would program in “25 miles” and choose a percentage number to finish with (let’s say 15 percent juice) and the app will communicate with the battery every 10 seconds metering power output over the terrain to insure you end the ride with your chosen percent. You can also choose hours instead of miles. While this setting eliminates any fear of losing pedal assist power, the longer you plan to go the less assist you’ll get. You also have to make sure your phone is with you and its battery is completely charged since it is controlling the bike’s battery.
Whew … that’s a lot to think about on a bike ride.
6. Battery life is important
If you run out of juice, you end up just riding a nearly 50-pound bike. Specialized mixed and matched electronic components to get the best battery and motor system in the business. In fact, the battery itself is made by the same company that makes Yamaha’s e-motocross bike battery. It sourced a motor elsewhere.
Range varies depending on a host of variables including terrain, what mode you use most, wind and rider weight. Specialized says you’ll get 5,000 feet of climbing on a charge. Time wise, in Moab we were all averaging 2.5 to 3 hours on a charge (it takes about 3.5 hours to recharge). Obviously, being a bike launch event, Specialized had multiple batteries on hand so all we had to do was switch them out between rides. Extra or replacement batteries retail for $900 and you’ll get 700 recharge cycles before needing a new one. That means if you rode the battery completely empty every single day you’d get a two-year life span, so estimates are probably 4 to 5 years on a battery. After 700 recharge cycles, it still works but, just like an old computer battery, it will start running dry quicker than when it was new.
7. Airline travel with an e-bike is tough
Air travel will be hard. At the bikes’ weight, any top-line travel bag or box is most likely out of the question unless it’s international and you can go over the 50-pound weight limit, and that’s expensive. In a cardboard box you should be fine because you have to remove the battery anyway. I asked Specialized about it and they said you can’t take the battery on a plane—you have to ship it FedEx, UPS or USPS separately in a special battery box.
8. The details
In its Turbo Levo e-bike line, Specialized will be offering three levels of Stumpjumper FSR 6Fatties for $5,500, $7,500 and $9,500. There will be a 6Fattie hardtail for $4,000 and a fat bike for $5,000. In the women’s category there will be an FSR 6Fattie for $5,000 and a hardtail for $4,000. Specialized told me it will be bringing in about 10,000 bikes to the U.S. and is expecting to sell half of those.
9. In conclusion
As I said, I had fun riding the bike on OHV trails but, ultimately, I won’t be trading in my “classic bike” anytime soon—I was very happy to get back to non-motorized riding. That’s not a knock on the Turbo Levo 6Fattie; it’s an amazing bike with incredible technology, it’s just not the technology most of us will choose while riding in the woods.
The biggest issue for the future is land access. These bikes must be limited to OHV trails or we’re all going to lose. The simple fact is that it will only take a few incidents on open trails to throw real mountain biking back to the dark ages. We run the risk of Joan and John Q. Public trail user umbrellaing all mountain bikes as motorized. That would shut down all we’ve worked for in a fraction of the time it took to get what we have now. Specialized realizes this and pleads that buyers adhere to local rules and regulations. That said, as these bikes get more stealthy and silent (from a distance this looks like any other FSR 6Fattie) it will get harder to police this, so we can consider that giant can of worms now opened.
Do these bikes have their place? Certainly. They’re great for city commuting and for a select group of riders who are legitimately limited in ability. A few weeks ago, I came across a disabled rider on a hand bike out on the trails and couldn’t help but think that would be a great application for e-bike technology. Not just so you can rip about the trails faster, which is what will start to cause problems in most user areas.
Admittedly, this was a hard story to tell. I sat on it for days and almost pulled the plug on the whole thing for fear of crucifixion, but e-bikes are here and—no matter how I feel—it’s a story. Will they stay or go away a few years down the road? I’m guessing they’re on their way to becoming here for good. The question to ask is, “Who will be buying these to ride on OHV trails opposed to just getting a motorcycle?”
For Dirt Rag, we see these as a whole new category that is outside mountain bikes and bike culture as we see it, know it and experience it. We might occasionally report news on e-bikes when appropriate (such as this story) but will not be doing e-bike tests in our pages.
Do you agree with this?