2019 Specialized Turbo Levo and the spirit of adventure: an honest review

In this article:

The Electric Elephant in the room

Favorites and fails

eMTB vs motorcycle vs MTB

The Spirit of Adventure: Ascending a snowy mountain

Getting hooked (finding love again)

Oat Hill Mine Trail, in Calistoga

An electric elephant in the room

“You’re cheating”, “Nice motorcycle”, “No e-bikes allowed” — In the US, this ebike thing is controversial!

If you’re a skeptic, all I can say is: try it before you pass judgement.

If you’re curious to learn whether or not an eMTB is for you, read on!

As a basic primer: the 2019 Specialized Turbo Levo is leading the pack on the latest generation of electric mountain bikes. These machines are all pedal-assist powered bicycles, with varied levels of range and power output. They are a class 1 vehicle, which means they have a maximum (powered) speed of 20mph. In practice, the Levo’s assist stops at 16.8mph. As a pedal-assist machine, power is provided only when pedaling. This lends to a feeling akin to a superpower — it’s not so much a motorcycle as a muscle enhancer. Simply put, you can ride longer, go farther, and save your energy for the trails instead of getting burned out on the climb.

Put another way, once you go eMTB, it may be impossible to go back. It’s the most fun I’ve had on two wheels!

Salt Point State Park

Favorites and fails

Fav — Power climbs: Simply put, you can now do things that were impossible on a MTB before. Previously steep hills deemed impossible are now a hoot, given proper technique. These are the times that give me the biggest grin, the type of grin that turns into laughter and incredulity. “Did I really just climb that insane hill?!” Yes, yes you did.

Fav — Riding up down-trails: There’s danger in this, so tread carefully and always yield. That said, riding up down-trails is now a thing that you can do. And boy howdy, is it a blast! In effect, you’ve now got twice the amount of trails to explore. Every fast based downhill banked curve is now a challenge in maintaining uphill speed and control. It’s an entirely different ball game, requiring different skills and careful planning, but an absolute blast to pull off.

Fav — Looks: It’s just stunning. The overall build quality is truly excellent, and contributes to taking my breath away every time I ride. I even like the fatty size of the downtube! I find myself keeping the bike extra clean, just so I can admire the design.

Fav — Stealth: The Levo does not scream “I’m an ebike”, and I love that. Specialized took great care to make the “e-” aspects of the bike as stealthy as possible. The motor is likewise nice and quiet. Via the app, you can further disable all audio signals from the bike and even turn off the LED display. The Levo is probably the most likely eMTB to fly under the radar. That suits me just fine.

Fav — Ergo: It’s hard to overstate how perfect the ergo on the Levo is. I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt more attuned to a mountain bike before. It fits like a glove. A glove that climbs boulders and slides down steep washouts. A super-powered glove. The ergo is just that good.

Fav — Tuneability: Specialized’s “Mission Control” app has a lot of features, and most of them don’t matter. What does matter is you can easily and quickly change the output of the three power settings on the bike (eco, trail, and turbo). It’s a really good thing. I’ve turned most of my settings back (the bike is perhaps too powerful on default settings, even in eco), and find myself regularly making small adjustments on each ride. Doing so is easy and simple. I’m glad Specialized got this right.

Fav — Range: So, confession time, I sprang for the pricier 700wh battery. That said, I’ve only once had a single ride where I used more than 500wh (the default battery size). After my first ride and mental adjustment period, all range anxiety evaporated. Even the used older Levo I rented in Santa Cruz (500wh) performed beautifully and gave me just over 5 hours of ride time (with 30% left over). On relatively flat terrain, I suspect it’s possible to push 100 miles in eco mode. In practice, unless you’re running turbo mode non-stop, you’ll have plenty of battery for whatever the day throws at you.

Fail — Specialized’s dropper post: Ugh, I just do not like this post. I’ve spent more time fiddling with it than anything else on the bike, and it’s very difficult to get it right. I find actuation to be stickier than I like, the dropper settings effectively useless (other than “full up” or “full down”), and the thumb control disappointing in design and function. It does work, but not reliably enough that I can say I truly trust the dropper. Instead, I find myself adjusting the post well in advance of changing conditions, often when I’d prefer not to, simply to avoid being caught out.

Fail — Brakes: The brakes are actually great, but overall it seems that eMTBs may need a different paradigm here than our human-powered brethren. I want bigger brakes, stronger brakes, brakes that don’t squeal or bend so easily. The weight constraints of the past are gone, so let’s get these bad boys upgraded even more. I’m sick of brakes being a squeaky pain in the butt.

Fail — Computer sold separately: Given the price point, it’s pretty ridiculous that you have to shell out an extra $89 for a monochrome computer that looks like it’s from 1996. I think specialized could have done better here without compromising on the stealth look of the bike.

Fail — Paint chipping: The aftermath of nearly every ride includes one to three pocks or chips in the paint, revealing carbon fiber underneath. I generously lined the most exposed areas with protective plastic armor, and yet there’s always a new battlefront against the paint. Perhaps this is simply the cost of owning a carbon fiber bike (this is my first), but I find it moderately upsetting. Again, I’d happily trade an extra few ounces in weight for a stronger and beefier paint.

Fail — Motor casing: Oh jeez, perhaps one of the greatest annoyances is the poor fit of this casing. As delivered, there is a very large open air gap between the rear suspension pivot points and the interior of the motor casing. Given the proximity to the rear wheel, the gap will quickly be filled with dirt, mud, and any other detritus you pick up on the trail. Additionally, the left hand side of the motor casing isn’t exactly flush against the bottom of the skid plate, so you’ll quickly see all the gunk start to peak out from inside the motor casing! When I finally opened up my casing, I was alarmed to find nearly a cup worth of mud and gunk in there. Now, the motor is actually further sealed inside the casing, and the wires down there are also well protected, so this doesn’t pose an immediate physical threat to proper operation, but certainly such prolonged build up spells certain doom in terms of moisture exposure, heat dissipation, and even potential biological growth. I solved this relatively easily by cutting some large-cell foam to shape and filling the suspension gap(certain type of aquarium pre-filters work great here). Voila, no more expressway from my rear tire to the motor casing.

Salt Point State Park, on a very smoky day

eMTB vs Motorcycle vs MTB

What separates an eMTB from a motorcycle or dirt bike?
Pretty much everything. There’s no throttle. Total power output is relatively limited . Top speed is limited (>20mph). Size and weight are dramatically lower (avg dirt bike: 200–300lbs, eMTB: 50lbs). Noise (motorcycles are loud, eMTBs are whisper quiet). You have to pedal and put in work to make the machine move. These things are definitely not motorcycles.

What separates an eMTB from a normal MTB?
Much less. An eMTB is definitely heavier (50lbs vs 20lbs). The brakes are larger to handle the extra weight. The extra overhead of power management certainly changes the mental math of riding a bit (but not too much). The extra range changes the equation of what makes a fun ride, and pushes one towards longer days, multiple trail runs, and larger trail networks. The boost on uphill climbs means leaves more energy to focus on technical sections, and means your legs aren’t rubber at the end of the day. Everything else is pure mountain bike. You’ve got normal MTB parts, including suspension, and on trails and downhills you’ll forget entirely that you’re astride a battery and motor.

Crockett Hills Open Space Preserve

The Spirit of Adventure: Ascending a snowy mountain

See that lake down there, past the trees? That’s Lake Pillsbury (one of my favorite wilderness gems in California). It’s about 4,000 ft below us and 15 miles of snowy/muddy forest service roads away. We’re on top of Hull Mountain right now, at the end of our journey. That lake is where I started this particular adventure, on a cold and wet day in early December. The goal was to ride to get up here during one of the first snows of the year, while the trails were still somewhat accessible. Mission accomplished.

The clouds obscure Hull mountain. Also, check out that rainbow!
Tule Elk can often be found near the lake. The current herd was reintroduced in the early 80s.

I arrived at the trail head just after noon — enough time to get up and back down before sunset. After today these trails won’t be accessible until mid spring. The temperature at the lake (1,000') hovered around 42. Quite cold. With a balaclava under my helmet, loads of layers, hiking boots instead of riding shoes, and winter gloves, I set off to ride up the mountain. The first 5 miles was pleasant (besides the chill), and lent stunning views of a forest in recovery. A few months prior vast swaths of this hillside had burned in one of the many historically massive California wildfires. Now the green copses of trees that remain stood in stark contrast to the blackened skeletons beyond.

Verdant forest, dead forest, and snow caps! California has it all.

After about an hour of non-stop climb, made mostly trivial by maxing out power in turbo mode, I came to the snowline. Although colder than at the start, the real cold wouldn’t hit until another 1000' in climb. Taking a break at this clearing, I found myself overheating just a bit. Despite the bike’s power, I was still putting in a ton of work to get up here, and the perspiration hits the moment you stop moving.

Take a respite at the snowline.

While it had been wet and somewhat muddy up until now, it was only after setting off again from the snowline that I came to truly know the nature of mud. Something special happens to mud when it is frozen and thawed for days on end. It gets broken down into the finest particles, it becomes a liquid ooze of dirt, perfect for slipping unbidden into every nook and cranny. The next few files would be an intimate invitation to meet this mud, as the air got ever colder. Eventually this atomic mud turned to sleet and then snow, as the trail became frozen over.

Throughout, the 29ers on the Levo provided impressive traction. The gripped mud and snow alike with aplomb. Despite that, it was around 5,000' that I found myself unable to carry on. The trail at this point became truly steep, and the ground had turned to ice. I was unable to get any traction at all with the rear tire, unable to proceed forward. It was here that I ended my ascent, found a small clearing, and had a delightful time pushing and sliding through the snow on the Levo. I’d never before ridden in snow, and it was just a delight!

Snow bike!
4x4s, eMTBs, and even Elk have been up here recently to play in the fresh snow!

It was for the best to turn around. The temperature had long since dropped below freezing, and my hands were in a pretty bad state. The sun hung far too low against the horizon. Even at full speed down the mountain, it would be a race to get back to my truck before sunset. This was not a descent I wanted to make in the dark.

Just as I started my descent, a light snowfall began. This had been a true adventure — a journey well outside one’s normal comfort zone, and a unique and special experience. Yes, I could have driven the same trail in my truck (and perhaps gotten further), but I wouldn’t have had the visceral connection to nature one gets from a bicycle. I could have attempted to ride this on my dual-sport motorcycle, but the prospect of managing that much machine on the steep frozen trails is scary enough to remove any erstwhile delight. Had I attempted this on a non-powered mountain bike, I’d have easily quit from exhaustion within the first thousand feet of climb. This adventure was truly unique to the e-bike, and I know it is just the first of many.

A low sun makes for lovely photos and a hurried descent!

Getting hooked (and finding love again)

I’ve been riding mountain bikes for over half my life now. I’ve never had more fun than I am now riding the Levo. “Pain and pleasure” is the mantra of many a rider (and a one BKXC in particular). I’ve always had a hard time internalizing that. Yes, I’ve done plenty of tough climbs, motivated by the sweet payoff of a lovely downhill section, but I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed them. The misery of lugging these heavy beasts to the top of a potential energy well has always dissuaded me from riding as much as I would like. As work intensified post college, I found myself with less and less time to ride, and when a moment presented itself, often declining due these negative feelings. If I’m honest, oftentimes the barrier was more mental than physical. It isn’t actually that hard to climb a few thousand feet — take it slow and let the gears do the work. But it is utterly boring. It’s not fun, and previously the majority of saddle time would be spent in this utterly unfun mode.

All of these mental roadblocks have now been erased. What had been the absolute worst part of riding is now transformed into one of the best. Every time I summit a massive hill on the Levo, I’m wearing a huge smile and oftentimes literally laughing aloud. “This can’t be real” runs over and over in my head. It makes no sense, that a bicycle could life one effortlessly up, and yet it is real, amazingly so.

With this transformation, mountain biking is now a pure experience of elation.

If you have doubts, try one out. You’ll never look at mountain bikes the same way again.

An older model Levo rented from Another Bike Shop in Santa Cruz. This was my first taste, and I was instantly hooked.
Thanks Bill, it’s a great view!

Thanks for making it this far! If you have any questions about the Levo, feel free to leave them as comments below. I’ll do my best to answer in a timely fashion.