For some time the e-bike segment in the Dutch bike sector has been the only one that is really growing. When riding in the Netherlands (a bike-rich country if there ever was one) it seems as if 1 in 2 people, young and old, suddenly has found the e-bike. And where the early adopters seemed to be mainly of the grayer demography, who for quite reasonable reasons could use some pedaling support, on my 20K commuter rides between home and work, I also see regular healthy adults and even school going kids riding e-bikes.
In the previous paragraph, the even not so critical reader will have been able to sense some of the many prejudices about e-bikes and e-mtb’s: that it is for the octogenarians amongst us and that healthy young people must be lazy to want to ride on one. The strange thing is that I do feel that way when it comes to regular e-bikes on the one hand, and yet on the other through my experiences on riding and reviewing e-MTBs, of which I have experienced several over the past two years both in the Netherlands and in the various European mountain ranges, that I do not share those prejudices when it comes to e-MTBs.
You see the eMTB is, to begin with, just a load of fun to ride, and in the case of the work that we often have to do at GearLimits (outdoor video productions), it is also a fantastic workhorse. The Specialized Turbo Levo FSR 120 short travel is the 2018 model that we were lent by Specialized dor our bike packing trip through the Ardennes, and despite the fact that a new 2019 FSR has become available, we are reviewing the 2018 version here anyway.
We used the Turbo Levo as a workhorse during our three-day bike packing trip through the Ardennes. In that production, I did much of the handheld camera work on the ground and on the road. That means you make a lot of extra distance; you have to speed up, cycle ahead to take your position for a shot, or drop back, make the shot and then catch up again. Or ride to another location for a distant point of view, and that many kilometers behind each other. Belgium brought a lot of that, over the road, single track, through the mud and straight through peat bog. After this trip, I also did my commuter trips with the LEVO and cycled on the Zeist-Austerlitz cross country trail near my home.
The first thing that struck me is how beautifully the battery is integrated into the frame. You see that more and more nowadays and it gives a bike a nice profile, although I don’t necessarily notice better riding characteristics because of it. The battery can still be removed from the frame, which makes it easier to charge. The rear triangle is short and the bottom bracket low, the head tube angle of 67.4 degrees: all features that place the geometry of the bicycle in the “trail bike” segment and therefore is well suited for a wide range of XC to not too heavy enduro trails.
The front fork has 120 mm of travel on the Rock Shox Revelation, with a Fox Float performance on the rear suspension. You ride with a SRAM PG-1130 1×11 cassette, which is powered by the Trail Tuned, 250W motor exclusively developed for Specialized. There is a small remote on the handlebars, which you can use to set the basics of your pedal boost, but you can fine-tune your settings on the Mission Control app for iOS and Android that connects via Bluetooth with the bike. Sounds cool but more about that later.
The has been put through its paces, relatively speaking. During the bike packing trip, we made between 70 and 80 km per day and climbed between 900 and 1000 of vertical meters a day. The bike is very stable and balanced, steers nice and tightly. Even with full packs on the handlebars, frame and saddle, I found it easy to ride the bike.
Without bike packs and with the “throttle” wide open, on the XC trails around Zeist-Austerlitz I noticed that it sends quite well through the curvy trails we have here. What you will always have with and e-bike that weighs in at around 25 kilos is that you need to be a very active rider. If you want to ride at speed and not crash into every third tree along the track, you will have to push this powerful bike through the turns.
Because one of the things you will do with an e-mtb is simply, go through these kinds of XC trails faster. With the extra power of the engine, it is not difficult to ride an average of 22-23 km per hour through the woods, and then you have to be able to thread that heavy bike through the trees. If you accelerate out of a turn, and you have the pedal assistance at the highest level, and you don’t pay attention, the bike can actually push you out of the turn and off the trail. So you have to really steer well and choose the moments you pedal in turns smartly, which can be a little different than when riding a regular bike. If you learn to feel how the pedal support works, you can get the most out of the bike. The dropper post is super nice to adapt your riding position to both up and downhill segments.
It is important to realize, and that applies to all e-MTBs, that the motor is there to support your pedaling. So if you don’t do anything, the engine won’t do anything either. If you pedal, depending on the level of support you choose, you get a boost of power with every pedal stroke you make. What I have experienced is that the pedal assistance is not necessarily about speed, but about acceleration. In fact, it is quite difficult to ride faster on flat terrain than 25 km per hour. In Holland, that is the legal limit of the pedal support and above that speed, you just feel you are pedaling against the resistance of the engine. Which can be pretty frustrating. The pedal support provides an acceleration on every pedal stroke which means that you are up to speed faster and that you can hold that speed more easily. The moment you have smaller or longer climbs, you can just power up them and hold your speed. Downhill I am slower on an e-mtb. The pedal boost of the Turbo Levo, even at the highest turbo position, is nice and gradual, not as abrupt as you can experience sometimes with some other engines where you really get a little launched.
The engine on the LEVO does that really well, and with short charging periods at noon I made it through the day, by carefully managing the capacity of my battery, with regards to the distances and altimeters had to cover, and taking into account that this bike that was also heavily loaded (with me 92 kilo’s and I think about 20 kilo’s of packs).
Usability pedal support & Mission Control App
That economical use of the battery is the key to a day of care-free riding with an e-mtb. You really don’t want to find yourself with an empty battery with kilometers to go. Riding empty is riding, not only with then useless weight on the bike but pedaling through the resistance and drag of the engine. If you use the “Turbo” setting all day with a lot of distance and vertical meters, well, then the day will be quite short because you will run out of juice quickly. With the exception of really steep parts, I mainly rode on the eco position of the bike and you can really get far with that.
Specialized ha tried to make planning your battery capacity easier by developing the Mission Control app which is free to use. With it, you can then tune the battery to the distance you want to travel, and the amount of power you want to spend or have left at the end of that distance. It sounds really smart. However I didn’t really get the hand of that way of planning the battery, and the app does not really give clear and consequent information in my experience on power left, boost given or capacity left. Using the Mission Control app, I often felt little to no pedal boost; after much fidgeting, tuning the bike anew through the app, turning it off and on, it would run again.
Moreover, if you want to check how you are doing, you have to use your phone to check it, which on the ride, getting it out of my pocket is just a hassle. I much prefer to have the information on how my battery is doing in the cockpit on the handlebars so that I can easily see everything and adjust the degree of pedal-boost from the bars. So that I can respond quickly to climbs, descents and so on. That was just too complicated with this set-up. Eventually, I no longer used the Mission Control app and tried to do everything from the bars whereby the remote often did not work or did not work immediately. The lights on the side of the frame enabled me to monitor the position of the battery. All in all, I did not find it worked well or user-friendly. In my opinion, this is a good example of over-engineering things, making simple things too complicated to work well.
The bike rides nicely, steers well as long as you ride actively and is just a good and well-specced bike as you would expect from Specialized. With my criticism of the Mission Control app and the less user-friendliness of the app in mind, the capacity of the motor and battery is more than sufficient for me and the power delivery of the pedal boost is quite good.