E-bikes are much-maligned by the cycling community and non-riders alike. They're for lazy people. They're so ugly and clunky looking. But Specialized has come up with an answer for both crowds. You will want to hate the Turbo. You will fail.
This thing is so damn fun.
Welcome to Fitmodo, Gizmodo's gym for your brain and backbone. Don't suffer through life as a sniveling, sickly weakling—brace up, man, get the blood pumping! Check back on Wednesdays for the latest in fitness science, workout gear, exercise techniques, and enough vim and vigor to whip you into shape.
At first glance, it doesn't even look like an e-bike. That's a huge achievement in and of itself. It looks more like a sporty cruiser/road-bike/mountain-bike hybrid. Most e-bikes have big, clunky battery packs that hang off the back, and motor housings that make their presence known. Everything on the Turbo is tucked away. It took Specialized five years of research and development to get to something the company was willing to stand behind, and that effort shows.
The frame itself is wider than you'd find on a normal bike. That's because the cradle for the large 342 watt-hour battery is built right into it. The battery locks snugly into place (you need a key to remove it) right in the middle of the bike, so it doesn't rattle around and it gives you a nice low center of gravity. The battery can be removed and charged in a rapid charger (which takes it from zero to 100 percent changed in two and a half hours), or you can use a mini charger which will juice up your bike via a socket built into the frame. The socket has a magnetic cover, and there's a magnet in the frame so you won't misplace it. Nice detail.
The 250-watt direct-drive electric motor is built directly into the rear hub, but it's done in such a way that someone couldn't steal it without stealing the whole bike. The bike's rims are wider and thicker than your standard street bike because they are reinforced to help offset the bike's not-trivial weight—close to fifty pounds, which mostly comes from the battery. The frame is mostly made of aluminum.
Up front there's a built-in headline which runs off the big internal battery. On the handlebars is a built-in bike computer. It tells you your speed, distance, how much battery you have left, and what mode you're in. It has an ANT+ radio in it, so it can communicate with other devices and smartphone apps. Only a very few smartphones have ANT+ built-in, but you can get a dongle for both Android and iOS devices. It's probably not worth it.
Toward the right side of the handle bars is a standard 10-speed SRAM DoubleTap gear shifter, and a little node with plus and minus buttons. No, those don't control your speed. In fact, there are no hand controls for the motor at all, which is part of what sets this e-bike ahead of the pack.
When it's time to start riding, you hold down the power button on the battery. The four lights on it then come on one at a time. That's actually a systems check, with each light indicating a different component. So, if the third light doesn't come on, for instance, you'd know something's up with the motor. Once you're all powered up, you select which mode you want to start in—there are four in all, from manual up to Turbo—and go.
Because there's no throttle, speed is controlled entirely by pedaling. The motor has a built-in torque sensor, so when it sees that you're putting more torque on it (either by going up a hill or pedaling harder) it kicks in more. It will help you go to a maximum of 28 miles per hour. You can, of course, go faster than that using leg power, but it will stop assisting you beyond 28.
How much assistance you get from the bike will depend on what mode you select. Turbo mode is essentially maximum assist, where it will use all its resources to get you to that maximum assisted speed (again, 28 MPH). Eco mode gives you a 30-percent boost by default, though it can be customized via the bike computer to help anywhere between 10 and 90 percent. No Assist is what it sounds like—you're doing all of the work yourself. And then there's Regenerate mode, where the bike actually adds resistance and your legs recharge the batteries.
Once the bike's battery gets down to 20 percent, it will automatically switch into Eco mode, and when it get down past six percent, assistance shuts down, and the battery is only used to power your bike's light. There's no set formula for predicting how long your battery will last because it depends on how much the motor has to engage and how much your legs are moving. On flat ground, you could probably get in a 25 mile trip at top speed. If you were going up a steep hill, it would be less than that. The bike also utilizes hydraulic disc brakes and engaging them uses the momentum you've already generated to charge the battery a little bit. It's a cool idea, but you'd probably have to be leaning on that brake down a 8,000 foot mountain in order to get back to a full charge.
Earlier this week we took these bikes on a loop around Central Park in NY. Oh man. I fully expected to hate this thing, but it's just so incredibly fun. You stomp down on the pedal that first time and the bike accelerates underneath you, like it has a mind of its own, but you feel glued to it. In Turbo mode you can get up to 28 MPH with hardly any effort at all, and it's really easy to stay there. Suddenly, you're going flying up a hill and whipping by guys in expensive cycling gear like it's nothing. The Turbo is no louder than a standard bike, so there's nothing to interrupt the sound of the wind whipping through you hair.
Turbo mode will spoil you quickly. Switching to Eco mode, there was definitely still a bit of push, but you had to do a lot more work on the hills. Flip to No Assist, and you're doing real work. This bike weights 50 pounds, and you feel that extra weight when you're doing all of the work yourself. After using Turbo, switching into Regen is like a cruel joke. It feels like you're dragging a sailboat on a trailer, except the resistance doesn't ease up once you're up to speed. It took about four minutes of hard pedaling just to raise the battery one percent, which is why you really only want to use Regen while going downhill.
The bike handled really well and felt very stable even at top speed. The hydraulic rear brake worked great, and I was able to quickly stop for tourists who were clearly hoping to suicide on my handlebars. I'll cop to feeling a little guilty while blowing past people that were working much harder than I was, and of course I'd never try to sneak it into a race, but it was an absolute blast to ride.
So, we loved the bike and we had a great time on it, but a rather important question remains: Who is this for? At $5,900 we're in the territory of custom-built, carbon-fiber race bikes. Hell, we're in the territory of very decent used motorcycles and cars! It's also not ideal for city life because it accelerates so quickly, and because it's so heavy it's not as maneuverable—you have fifty more pounds carrying your inertia right toward that opening car door ahead of you. Also, you're not going to want to carry this thing up a flight of stairs.
We can see it maybe finding a niche with well-to-do commuters who work within twenty miles or so of their home. People who want to add a little more exercise to their lives, and would like to ride a bike to work, but don't want to be a sweaty mess by the time they arrive. People who don't mind being scorned by the hard-core cycling community.
Honestly, it's a luxury item. And while it might not change your mind about e-bikes, it's an undeniably good time. [Specialized]
Images and video by Nick Stango