I’ve been riding mountain bikes for over ten years now and I’ll be the first to admit that when electric assist versions started to appear on the scene, I had no interest in them whatsoever. They looked cumbersome, heavy, and I couldn’t really see the point.
Over the last few years the eMTB scene has blown up. The GNCC events even have their own eMTB series that runs alongside the motorcycle and ATV races, and races for eMTBs are popping up everywhere. The bikes are becoming so streamlined that from a distance they often look like regular mountain bikes, but with larger downtubes (which is where the batteries live).
In 2015, Specialized set the bar for what an eMTB should be when they released the Turbo Levo. They then created a whole new sub-genre for eMTB in 2020 with the release of their Turbo Levo SL model. A lightweight eMTB that has the look and feel of an acoustic bike, but with the benefits of electric assist.
Whenever I ride my local trails, almost without fail at some point during a climb someone on an eMTB will blast by me like I am going backwards, leaving me feeling rather jealous. So it be would be fair to say I have been itching to try an eMTB for some time now. So when Curtis Keene from Specialized offered me the chance to try both the Levo and Levo SL models, I jumped at it.
I met Curtis on a crisp January morning by his local trails in Agoura Hills, California, with the plan to ride some enduro style trails with some challenging ascents and descents to really see what these bikes can do. We’d had some rain the days before, which left the trails in prime condition.
Specialized Turbo Levo SL (240 Watts, 2X You)
The Levo SL weighs in at around 38 lb. (give or take depending on the build options), which is impressive for an eMTB and isn’t that far off the weight of an acoustic, enduro-style mountain bike (I have a Specialized Enduro with 170 mm front and rear suspension that weighs around 33 lb.). The Levo SL comes with 150 mm of front and rear suspension and 29” wheels. The 240 watt, 320Wh battery on the Levo SL has a five hour range (depending on the power setting you use) and is capable of doubling your effort with the electric assist working up to 20 MPH. There is also the option of a battery extender that fits nicely into the water bottle holder for those all-day epics. The electric engine on the Turbo Levo SL actually comes from Specialized’s Creo SL road bike and the compact size of the engine leaves the Levo SL looking very sleek. If it wasn’t for the LED panel on the top tube and additional buttons on the bars you’d be hard pressed to tell this bike apart from Specialized’s non-electric Stumpjumper. Specialized also have a Mission Control app for both the Levo SL and the Levo which enables you to custom tune the bikes power delivery, control the range, and record rides. But the app is not a necessity for the bikes to function. You can just charge them, turn them on, and hit the trails. There are three power settings on both the Levo SL and the Levo: eco mode, trail mode, and turbo mode.
We set the Levo SL up to my liking with my pedals, suspension settings, and the moto-style brakes (front brake on the right, rear on the left) and we were ready to ride. I pushed the power button and set it to eco mode, jumped on the bike, and the second I started pedaling and the motor kicked in, even before we were on the trails, I had a big grin on my face. Curtis referred to it as the “e-bike grin” which he says often happens involuntarily the moment someone rides an eMTB for the first time. To be honest my initial thought as we rode out of the parking lot was that these bikes are kind of cheating! That mindset soon changed on the trails. That’s where I started to get a better understanding of what electrical bicycles are all about and the purpose they serve.
The first ascent started with a fairly steep, but smooth section of trail with some switchbacks. Had I been on an acoustic bike my heart rate would have been getting up there. But, on the Levo SL I was moving uphill at a rate that I was unaccustomed to on a bicycle and with very little effort. As soon as we got to the first technical climb, the electric assist really started to shine. I moved the power output level to turbo mode and found myself hopping up and through technical, rocky sections of trail that would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to climb on an acoustic bike. This added a whole new dimension to the ride, because I was actually enjoying riding uphill! It did take a while for me to get used to the power assist. Initially I found myself putting the bike in too low of a gear (like I would on an acoustic bike), but the power assist allows you to stay in a higher gear than normal and pedal with much more efficiency. It almost feels like you have someone behind you pushing you up the hill. There was one particular section where, even with the power assist, I found it too technical to pedal through. So I hopped off and used the push assist button to help me through the section. “Push assist?” I hear you ask. Yep, the Levo and Levo SL also have push assist buttons to help you with the extra weight of the bike when pushing through sections that you can’t pedal through.
After around 1,000 feet of climbing through a good mixture of technical rock gardens and switchbacks, I was huffing and puffing like I would have been on an acoustic bike. I still had to work on the Levo SL there’s no doubt about that, the difference is I had climbed at least twice as fast as I would have on a regular mountain bike.
Up next was the really fun part, the descent. The downhill aspect of mountain biking is what I thrive on and I was curious to see how an eMTB would handle the downhill sections. The Levo SL has a steeper head angle to what I am used to on my Enduro (66 degrees on the Levo SL versus 64.3 degree on my Enduro), so when I dropped in I made sure to adjust my riding position further back to compensate. The first couple of drops still caught me off guard a bit and a shorter stem would definitely help this bike a lot on the descents (the size large and extra-large Levo SL’s come with a 50 mm stem). Both the Levo SL and the Levo also have a flip chip on the shock that you can turn to give the bike a slightly more slack, downhill friendly position.
At first glance you could easily mistake the Turbo Levo SL for a regular, acoustic mountain bike.
The extra weight of the bike actually helps it feel very planted on descents and I found myself riding with a lot of confidence. The extra few pounds certainly weren’t hindering me and in fact helps you to pick up speed. Given that I am used to riding a more slack, enduro-style bike with more suspension, I was surprised at how well the Levo SL handled the rough stuff. The steeper head tube angle also means that the Levo SL is very maneuverable in the turns, especially tight switch backs. Overall the bike felt natural, poppy, playful, and could be thrown around with ease.
By the time we got to the bottom of the trail I couldn’t stop smiling. Every part of the loop we had just done was fun, both up and down.
Next up was the Levo SL’s big brother, the Levo.
Specialized Turbo Levo (565 Watts, 4X You)
The Turbo Levo is more in line with today’s traditional eMTB. This model comes with a 160 mm travel fork and Fox Float DPS Performance Elite shock, as well as 29” wheels. It has a 565 watt, 700Wh battery capable of quadrupling your effort, with the assist again working up to 20 MPH. That is a lot of assistance, and double that of the SL! Visually, the Levo has a bigger downtube than the Levo SL and the frame around the bottom bracket is also considerably chunkier to accommodate the bigger engine. There is no doubt that you are looking at an eMTB when looking at the Levo. That being said, the overall styling of the bike is still in line with that of the Stumpjumper, and the Levo is definitely a nice looking eMTB. The battery also has a five hour range and if you are worried about running out of juice on your ride, you can use the Smart Control feature within the Mission Control app to manage how much power assist you will be getting throughout your ride.
After setting up the bike to my liking we hit the trail again to ride the same loop. In the parking lot I immediately noticed that even in eco mode the amount of assist was substantial. Once we got past the smooth section of trail and into the steeper, rockier parts, I again moved the power output to turbo mode and (excuse the pun) put the pedal to the metal. The amount of torque generated by the 565 watt engine in turbo mode is impressive to say the least. I actually had whisky pedal a couple of times as I adjusted to the power delivery! I breezed through the steep, rocky section of trail that had given me some issues on the Levo SL and was amazed at how fast I was able to go uphill. I was actually having to feather the brakes to help control the bike. Yes, feathering the brakes whilst going uphill on a mountain bike! I found that if I backed the power output down to trail mode I still had plenty of torque, but it was more manageable. Before I knew it we were again at the summit of the trail and I had barely broken a sweat.
Up next was again the descent. We dropped in and after a few turns I definitely noticed the extra weight on the Levo. The Levo weighs about ten pounds more than the Levo SL coming it at around 48 lb. (again give or take depending on the build), so it was a little harder to turn in the tight stuff and didn’t have quite the same snappy feel as the Levo SL. The Levo still turns well, you just have to muscle it a bit more than the Levo SL. But the extra weight definitely made the bike feel even more planted. When going in a straight line I felt like I could just motor through sections of trail, giving the Levo more of a downhill mountain bike feel.
At the bottom of the trail I again had an ear-to-ear smile. I was thoroughly impressed by both bikes and was well and truly sold on the idea of an eMTB.
With double the assist of the SL, the Turbo Levo rips uphill.
So as a motocross guy, which of these two models would I choose as my own ride? Honestly, I would be happy with either and the Levo certainly has some advantages, but given the choice I would say the Levo SL is the way to go. As much as I like the downhill aspect of mountain biking, I still like to feel like I have earned my descents and the Levo SL is the perfect bridge between an acoustic mountain bike and a full size eMTB. Here is a summary of why I like the Levo SL:
- On an eMTB you can cover much more ground than you would on an acoustic bike, and with the Levo SL you still feel like you have gotten a good work out.
- The Levo SL feels like an acoustic bike on the descents with great maneuverability.
- If you were to run out of battery on a ride (or even if you are just looking to conserve battery on a ride), the Levo SL feels light enough that you could still pedal it uphill with the power assist off.
- The Levo SL is much easier to lift onto a bike stand, into the back of your truck, etc.
- The Levo SL would make a great bike for recovery rides, taking the edge of the ascents and allowing you to control your heart rate more.
There are still a lot of negativity vibes out there when it comes to electrical bicycles (which usually comes from people that haven’t yet tried one). But electrical bicycles are a lot more accepted now than they were a few years ago, and they certainly aren’t going anywhere. The benefits and fun levels of an eMTB are undeniable that’s for sure. I’ll always have an acoustic mountain bike, but I will be adding an eMTB to my quiver as soon as possible!
Check out www.specialized.com for more information.