Boys and their toys

My early 60th birthday present... | 15/8/2020

I've been a mountain biker (to varying degrees of seriousness) for donkey's years - from riding my legs off in Trailquests and Polaris Challenges back in the day; to more leisurely local singletrack riding as the appeal of killing myself for "fun" wore off; and everything in between.

And I don't deny that I've been very enthusiastic about ebikes - mountain bikes with an battery powered electric motor that provides support to the rider's pedalling input where needed - for a few years.

Until recently there has really only been one "flavour" of ebike motor in the UK: lots of torque, and surprising amounts of power assistance until the bike reaches a speed of 15.5 mph, at which point the motor cuts out.

Now, it's not at all hard to pedal an unpowered ("acoustic" - as opposed to "electric"!) bike north of 15.5 mph, so obviously it's very easy to hit the cut-off on traditional Full Fat ("FF") ebikes. 

And that's where the problems start. Simply put, FF ebikes are heavy, cumbersome beasts; and worse - depending on the brand, age and design of motor - the gearing causes a hefty dollop of unwelcome mechanical drag at the worst possible time, just when things are getting interesting.

Hitting the cut-off speed is like both tires going completely flat...

While riding uphill...

Through axle-deep clarts.

Not good. Frankly, it's this and not the desire for more speed per se that persuades a lot of riders to consider derestricting their bikes so that support is maintained beyond the too-low and entirely arbitrary 15.5 mph limit.

(Ahem... Not that I'd ever consider derestricting my FF bike, of course... cool

But there's another way, as it turns out.

What if someone made an ebike that was lighter, with a smaller, less powerful motor, and a lighter, lower capacity battery? 

One that pedalled like a normal bike once past the cut-off?

Well, a first reaction to such a proposition might be that the whole point of ebikes is moar powah: certainly that's the trajectory that most motor manufacturers have been on over the last few years - by law they can't increase the cut-off speed, but they can certainly push more torque out of their motors.

It's now possible to get a perfectly legal ebike with 90nm of torque at the back wheel - that's as much torque as a Ducati Monster 821, FFS!

On the face of it, it's a tempting proposition: even my old ebike has 75nm of torque, which is quite a lot more than a Honda NC 750S. It's quite something to fly up a steep hill as if you were falling down it. 

But moar powah necessarily equals more heft, and the truth is that they're just not as much fun to ride as acoustic bikes.

And although the latest crop of FF motors produced do indeed have significantly reduced pedalling drag past the cut-off, they're still heavy, unwieldy things; and if anything they're getting heavier, because more grunt needs more battery in order to maintain range.

Specialized have obviously thought about these pros and cons, and have decided that there's a case for a lighter, lower powered bike.

And here it is - the Turbo Levo SL:

Turbo Levo SL

Looks much like an ordinary mountain bike, doesn't it?

Rides like one too. Except that you're suddenly up to twice as strong as you were: or as I prefer to put it, it only takes half the effort (depending on choice of settings) to achieve whatever it is you want to do.

So you can go further and climb higher for for a given amount of effort that you'd put into an acoustic bike. You still get your workout, but you get to have twice the fun while you're getting it, compared to leg-power alone: although it's noticeably lighter than an FF ebike, there's less than half the torque here (35nm, to be precise) that you'll find elsewhere. 

That's not inherently a disadvantage, though...

Here's the thing: 75nm or more of torque is often far more than you actually need; and frequently just too much. That much grunt at the back wheel can often result in a bike breaking traction and spinning out, and certainly in my experience of a FF bike, it's really not a necessity for the most part, for all I can't deny that it can be bloody good fun anyway.

And although the battery in the Levo SL is much smaller, the motor drains less power and is more efficient in its design than the more beefy alternatives, so it actually matches the big bikes for range. Yes, more has to come from the rider, but we know that going in...

As is my way, it didn't take long, after I'd found about about the SL, for the idea of it to get under my skin: although I'm on the cusp of my sixtieth birthday (two days away as I write this) I'm still pretty fit, and the idea of working hard if I want to, on a bike which is already renowned for being a much better ride than any FF ebike, and having help from the bike when I need it, really started to resonate.

Long story short, I bought one as an early birthday present to myself, and I bloody love it. 

I went with the cheapest - aluminium framed - version, even though I could have chosen a more expensive carbon fibre frame: I just don't like the idea of carbon fibre for mountain bike frames, due to its failure characteristics - if it goes, it goes with a bang, rather than bending - and the 1kg weight saving, give or take, didn't persuade,

It absolutely lives up to its billing. Although it's ostensibly an "enduro" style bike - capable of dealing with big jumps, big obstacles,  big drops - it's nimble and quick enough to be really engaging on fast, flowy singletrack, which is more my thing: but it has already looked after me very well when I've hit a jump or drop that I wasn't ready for.

For all it needs more rider input, I'm riding further on it than I would my FF ebike, simply because I can barely tell when the motor has hit the cut-off (I hear it rather than feel it), so the prospect of having to ride the last mile or two home with it out of juice, just isn't an intimidating prospect, unlike the FF. 

But I've put in several upper 20 to 30 mile rides already, using enough support to appreciate it, and I've still come home with up to half a battery. That's amazing.

Even so, I'm sure I'll eventually add a dedicated range extender battery because I'm really fancying the idea of pointing it at a destination - say - fifty miles away, staying overnight (or longer) and then riding the recharged bike home after my break.

And again, as a ride, it's a delight: plush, fast, agile; and being my first bike with 29" wheels, I'm a convert. The bigger wheels (cf the 27.5" wheels on my FF and my acoustic Giant Trance 2) make far more of a difference in how the bikes rolls over obstacles, than I'd ever imagined they would.

I'm not 100% convinced about the saddle, so I might yet swap it for a Charge Spoon, the saddle I've put on my other bikes; and I haven't yet converted it to tubeless, but I expect that to be quite straightforward, as Specialized have long been at the head of the queue in facilitating tubeless. The wheels and tires (the latter which I like enough not to want to change them any time soon) are tubeless-ready, and the bike even comes with two tubeless valves, so no guesswork about whether they'll fit the rims.

Added, 29/8: I converted them today - using CaffĂ©latex tyre sealant, which in set-up terms at least, seems excellent - and it was the easiest conversion I've done by a country mile: the valves are, as expected, cock-on for the rims; the tires popped off the bead and back on with no trouble whatsoever; and the tires went up to - and have held - pressure easily with just a track pump.

Aside from that, I like everything about it in terms of component choice, and I love this "Dusty Turquoise" colour scheme.

As of right now, I couldn't be happier with it, and the only reason that I'm writing this rather than being out on it, is that I'm waiting for a delivery - of tire sealant for the bike, as it happens...

angel 


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