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Electric mountain bikes: Wave of the future

November 29, 2016

During a recent trade show trip across the country I spent several weeks with a Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6 Fattie E-mountain bike courtesy of Barrie’s Ski and Sports in Pocatello. Along the way I was able to ride a variety of terrain and conditions and, more importantly, to allow dozens of others an introduction to electric mountain bikes.

My biggest takeaway was not my own reaction to the bike, which I thought was fabulous, but rather the reaction of others. When the bike was returned to me after a demo it was invariably with a wide-eyed smile and the question “Where can I get one of these and how much is it?”

E-bikes, virtually unknown just a few years ago, are now available in a burgeoning number of styles and for many uses (in Europe E-bikes are rapidly becoming the norm). There are two general approaches to electric-powered bicycles: throttle controlled (basically a light-weight electric motorcycle) and pedal-assisted (basically a heavy bicycle).

The Turbo Levo FSR is an example of the latter. Specialized, which has a facility in Switzerland devoted to developing E-bikes, has done a wonderful job of making this bike feel like a mountain bike, but with someone stronger than you pedaling.

The Turbo Levo FSR is a fully-suspended (RockShox front, FOX rear) mid-fattie (3-inch tires) style mountain bike with a nice SRAM component group, hydraulic disc brakes and the Command Post seat-height system that makes getting your seat ride height a breeze.

Specialized succeeded in making this a really nice mountain bike all by itself — albeit heavy at around 45 pounds. (For perspective, my first chrome moly framed mountain bike purchased around 1988, a fairly high-end model, weighed only 15 pounds less).

The weight premium in the Turbo Levo FSR comes in the form of a battery, controller and motor capable of producing an astonishing 530 watts of extra power above and beyond what the rider puts in by pedaling. (For a reasonably fit person, the human-powered component would be a few hundred watts).

The electric motor/controller on the Turbo Levo FSR has three modes: Eco, Trail and Turbo, each of which provides a respectively increasing level of assist at the cost of battery life.

On Turbo mode (about the only mode I used) pedaling up even really steep hills is a breeze. I never ran out of battery even after hours of steady climbing. I’m reasonably sure that in Eco or Trail mode it’s good for at least half a day.

Plus, Specialized has built a smart phone app that allows the rider to input to the bike’s controller information about the ride upon which one is about to embark — time, distance, etc. Then the bike modulates the amount of pedal assist to make sure that you get through the entire ride.

With the use of the app you’ll really only notice the extra heft in very aggressive riding (or when pedaling uphill if you do run out of battery).

For experienced mountain bikers getting used to the pedal-assist is a process. When you press on a pedal with any effort the bike, at first anyway, feels like it wants to jump out from underneath you in Turbo mode. That takes a bit of getting used to in technical terrain. You can soften this a bit by use of the smart phone app.

This bike is simply a blast to ride. It makes trails I have not been able to ride for many years accessible once again. But make no mistake — it’s far from being an old person’s two-wheel Barcalounger. The more you put in the more you get back out nature of the pedal-assist makes flogging the bike irresistible.

The modern outdoor athlete is rarely a purist. An increasing number of people who recreate in the outdoors do so by multiple modalities. In addition to my passion for dirt bikes I also climb, ski, paddle and pedal mountain bikes.

As soon as I can get my hands on a snow bike I’ll be out with it as much as I can. Ditto for a side by side. The thing that I find the most intriguing about pedal-assisted mountain bikes is how they really cross conventional boundaries between OHV modalities.

It’s really difficult for me to see the harm in allowing these anyplace that a regular mountain bike is allowed and I’m quite sure that I’m far from alone in that sentiment.

I expect bikes like the Turbo Levo FSR to become very popular and sooner rather than later. They are simply too much fun.

For a fit, young athlete they extend the range of what is possible. For an older rider (like me) they harken back to younger days.

My wife likes it for towing the baby around in the baby trailer. If all of that doesn’t presage a tsunami I don’t know what does. Ours is on its way for Christmas.

Martin Hackworth is the executive director of Sharetrails.org/BlueRibbonCoalition.