Monday, April 29, 2024

Test Ride - Specialized Turbo Levo SL 2 Carbon E-Bike


I almost called this post a “road test” like in “Car and Driver” magazine, as I did technically test the Specialized Turbo Levo SL 2 Comp Carbon on the road, or more precisely the street (but I don’t think “street test” is a thing). Obviously a trail test would have been better, as the Levo SL is a pure trail bike, but it’s also an e-bike, and the electronic aspect is the bigger deal. So the eight minutes you spend reading this will be worth it, trust me.


I suppose I should start by telling you what this bike is and what it purports to do. It’s an $8,000 motor-assisted mountain bike that provides “2x You” performance. That is, it’ll basically take your ability and double it. So, if the Stone Temple Pilots guy singing “Half the Man I Used to Be” bought this bike, he’d be made whole.

Since we’d all love to double our performance, it’s tempting to think this bike is for everyone—but it’s not. I learned about it through my friend R— who texted me about it and said, “Only level 3 coaches can get this bike.” He’s referring to the most advanced NICA high school mountain bike coaches, of which I happen to be one. But coaches shouldn’t ride e-bikes at all, and surely Specialized would sell this bike to anyone, wouldn’t they? R— can be cryptic in his texts and ignored my request for clarification, so I went to the Specialized website for more information.

The web page for the Turbo Levo SL 2 Comp Carbon explains that this bike is “for the trail rider who craves serpentine singletrack, sending it skyward, and lives for advancing your skills and fitness.” This confused me further. So, this trail rider, a third party, lives for advancing my skills and fitness? Lives for it? Really? Sounds kind of obsessed, like a stalker. Or maybe I’m just being deliberately dense, reluctant to acknowledge that this Specialized marketing person simply got stuck with that old pronoun problem, his vs. her vs. his/her vs. their, and didn’t want to be political. I can understand that. But this innovative switch from third person to second person could have been even more dramatic—how about switching to first person? “For the trailer rider who lives for advancing my skills and fitness.” I’d be like, your skills and fitness? Who are you?” And the marketing person would be like, “Exactly.” And I’d be scratching my head, like, “How did we get into a dialogue? It was just words on a page.” And you’re like, “Exactly.” (By “you’re” I mean the marketing person. Even if that isn’t you.)

So why is this bike $8,000? Well, they spared no expense to make it as awesome as possible. For example, they “stripped away the mass to keep the Levo SL lean and responsive.” Thank goodness. I hate it when a bike manufacturer leaves all that mass on there. So many bikes, especially e-bikes, just have big clumps of material, maybe it’s actually fat, and the bikes are sluggish. My Salsa backup road bike, though not electric, is just massive and clumpy. (I still love it though, like an oversized teddy bear.)

The Turbo Levo SL 2 Comp is loaded with innovation, such as having a 29-inch front wheel and a 27.5-inch rear. But it doesn’t stop there. Check this out: “If you prefer the rolling and traction benefits of a 29” rear wheel, just flip the pivot link chip and mount the big wheel.” The big wheel? Where would you get this big wheel? Does the bike come with two rear wheels? Or are we talking about the Big Wheel from the 1970s, i.e., this?

It’s a very confusing bike all around. Like, where does the name “Turbo” come from? Well, according to the website, this bike offers a “TURBO OPERATING SYSTEM.” So, I guess the way this works is that there’s a turbine powered by the exhaust system that enables the bike to suck in extra oxygen to mix with the fuel, so ... wait. I’m getting confused again. This bike is electric, not internal combustion. And “operating system” sounds like software. I guess they mean “TURBO” as in, just, really really good. I’m getting tired now, processing all this nuance, so I’m going to go make a sandwich. I’ve got fresh avocado and San Luis Sourdough so it’ll be a totally turbo sandwich!

Okay, I’m back. To round out the tech specs of the bike (before I get to the test ride itself), the website says this model has a “new kinematic with flatter leverage curve which provides more support and playfulness off the top, but plenty of control in rougher conditions.” What is “kinematic”? Wikipedia says kinematics is a “subfield of physics and mathematics” and offers this illustrative graphic:

So what does this “kinematic” have to do with bikes? I was a bit lost so I googled it, and found that this bike-themed web page mentions kinematics (albeit only once). I guess “kinematics” is kind of like “geometry” but that term is so dated, so pre-electric. I guess we should just absorb and acknowledge that a “new kinematic” is a good thing. As for the rest of that sentence, “playfulness off the top” and “flatter leverage curve” may have to do with a kicky, young, sexy woman who might be a little bit flat-chested. I mean, obviously the kinematic doesn’t literally have to do with that, but it’s just the feel of this thing. If this bike were a young woman she’d be playfully alluring and her name would be, like, Kylie. And you’d be dying to meet her. Wow. I can’t believe you just said all that. Who are you? (Besides, of course, a marketing person who understands that the majority of e-bike buyers are male.)

Speaking of which, it’s high time I stopped blathering about the Turbo Levo’s specs. I should get to the test ride itself.

The ride

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t have the proper shoes, or even a helmet, when I rode this bike. I hadn’t planned on riding it at all. I’d been at the pub with some pals, two of whom are cyclists. One, in fact, was R—, the fellow coach who’d alerted me to this bike. For once, we weren’t talking about bikes. We were talking about R—’s mentally ill neighbor who put padlocks on his garbage and recycling cans and constantly hassles everyone and at one point got right in his other neighbor’s face, yelled something like, “You wanna piece a me!?” and ripped off his shirt. (His own shirt, I should clarify.) I said, “In fairness, though, who among us hasn’t done that?” I know all this backstory has nothing to do with the Turbo Levo SL, but I’m just setting the stage here. Think “Deer Hunter.”

When it was time to head home, R— had a surprise for us: he’d gone out and bought himself the very Turbo Levo SL 2 Carbon I’ve been writing about. No, he won’t ride it on high school team mountain bike rides, because that would be cheating, and setting a bad example, and embarrassing himself because we coaches pride ourselves on being able to (more or less) keep up under our own power. R— uses the Turbo Levo for commuting across the Richmond Bridge to Marin County. The spanking new bike was locked right out front (with a lock worth more than an entry-level mountain bike, I’ll bet). He invited me to try it out and I didn’t hesitate.

I set off up Solano Ave, and right away discovered that the Turbo Levo really does have a new kinematic. In fart, wow … what a strange typo. I went to type “in fact,” and because I’m on the Dvorak keyboard layout, the “R” is right next to the “C,” so it’s a pretty predictable typo and I’m only surprised I haven’t made it before. And no, I’m not at the pub as I type this, I’ve actually only perhaps had too much coffee. So where was I? Oh yeah: the new kinematic. It was, in fact, so dramatic that some rando on the street corner yelled, “Nice kinematic!” Full disclosure, it wasn’t actually a total rando, it was M—, the owner of a local bike shop, whom I see at the pub sometimes. Well, okay, even that isn’t completely accurate: to be totally transparent with you, nobody on the street corner actually yelled anything. In truth there was nobody there. But that doesn’t change the fact that this bike’s kinematic really was breathtakingly novel and refreshing. Its flatter leverage curve and playfulness off the top had me whispering, “Come here, you.” (Naw, just kidding. That was actually you.)

Well. If you’ve ever ridden an e-bike, particularly the Class 3 type (click here for details) that simply add to your power as you pedal, it’s a pretty awesome experience. Instead of pushing a button or operating a motorcycle-style throttle to engage the motor, you just pedal along as though you were on a regular bike, but you go way faster, still in accordance with your effort. So it rides a lot like a regular bike, except you feel like you’re young again, and impressively strong. Naturally I wanted to intensify this experience. Instead of going only 15 or 20 mph, I wanted to steam up Solano Ave at like 25. So I shifted up.

The SRAM GX Eagle AXS wireless electronic shifting is smooth and precise and I would have been very impressed, except the button I pressed did exactly the opposite of what I wanted it to. It shifted me into an impossibly large cog in the back (the cassette being a 10-52). This made for such a low gear, there was nothing for the motor to do as I spun ineffectually at a comically high cadence, my speed dropping woefully. It was like all the wind suddenly vanished from my sails. Now I was mincing along pathetically and getting nothing out of the electric assist. If I weren’t such a mature, unflappable type I might have started crying. I fumbled around with my thumb trying to find the up-shift button but could not. I pulled over, frustrated. I will not say this is a criticism of the SRAM GX Eagle, since this was my first time using it, but it is a bit odd I’ve never struggled with this kind of thing before in my life. Perhaps I was a bit light-headed from having to adapt to the new kinematic.

There wasn’t enough light to see the controls, as I live in the kind of upscale community that doesn’t need to supply powerful streetlamps. Plus, my eyes are going. I have this irrational fear of already getting cataracts. I think it’s happened to all us 50-somethings. You should see my home: it seems like every week my wife brings home a new area lamp. As much as I squinted I couldn’t discern a second button. I got out my smartphone and struggled to unlock it. The fingerprint reader is pretty tricky and the facial recognition scanner even more so, especially in low light. (I really wish Samsung had gone for a TURBO OPERATING SYSTEM on this phone.) Finally I got the torch feature going, and found the up-shift button. Tech tip: it’s right above the down-shift button.

Based on what you’ve read of my test ride so far, you might be wondering at this point how much I’d had to drink. I want to assure you that, like all those who appreciate quality, I enjoy it responsibly. Was I tipsy? Well, of course, a bit … I mean, it was boys’ night out after all. But was I, to borrow a phrase from James Acaster, “hella tipsy”? I was not. Four of us had shared two pitchers (not counting the one that mostly gone when I arrived) and one of them was Trumer Pils, noted for its 4.9% ABV content and very flat leverage curve. Plus, I’d had two dinners right before meeting my pals. (One dinner was at the new pizza joint that, obviously, has miniscule portions.)

Now that I’d mastered the shifting, things got real, real good. I won’t say I could feel the difference with the 27.5-inch rear wheel—the “compact chainstay and super responsive behavior” weren’t prominent—but I did have that warm, relaxing sense that with this bike I’d never need to wonder if it would be wise to rotate the tires occasionally (which would be a hassle since they’re tubeless ). I’m also not sure I was fully appreciating the “low bottom bracket, slack headtube angle, and reduced fork offset” because I was just riding on a city street, not shredding singletrack ‘gnar, but the important thing about this bike is that it was fast, easy to pedal, and probably made me look really, really cool particularly because I wasn’t even wearing a helmet, mine being locked to my 3-speed back at the pub. For that reason, and because I didn’t want R— to think I’d made off with his superfly new ride, I made a nice sweeping U-turn in front of Gordo’s taqueria and made my way back to my pals. I cruised up the sidewalk and … WTF? Where did they go, and who were these randos standing out front?

As it turns out, the two randos were R— and H—. Even though they were right where I expected to find them, the fact is I didn’t recognize them. And they were behaving strangely, staring right at me as if they wanted something. For a moment I felt an impulse to rip my shirt off and yell, “You wanna piece a me!?” but it passed. R— was wearing a new helmet and maybe that’s what threw me off. Or maybe, just maybe, the Turbo Levo SL 2 is that special kind of bike that makes you see the world differently. Okay, thinking through this a bit more I guess that’s probably not it, since I have long believed myself to be face blind. My struggle probably had nothing to do with the bike.

Well, it was kind of sad climbing aboard my 3-speed Triumph commuter bike after that. I call this bike the Arseless, short for Arseless Horse, after the hero’s bike in A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle. The Arseless is so old (older, even, than I) and has been so neglected, it probably wouldn’t even roll downhill if you didn’t pedal. All its bearings are practically seized. None of its mass has been stripped away, and it doesn’t even have an operating system. But I couldn’t help but to ponder, as I pedaled my way home, that the difference between this bike and the Turbo Levo SL 2 is a lot less than the difference between a bicycle and nothing. The Arseless cost just $65 (albeit secondhand), practically nothing compared to the $8,000 Turbo Levo, but both of them are infinitely superior to walking. In the final analysis—to quote the Irish cycling champ Sean Kelly—“a bike’s a bike.”


Lighthearted mockery aside, I love Specialized bikes. I still have an old Stumpjumper; I bought my daughter a Stumpjumper M2 for her first mountain bike; and I met my wife at the bike shop where I sold her the Rockhopper Comp she still rides. The Turbo Levo SL 2 Carbon is an amazing bike and if you’re looking for an e-bike, you should totally buy it. Just don’t ride it on no-e-bikes-allowed trails (which I think ought to be most of them ... but that’s another post).

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  1. two corrections. sram axs transmission drivetrain and turbo Levo SL "2"
    the "2" is important

  2. Fixed! Thanks for drawing my attention to the errors. I shall have to chastise my fact checker...