FIRST LOOK: Specialized’s New 2019 Levo
Last month, Bicycling jetted off to an exotic seaside resort in Rabac, Croatia for a Specialized global media launch. Arriving a full day before the launch afforded us some time to mix with a few of the Specialized engineers, who are most certainly dirt addicts (and not averse to beer, either).
As we mingled with marketing teams from various regions and the head honchos from the US, we soon realised that this was no small-fry, low-budget product upgrade announcement; it was something more along the lines of a brand-new platform being launched. And although the whole event was shrouded in secrecy, the presence of the e-bike mechanical and software engineers and the brief to bring our trail-riding gear was a dead giveaway that we were about to see a brand-new trail e-bike.
The following day, the all-new Specialized Turbo Levo was revealed to us; and from the first viewing it became abundantly clear that this is a completely new machine. The bike is visibly very different from the first generation – far more slick, sleek and attractive in appearance.
The Levo is developed in Cham, Switzerland, which is the R&D office for all Specialized’s e-bikes. It turns out this office is a veritable United Nations, with a total of 19 mechanical and software engineers from six different countries, captained by Specialized stalwart and bike wizard Jan Talavasek. What struck us is that not only are they passionate about their product; their broader industry knowledge is cutting edge, and they’re as passionate about shredding as we are – and that’s saying a lot.
For the past two years, their daily routine has been something along the lines of an early-morning Skype with their Taiwan-based partners, followed by a shred down their local trails to test product while using on-board data acquisition to gather intel, followed by some office-based design work and a late-afternoon catch-up with Specialized HQ in Morgan Hill, California.
From the horse’s mouth
The Specialized Levo development team spoke to Bicycling about the new bike.
Product manager Marco Sonderegger, on the battery and motor: “We did a lot of rider research, and the number-one consumer concern we found with e-bikes was range. With that in mind, this new bike has 40% more range. On one of our R&D tests we did over 2 400m of climbing, and took five hours to drain the battery to zero.
“The clearances on the new Levo are class-leading; with a 700-watt battery, this bike can take a piggyback or coil shock and hold a big water bottle. We went through about four or five moulds to get the injection-moulded full-magnesium motor housing perfect eventually; it’s one of the key areas where we saved weight.”
Brand and marketing lead Dominik Geyer, on weight: “Weight-wise, for a medium S-Works model, with a 500 watt-per-hour battery, with tubes, you’re looking at 19.9kg.”
Carbon frame engineer Vincent Patureau, on the motor and frame design: “We took a lot of learnings from the previous version. We realised we could do things simpler and leaner – like, why use two parts when you can use one? We wanted a way more efficient structure.
“The whole motor area is a great example of this: we changed the side-entry to a low-entry motor, which in turn allowed us to save a lot of weight. And we went from the old motor unit, which was 3.8kg, to a whole new motor, which is 3.0kg, because we switched to a magnesium casing; we shaped and designed it with our motor partner Brose. And it doesn’t require a special carrier or specific hardware to go into the frame.
“When looking at the battery install system on the previous version, we realised that cutting the downtube to accommodate the battery had an adverse effect on the stiffness of the bike. We had to reinforce the tubes, which added significant weight; so with the new bike, we set out to create a more efficient structure and system. We tried to keep the very easy install system, and we took a long time to figure out the best way to do this. The new frame features an entirely closed downtube, and we designed an entirely new battery to fit inside it.”
Head of MTB product Joe Buckley: “We had a couple of focus areas on this bike. We wanted a more controlled ride, so we built a stiffer frame, which is the reason for the side-arm frame design. We wanted to take a lot of weight out of the bike and rearrange where we put the material. As a result, we saved a huge amount of weight in the frame itself.
“To give you an idea: the S-Works version is now 800g lighter than the previous Levo; and the new alloy frame is actually lighter than the previous-generation Levo’s carbon frame.
“There are also a number of geometry changes. The biggest one is probably in reach; depending on frame size, the numbers grow between 24mm and 29mm, which gives decent reach. The head angle is also half a degree slacker in the low position, and the seat-tube angle is steepened by a degree to increase pedal efficiency.
“We shaved a few millimetres off the chainstays; they are 455mm now. We introduced a flip chip for geometry adjust which alters the bottom bracket height by about 10mm and the head angle by about half a degree. We changed the leverage curve, to prevent mid-travel wallow and excessive bottoming out.
“Our suspension team spent a lot of time looking into the shock tunes, with a lot of test riding to determine what was best for this bike. Naturally, there are some differences between the shock tunes of this bike and those of the Stumpjumper, due to the differences between the sprung and unsprung weights.
“Regarding wheel size, we’ve seen a lot more core riders move to 29-inch wheels for the improved ride characteristics; and as we made more changes to the bike, we saw people ride the bikes differently, and so it made sense to move away from the big 27.5 x 3.0 tyres. The 29-inch tyres come with
a little more tread, save a little more weight, and they make up for the vagueness of the
3.0 tyre, providing more trail feedback.”
Our initial thoughts? Yeah, yeah… ho hum. So now we have the power to ride more trails, with a power unit that delivers 410% more power than we can.
So, sure: the adventure potential with e-bikes is significant. But we want to have fun every time we ride – that means if we can’t push the bike hard through turns and rocky chutes, off cambers and descents, then we’re not going to ride it. We want a bike with the agility to carry speed on trails, change lines quickly, and pop over roots and big jumps alike. If it handles like a tank, we’re not keen, no matter how much adventure the assistance enables.
But while getting our test bike set up for what would be two days of riding – cockpit, tyre pressure, seat position and suspension, all dialled in to our preference – a strange thing happened. We could feel there was something more to this bike than there was to the previous generation, or to other e-bikes we’ve ridden.
The geometry felt dialled, the kinematics felt great – and we were still in the car park!
We spent the first day in and around the Valamar resort bike park, which affords spectacular sea, island and mountain backdrops, very rocky trails and raw radness in and around the small town of Labin. Although we were a biggish group, we covered 39km and 1 258m of elevation in less than three hours of moving time.
After many years of riding bikes, you usually know within the first kilometre of a ride whether you’re going to enjoy a bike or not; you quite quickly determine whether the whole of the bike will be greater than the sum of its parts, combining to produce magic on the trail – and that’s definitely what happened in this case.
The flowy bike-park trails provided a good mix of terrain to test on: loose over hard-pack conditions, and rougher, raw singletrack climbs and descents to get drifty on. After a couple of laps we headed out of the bike park through the back country and towards Labin, where the trails became rough and gnarly, with lots of rocks – small, big, loose, rocks of every kind!
Day two saw us driving inland to a more remote location, called Groznjan, where we smashed multiple runs down different trails, with the trailhead at the top of the hill in an old village. These trails were less rocky than those on day one – yet steeper, with more trees, pine needles scattered everywhere, natural fade-aways, many grassy off-cambers, and some really steep and technical climbs back to the trailhead.
The trails were very similar to what you would find in backcountry Italy or Spain; or closer to home, in Sabie, Jonkershoek or Karkloof. We covered 35km and 1 314m of elevation in 2 hours 42 minutes of moving time – before a massive electrical storm stopped play, forcing us to settle into a local family-run wine farm nestled in the valley at the base of the trail, for dinner and a kuier.
After more than five hours on the new Levo, this is what we can tell you: it’s a ripper, and in the running to be the best e-bike on the market. Let’s qualify that…
With similar geometry to the refined and versatile new Stumpjumper, the Levo has a very contemporary chassis, capable of dealing swiftly with multiple trail conditions and riding styles. The only real difference is that the chainstays are a little longer on the Levo, to accommodate the motor; and in our opinion, this extra length actually has a positive effect on the bike’s overall stability.
The shorter seat tube is a welcome move forward, in keeping with current trail-bike design, and the longer dropper post ensures the saddle doesn’t hinder the rider in steep, gnarly conditions.
The new motor is 15% smaller and 800g lighter than that of the previous-gen Levo, and amplifies rider input by up to 410%, providing 560 watts and 90Nm of torque. It’s remarkably quiet, the cable routing is smart, and the Eco, Trail and Turbo power modes are easy to shuffle through with the bar-mounted remote control. We also found the motor responds to pedal input intuitively, with no excessive bursts or harsh decoupling to unsettle you on rowdy descents or steep climbs.
And there’s a fourth mode, for walking – which makes it a total pleasure to section pieces of trail, or push the bike up a trail you opt not to ride; the bike literally rolls itself up the hill as you walk and steer it.
Ultimately an e-bike’s range depends on many factors, such as mode selection, riding style, ride profile, rider weight, and so on. Still, according to Specialized, under ‘apple with apple’ test conditions the new battery yields a whopping 40% more range than its predecessor.
So ride time can be anywhere between one and five hours, depending on what mode you use and just how hard you ride. That said, the Smart Control feature eliminates the risk of running out of power in the middle of a ride, and the Mission Control app allows you to fully customise the motor settings to your personal needs and preferences, diagnose problems, and extract and record a report that can be saved to third-party platforms.
More fun, big workout
On the trails the bike is quite simply an enabler, an equaliser – and a lot of fun. We honestly can’t remember when last we had such a jol on a mountain bike.
The Levo holds lines and flows with ease, and the added weight (about 5kg more than a normal trail bike) actually increases traction in turns and off cambers. What we really loved were those sections of trail that traverse or drag slightly uphill, which ordinarily would decrease the gravity flow of a trail. With the Levo, two pedal strokes while in Eco or Trail mode gets the speed back up again and brings you back into the flow zone. (There’s no need to descend in Turbo mode – it’s just too much power.)
When descending on rough trails, and particularly when under hard braking, the bike is quiet and smooth – in fact, it’s so smooth it feels like there’s zero pedal kickback at all, which is a massive bonus.
We puzzled alongside the engineering team on this point for a while, and concurred that this is probably the efficacy of the new nubbed chainstay protector, which breaks up the large waves of the chain into smaller ripples, rather than any science behind the way the freewheel body decouples.
As for the climbs: we hammered a seven-minute shuttle climb a few times while circulating on day two, and a small bunch of competitive riders rode off the front of the media group and had a lot of fun trying to drop each other in full Turbo mode. On a non-e-bike, this same climb would take close on 35 minutes to summit; and with some real rocky and steep sections, that would demand a lot of energy.
So the power assist is a hoot on ridiculously steep gradients, enabling you to conquer climbs that even the best World Cup XCO racer wouldn’t get up. However, it must be said that climbing technical trails on an e-bike isn’t easy – it requires technique and core strength to keep the bike on line and achieve ‘uphill flow’.
Interestingly, the climbing assist actually makes you want to charge up the climbs harder than you would on a non-assisted bike; and as a result your high heart rate coupled with the leg, shoulder and core workout you get is by no means insignificant. Riding an e-trail bike is a full-body workout.
And note that despite using the Turbo mode (max power) on all of the climbs on day two, we still had a whopping 44% of battery power left after the ride. The range (and potential) of this bike is phenomenal.
So – who’s it for?
This is a trail bike that’s so versatile, it can be used by any rider keen to experience more trail and more adventure. And since it’s a performance equaliser, it can be used by family or friends of different strength levels to enjoy a group ride together. It’s also an enabler, to help anybody recover from or manage life-changing illnesses, injuries or health conditions – obesity, cancer, knee operations and so on.
It’s the perfect tool for mega adventures on your local trails or holiday riding trips, or for covering maximum ground on a mate’s bike-riding week away.
For gravity riders and racers looking to self-shuttle and do more descending on each outing, the new Levo is up to the job, as the contemporary geometry, kinematics and stiffness of the bike make it a real shredder. It’s livelier than other e-bikes we’ve ridden, and won’t disappoint the gravity-orientated riders.
Competitive riders actually have more physical workouts on an e-bike; and endurance racers looking for a different kind of workout or a recovery tool should consider it too. In truth, the bike’s ingenious design means it will suit many applications and rider types.
There’s a big, bright future for e-bikes. They’re not for everybody – they’re for anybody! And the new Levo is leading the pack.