Cyclists, at least the Lycra-wearing ones, tend to be a competitive lot. They live for a good pissing match over aerodynamics, miles ridden and, if you find the right roadie, maybe even actual pissing (as a matter of ride etiquette, of course). That’s why it’s so much fun to blow past them on the Specialized Turbo S, a sleek electric bike with a near-silent motor that, with a turn of the pedals, gives your legs an extra 500+ watts of hill-crushing power.
My favorite kind of encounter involves passing a guy on a long uphill. His first reaction is typically slack-jawed disbelief, as he notes my upright riding position, chunky 45-centimeter tires and unassuming street clothes. A split second later, competitive instinct goads him into wild acceleration, legs pumping, gears clicking and handlebars jerking back and forth as he fights to chase onto my wheel, which is humming along at an inhuman 23 mph. Soon he abandons the chase, panting, and watches bewilderedly as I disappear up the road like some fairytale unicorn.
Soon he abandons the chase, panting, and watches bewilderedly as I disappear up the road like some fairytale unicorn.
The illusion is so complete because, at a glance, the Turbo S doesn’t look at all like an e-bike. Its racy alloy frame features sweeping lines, aggressive geometry, a tapered head tube, an elegantly integrated down tube battery and internal cable routing. But inside the rear hub is a 250-watt (nominal, with peak output around 700 watts) direct-drive motor with a built-in torque sensor that works seamlessly with the 10-speed SRAM groupset. The instant you begin pedaling, the motor smoothly kicks in with a silent, muscular boost, propelling the burly bike forward with superhuman power. The harder you pedal, the more assistance it provides until, in a matter of a couple of seconds, you’re zipping along at 28 mph.
Specialized invested five whole years of R&D into the Turbo S, which is significant for a couple of reasons: First, Specialized is the first of the big four bike makers — including Trek, Cannondale and Giant — to bring a purpose-built e-bike to the US market, broadcasting that it sees huge potential in e-bikes. (In fact, company founder Mike Sinyard has hinted at adopting optional rear hub motors across its lines in the future.) Second, compared to its more utilitarian peers, the Turbo S is a wholly different e-bike: a speed-focused, performance-driven machine aimed at commuters who prefer to bookend their workdays with shots of adrenaline.
But was it worth the wait? There’s a lot to like about the Turbo S. At 47 pounds, it’s lighter than most e-bikes. The frame is stiff and steering is surprisingly snappy; slick, low-rolling-resistance Electrak tires are fast, but supple enough to absorb road chatter at high speeds. A small, handlebar-mounted computer with a joystick allows you to switch between assist levels — balls-to-the-wall Turbo, power-sipping Eco, power-producing Regen and Off — without moving your hand from the handbrake or grip position. Those last two modes are so ridiculously sluggish that they’re virtual nonstarters, unless you happen to drain the battery far from home. Rather than having a big, clunky after-market battery like so many of its peers, the battery is built into the oversized down tube. That decision, though it helps balance the ride and elegantly hides your power source, limits the battery’s size and, therefore, its range, which is definitely this bike’s weak spot.
To be sure, the 504 watt-hour battery is more generous than average (around 400 watt-hours) — but it’s still well behind the Stromer ST2’s industry-leading 814 watt-hour juice box. And while many sources estimate that the Turbo S has a range of 30 to 40 miles in “ideal” conditions (flat, no wind, “Eco” mode with a lightweight rider in tow), I typically burned through 50 to 60 percent of a charge in only 10 miles. Granted, I was riding hard in full-blown “Turbo” mode through hilly countryside terrain, on the prowl for unsuspecting weekend warriors.
That’s what the Turbo S is all about: speed, which begets fun.
Regardless, that’s what the Turbo S is all about: speed, which begets fun. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face as I cruised country rollers at Tour de France speed without breaking a sweat. And I barely stifled faux race car noises every time I rocketed away from a stop sign or red light. I’m convinced that the Turbo S is, hands down, the best performance enhancer to hit cycling since EPO (and it’s only marginally more accepted). It will get an urban commuter where he’s going, and fast. And for those who balk at the $6,000 price tag, Specialized has released two more basic models: the Turbo X (all road with suspension fork and knobby tires; $4,000) and the Turbo (460 watt-hour battery, no regenerative braking; $3,800). If nothing else, the Turbo should certainly be enough to get you excited about the future of e-bikes.