Electric bicycles tend to have a reputation in the USA for being mundane commuter mules, and while there is a strong market in Europe and Asia for practical two-wheeled daily transportation, America's bike market subsists to a greater extent on sports and recreational riders - to wit, enthusiasts. And there hasn't been much out there on the market to get this group fired-up.
But that might be about to change with the arrival of Specialized's new "Turbo" e-bike. After attending the press launch this week in San Francisco, I can say that their new machine sheds the utilitarian aura of the typical electric bicycle, and injects a huge measure of the company's performance DNA into the genre - this is an e-bike the cycling enthusiast can enjoy.
Make no mistake however, Specialized's new offering will deliver plenty of practicality to the urban commuter.
Though designed to be sleek and fast, if you need to carry stuff, you can attach a rack, while you'll get home safely with the integrated front and rear lights. With a top speed of 28 mph, commuters won't yield extra time to car drivers on urban streets either, and electric assistance will ensure riders arrive without breaking a sweat.
But these attributes aside, the fact is, the Turbo is just a very cool and extremely well thought out package.
Unlike many e-bike manufacturers who modify an existing bike platform and bolt on off-the-shelf wheel-hub motors and battery packs, Specialized's engineers explained with the Turbo, they needed to design their bike from the ground up in order for it to align with the company's performance-focused brand.
The bike's accomplished design is found in the details. Whereas most other e-bikes wear their batteries as appendages on the rear rack, the in-house developed lithium battery on the Turbo is cleverly integrated into the frame's main "down-tube." It looks clean and tidy and can be quickly removed with a key for off-the-bike charging if desired.
Thoughtful design is further augmented by keeping most of the on-board electronics connections out of view. It would have been very easy to end up with lots of wires cluttering up the aesthetics, but Specialized has managed to either hide wiring, or dispense with it altogether by employing wireless communications between certain components. The effect is that at a quick glance, you might not even notice it's an e-bike at all.
But you'll know it as soon as you get on it.
Just hit the big power switch on the battery, wait for it to glow green, and you're good to go. There's no throttle to twist, instead, the bike senses when you start pedaling, and kicks in assistance; if you're in "turbo" mode, a smooth surge gets you moving rapidly into the flow of city traffic.
Range is extended by engaging "eco" mode via a toggle switch by the right handlebar grip, reducing electric assistance, but still providing enough juice to take the pain away on hills or against headwinds. Toggle the switch again on long descents and you enter "regeneration" mode. A few times on the test route, I was able to increase the battery charge a percentage or two with the regeneration icon lit up on the integrated display.
A complaint I have regarding some e-bikes is that because the battery and motor add significant cost, the manufacturers save money by skimping on the quality of components elsewhere on the bike. Thankfully Specialized has not gone this route. Strong hydraulic disc brakes, and a quality 9-speed derailleur gear system ensure the ride is smooth and safe.
While the electronics add significant heft to the bike, it handles so well when you get going, that you don't notice it all. I spend a lot of time on a bicycle, and the great handling coupled with electric assistance provided by this machine instills an amazing amount of confidence on the road.
After about 18 miles in predominantly turbo mode - sometimes against strong headwinds and tackling a few short, sharp San Francisco hills - I finished the ride with over 50 percent of battery charge remaining. This means riders will get an impressive range while experiencing the satisfaction of blasting past Lycra-clad road cyclists on the way to work. This bike is particularly good at putting a smile on your face!
The one downside, however, is The Turbo doesn't come cheap. Specialized will retail the bike for $5,900, so they are aiming for a pretty well-heeled end of a very limited e-bike market. Success therefore, will depend upon their ability to pretty much create the urban/performance niche they think exists in the US.
After riding it though, I think it's sufficiently compelling that it might get enough urbanites to leave their cars at home, while also appealing to tech-geeks and cycling enthusiasts alike. Specialized stressed that in designing this bike, it had to ride like a bike you are used to, and it does - it just augments that experience. It makes their tagline - "It's you, only faster" - bang on.
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.