Pedal Power-Up

Review: Specialized Is the First to Get the E-Bike Right


September 2, 2019 Reviews By

Specialized likes to do things the hard way. Throughout its four-decade-plus history, the company has tinkered. It won’t just take off-the-shelf widgets and build another middling mountain, road, gravel (fill in the blank) bike. Instead, it has always taken those extant parts, gutted them to find out what makes them tick, and then started from scratch to improve them. To make them Specialized.

So the $9,000 carbon-fiber framed Turbo Creo SL Expert Evo isn’t just the first electric-assisted gravel bike to ride like an actual bicycle, and it’s not some meh mashup between bicycle and e-moto — it’s the first to ride exactly like the gravel bike of your dreams.  And just so we’re clear here, the Evo is part of a three-bike Creo lineup. The $13,500 top dog is the S-Works Turbo Creo SL, and below that, the “peer” to the Evo is the Turbo Creo SL Expert, also $9,000. The S-Works machine comes with lighter carbon wheels and cockpit components, but otherwise, both it and the Expert are roadie oriented, with slick tires rather than the knobbies of the Evo.

The Good

Yes, it’s expensive. $9,000 can buy you a decent used car. But at 27 pounds it’s exceptionally lightweight, with the 240-watt motor and battery mounted ultra-low and in the center of the frame. Both of those facets are important to understand. Specialized developed its own battery and motor to pare away as much weight as possible. Every other e-bike on the planet is far heavier, and in turn, the ride feel stinks because those bikes have to be overly stiff to manage the weight. A lighter battery and motor allowed Specialized to build a yet lighter frame, one that was forgiving on the pummeled two-track where I tested the bike not far from Specialized’s HQ in Morgan Hill, California.

Specialized’s template was the excellent non-assisted Diverge gravel bike already in its lineup, which has a superb balance between vertical compliance and lateral stiffness under power. The Creo is nimble, too, because it borrows the Diverge’s footprint: the wheelbase is identical. So are the 425mm chainstays. That means the Creo SL handles intuitively. To test the feel I did repeated out-of-the-saddle sprints with zero electric-assistance, and rather than seeming like I was pushing an anvil up the road, I was rewarded with the kind of crisp acceleration I’d expect from a carbon-fiber race machine. That’s never been possible before, but Specialized labored for four years to make real the unreal.

Understand, by the way, that electric assistance isn’t full-time. You can turn it off entirely, or customize it to three power levels: Eco, Sport and Turbo. My test bike defaulted to Eco at 120 watts; Sport at 144 watts and Turbo at 240 watts.

I was happy to use Eco for mellower grades, but I have to admit that using Turbo to rocket up climbs above a 15 percent grade was transformational. I was still working — hard. But I was going at a pace that would set the KOM for most pros.

Who It’s For

At first, you’d think the answer to this question would be anyone who’s finding it tough to stick with the elite gravel heads in their posse. And that’s undoubtedly true. Having 80 miles of range and up to 40 more with an optional range-extending external battery that fits right in the bike’s second bottle cage would give you more than enough propulsion to power through 100-mile gravel Fondos with 10,000 feet of climbing.

But even during my short, two-hour test, I covered a lot of ground and realized that now an 80-mile ride could become my new normal. I could ride more gravel and paved roads and explore more than just my usual loops. The ability to make huge rides and discover new double- and singletrack is the hidden “killer app” angle to the Creo I hadn’t been expecting.

Now imagine caching a few of the range extenders ($399 each) and creating a grand loop for bikepacking and the 72-hour adventure ride with femur-crushing climbs suddenly seems doable as well, even if you don’t have 20 hours a week and all year to train for such a mission.

So who’s it for? Pretty much anyone who wants the chance to adventure over a larger footprint.

Watch Out For

The spec is a little strange. It’s slightly more road-centric than I feel a dedicated gravel bike should be (I’ll get deeper into that in the review section, below). But the biggest head-scratcher is the 38mm Pathfinder Pro rubber — it’s far too asphalt-focused for my liking. You have a smooth center for faster rolling on pavement, but for the dedicated gravel bike in Specialized’s Creo lineup, I wanted more grip, especially on the boneyard-bumps and washboard that most gravel rides feature. Luckily there’s room on the 700c rims that come with the Evo for a higher volume, 42mm tire with lots more cornering knob. For bikepacking, you could swap to a smaller, 27.5-inch rim and run up to two-inch-wide (50mm) tires.

Alternatives

This part’s easy — no other e-bike on the market is close to this lightweight, nimble, or lust-worthy. Yes, it is truly the latter; it’s a beautiful machine the likes of which you won’t understand until you ride one. Remember life at the dawn of Tesla? We’re there now with electric bikes, and what comes next is only going to be more extraordinary.

Review

Specialized hammered out the kinks in the Creo during four hard years of skunk-working and development. It made sure that power delivery would feel seamless, assisting with your spin but not overpowering it. Testing it in all conditions, from road to fully cratered singletrack, felt natural, even as I began to feel like I had superhuman pedaling mojo.

Speaking of having Tour de France-like output, one unexpected benefit to e-bikes you may have never thought about — and I certainly did not — is that you’re essentially riding with a very complicated computer at all times. The same software that’s constantly monitoring your output to mete out assistance up to 28mph is, naturally, measuring your wattage.

Wisely, then, Specialized allows riders access to this data through the dedicated Mission Control App that pairs to the Creo (and other Specialized e-bikes). Here you can control power splits for the different assistance modes, or tell the bike you want to ride 80 miles today and end the ride with X percent of battery life — it will do the math for you.

But the app has the potential to do so much more. Because it’s a power meter, it could easily accept a workout input where, say, you wanted to do five dead-sprint intervals of 30-seconds each at 450 watts. It could easily monitor your effort and show you your output on any bike computer, like a Garmin or Wahoo. (Specialized hasn’t announced this feature yet, but it’s almost certainly already in the water at Morgan Hill.) As it is, the Creo pairs with apps like Strava and shows your normalized power output, aside from the assistance. Go do that 80-miler and as you pair the Mission Control App, your rides will show up as e-bike efforts, but the wattage will still be your own.

Again, it’s important to reiterate that even as I was flying up hard climbs, my heart rate was still cresting into an aerobic state; I was working, but I was getting to the top more quickly.

I expected to have that power delivery screwing up my cadence, cutting juice in and out in a way that would force me to adjust my spin. That didn’t happen. I just rode, and power to the pedals came on as smooth as a greased chain. Even on dicey, loose grit I never once had the bike throw me like an untamed steer. At times it was easy to forget I was being assisted, especially in the lowest mode.

One feature that comes on this bike that is perhaps a flourish is the Future Shock 2.0. It’s a shock built into the head tube of the frame, with a dial on the stem to either ratchet more resistance or allow more stroke, same as if you had a suspension fork. During testing, I basically left it wide open, and it was a godsend for the harder-edged hits through scree.

However, I run 42mm tires on home terrain that’s even more rugged, and that higher volume — compared to the stock 38mm rubber on the Evo — lets me roll with lower pressure (and no fancy head shock). Do you need that shock in the stem? It’s debatable, and probably very much depends on your regular ride circuit. Beyond that, gravel grumps will probably grouse both about the Evo’s price as well as its drivetrain spec.

The electronic Shimano drivetrain on the bike comes from that supplier’s mountain and road bike system. So you get Shimano Di2 road shifters mated to Shimano’s mountain 11-42-tooth cogset and an XT derailleur. There is only a single 46-tooth chainring in front. That is a bit “roadie” for a lot of dedicated gravel riders because the 42-46 gearing combo might not be low enough to let you spin up your favorite steep grinder — until you remember you have a Li-Ion battery and 240-watt motor to help in the effort. Still, a different crank is a likely running spec change as the Creo line develops. Also: Shimano is coming out with a dedicated gravel drivetrain group, so this combo of road shifters and mountain derailleur is likely just a one-and-done for this fall’s debut.

My one suggestion to Specialized: I would like to see a different dropper seat post on this bike. Yes, it’s awesome to have a dropper — a seatpost that’s adjustable at the push of a button — and it was fantastic to have during testing. Mountain bikers already know life before and after dropper posts, and gravel riders are slowly understanding that anything that allows you to get your center of gravity lower during sketchy descents will make you safer and let you fly faster. However, Specialized gave the Creo a post that only allows for a fully up or fully dropped (50mm) position. An infinitely indexed post has two advantages over this setup. One, to give your knees a break on a long day you can drop it just a tad to slightly change your position. Likewise, you can drop it partway for road descents where you want a lower center of gravity but don’t need to be in full downhiller mode. But these are thoughts from a mountain biker who’s seen the light on dropper posts and again, swapping is an easy DIY retrofit.

Verdict

Even with my minor grouses, there’s no beef about the overall performance of the Specialized Turbo Creo SL Expert Evo. This is a game-changer. I got off my test ride with my mind blown. What’s next? Is this like the electric guitar, an instrument that radically changed our entire culture, not just music? Probably, and the advent of the Creo is almost entirely for the great benefit of serious as well as casual cyclists worldwide.

Key Specs

Frame: FACT 11r carbon
Shifting: Shimano Di2
Drivetrain: 1×11 orientation, 46t chainring
Rear cogs: Shimano XT, 11-42, 11-speed
Wheels: Roval carbon clincher rims, tubeless-ready
Saddle: Body Geometry Power Expert
Crank: Praxis Carbon
Handlebars/stem: Specialized Adventure Gear Hover, 12-degree flare
Seatpost: X-Fusion Manic Dropper
Brakes: Shimano Ultra hydro disc, 160/160mm
Brake levers: Shimano Ultegra R8070 Di2 hydro disc
Tires: Pathfinder Pro 2Bliss Ready, 700x38mm

What Others Are Saying:

• “We’re used to speaking about e-bikes like they’re a lesser form of equipment. Inelegant, unrefined, heavy, clunky, compromised; bikes with inescapable caveats and asterisks. Bikes that are stuck with the reputation of medical equipment to manage an unforgivable and embarrassing disease. But what happens when an e-bike is none of those things? What happens when an e-bike is so good, so fun, and so natural to ride that all riders want to ride it because speed is addictive, and speed is fun? You get a game changer. And that’s what the Creo Turbo SL is.” — Matt Phillips, Bicycling

• “So am I ready to run out and buy a Creo? No, mostly because it’s incredibly expensive. ($9,000 to $17,000. Ouch.) This bike is intended for a very niche audience, and while I am certain that audience exists, I am not it. Every single e-bike ride I have been on has been a lot of fun, but it’s still not my game, especially when I can buy a top of the line road bike without a motor for the same price, if not cheaper. For my money, motorless bikes are still where my heart’s at.” — Dan Cavallari, VeloNews

• “While I suspect the proudly self-sufficient gravel crowd will be slow to embrace an ebike category at races in the near future, there are many other applications. It makes sense for cyclists who have a rugged daily commute, cyclists who want to pace (or beat) a ride partner who is faster and stronger, cyclists who want to relive the seamless power of their youth, and cyclists with unrestricted cash flow who want a fun toy that doubles as art. Yes, art: The Evo’s psychedelic paint job sparkles and shimmers in the sun like an irresistible siren.” — Stephanie Pearson, Wired

Specialized provided this product for review.

Read More Gear Patrol Reviews

Hot takes and in-depth reviews on noteworthy, relevant and interesting products. Read the Story
Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

More by Michael Frank | Follow on Contact via Email
Newsletter Sign-Up
Get the best new products, deals,
and stories in your inbox daily.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy to receive email correspondence from us.