Late last summer, I walked into my local bike shop in Duluth, Minnesota. The store mirrors most boutique outfits across the country; water bottles, lights, socks, tires, tubes and locks are clustered up front, leaving space for dense rows of road, cross and mountain bikes to fill the floor. There’s a well-worn rental desk and in the back, a small repair shop. But something was conspicuously missing — there wasn’t a single e-bike in sight.
When I asked the clerk if they had any in stock, he pointed to a far corner of the space. With that small bit of guidance, I found them easy to spot — large batteries, wider frames and lots of cables gave them away. Curious how an electric mountain bike compared to a traditional one, I lifted one off the rack. It was heavy, and I couldn’t help but think that the first thing anyone might take note of during a first encounter is the weight.
Then again, committed riders would probably make the same observation. People who are into bikes are, almost by default, obsessed with weight. I had a hunch that somewhere, one of them was losing sleep over it. And then I met Joe Buckley, head of Electric Mountain Bike Development at Specialized, who told me how his team approached the design of the Levo, Specialized’s flagship e-mountain bike.
“We rode almost every competitor bike,” he recalls. “None of them handled like a traditional mountain bike. They didn’t descend at the speed we wanted. They had to brake sooner. They’re all cumbersome — and it came down to weight. All of these bikes were way too heavy.”
The same cannot be said of the new Levo SL, which Specialized released on February 2, 2020 — and is easily the lightest e-mountain bike ever made.
Building a Lighter Bike
But reducing weight isn’t an easy problem to solve, even for a company with vast research and development at its disposal. The original Levo is 45 pounds fully loaded.
“We’re not pros, but we all love to ride. The entire office empties for a couple hours at lunch to get a lap in. In a lot of ways, we designed this bike for ourselves.”
“We still saw room for improvement,” says Buckley. “The fun part of riding is going fast downhill, and controlling that much weight is hard for anyone, especially smaller riders.”
Then he makes an unexpected admission: “The first Levo was overkill.”
Soon after Specialized launched the Levo in early 2016, it kicked off another project called SL. The goal: to make the Levo smaller, lighter and more like a traditional mountain bike.
“We didn’t know exactly how small it would be,” says Buckley. “It needed to be fun for smaller and less skilled riders. Most people don’t need all the power in the Levo anyway. Most use just a fraction of the output.”
At the same time, Specialized knew that the public perception of e-bikes varies widely, despite significant growing interest in juiced-up riding. So it strived to build a motor and a battery into the same form factor as traditional bikes.
For many in the office, this amounts to a dream bike. Jan Talavasek, director of Turbo Bikes, describes the early excitement: “We’re not pros, but we all love to ride. The entire office empties for a couple hours at lunch to get a lap in. In a lot of ways, we designed this bike for ourselves. We weren’t sure it was possible, but we were excited to take on the challenge.”
The SL dream bike began, as many breakthrough products likely do, as a boring spec sheet. Buckley kept it simple — essentially, stuff a couple hundred watts of power inside a mountain bike, without adding weight. It needed to be both nimble and fun, as well as quiet and smooth.
“No one likes a chainsaw between their legs,” says Talavasek, only half-joking. “We wanted SL riders to listen to the birds and enjoy the environment they are in.”
The spec sheet served as a map, describing the type of rider the SL would serve and setting targets for weight, stiffness and how it would ride. In the hands of the engineering teams, these smaller goals served as a route to the big one — making the bike lighter.
Next step: computer modeling. For six months, designers and engineers worked together to figure out what the bike would look like. Early iterations blended components from the Levo with those of the non-electric Stumpjumper and Enduro. But bikes evolve quickly, and the team couldn’t just copy and paste. The SL had to be new.