Thoughts on Electric Bikes, Part II

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Some years back when I was an editor at Bicycle Guide, my colleague Joe Lindsey and I had the occasion to meet with a gentleman hawking electric bikes. He was the head of marketing for some electric bike company that is now less-remembered than Major Matt Mason. In 1997 the idea of an electric bike was a good deal less accepted than it is today. Worse yet, the pitch was a good deal less refined. The poor guy was desperate and it was evident in his voice, his pitch, his face. His big play was, “But it’s easier!”

Joe, in his wonderfully soft-spoken and gentle, but direct, manner responded, ‘Well, you see, our readers like the work. They want to pedal hard.’ There was a bit more to the conversation, but there was little to do at that point other than wish him well. I told him we weren’t hostile to what he was doing, but we just weren’t the right outlet. As we walked away, I turned back for a moment and the look on his face was less hang-dog than hanged-man. Returning to the office empty-handed clearly wasn’t how this little excursion was supposed to go and his next stop appeared to be the gallows. There have been few occasions in my life when I have said anything to someone that made them look sadder. I’ve never been so acutely aware what it meant to pity someone as I did that day.

Fast-forward 10 years. My buddy Jim buys his wife an electric bike as a way for her to run errands without always getting in the car. She’s lucky enough to have an exceedingly local life and rarely has to travel more than three miles from home. So one day she rolls up to the coffee shop as we’re hanging out post-ride. To my eye, with its 20-inch wheels and ultra-long stem extension (essentially a handlebar mast), it looks to me more like a travel bike than a proper bike. Naturally, Jim begins egging me on to take it for a spin. My refusals go unheeded; he doesn’t care that I’m in cleats, that it doesn’t fit, that I’m trying to be polite about not being interested. So I get on. The variety of bike she had included a twist throttle, meaning you could pedal, add in some electric power, or just ride it like an electric scooter.

As I rolled out, I did what cyclists do—I pedaled. That’s when Jim yelled after me, “Use the throttle!”

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When I did, the resulting kick had a curious effect: I smiled. Actually, I didn’t just smile, I grinned. I didn’t need a mirror to know how large it was; I could feel my cheeks press against my helmet straps. Were I prone to embarrassment due to shows of public emotion, this would have sent me to a closet. Fortunately, I’m not easily flustered by my own actions, so as I headed back up the hill to my friends, it didn’t really bother me that they gave hearty laughs when they saw my smile set to 11.

The particular combination of acceleration and nearly noiseless operation is what made the electric bike such a revelation. Cars and motorcycles have taught us that big accelerations with motors make big noises. We’ve been taught to expect big throttle action to result in equal parts velocity and noise. After all, only half the love of muscle cars is a love of speed. The other half is a love for the growl, the aural conflagration that is the internal combustion engine. Lions wish they could sound so impressive. But when you take out the scream, no matter how lovely a symphony of pipes and explosions may furnish it, the combination of all-out-attack quickening and child’s-toy noise breaks our expectations, making the experience tantamount to a joke. And any time you multiply fun by funny, the result is a tightening of facial muscles combined with involuntary hiccups of air.

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Yeah, I grinned and laughed.

I tell you that to explain why when the folks at Specialized rolled out the Turbo—their electric bike with a price tag like a top-notch race bike—and said, “You’re guaranteed to smile,” well, that’s when I didn’t laugh.

Now before anyone thinks this is a full-fledged review of the Turbo, let me say I’ve had exactly one ride on this thing and it was roughly as long as a network sitcom. That’s not really enough for me to do what I’d call a review. But as an introduction to a product, well, it had the same effect of a tasting pour at a winery. Yes, I’d like to purchase a whole bottle of that, please.

The first, biggest, difference between the Turbo was … hell, kinda everything. I’d like to point to how there’s no throttle, that instead there is a four-setting switch that dictates just how much electric assist you receive. I’d also like to point out how it handles like a regular bike, and how the gimongous battery fits into the down tube to keep the center of gravity as low as possible to improve the handling. They are all really stellar features that make the Turbo a very different line of thinking in the electric bike category.

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It’s when the switch that determines how much assist you get is in the fourth and highest setting that the bike is at its most incandescent glory. For every watt you put into the pedals, the Turbo matches it, just like when your employer gives you a dollar-for-dollar match for contributing to NPR. The payoff for a watt-for-watt contribution, though, is way more fun. This is on the order of first-kiss exciting.

The Turbo will actually teach you a thing or two about riding, as well. Because it multiplies your wattage, if you pedal in squares, the bike will surge with each pedal stroke. I’ve never ridden anything that does more to reward a smooth spin. The handling is as balanced as a liberal arts degree. It’s nimble, but not too quick, and stable, but not lazy.

Now, I should make clear that this thing weighs more than both of my sons put together, more than most downhill bikes, more than a book by David Foster Wallace. It’s a good thing you won’t need to load this onto a roof rack; it’s unlikely most cyclists could lift it that high (I’m speaking for myself here). The good news is the wheels are military grade and roll up and down curbs with the nonchalance of a dump truck over flowers. Let me be blunt: This is a real bike, through-and-through.

The genius marketing move would be a $100 million TV ad campaign in which consumers were challenged not to giggle. Don’t giggle, get $100. Giggle and … you get to keep riding for another hour. I tell you, this thing is better than Six Flags.

At some point I may enjoy the opportunity (and I do mean enjoy) to do a full review on a Turbo. The challenge for the bike isn’t that you need to be convinced that the big, red S did its homework. It employs a proprietary battery developed by the same folks who do batteries for Apple’s mobile devices. Yeah, it’s like that. The bike employs myriad features to make sure it’s as easy to use as an iPhone. Actually, it’s easier.

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The challenge with this bike is the suggested retail of $5900. If we compare this to purchasing a mountain bike from Specialized, the difference is that the mountain bike is a passion-driven discretionary purchase. We all-cap WANT a mountain bike. That purchase is aspirational—I’m gonna have so much fun on this! But the Turbo is much less likely to be seen through quite the same recreational lens. Sure, it will for plenty of people who aren’t currently cyclists, but I’d like to think that part of the Turbo’s charm and promise will be its ability to make believers out of existing cyclists. I harbor this suspicion that if thousands of dedicated riders were to add these to their quiver for commuting and errand duty (CED), that would be yet another win not just for this bike or electric bikes as a category, but for cycling as a whole.

Another suspicion: if the Turbo is unlikely to be a passion purchase the way a new bike usually is, something will need to make the purchase easier to swallow. After all, this will still be a discretionary—i.e., not a necessity—purchase for most people who consider buying one. There’s a chance that Ed Begley might ditch his electric car for one, but I can’t imagine too many people will turn to the Turbo as their sole means of transportation, at least in the good ole United States of Murka.

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With that in mind, what I think Specialized ought to do is partner with GE Capital to come up with a financing program for the Turbo. There’s already a one-year-same-as-cash deal, but that means your monthly nut is the same as the payment for a very nice car. I’m thinking something that brings the monthly payment down below $200. At that point, I’d consider it.

It’s interesting to me that the Turbo is just a bike. It’s not a utility bike. There are (thus far) no accessories for it like racks or trailers for CED. Wouldn’t that increase the attraction for this bike? Wait, that gives me an idea.

Hey Mike, make if you’ll make a bakfiet Turbo and offer a financing plan, I’ll be first in line.

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13 comments

  1. MCH

    Major Matt Mason – thanks for reminding me how old I am, lol. Loved those toys.

    I give Specialized major props for building and selling these bikes. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I can’ believe that there’s a big market for these yet – particularly at the price point. But that’s what’s so cool about what Spec is doing – they’re creating the market. While a small Vespa may be a less expensive alternative in the short term, perhaps over time the price will come down and we’ll see more of these on the road.

  2. Dustin

    So, is the Turbo coming state side? When it was originally released about a year ago it was illegal in the States due to it’s top speed. Have they changed that somewhat?

  3. Champs

    Padraig: the money is there, you’re just spending it on keeping the thing you claim it’s supposed to replace in your name and on the streets.

    I read Part 1. This is some third thing thats neither car nor bike, it fits nowhere, and I don’t want it in my life. These don’t replace cars, they replace bikes. Poorly.

    Starting from zero, it’s easier to just get a car or pedal bike, neither of which care whether you have an attached garage with power outlets and a driveway. Living in a walkup rules these out.

    In other scenarios, I’ll just say that addition is not subtraction. Return to the first paragraph for an example.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      MCH: I have to admit that Major Matt Mason was one of my favorite childhood toys. I wanted all that stuff. It’s fair to say I’m still toy-obsessed, huh?

      Dustin: Yes, it’s coming to a Specialized dealer near you. I’m not sure what they did to address any regulatory concerns, but you should see it in dealers soon.

      Champs: I don’t see an electric bike as a replacement for a car. That’s not realistic for most people and I do what I can to live in reality; this, despite being a writer, which I admit is not really playing the life game the way most people think it’s supposed to be played. I’ll agree that an electric bike is a kind of third thing, neither traditional bike nor car. But to your rather argumentative point about my back account, no, the money is not there, despite having recently paid off my car. I’ll grant that it’s not realistic for people who live in walkups, but most of the world doesn’t live in walkups. Cars aren’t realistic for people who live in walkups either, but no one is arguing against car ownership for those folks, are they? Rather than trying to suggest that they replace anything, I was simply making a case that they could be a realistic supplement. Of course, I’m not advocating that for anyone who is downright hostile to them.

  4. Winky

    I like electric bikes. I don’t have one, but they do open up possibilities for many. A few months ago I was riding home and came up alongside a lady on an e-bike. We chatted briefly and she explained that the e-bike allowed to commute a longer distance by bike than she otherwise could. Her daily commute was indeed a long way and involved a ferry ride. Her alternative was the ferry/bus. Not the worst option (although I hate with a passion actually being on buses).

    Saw a family on electric cargo bikes today. People almost certainly using them instead of cars.

  5. Randall

    Someone along my commute has one. I’ve only seen him twice, because unlike other casual commuters, he goes the speed of a serious cyclist. It bugs me that he makes it to work so effortlessly (even though I choose to ride).

    I’ve also ridden one, and laughed-out-loud the entire time. For anyone who might think they wouldn’t enjoy the experience, I hope they give it a shot.

    Frankly though, I think your last point is spot-on. Where’s the nice-looking trailer?

  6. Full Monte

    Just curious…

    Why’d they call this bike “Turbo” and not The Cancellara? Or e-Sparticus?

    (Jokes, just jokes.)

  7. EvrgoPwr

    Interesting. I’m with your last sentance, make it a cargo bike platform and then you’ll really see it take off, because the only people I see on electric bikes are commuters, and commuters have to carry their stuff.

    My partner is currently in the search for a scooter/Vespa for some of the slighltly greater than easy riding errands that she would (should) do on her townie bike.

    And further complicating this is the fact that you can a decent used scooter (gas) for $1000 and not have to pedal at all. Even futher, some NEW MOTORCYCLES are $5500 and lots of used ones are available for less. But again, not everyone is all over motorcycles (extra skills, I haz em) for their economy.

    But again, make it something more like a big dummy that rides well and carries stuff easily, matches your input with e-put (TM) and then no licensing (DMV) requirements and you’d have A LOT more people interested in being on “cycles with motors that you still have to pedal”.

  8. EvrgoPwr

    PS, I’ve also ridden the Brammo Empluse, and same grin of being on a big toy. Lot’s of acceleration, no motor rumble, just motor whine.

    And believe me, if the electric motorcycles can make it down to the $5-7k price range, there will be a lot of those out there for commuting and other purposes.

    Again, just because then you won’t have to pedal. People who ride want to push.

    PPS, good to see the thru axel applications, hydro disc on road will eventually go this route.

  9. Seth

    Padraig, I know you really like the Specialized Kool-Aid, don’t get me wrong it tastes good. The Turbo is awesome and since I have about a 30 mile commute (one way) this would increase the number of days I would ride the whole way. By the way if you believe the government that it costs $.55 per mile you drive it would take me ~180 days of riding this round trip to work to break even. But it is great that this rewards you for pedaling harder, I am not a fan of the throttle e-bikes or the occasional chainsaw/lawn mower engine bikes.

    But if you want more of a utility bike check out the Trek Transport +, the parts aren’t quite as high end as the Turbo but its about 50% less. I think its an interesting option. I could easily see replacing some 5-15 mile errands with something like this or by using Burley trailer attached to a Turbo.

    Have a good one.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Seth: You’ll pardon me if I take some exception to your use of “Kool-Aid.” I do like a lot of Specialized products, but I’m not uniformly in love with everything they do. And this veers into sensitive territory in that there is commonly a perception with at least some readers that I favor Specialized over Trek or other brands. There are actually any number of Trek and Bontrager products I’d like to review. I love some of the stuff Trek is doing, but it’s impossible to get them to return phone calls. I’ve yet to speak to any of my colleagues in the media who claim to have half as good a relationship with Trek as they do with Specialized. As an independent, it’s been a very long road to build the relationships RKP has. I’d be more than happy to review Trek product, I would. They just have to return at least one phone call. I swear; it makes no sense.

  10. Kevin

    I was really happy to see your conclusion about cargo bikes at the end – I test rode a Yuba Mundo with the bionx assist last week I’m completely in love. Pedal to work in flip flops and pick up groceries on the way home, all at 20mph…? Yes please.

    I think a bionx assisted Bullit is as close as you’ll get to a Specialized Turbo Bakfeits.

  11. slappy

    riding road bikes at the big red sbcu i was repeatedly attacked by the ride leaders in jeans riding the turbo, trying to catch and hold that wheel on a climb was way painful, especially while they stayed seated, in their jeans

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