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by Neal Rogers
July 16, 2019
Photography by Neal Rogers and Specialized
They’re gorgeous. They’re electric. They’re surprisingly light. They handle like a conventional bike. And wow, are they expensive.
Say hello to the Turbo Creo SL, Specialized’s new line of high-performance electric bikes, a marvel of technology three years in the making. Riding one might just change how you feel about e-bikes. Financing one might just change how you feel about free-market capitalism.
Let’s just get this out of the way up front. There are four models in the Turbo Creo SL line— three designed for road riding, and one for gravel/adventure riding. They’re all high-performance machines powered by the same whisper-quiet SL 1.1 motor, designed in-house by Specialized. They all offer pedal assist up to 28mph (45 km/h) — this is region-specific, more on that below. They all come stocked with some variation of a 1x Shimano Di2 drivetrain and Roval carbon wheels. They range from US$9,000 to $17,000. No, that’s not a typo.
The Turbo Creo SL Expert comes in road and gravel builds, the gravel model carrying the Evo designation. The road model weighs 12.8kg (28.2 pounds) and the gravel model, which comes with heavier tires and a dropper post, weighs 13.5kg (29.8 pounds); both retail for US$9,000.
The higher-end S-Works Turbo Creo SL weighs 12.2kg (26.9 pounds) and retails for US$14,000. A limited-run S-Works Turbo Creo SL Founder’s Edition, which can be trimmed down to 10.9kg (24 pounds) with an external battery, retails for an astronomical US$17,000.
By comparison, the Pinarello Nytro weighs 13kg (28.66 pounds), offers a regionally limited pedal assist up to 15.5mph (25 km/h), and costs US $7,000. The Focus Paralane2 9.9 weighs 12.8kg (28.21 pounds), uses the same Fauza motor as the Pinarello assisting riders up to 15.5mph, and costs US$9,849. Trek’s Domane+ weighs 17.19 kg (37.89 pounds), assists the rider up to 28mph (45 km/h), and costs US$7,000.
The Pinarello has comparable weight, and costs less than a Turbo Creo SL, but delivers roughly half the power. The Focus Paralane2 9.9 has comparable weight, costs more than the Turbo Creo SL Expert, and also delivers roughly half the power. The Domane+ has comparable power to the Turbo Creo SL, and costs less, but weighs a not-insignificant 5kg (11 pounds) more.
Across the line, the Turbo Creo SLs are very expensive e-bikes. If they’re out of your price range, or you’re just not interested in a high-performance e-bike, why should you care? Because these bikes border on science fiction. Because they may just be the bikes of the future, and they exist now.
If you thought an e-bike couldn’t be lust-worthy, think again.
Astronomical is actually a fitting adjective for the Turbo Creo SL bikes, as they have a futuristic, spacecraft look and feel about them. They’re sleek and smooth. They’re powerful. They connect to an app on your smartphone, appropriately titled Mission Control, which can tune the motor to your riding style, record and upload your rides, and monitor battery life. A feature within Mission Control, called Smart Control, can handle battery management automatically, ensuring the battery will last as long as you need, eliminating the dreaded creep known as range anxiety.
Beyond all the technology and the decisions behind its design, which we’ll dive into below, the Creo SL is just a pleasure to ride. The marketing slogans are accurate. It really is so light you’ll forget it’s electric. Riding faster really is more fun. The name, Creo, is Latin for “create,” as Specialized feels it has created a new category — a whole new experience. And they may just be right about that.
This all might sound a bit over the top, but they truly are extraordinary machines.
Specialized has unquestionably upped the ante with the Turbo Creo SL. The question, however, is who can afford to sit at the table?
It was in 2010 that Specialized first began its foray into electric bikes. They tested all the different motor and battery technologies on the market before ultimately deciding to develop their own system, which would be labeled Turbo. They chose Cham, Switzerland, as headquarters for their Turbo development, describing the area as the “epicenter of the e-bike boom.”
Specialized launched its first e-bike, the flat-bar, wide-tire Turbo S, in 2012. It weighed 21.54kg (47.5 pounds) and cost US$6,000. In 2015, they introduced the Turbo Levo, their first electric mountain bike. They launched the Mission Control app at the same time.
“When we started in the category, I was the biggest hater,” Specialized founder and CEO Mike Sinyard said at the Turn Creo SL launch last month in Santa Cruz, California. “And then I was told ‘Shut up and try this.’”
Over the past four years the Turbo Levo has become one of the more acclaimed, and expensive, e-mountain bike lines on the market. But until now, Specialized had not released a performance-based electric road bike.
Behind the scenes, the Morgan Hill, California, company developed a formidable e-bike development team at its Turbo Innovation Center in Cham, a group that has grown from five employees to 37, ranging from system engineers to software engineers to mechanical engineers.
At the heart of the Turbo Creo SL is a totally redesigned motor, with a battery that is fully integrated into the down tube.
The Turbo Creo SL has been in development for three years, both in Switzerland and the United States. While developing the Turbo Creo SL — and trying to nail the right combination of power, weight, size, range, ride quality, and efficiency — Specialized says they started from scratch, and put in over 3,000 test hours, or about 12 times the amount of field testing typically involved before a new model goes into production.
Ultimately the development of the Turbo Creo SL was a bigger undertaking than building an in-house wind tunnel, or learning how to work with carbon fiber 20 years ago, Sinyard said.
“Others have been in the category longer than us,” Sinyard said. “Our goal was not to be first, but to be first with the best one.”
While Turbo is the brand’s signifier for all of its e-bikes, SL is the name for the new system — the SL 1.1 motor and the SL1-320 battery. The Creo is the only existing line that uses the SL system.
At the heart of the Turbo Creo SL is a totally redesigned motor, the SL 1.1, which amplifies rider power up to 240 watts and 35Nm of both peak and sustained power up to 28mph (45 km/h). After 28mph the motor stops supporting you and decouples from the system; there’s no discernible drag, it just rides like a natural bike.
At just 1.95kg, the SL 1.1 motor weighs roughly half of other crank-based motors. In part, this weight was achieved by using magnesium rather than aluminum on the housing, a material German manufacturer Brose uses on its Drive S Mag — the motor that powers Specialized’s S-Works Turbo Levo FSR.
For the newly designed SL 1.1, Specialized is not working with Brose, but rather an unnamed German automotive manufacturer, explained Dominik Geyer, Turbo Business Lead.
“This is a Specialized motor,” Geyer said. “What’s important to us is that it’s our system. We’re not fans of using the same hardware that can be found on other e-bikes.
“In the background, of course we are working with vendors. But we designed it, and we co-developed it with a German automotive company. It’s a giant company, it’s not Brose. It’s a premier German automotive supplier with 64,000 employees that makes pistons, and stuff like that. We’re very fortunate to work with them, and it’s an exclusive arrangement, because it was a co-development. What I can tell you is that we invested a lot of time and money and resources into this.”
In developing the SL 1.1, 11 different sequences of motor hardware were designed and assembled before the final model went into production. The final product has 124 unique components inside its casing.
The SL 1.1 has three assisted riding modes: Eco, Sport, and Turbo. Eco matches a rider’s effort up to 30% of the motor’s power, Sport matches the effort up to 60% of the motor’s power, and Turbo matches the effort to 100% of the motor’s power — or 240 watts. There are motors out there that are more powerful, but they likely weigh significantly more.
The pedal assist was designed with a power curve in tune with a road cyclist’s preferred cadence, meaning it’s most efficient between 70-100 rpm. This is not a motor for bike-path townies.
The 320Wh internal lithium-ion battery that powers the SL 1.1 motor is housed inside the down tube. It is not easily removed, and requires that the motor is removed at the same time; don’t try this at home. It’s not ideal, but it’s this integration that Specialized claims helps keep overall weight down (along with the FACT 11r carbon frame and lightweight components).
The internal battery, called the SL1-320, weighs 1.8kg and offers up to 80 miles (130km) of range — adequate for most rides, though that varies based on assisted riding mode. A fully discharged battery takes two and a half hours to charge via a 48V charger that plugs into a port on the bike’s seat tube, just above the bottom bracket. The internal battery is rated to 500 charge cycles and warrantied up to two years or 300 cycles. Like any lithium-ion battery, if you don’t leave it charging all the time, and don’t charge in environments below freezing, you can expect a much longer battery lifespan.
The motor and electronic part of the system are also covered under a two-year warranty. If there’s an issue within the first two years, Specialized will replace the part. (Retailers will not take the motor apart, but rather just replace the entire motor.) As for service beyond the first two years, Specialized is planning on rolling out a new extended warranty program in the days to come.
A separate, external 160Wh Range Extender, which fits in any normal water bottle cage, offers half what the internal battery does — up to 40 miles (65km). It is included with the S-Works build and available for US$399 aftermarket on other models.
The SL 1.1 motor, internal SL1-320 battery, the external Range Extender battery, and the top-tube mounted Turbo Connect Unit together comprise the Turbo SL system.
The 1kg Range Extender, which is under the FAA’s size regulations, can be carried on a flight rather than checked (subject to airline approval) — addressing the primary issue of traveling with an e-bike. Those who wish to fly with a Turbo Creo SL can have a Specialized dealer remove the internal battery, take one or more Range Extenders in their carry-on bags, and ride at their new location using only the Range Extenders.
The Range Extender is charged with the same charger as the internal battery, and takes a little over three hours to fully charge. S-Works bikes and Founder’s Edition bikes will ship with a “Y” cable that allows both to be charged simultaneously.
When using a Range Extender, the default setting is for the Range Extender and internal battery to drain simultaneously. By using the Mission Control app, that protocol can be changed to drain the Range Extender first.
All the same factors that influence range are applicable with the Creo SL: a rider’s weight, fitness, and aerodynamics, as well as the bike build, bike weight, tire choice, and tire pressure. Environmental influences, such as road conditions, elevation, and weather can impact range as well.
When the battery system falls below 20% total charge, the Turbo Creo SL automatically enters Eco mode to preserve remaining battery life.
The Mission Control app that manages the battery can be an integral part of the Creo SL experience, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s an enhancement, but not a requirement.
The bike turns on and off via the minimalistic Turbo Connect Unit mounted on the top tube; there are two buttons and a battery level display. The bottom button turns the bike on, while the top button cycles through the three assistance levels — or to ride with no assistance. The Turbo Connect Unit is all the control you need to ride.
The minimalistic Turbo Connect Unit, mounted on the top tube, features two buttons and a battery level display. The bottom button turns the bike on, while the top button cycles through the three assistance levels — or to ride with no assistance.
The Mission Control app, which runs on iOS and Android, allows for infinite motor tuning; each mode can be customized for max motor support as well as rider assist towards max motor support.
“Think of max support as the motor supporting you up to 100% of the horsepower that it has,” Geyer said. “If you cap it, like we do on Eco mode, to 35%, no matter how hard you push the pedals, you will not get more than 35% of the possible support from that motor.
“The assist number tells you how quickly you are gaining that assist. So if you make that number 100%, you get to the 35% way quicker max support than if you did it at 10%. It’s like a gas pedal. Rider assist towards max motor support is how you accelerate. Max motor support is the ceiling, you can’t exceed it no matter how many watts you are pushing. You can seamlessly, infinitely tune each of the modes.”
Even if this is confusing — and I’ll admit, I would probably stick with the default settings — the Smart Control feature is the crown jewel of the Mission Control app. You tell Smart Control how far you want to ride, or how long you want to ride, or how much battery life you’d like remaining when you’re done, and through an algorithm that recalculates every 10 seconds the app adjusts the pedal assist automatically to ensure you don’t run out of power. Say goodbye to range anxiety.
Keep in mind, with Smart Control initiated on the app, assistance modes cannot be altered via the Turbo Connect Unit. It’s steady-state power assist, adjusting constantly as you get closer to your destination, or as you slow down at the end of the ride.
The Mission Control app allows for infinite motor turning; each assist mode can be customized for max motor support as well as rider assist towards max motor support. The SL 1.1 motor also outputs power data that can be recorded to the Mission Control app, an ANT+ Garmin or Wahoo head unit, or Specialized’s Turbo Connect display unit.
And because the motor is constantly sensing rider power in order to deliver matching assist, there is a constant stream of rider-input power data that can be recorded to the Mission Control app, an ANT+ Garmin or Wahoo head unit, or Specialized’s optional $90 Turbo Connect display unit. Specialized representatives were a little sheepish on the accuracy of the power meter, but I think it’s fair to say it’s not as accurate as an SRM.
After your ride, Mission Control can auto-upload to Strava; the ride will be automatically registered as an e-bike ride, putting your achievements in a separate category. If you’re uploading from a Garmin or Wahoo, you’ll need to manually categorize the activity as an e-bike ride. (Honor system, people.)
And while the Mission Control App allows a rider to fully customize their Turbo Creo SL motor to their own preferences, the motor and its behavior can only be tuned within the given speed limits of their respective country. The app will not allow riders to tune the motor beyond legally allowed speed settings, which is 15.5mph (25 km/h) in parts of Europe, as well as Australia. The firmware controls when the bike’s assist stops, so each Creo SL gets the right firmware to align with its region’s speed limit.
Like internal battery removal, the Turbo Creo SL’s firmware is best updated by a local Specialized dealer.
There are four distinct models within the Turbo Creo SL line. They share much in common, with a few distinct variances.
First, let’s clarify what they have in common. They all use the same SL 1.1 motor and SL1-320 internal battery. The frames and forks are all constructed using Specialized’s FACT 11r carbon-fiber layup, Future Shock 2.0 with damper, and the same upright Open Road geometry used on the Diverge, albeit with a lower bottom bracket. Keeping consistent with Specialized’s other recent road lines, there are no gender-specific frame geometries.
All Turbo Creo SLs utilize Specialized’s Open Road geometry to provide nimble handling along with stable steering and confidence at speed. (Extra-small frame size missing from chart.)
They all have the same clearance, for a maximum of 700x42mm tires. They all utilize a single-ring setup, as the SL 1.1 motor is only designed for a 1x drivetrain. They are all compatible with 650b wheels and up to a 47mm tire.
Also noteworthy: The Turbo Creo SL uses 12x110mm front hub spacing and 12x148mm rear spacing, otherwise known as Boost spacing. The Focus Paralane2 also uses the same axle standard, which is commonly used on mountain bikes.
There are six sizes available, and while they’re being labeled XS, SM, MD, LG, XL, and XXL, they are equivalent to 49, 52, 54, 56, 58, and 61cm frames. They are only available as a complete bike, not as a frameset.
There are two versions of the US$9,000 / AU$12,000 Turbo Creo SL Expert — one for road, and one, dubbed the Expert Evo, for gravel or adventure riding. Both feature the same frame, fork, and Future Shock 2.0 with damper, and both feature Roval C38 disc wheels. Both are equipped with a 1x Shimano Ultegra Di2 build with XT rear derailleur and 11-42 cassette. Both models use a Praxis hollow-forged crankset.
The road version sports Turbo Pro 28mm tires; the Evo is dressed with 38mm Pathfinder Pro 2Bliss Ready tires. The Evo also runs Adventure Gear bars with 12 degrees of flare and comes with an X-Fusion 50mm Manic Dropper seatpost.
The Expert Evo’s colorway is described as Black Granite/Green Blue Chameleon. As with the S-Works model, the paint scheme really pops in direct sunlight.
As stated earlier, the Expert road model weighs 12.8kg (28.2 pounds) and the Expert Evo weighs 13.5kg (29.8 pounds). By comparison, I rode a Yamaha Wabash gravel e-bike in March that weighs 19.5kg (43 pounds) and costs $3,500. There’s no comparison in terms of weight or ride quality; there’s also no comparison in terms of cost.
The S-Works Turbo Creo SL runs a Dura-Ace Si2 drivetrain and uses a top-of-the-line XTR rear derailleur. It rolls on Roval CLX 50 Disc carbon wheels and 28mm S-Works Turbo tires and features S-Works bars, stem, and saddle. The S-Works Turbo Creo SL weighs 12.2kg (26.9 pounds) and retails for US$14,000 / AU$19,000. For the extra $5,000 (AU$7,000) above the Expert model, it also comes with a Range Extender.
The S-Works model’s delicious colorway is described as Gloss Supernova Chameleon; it changes from green to blue to purple depending on light and angle. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s truly gorgeous and needs to be seen in direct sunlight to be fully appreciated.
Okay, this is where things get a little crazy. The limited-run S-Works Turbo Creo SL Founder’s Edition, which could also probably be called the “CEO Edition,” starts with the S-Works build and drops it to 11.9kg with an expensive, lightweight spec that includes S-Works Short and Shallow bars, Roval CLX 50 Disc carbon wheels, S-Works Turbo Cotton 28mm tires, an 11-40t XTR cassette, and CeramicSpeed pulley wheels.
If it’s running on the internal battery, the Founder’s Edition weighs just under 12kg (26.5 pounds); on one Range Extender alone it gets down to 10.9kg (24 pounds).
The Founder’s Edition comes in a Spectral Blue with Brushed Gold paint scheme. Gold foil logos complement gold anodized bolt-on thru-axles, a GPS mount, and pulley wheels with a custom Body Geometry S-Works Power saddle with matching gold highlights. Given that only 250 of these US$17,000 Founder’s Edition Turbo Creo SLs will be made, the S-Works Turbo Creo SL will be the flagship model.
The $17,000 S-Works Turbo Creo SL Founder’s Edition comes in a Spectral Blue with Brushed Gold paint scheme. Gold foil logos complement gold anodized bolt-on thru-axles, gold pulley wheels, and a custom Body Geometry S-Works Power saddle with matching gold highlights.
Okay, after all that — how does it ride?
Honestly, it rides like a rocket. You feel like a superhero. As they say, going faster really is more fun.
At the product launch in Santa Cruz last month, Specialized took us on two rides — one on the road, and one largely off-road. Both rides were roughly 45-50 miles (75km), with about 4,000-5,000 feet (somewhere around 1,500 meters) of elevation gain. I rode the S-Works Creo SL on the road, and the Expert Evo off road.
On the first ride, I played around with the three different power-assist modes. On the second ride, I threw it into Turbo mode and never looked back. On the second ride, my battery automatically switched into Eco mode for the final 15 minutes, and I was working very hard on tired legs to keep up. My mistake.
The SL 1.1 motor doubles your effort with silky smooth power delivery. It’s whisper quiet, and there’s no unnatural power curve or discernible lurching. You just feel like a monster on the bike.
I never found the bike’s weight to be an issue. With the exception of trying to get the gravel bike’s wheels off the ground, you’d likely never notice that you’re on a heavier bike.
On the first ride, we tackled a beast of a climb outside of Santa Cruz called Alba Road, which averages 10% gradient for 3.76 miles (6km), for a total elevation gain of 2,041 feet (622 meters). Some of the early gradients reached 18%.
Going all out doesn’t hurt any less on an e-bike, but it is lot faster. And it’s true what they say, going faster really is more fun.
With the bike on Turbo mode, I rode the climb as hard as I could. It wasn’t easy. I suffered, a lot. I actually recorded my highest 20-minute power of the year, largely because I was riding at sea level. But instead of taking me 35 or 40 minutes, the climb took me 20 minutes. And it was strangely enjoyable. I kept thinking, “So, this is what the pros feel like when they’re going up a mountain.”
On the way back to town, a fast pace line came together along the coast. I’m fairly certain at that point everyone was in Turbo mode, so in that sense, the playing field had been nearly leveled. Just like in an ordinary end-of-ride pace line, it was everything I could do to hold onto the wheels in front of me while pushing 300 watts; the difference is that we were traveling at over 30mph (48 km/h).
I suppose it’s worth pointing out that all things being more or less equal, everyone in a group riding full-gas on Turbo mode doesn’t completely level out the playing field. The SL 1.1 motor amplifies rider power up to 240 watts. A more powerful rider does not receive the same level of relative amplification of his or her maximum sustained power than a less powerful rider does. Proportionately, the less powerful rider receives more benefit. Rider weight will also impact the effective gains in speed that the Turbo power assist provides in the same way that watts/kg impacts climbing speed, or rate of acceleration for a given power output.
For the most part, e-bikes and conventional bikes have largely operated in two different spheres. While e-bikes are heavier and generally more expensive, conventional bikes are relatively svelte and generally more affordable. An electric bike is an interesting post-modern mode of transportation, but the ride quality historically hasn’t compared to its conventional cousin. And that was just the price one paid for the assistance of a battery-powered motor.
The Specialized Turbo Creo SL aims to change that. It rides like a performance road bike, but one with a motor. There are relatively few sacrifices made in terms of responsiveness, aerodynamics, component spec, or even appearance. However when considering any product, it’s impossible to extricate the price from the discussion. And these bikes are expensive — prohibitively so for most tax brackets.
Based on my own life experience, I can’t even entertain a discussion of any model other than the Expert version, and even then, I’ve never owned a bike with a US$9,000 MSRP. I’m not judging those who have, that’s just my own personal perspective.
Which begs the question — who are these bikes intended for?
The target demographic, it would seem, is the wealthy cycling enthusiast who has, perhaps, lost a step or two physically over the years while amassing considerable personal wealth. The empty-nester. The retiree. The executive. The doctor. The banker. The lawyer. The Tesla owner.
As for the whole notion that riding an e-bike is somehow cheating, I’d only posit this question — cheating whom, exactly? Cheating implies rules are being broken, but to my knowledge, there are no rules around what bike one should ride to exercise and enjoy the outdoors.
No, you shouldn’t jump into a conventional bike race with an e-bike — that is most definitely cheating. Yes, you might catch some dirty looks if you show up on the local group ride on an e-bike. Then again, depending on your circumstances and the people you’re riding with, you might also be welcomed back with open arms. Either way, if e-bikes get more people off the couch and outside, staying active and fit, riding faster or just having more fun than they might have otherwise, I’m all for it.
Riding the Expert Evo, I kept thinking that I would love to get one for my father. He’s in his early 70s and has had both hips replaced in the past few years, but he still loves to ride. He’s recently moved to Prescott, Arizona, and the gravel bike would be a perfect way for him to explore the area. With the motor and battery, rather than being limited to the same 10-to-15-mile (16-24km) radius, he could venture out further, and faster, expanding his horizons with a smile on his face. It would be the last bike he’d ever need to own, and he’d probably have as much fun as he’d ever had on a bike.
Hell, I’d love to own one for myself. But given that I’m still a middling age-group competitor — in my mind if nothing else — it wouldn’t be my primary ride, and it’s impossible to rationalize owning a $9,000 bike that wouldn’t be ridden with great frequency. Some might suggest it’s impossible to rationalize owning a $9,000 bike, period, which puts the $14,000 price tag in another category altogether. And then the $17,000 version … well, yeah.
It’s possible Specialized may introduce a more affordable version of this line in years to come. The 1x drivetrain could be mechanical. The wheels could be aluminum, as could the frame. Any or all of those would drive the cost down. But for the moment, the Creo SL line seems designed for the one-percenters.
So where does all of this leave us? It leaves us back where we started. The Specialized Turbo Creo SL is a marvel of technology, with a price tag to match. If this is a window into the future of cycling, for the moment, the future belongs to the wealthy.
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