What the Tech? is a new HYPEBEAST series that puts familiar products under the microscope. We’ll examine them in detail, lifting the lid on how they work, what makes them special, and what the future holds for them. Rather than looking at the technology you’d find around your home, What the Tech? spotlights materials and product advancements in the fashion, footwear, design, and art worlds, speaking with the brands themselves to get an unfiltered insight.
The e-bike is nothing new: its first variation was created in 1898, when Mathew J. Steffens patented a battery-powered belt that would aid the rear wheel on flat surfaces, before a second would come into play at the sight of an incline.
However, fast-forward over 120 years and the e-bike is more technologically advanced than Steffens could have ever imagined — and American bike manufacturer Specialized is at the forefront of this two-wheeled movement. Situated in Morgan Hill, California, at the southern tip of Silicon Valley, the brand has been making high-end bicycles and equipment since it was founded in 1974. From grand tour winners to everyday riders, Specialized has become one of the most renowned brands in the world of cycling.
When it comes to e-bikes on the whole though, the question has always loomed as to whether they really are a credible alternative to the traditional pushbike. Whether the look, weight and feel of the electronic version is comparable, or if making the transition from classic to assisted is really as seamless as it seems.
In a bid to ease the transition, Specialized released its first e-bike in 2012, with the aim of creating an experience that felt like riding a traditional push bike. The brand soon began innovating and building on this original release, before developing the concept of the Turbo SL System that was eventually introduced in 2019 — an idea that they hoped would change the face of e-bikes.
For this installment of What the Tech?, HYPEBEAST speaks with Specialized Senior Product Manager, Marco Sonderegger, to discuss the Turbo SL System and the brand’s e-bikes. Read on to find out about the history of the technology, what it actually is, and how the brand hopes to change the world of electronic biking.
The What, Why, and How
What is Turbo SL, and what does it add to a bike?
Marco Sonderegger: It’s essentially a motor engine that’s put on our bikes and is there when you need it and it stands for ‘Turbo Super Light.’ It adds a lot of fun, a lot of range and a lot of freedom. We describe it as “two times you”, because the power you put in, the Turbo SL adds another you and allows you to move a lot faster.
What’s different from other e-bikes is that our Turbo SL is lightweight, so whether you’re riding with it switched on or off — you don’t notice any extra weight. Most people still think these bikes have a throttle like a motorcycle, but that’s not the way we do it. We require the rider to pedal, but then we amplify your input. The more you put in, the more you get back. Once you’re in it, you aren’t going back. You won’t go back to full powered e-bikes, and you certainly won’t go back to push bikes.
What makes the Turbo SL system unique?
An engine has an electrical drive, a gearbox and an output shaft, then you power the spider and add the amplified rider power. The biggest difference we have is that on that gearbox we have different clutches which can fully disengage from the engine in case you’re above top speed or you’re coasting. The gear box doesn’t spin when you pedal the bike in its ‘off mode,’ which means you have zero drag back. With most other e-bikes, you pedal against the gearbox or the electric engine in any mode. When we built ours we said that in ‘off mode’ it needs to feel like a normal push bike — and I think that’s the biggest differentiator we have.
Other things like our range extender are cool, too. It looks like a water bottle that has battery cells in it, and with that you can add as much range as you like. That way you can ride for longer, further and more comfortably. Also back in March we introduced over the air updates, so as we continue to update our Turbo SL System and introduce new features, riders are able to update their own bike using the Specialized app, as if you’re updating your iPhone or some other software. It means that you as a rider no longer need to go and see a retailer, which is sometimes seen as a barrier to cyclists. Now you can update your bike from your own home.
Is the fact that the Turbo SL system is so unique contribute to the price of a Specialized bike?
I would say the SL bikes from a price perspective are pretty reasonable. Of course if you want to go expert level you can pay a lot of money, but we did bring the Turbo SL System to our aluminium bikes too, so you don’t have to have a fully carbon frame if you don’t want to. Of course you can opt for the super fancy electronic bikes with electronic shifting and the works. We always begin with our high-performance S-Works products, and then we know there are different riders looking for different needs, so we’ll tailor them down to different levels. You still see the same performance of that in the top tier product, but there are just different materials surrounding the system as we go to different levels.
The History of Specialized’s Turbo SL System
Traditionally, something like the Turbo SL wouldn’t interest cycling purists. Is it a credible alternative to traditional bikes?
We wanted to make our e-bikes look and feel like a traditional bike. Whether it’s for roads, mountains or gravel, the main thing for us is it didn’t look like an e-bike. For traditional cyclists, weight and handling is everything, so the number one drive was to ensure the bike was still both light and that it felt good. Of course, the other one is optics. Our e-bikes now ride with the feel of a classic bike, and you don’t feel any added weight.
Some of them feel even better than a classic push bike too because of the added weight. Our team in California are always keen to cater to the hardcore road cyclists, so we’ve had our pro riders on one of our Turbo SL bikes who debuted it on a rest day at the Tour de France a few years back, our Dutch women’s pro team have taken it for long rides too, so it has to fit our performance riders.
What is the creative process like for something like this?
For this one we were in Morgan Hill, California, in around 2011. We had one of our professional cyclists with us and I wanted to find out how much more energy I would need to be able to keep up with that pro. So we’d go up and down a hill and I’d be using a specially-made engine that we could tune up and down, until we found a setting where we could both go up and down at the same speed together. It was about trying to understand how much power an individual might need to become a professional. Then it became physics; we knew the engine power we needed, but then needed to work out how big the battery pack needed to be to give us the range we wanted. Once the concept was proven, we went all in and formed a team, hired people and made it all happen.
I’d imagine the testing on something like this is pretty rigorous?
It was super difficult. We rode 65,000 miles or so ourselves and because it was all top secret. When we put the first engine together the magnesium housing broke after 500 cycles, and we had to reach 100,000. After that we made the turnaround which probably took us an additional year, because we had to strengthen up the magnesium and re-engineer a bit, but finally we made it to 100,000 cycles and the engines are still holding up.
“You won’t go back to full powered e-bikes, and you certainly won’t go back to push bikes.”
Has the original Turbo SL System changed much compared to the current design?
We’re still using the initial one, we’re still in the first generation of the SL. We’ve had to change a few user interfaces, but the engine itself, the battery, cables and charger are all the same, it’s just the software around it that’s changed.
What does the future look like for the Turbo SL? What’s next?
What’s next is top secret, but we’re committed to this technology and committed to offering e-bikes that the riders want. We’re always learning from our riders thanks to our apps, whether that’s road cycling, mountain biking or anything, we’re always trying to cater to our riders’ needs.
How do you think e-bikes are going to change the world of cycling now and in the future?
The future of local transportation looks more like a bike than a car. Electric bikes are the electric vehicle for our future. They’re often faster in congested areas, cheaper on a per-mile basis, and more fun than sitting in traffic – add to that you still get the health benefits of riding a bike. The electric bike will certainly get more people riding.