Specialized’s Turbo Creo SL has everyone using the F-word
As we have watched the e-bike market grow and proliferate to include every category of bicycle over these last few years, there has always been one sector that’s remained a bit “off the back”—the road bike. In fact, it wasn’t until just two years ago with the introduction of Fazua’s internal battery design and the Ebikemotion rear hub motor that most of the bike industry finally jumped aboard the uncrowded e-road caravan.
Of course, being the impatient (and prescient) editors that we fancy ourselves, it was six years ago when we built our first e-road project bike for our sister zine Electric Bike Action. Funny thing, but in that same issue we also tested Specialized’s original Turbo e-bike. The $6000 Turbo used a rear hub motor to power the fire-engine-red hybrid mountain bike that rolled on slick tires.
As we now find ourselves kicking off a new decade, we’re happy to report that the e-road market has literally exploded with a variety of new models, albeit most utilizing similar powerplants.
Never a brand lacking in forward-thinking vision and/or marketing courage, Specialized has arrived with a ground-up design that easily separates itself from all the others.
Just as we found with the previous Turbo, the 2020 version houses both the battery and motor inside the massive carbon fiber frame tubes. The S-Works Creo separates itself from its lower-priced sibling by using an eye-catching coat of fancy Super Nova Chameleon paint, plus Specialized’s Future Shock 2.0 front suspension that offers 20mm of travel with easy on/off compression damping via a knob mounted atop the stem.
All of the 2020 Turbos use the same motor and Fact 11r carbon frame. What separates them—and their nose-bleed price jumps—are the parts and accessories that get hung on the bike. From a distance, the motorized Creo looks little different from any standard, non-assist road bike.
The Creo’s parts kit is definitely unique. In addition to the Future Shock suspension fork, the S-Works model gets a pair of 40mm-deep Roval carbon hoops with Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 levers and a Praxis 1x crank with a 46t chainring mated to an 11-42 rear cassette with a Shimano XTR derailleur.
The rest of the package is made up of Specialized’s own in-house parts, starting with a carbon Hover handlebar, carbon seatpost, shorty saddle and 28mm S-Works Gripton tires.
One of the key accessories found with the S-Works model is the external 160-Wh battery that is said to add an additional 40 miles of range to the 80 miles provided by the 320-Wh battery housed in the downtube. The
external battery weighs 1085 grams (2.65 pounds).
Without a doubt, it’s the all-new motor that makes the Turbo really something special. And beyond the Class 3 designation, the key features that separate the Creo from all other e-bikes are the range and efficiency. In short, nothing else compares and nothing else comes close.
Specialized has always been a brand that you could say was big on itself. While over the years the company motto of “Innovate or Die” helped push the in-house boundaries of new technology, there has never been a shortage of industry cynics who saw in all the hype a reason to believe that a more proper brand motto should be “Imitate or Die.”
Not so with the Creo Turbo. The design parameters centered around two main goals—to be light and efficient.
While other e-bikes rotate between Shimano, Yamaha, Bosch, Polini and Fazua powerplants, the Creo’s is a proprietary component. Funny thing, but back in 2016 when we asked about the motor’s lineage, all we were told was that it was from Specialized. We knew that wasn’t true, and eventually it became known that the Swiss manufacturer Brose was the manufacturer. And just as occurred when we tried to find out the source of the new motor, once again, we hit a brick wall.
For 2020 we’re told that the partnership with Brose has finally lapsed and the motors were now made by—you guessed it, they wouldn’t tell us! And once again we pushed back, and once again we got no answer other than the motor is sourced in Asia.
As bullish on e-bikes as Specialized has been from the start, we have no doubt that their own engineers helped steer the design and production of their proprietary powerplant. And regardless of who actually made it (something no other brand worries about concealing), the new Specialized SL 1.1 motor is the best e-road bike motor we’ve
The motor accessories include a 320-Wh battery that resides in the downtube and offers a whopping 80 miles of range. Additionally, the S-Works model includes an auxiliary 160-Wh battery in the shape of a water bottle (an $500 add-on with the lower-line Creo Comp) which can extend ride life an additional 40 miles. Remember, actual mileage figures will vary depending on rider weight, power mode used and type of riding.
Perhaps even more impressive than the range is how efficient the bike pedals with the motor off. Unlike some e-bikes where the non-assist pedal stroke feels like you’re pedaling through a bowl of oatmeal, Specialized (and their mystery partners) has created a motor that runs almost entirely independent of the pedal effort.
The Creo is easily charged with a nice, long cord that plugs into the charge port located near the bottom bracket on the non-drive side. As with a majority of modern e-bikes, the Creo is both ANT+- and Bluetooth-friendly, and the power modes can be custom-tuned via a dedicated app.
One push of the on/off button positioned on the top tube starts the motor with a second button that lights the power mode display (Eco, Sport, Turbo). In the same LED light panel there is a pattern of lights that signifies the operating range.
If you’re riding alone or with a group on a climb, there is a constant soft “whirring” motor noise that fills the air, which did irk a few riders. When pedaling along on a group ride, the sound all but disappears when drowned out by the incessant chatter of the freewheels surrounding you.
While we have touted other e-road bikes with rear hub motors for their ability to be a “regular” bike (by replacing the rear wheel), owing to the independence of the crank from the motor, the Specialized Creo always pedals like a “regular” bike. However, unlike those other e-bikes that enjoy close to a 10-pound weight savings when the rear wheel is swapped, you are stuck with the Creo’s added weight all the time—but that’s why there’s a motor!
Thanks to a finely tuned torque sensor, the Creo never jumps abruptly when the motor is switched on. The power just pulls you forward, and when you stop pedaling, a slight clicking noise is audible as the motor disengages. The fall-off from when choosing decreased power modes is noticeable.
Between the slightly longish (101.5cm) wheelbase and the motor’s lightweight design and low center-of-gravity positioning, we couldn’t detect any detrimental impact on the bike’s handling or cornering prowess. Some test riders were additionally surprised to not be adversely affected by the 20mm of telescopic fork travel. In short, the whole bike performs as a well-thought-out package.
The Creo’s gearing definitely errs on the side of climbing performance, and most riders spent the bulk of their ride time on the lower-end of the cassette. Finding the right low-gear/power mode combo can keep you busy enough to almost forget about the ride itself.
In the most simple, value-oriented terms, do not buy this bike. Why? Because despite the fancier paint and components, the jump to $13,500 from the $6500 Comp model just isn’t worth it. With that kind of cost savings, you could buy some lighter wheels and a comfort-class ticket to Italy for you and a friend to ride the bike and still have money left over for some good wine.
On one ride we put in just over half the distance of a 65-mile ride without any assist. Sure, the weight was noticeable when you pedal away from a red light, but other than those fleeting moments, it felt like a bike. With all the assist options available to the rider, the Creo has found its own niche in the category we’ve traditionally used to label gravel bikes—dual-purpose.
As certain as we are that this is the fastest e-road bike on the market, we are equally certain that no other manufacturer is offering an e-bike with this kind of range and efficiency. The bottom line? When it comes to buying a regular road bike, there are dozens of good choices out there that we’d recommend that don’t have a big “S” on the head tube. The same can’t be said when it comes to an e-road bike.
Oh yeah, and the F-word that the Creo has everybody mumbling—everybody who rode it at least—was fun.
• The cream of the e-road bike crop
• Illegal on trails in gravel guise
• Buy the Comp model instead
Weight: 29.95 pounds
Sizes: XS S, M (tested), L, XL, XXL
THE CLASS SYSTEM
There are three “classes” of e-bikes. This was started by the industry to help states make better laws to govern their use. The Class 3 system started in California, but has quickly spread to more than half of the states in the U.S.
The classes are as follows: Class 1 means any bicycle with a motor that is pedal assist only (no throttle) that can go up to 20 mph with assistance (you can pedal faster, but you’ll only get assistance from the motor up to 20 mph). Class 2 can be pedal assist or throttle up to 20 mph. And Class 3, which can rely on throttle assist up to 20 mph and pedal assist up to 28 mph. Class 2 and 3 are allowed only on bike lanes and some paved bike paths, but not on bike trails. Class 1 bikes are allowed in all of these places. The Creo finds a cozy and useful home in the Class 3 clubhouse, and that’s what makes it the first certifiable alternative for “real” (aka fast) road riding, because unlike all the rear hub-powered e-road bikes, the Turbo maintains a more realistic top speed.
CONFESSIONS OF AN E-BIKE “CHEATER”
It was the morning after the Montrose ride, and the text I received from David wasn’t the least unexpected. “Oh man, I heard all the haters going off about Zap on the front of the Montrose ride during my group ride today!”
Trust me, the words “Zap at the front of the Montrose ride” are as unfamiliar (actually unbelievable) as any that even the best PR firm puffery could ever spin, but it was true.
As word of my taking the new Specialized Turbo Creo SL on the weekly group ride began to circulate, so, too, did a litany of derisive comments in the days to come. Although I never made any secret to having the pedal-assist bike, typically, given so many small-minded roadies convulsed with the notion that riding an e-bike equates to “cheating,” I was getting called out—“No one with any self-respect would show up for a group ride on an e-bike.” Maybe not, but anyone whose job it is to test road bikes certainly might!
“It’s only cheating if you fixate on being a loser.”
While my lack of having any self-respect is up for debate, I would challenge any of these whiners to point to the rule book that makes note of such an infraction. There isn’t one, of course, and while they nurse their battered egos for getting passed—or dropped—by some skinny-legged journo, the rest of us can carry on.
FACE THE FUTURE
The 2020 Specialized Turbo Creo SL is all new where it counts the most—the motor. You may have seen the comical ads run during last year’s Tour de France that portrayed an easy-spinning Phil Liggett pedaling past a struggling Julian Alaphilippe. Trust me, that’s a pretty accurate portrayal of what the Creo is all about, as its combination of power and range makes it that easy to ride away from just about anyone on a climb.
Owing to the plethora of test bikes that we frequently bring to the weekly Montrose ride, many riders make a point to check out what we’re riding while waiting for the ride to start. Despite the Creo’s “regular” bike appearance, astute riders sussed out the power switch located on the top tube straight away.
I kept the motor off for the first 10-or-so miles, choosing instead to sit in and roll with the group, maintaining a speed in the mid 20s. Just as the group prepped for a sprint past the Santa Anita Racetrack, I dialed it up to full power and easily sped to the front of the group. However, as I closed in on the top eight riders, I soon felt my legs and lungs giving up. With the lead guys hitting a top speed over 30 mph, I was now relying on my own naturally aspirated motor, and no thanks to the added 10 pounds of bike beneath me, I was coming up short.
However, later in the ride, as the group headed down Foothill Blvd. straight towards the celebrated Encanto Park sprint, I again hit Turbo mode and surged to the front. With a quick look under my arm, I saw a string of 80+ riders doing their best to stay on my wheel. Awesome! The crazy thing was that, as I was pushing the pace at 28 mph, physically, I wasn’t the least bit under duress—again, something not even remotely possible for me in a non-assist world.
A few miles later we approached the dreaded Winston climb, and once more I was at the front driving the whole pack. After making the bottom turn, I easily (or was it effortlessly?) dropped everybody like a bad habit. The effort required was so minimal, it was downright silly. Sensing the potential for any blow-back for “stealing” someone’s Strava PR, I made sure to pull over and quit pedaling short of the top. But the message was clear—the Creo is a hill-climb-killer.
What was most surprising was how fresh I felt after the ride. Between the long pulls, which I could never do without assist, and miles accumulated, physically, I felt like I’d only ridden half as far. This is a reality I’ve heard from many friends who ride e-mountain bikes. Yeah, they get some assist up the hills, but their rides have also been extended. Hmm, being able to spend more time on the bike—what’s so bad about that?!
As the next week’s group ride closed in, my time aboard the Turbo Creo was still reverberating in the social circles: “Oh, is Zap gonna show up on his Specialized moped?!” The answer was yes.
AS FOR NO ASSIST
Choosing some self-imposed penance for using the motor the week prior, this time out I did the whole ride sans power. As long as I sat on someone’s wheel, I could roll along between 25–30 mph down Foothill Blvd. without any additional effort. In fact, even when the group jumped at a green light, I could stay on without any
Fearing that I would get dropped badly on the Winston climb, I still positioned myself inside the top third of the group to see how far I could go with a 28-pound bike. With every ounce of effort and ego I could muster, I rode past everyone at about the halfway mark—even the group leader, who barked out in a most accusatory tone, “Really?!” On an e-bike?!” At that moment I sat up, looked back at him and shouted back, “No motor!” It was awesome! Although, within a few extra feet, I was finally gobbled up when my power-to-bike-weight ratio finally red-lined.
As impressive as the Creo is, for me it’s too much of a novelty to consider owning one. Given how much I just like to pedal old-fashioned bikes, on a daily basis I wouldn’t really know what to do with the assist. Over the course of three days, I later rode the Creo for more than 150 miles without using the motor once just to see how the Creo worked as a regular bike. And it wasn’t until I was 34 miles into the last day with just over 2400 feet of climbing that the added weight of the bike finally got to me; I was over it.
The Creo is indeed something special. However, it would take a serious reorienting of what my two-wheeled priorities, abilities and desires are to properly integrate it into my normal ride schedule.