Late final summer season, I walked into my native bike store in Duluth, Minnesota. The shop mirrors most boutique outfits throughout the nation; water bottles, lights, socks, tires, tubes and locks are clustered up entrance, leaving area for dense rows of highway, cross and mountain bikes to fill the ground. There’s a well-worn rental desk and within the again, a small restore store. However one thing was conspicuously lacking — there wasn’t a single e-bike in sight.
After I requested the clerk if that they had any in inventory, he pointed to a far nook of the area. With that small little bit of steering, I discovered them simple to identify — giant batteries, wider frames and plenty of cables gave them away. Curious how an electrical mountain bike in comparison with a conventional one, I lifted one off the rack. It was heavy, and I couldn’t assist however assume that the very first thing anybody would possibly be aware of throughout a primary encounter is the burden.
Then once more, dedicated riders would in all probability make the identical statement. People who find themselves into bikes are, virtually by default, obsessive about weight. I had a hunch that someplace, considered one of them was dropping sleep over it. After which I met Joe Buckley, head of Electrical Mountain Bike Growth at Specialised, who advised me how his crew approached the design of the Levo, Specialised’s flagship e-mountain bike.
“We rode virtually each competitor bike,” he recollects. “None of them dealt with like a conventional mountain bike. They didn’t descend on the velocity we needed. They needed to brake sooner. They’re all cumbersome — and it got here all the way down to weight. All of those bikes had been method too heavy.”
The identical can’t be mentioned of the brand new Levo SL, which Specialised launched on February 2, 2020 — and is well the lightest e-mountain bike ever made.
Constructing a Lighter Bike
However decreasing weight isn’t a simple downside to unravel, even for a corporation with huge analysis and growth at its disposal. The unique Levo is 45 kilos totally loaded.
“We’re not professionals, however all of us like to trip. The complete workplace empties for a pair hours at lunch to get a lap in. In plenty of methods, we designed this bike for ourselves.”
“We nonetheless noticed room for enchancment,” says Buckley. “The enjoyable a part of driving goes quick downhill, and controlling that a lot weight is difficult for anybody, particularly smaller riders.”
Then he makes an sudden admission: “The primary Levo was overkill.”
Quickly after Specialised launched the Levo in early 2016, it kicked off one other mission referred to as SL. The objective: to make the Levo smaller, lighter and extra like a conventional mountain bike.
“We didn’t know precisely how small it might be,” says Buckley. “It wanted to be enjoyable for smaller and fewer expert riders. Most individuals don’t want all the facility within the Levo anyway. Most use only a fraction of the output.”
On the identical time, Specialised knew that the general public notion of e-bikes varies extensively, regardless of important rising curiosity in juiced-up riding. So it strived to construct a motor and a battery into the identical type issue as conventional bikes.
For a lot of within the workplace, this quantities to a dream bike. Jan Talavasek, director of Turbo Bikes, describes the early pleasure: “We’re not professionals, however all of us like to trip. The complete workplace empties for a pair hours at lunch to get a lap in. In plenty of methods, we designed this bike for ourselves. We weren’t positive it was attainable, however we had been excited to tackle the problem.”
The SL dream bike started, as many breakthrough merchandise probably do, as a boring spec sheet. Buckley saved it easy — basically, stuff a pair hundred watts of energy inside a mountain bike, with out including weight. It wanted to be each nimble and enjoyable, in addition to quiet and clean.
“Nobody likes a chainsaw between their legs,” says Talavasek, solely half-joking. “We needed SL riders to hearken to the birds and benefit from the atmosphere they’re in.”
The spec sheet served as a map, describing the kind of rider the SL would serve and setting targets for weight, stiffness and the way it might trip. Within the palms of the engineering groups, these smaller objectives served as a path to the large one — making the bike lighter.
Subsequent step: laptop modeling. For six months, designers and engineers labored collectively to determine what the bike would seem like. Early iterations blended parts from the Levo with these of the non-electric Stumpjumper and Enduro. However bikes evolve rapidly, and the crew couldn’t simply copy and paste. The SL needed to be new.
“It’s basically high-stakes arts and crafts,” says Nadia Carroll, considered one of Specialised’s composite growth engineers. “In a single body, we’ll use as much as six completely different grades of carbon, dozens of various placements and tons of of various plies. Plies fluctuate in dimension and form, too.”
Carroll and her crew spend plenty of time eager about angles. “The power and stiffness of carbon is all directional,” explains Will Chan, composite engineering supervisor. “If carried out appropriately it will likely be ten instances stronger per weight than any metallic. Primarily that is super-advanced papier-mâché.”
If solely it had been so simple as soaking strips of newspaper in a flour-water combination. “Layup design took us a full yr,” says Chan. “Throughout this course of, we’re constructing and breaking issues day-after-day. It’s probably the most enjoyable half, testing fashions within the lab and out with riders on the paths.”
Once more, Specialised wanted to hit the candy spot between power and weight: “We’re utilizing composites to do the whole lot they’re speculated to do — and we’re looking for their restrict.”
Carbon Fiber and Motor Modules
The Levo SL is undeniably advanced. The entrance triangle alone has 597 carbon plies — that’s rather a lot — and one other 271 within the chainstay. “The variety of layup permutations is sort of infinite,” says Chan. By the tip of the method, the crew had examined greater than 100 completely different designs, leveraging an in-house testing lab, which he describes as “Specialised’s secret sauce.”
Most of those exams are proprietary and hidden from outsiders. Probably the most distinctive is a CT scan, the exact same present in hospitals. “It could actually present issues that beforehand weren’t attainable and helps guarantee strong designs,” Carroll explains. “Every scan produces 3,000 pictures, serving to us isolate weak spots.”
It’s additionally the primary think about making the Levo SL probably the most substantial funding Specialised has ever put right into a single bike.
With body designs taking form, the method flips to the motor specialists in Switzerland, run by Talavasek. This crew, simply 30 engineers and builders, leads all issues electrical at Specialised. They construct “the module,” which incorporates batteries, remotes, the gearbox and the motor, plus the software program that manages all of it.
That module can also be probably the most important distinction between the SL and its predecessor Levo. It’s a completely customized unit, the primary of its type in your complete business. It’s additionally the primary think about making the Levo SL probably the most substantial funding Specialised has ever put right into a single bike.
Talavasek’s first step in creating this technique is outlining the fitting energy specs. The preliminary goal was 150 watts and 1500 grams, however this advanced to 250 watts and 1900 grams. “A few months in, we realized our objectives weren’t excellent, so we tailored them. Extra energy added weight, nevertheless it felt vital.” This course of included many extra rigorous exams, which had been difficult to move whereas holding the bike light-weight.
“Even choosing the right motor housing wasn’t simple,” says Talavasek. “I’m unsure what number of motor iterations we went by means of, however I can let you know it was rather a lot. Dozens, if not tons of. We rapidly discovered that rather a lot can go fallacious when area testing that you simply received’t see in a lab. We examined this bike greater than another.”
Motor growth was scheduled to take two years; it took the crew almost three. The chief difficulty was making a pure trip really feel inside a motorized expertise.
“In technical conditions like climbing tight switchbacks or going over rocks, a pure really feel is essential,” explains Talavasek. “We took the time to optimize the software program to behave the fitting method.”
The Ultimate Ten P.c
With each the body and motor design almost full, the SL mission migrated to yet one more continent and reached Specialised’s manufacturing unit in Taiwan.
“Mass manufacturing all the time provides a slew of challenges and small adjustments to the design,” says Buckley. “Scaling up manufacturing — the fitting tooling, optimization, and meeting strains — is a large job.”
Buckley and his crew don’t begin speaking to the manufacturing unit till the bike is roughly 90 p.c remaining. “That’s deliberate. We wish to begin the dialog earlier than the design is locked, to verify the bike we’ve dreamed up is feasible to fabricate.”
Such a factor isn’t assured, and this significant stage might preserve a dream bike as simply that. “The finalizing course of normally takes a few month. With design locked, the manufacturing unit begins to create tooling for mass manufacturing.”
The remainder of the method for Specialised is comparatively customary, beginning with pre-production runs off the manufacturing unit line and testing these early prototypes for high quality and security. “We do that time and again for all sizes of bikes. It takes plenty of time.” Even after making the ultimate 10 p.c, Buckley says attending to full manufacturing took over a yr to get proper.
The results of such an extended and painstaking course of? The ultimate product is a 35-pound electrical mountain bike that, on a single cost, supplies a lift for 2 hours and 1,000 meters of climbing underneath full energy. In eco mode, you’ll be able to trip 3 times as lengthy.
“Out of the field, the SL is sort of ten kilos lighter, making it the proper bike for a full afternoon trip,” says Todd Cannatelli, Specialised’s enterprise supervisor of mountain bikes and tools. “It offers you a pure really feel and lets you go extra locations. With the added vary extender, the SL can take you almost the identical distance because the Levo, and the journey is sort of similar. The distinction all comes all the way down to really feel.”
Specialised’s formidable objective is for the SL to tug core path fans into the e-bike world. “With the motor and battery turned off, there’s virtually no drag on the system — no different e-bike feels this actual,” says Cannatelli.
What he means, I feel, is that no different e-bike feels as very like an everyday bike. And that is likely to be the important thing issue that enables Specialised, or another bike maker for that matter, to transform core riders into e-believers.
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