The ride is easy, calm & composed but if you want to, this trail-savvy bike will party, hard!
| WORDS: Myles Kelsey | IMAGES: Rob Ward | LOCATION: TokaiMTB, Cape Town |
My first eMTB experience was around 2016 and it wasn’t great. The bike was overpowered and horrid. The early eMTBs were pretty difficult to ride. I actually felt them to be dangerous, they were clunky, with pretty much zero integration and whilst I was intrigued, I certainly wasn’t interested. The rapid pace of evolution in this space means that pretty much all of the eMTBs on the market today are good bikes. Some are simply exceptional. More on that in a moment.
If you are new to the world of eMTB then you might very well be wondering what the heck a mid-power eMTB is. Simply put they have less support and smaller batteries than the full-power versions. More specifically, mid-power eMTB torque figures are usually around 50 or 60Nm and they generally weigh less than 20kg. The brawnier full-power eMTBs have around 80 or 90Nm and weigh around the 23kg mark. Consider this: a full-power eMTB bike will blast you uphill and ‘carry’ you around for hours and in the higher support modes, minimal human effort is required. On the other hand, think of a mid-power eMTB as a regular bike that has just a little bit of assistance to make the climbs slightly easier. On a mid-power eMTB human effort is mandatory. Now that’s exactly what the Levo SL is. It’s a trail bike with a little assistance.
It’s a completely new package and the redesign is intentionally almost identical to the award-winning Stumpjumper Evo. Specialized says that a lot of the technology seen here has trickled down from their World Cup Gravity Team. The learnings from that program, which includes riders like Loic Bruni and Finn Iles, have had a direct influence on the Stumpjumper Evo, full-power Levo and this new Levo SL.
The frame no longer has a sidearm around the shock which, in my opinion, improves aesthetics and likely creates more options for shock choice. Specialized has stuck with its tried and tested horst-link suspension design yet has tweaked the leverage ratio on the new Levo SL. It’s lower, meaning the shock needs less air pressure. The intention here is to improve small bump performance. Complimenting the lower leverage ratio, the kinematics of the new bike are more progressive which should offer more support as the bike moves deeper into its travel.
The bike is available in six frame sizes and Specialized says each frame size has different layups and tube shapes. The reason given is they wanted to yield the same ride feel for all riders, whether short or tall.
The frame has three key adjustability features. A flip chip in the chainstay which tweaks the rear-center by around 3mm. A flip chip inside the shock link lifts or lowers the BB by 5mm. Then there are the two headset cups that are included when buying the bike, the neutral headset lines up a 64.25° head angle, and depending on its orientation the offset headset will line up either a 65.5° or 63° head angle.
While the first generation Levo SL was exclusively a 29er, the new model is sold as a mullet that is 29-inch ready. Switching from a mullet to a full 29er involves rotating the chainstay flip chips and the headset cups which isn’t too complicated and most riders will be able to DIY the swap. The motor will also need to be recalibrated to the relevant wheel size. Cable routing is neat and clean without being channeled through the headset. The frame has a skid plate under the motor, a sizeable chainstay protector, the universal derailleur hanger dropout and a multi-tool inside the steerer.
The standover heights are lower, the reach has grown and the built-in adjustability plus wheel size options create a plethora of permutations here. The six frame sizes cover a wide spectrum of riders, from around 1.5m to over 2m tall. The wide range of geometry adjustability makes the Levo SL one of the most versatile eMTB’s on the market. The low standover and ability to run anything from a 65.5° to 63° head angle means the handling can be dialed in for any terrain. It’s a smart move by Specialized. The Levo SL will provide downright perfect handling for riders wanting to cruise the Braamfontein Spruit, rally the steep Enduro lines at Cascades, or take a chilled approach to a stage race.
There are five models available and Specialized has used the same grade of carbon, the same new motor and battery throughout the range. The range consists of two S-Works editions that peak out at R280k and have literally the best of the best componentry including Rockshox Flight Attendant suspension and SRAM’s XX Eagle Transmission drivetrain. At R210k and R180k, the Pro Carbon and Expert Carbon models are also Transmission drivetrain machines with the more opulent option including carbon wheels. On test we have the base level model, the Comp Carbon, that retails for R149k.
|FRAME | Gen 2 Specialized Levo SL Carbon Frame, 150mm rear, Mullet or 29er ready, Adjustable head-angle & BB, Size S4|
|BATTERY | 320Wh integrated battery, tested with a 160W rage extender|
|CONTROLLER | Specialized Mastermind TCU remote with integrated top tube display|
|MOTOR | Specialized 1.2 SL, Trail Tuned|
|FORK | Fox 36 Rhythm, 160mm Grip Damper, 44mm offset|
|SHOCK | Fox Float X Performance|
|BARS | Specialized, 30mm rise and 780mm width, 6-degree upsweep, 8-degree backsweep|
|STEM | Specialized, 50mm length and 35mm bore|
|SADDLE | Specialized Bridge Comp|
|SEATPOST | X-Fusion Manic, 175mm drop, infinite adjustability|
|WHEELS | Specialized Alloy, 29″ front and 27.5″ rear, 30mm inner width|
|TYRES | Specialized Butcher Grid Trail 29″ x 2.3 and Specialized Eliminator Butcher Grid 27.5″ x 2.3|
|CASSETTE | SRAM Eagle XG-1275, 10-50T|
|MECH | SRAM GX Eagle, 12-Speed|
|SHIFTER | SRAM GX Eagle, 12-Speed trigger|
|CRANKS | 170mm SRAM Alloy|
|BRAKES | SRAM Code RS, 4-piston, 200mm rotors|
|WEIGHT | 18,9kg (Size S4 as tested, no pedals and without the range extender)|
There’s nothing overly fancy about the build kit on the base-level model. Specialized have specced their own brand bars, stem, grips, saddle, wheels and tyres. It is very much a no-nonsense build.
Along with the geometry and kinematics, the motor was also a big focus area for the new bike. It has been reworked to produce more power. The first-gen or original SL motor yielded 250W of mechanical peak power and 35Nm of torque whereas this new SL 1.2 motor produces 320W and 50Nm respectively.
When compared to the previous generation Levo SL, Specialized says the redesigned motor also reduces the perceived noise of the motor by as much as 40%. Both the shapes of the internal gears and the two-piece honeycomb structure that surrounds the motor contribute to the noise reduction. The complete weight of the motor and battery system is stated as 3.8kg.
A top tube-mounted colour display (as seen on the Gen 3 Levo) has up to 16 screen display options with 30 metrics available. Specialized have used the ‘almost unbreakable’ Gorilla Glass on the display.
Operating the display, shifting modes, accessing walk mode and using the ‘Micro Tune’ function is all done through a bar-mounted remote, or inside the new Specialized App, which incidentally will sync to most heart rate monitors.
80RPM is the stated cadence sweet spot to optimize power, efficiency and range. While the app does allow for complete customization of all the support modes, Specialized has tweaked the standard factory preset modes to 35/35 for Eco, 75/80 for Trail and 100/80 for Turbo.
Are you ready for a fun fact about this new Gen 2 Levo SL? The development team is based in Switzerland but due to the harsh weather conditions we have here in Africa – a lot of the development and test rides on the new motor were done in Stellenbosch, by South African riders. That’s an American brand, with a bike designed in Switzerland and tested in Africa before going into production. How cool is that!
Performance of the build kit
The performance of a modern base-level bike can be quite surreal. Some might scoff at the Grip One Damper Fox Fork, Code RS brakes, own-brand parts, or cable-actuated SRAM GX shifting. On the trail, the reality is that the parts perform beautifully and are durable. I did make a few notes on the build kit that need mentioning. Personally, I don’t like 50mm stems on trail bikes, things are a lot calmer with a 40 or even 35mm stem – so that’s one thing I’d change here. The standard Specialized Trail grips could be better if they were a little softer and tackier – there is a little too much trail feedback coming through them, for me.
I’m pretty sure Specialized have tweaked the rubber compound on the shoulder knobs of their Grid Trail tyres. A couple of years ago when I tested their Kenevo SL, any average-sized rock would slice the shoulder knobs clean off the tyre – which is something I only picked up when I was returning the bike. That hasn’t happened on this bike at all.
Yes of course the S-Works models with range-topping wheels, drivetrains, brakes and suspension will add new dynamics to the ride quality – making things smoother and perhaps a bit more controlled at speed. I say if your wallet is super-sized then there’s nothing wrong with going for the S-Works bikes. There is however nothing bad or funky about the ride quality of this base-level build kit. Throughout testing, pretty much everything was flawless.
I’m 71kg (74kg with riding kit) and as part of the review did a range test ride in Tokai. I set the assistance to 100% for the entire ride and clocked 28km, with 800m of elevation in a ride time of 90 minutes. I’m mostly a lap guy when it comes to eMTBing – so in case you are wondering that ride equates to around six laps of trails like the Snakes, DH3 and Boulders. That’s about an hour quicker than the same ride would take me to complete on a regular trail bike.
Naturally, reducing the support levels will increase the range significantly and I think fit Trail Riders, using less support, can bank on achieving 40km and 1700m rides, in around 3 hours of riding. That’s plenty of riding and will be a massive workout.
Of course, a 160Wh range extender is available from Specialized. It sits inside the bottle cage and plugs into the charge port and effectively offers 50% more battery life. I believe fit riders can get some crazy mileage out of the bike with the extender – like enough to complete the longer days at Wines2Whales.
On paper, the 75.8° seat tube angle might seem a little slack but the reality on the trail is the climbing position is incredibly comfortable. It feels like the hips are forward and over the BB – exactly where they need to be. What the naysayers don’t realize is that steepening the seat tube angle more than this positions the seat in a far more rearward position when the dropper is slammed. Which is both terrifying and dangerous when descending. I like what Specialized have done here with the geometry.
To offer some perspective on the support levels when climbing the Levo SL, here’s my direct comparison to regular bikes. When climbing with the Levo SL set to a support level of 25%, my perception of effort is the same as when I’m on a Trail Bike. Again, 30% support feels very similar to when I’m climbing an XC bike. Bottom line is riding the Levo SL is definately a proper workout and requires fitness.
As for the claims of being 40% quieter than the previous generation, I agree, the new SL motor is a lot quieter. There’s no squeal, more a very faint soft groan that is mostly muffled by the sound of the tyres, the trail and wind.
When I first tested the previous generation Levo SL, I was highly intoxicated with the concept of lightweight eMTBs (Specialized was pretty much the first to produce one) which clouded my judgment of that bike’s descending prowess. In hindsight, whilst it is capable on flatter less technical trails, the Gen One Levo SL did nothing for nobody’s confidence when the speeds were high and the trails got janky. The kinematics were a little off and the geometry more so. The new bike is a whole different story.
The ride is easy, calm and composed, but if you ask, the new Levo SL will party harder than teenagers did on 31 December back in 1999. Really! The bike’s descending capabilities are right up there with the best trail bikes I’ve ridden. The primary reason is its geometry and kinematics are on point. The head angle, reach and huge dropper post insertion numbers easily facilitate an attack position when descending and that’s key to riding fast and in control. On harsh compressions, the bike doesn’t blow through to the end of travel and the increased progression is very evident.
The bottom line when descending, is that the Levo SL delivers loads of fun. It is highly capable on flow trails, jump lines and anything the single track delivers. It is also extremely quiet on rough trails with virtually no chain slap, cable rattle or the like.
The built-in adjustability alone makes the new Levo SL one of the smartest buys around. It’s a fun bike for a stage race adventure and is definately a highly capable trail shredder. Factor in the new motor that is both more powerful and quieter, the easy-to-use Specialized App (that I’m pretty sure has more functions than its competitors) and it’s then difficult to find a better buy. It’s a banger of a bike! One last buying tip: go for a model down from what suits your wallet and put the change into a range extender battery. It is cash well-spent.