Electric-assist bikes give your pedaling a boost of power for a faster, sweat-free ride that's ideal for commuting and errands. With that free speed, however, comes a heavier bike and bigger price tag. Though they've been slow to catch on in the U.S., brands like Specialized have continued to refine their e-bike offerings to the point of appearing and handling like a regular bike. One of the first things that drew us to the California company's Turbo e-bike is that it looks like a fun, stylish flat-bar road bike. But does the performance justify the $3,800 it will set you back? We spent three days with the Specialized Turbo in the hill-strewn beach town of Santa Barbara, California to see just how handy it could be.
Day 1: Once the battery charged (a full charge takes 3.5 hours), the Turbo was easy to get started. Hold down the power button for two seconds, and the electric motor comes to life. Indicator lights show how much charge remains in the battery. On the bars, a thumb-sized joystick toggles between the Turbo's power modes of Turbo, Eco, Regenerate, and Unassisted. A small screen also shows a trip odometer and the percentage of battery power remaining.
We headed out for our first ride: a 10-mile trip to the grocery store and back. Even as an avid cyclist, this is a route reserved for our car thanks to a three-mile climb and regular headwind. We set the bike to Turbo mode (the most powerful) and traveled uphill without a hint of sweat. Thanks to the electric motor in the rear hub, pedaling the Turbo is easy, and the bike accelerated smoothly. Even better, we got to enjoy cruising by slow-moving, road rage-inducing tourist traffic that would normally have brought us to a standstill in the car. The Turbo made our routine grocery-shopping trip more time-efficient than a traditional bike and more fun than driving.
Day 2: The Turbo seems perfect for commuting with its comfortable, efficient rider position and speed, which Specialized says maxes out at 28 mph. We were able to keep it rolling along at 20 mph without any difficulty. We also tested the Unassisted mode, and on flat ground at speed, we could maintain our pace, but accelerating from a stop light was a chore. Our round trip to the grocery store had used a quarter of the battery charge, so before our next ride, we decided to top it off. There are two ways to charge the Turbo S: A small outlet in the side of the frame allows for charging the battery on the bike. It's also possible to remove the battery with the turn of a key and charge it separately.
The grocery-store climb certainly wasn't the only hill we’d encounter. Though best known for its wineries and beach-town vibe, Santa Barbara is famous among road cyclists for its leg-breaking climbs. The same terrain that draws world-class cyclists to the city makes Santa Barbara a challenge for commuters. Though the Turbo didn't entirely remove the effort from riding a bike — you have to pedal for the motor to engage — it made our coffee shop commute much easier when we rode it over six miles and several hills away from home. The electric motor allowed us to pedal smoothly up the hills without getting out of the saddle. While this route typically turns us into a sweaty mess, we arrived fresh.
The Turbo does not include any built-in security measures, so you'll want at least a strong U-lock or chain to secure it outside during the day and to bring it indoors overnight. The bike's weight made it cumbersome to carry up to our second-story apartment, but removing the battery and taking two trips eased the staircase climb.
Day 3: By now, we were getting the swing of the e-bike life. For our final day with the Specialized Turbo, we took the bike for a 12-mile sunset cruise along the beach. Here, our deep love for our traditional bikes left us less enthusiastic about the Turbo than we were on our previous rides. Because of its speed, the bike wasn't as relaxing as a spin on a town bike or cruise. We enjoyed the novelty of Turbo and its attention-grabbing appearance, but it's not our first choice for a recreational ride. With a set of panniers for carrying groceries and other essentials — or a rack for our surfboards — we could easily imagine the Specialized Turbo replacing car trips around town. [$3,800; specialized.com]