Specialized Creo SL Comp and SL Expert (electric gravel bikes) review

A better,
electrified version of Diverge…

Trying an electric gravel bike was one of my biggest goals since I began gravelbikes.cc project. So I was thrilled when I got the opportunity to test one of the best and newest member of that family: Specialized Creo. I was even more thrilled when I found out that not only I will be testing a carbon version of this bike but also a more affordable, aluminum one. So let’s find out how well those bikes performs!

Not a common sight… two very expensive electric gravel bikes at my garage!

I watch the electric gravel bike market with big interest because I believe that gravel bikes are the best possible match for an electric motor. You want them to be fast but you are not that obsessed with weight or tire rolling resistance like in road bikes. You want them to be go anywhere bikes so you use them in many occasions that can benefit from an electric assistance. For example, you can ride with support to work and go without it to make a proper workout on your way back. You can enjoy speed on forest roads and easily conquer big hills. You can explore the world with more ease and more enjoyment. That was my mindset when I started riding those electric gravel bikes from Specialized. And (mostly) I was right…

This bike begs you to ride fast. No matter the road. But then you hit the 25 km/h limit…

Riding an electric gravel bike

If I needed to use one sentence to describe the experience of riding an electric gravel bike from Specialized I would say that it is WONDERFUL, but at the same very LIMITING one. Let me explain.

Specialized Creo is not the most powerful electric gravel bike out there (a modest 240W that Specialized is advertising as power of 2x you). Yet the power it delivers, especially in the highest level of assistance is more than enough to magically transfer your rides from enjoyable to wonderful ones. I think the most enchanting thing is the ability to accelerate with truly unbelievable pace. You break, you turn and you accelerate. You are riding faster and you ride fast constantly which demands, dare to say, full attention and this is what makes this wonderful, thrilling experience. Riding at the limit of your possibilities on narrow forest road is something you will be very quickly addicted to (it is somehow like riding a rally car on a rally stage). But at the same time this wonderful experience is, like I said, very limited because of two things.

The first one is the law that forbids electric bike to support you above a certain speed. In Poland this is only 25 km/h so naturally you are reaching this limit very quickly and then you feel something that you don’t want to feel as if someone robbed you from a great fun you had (now I know better what my 3 years old son feels when I try to stop him watching the cartoons on his tablet). Suddenly it is again only you, but much slower. The feeling is that when the motor cuts off, pedaling becomes much, much harder. But in my opinion, this is very subjective feeling that comes from the fact that you are immediately comparing the effort with and without motor. I really believe that if you had the chance to instantly switch Creo to your bike you would find out that in reality it is not that much harder to ride the Creo over 25 km/h. Yes, there is the weight penalty (yet this is one of the lightest electric gravel bikes on the market with 12,2 KG in the top spec carbon version) and the big down tube (where the battery is hidden) is not your friend in terms of aerodynamics but the motor itself is not slowing you down in any perceptible way (whene it is turned off). Yet, when you are hammering the bike and you reach the 25 km/h limit, the subjective feeling is that all of a sudden, you are riding a different, much slower bike. And this is not the feeling you want (to be clear, it is not the fault of the Specialized motor which is cutting off very smoothly). So until the law will stop limiting the electric bikes so harshly, the experience and enjoyment that comes from riding an electric bike will be very, well, limited (and thus I would really not recommend this kind of bike to a roadie) and you quickly learn to ride just below the 25 km/h to enjoy the motor assistance when normally, you would vary the speed more according to the situation).

The other thing is the way the electric motor works in general. Prior to Creo, I have ridden only an MTB electric bikes that were built around BOSCH and YAMAHA motors. My main complaint then was that the motor is somehow slow to engage and, which is even more annoying, slow to stop when you are not pedaling anymore. BOSCH in every new generation of its motors improves the reactions to your input but I believe we are still far from the perfect world where you and the motor works in a natural harmony. Unfortunately, even though Specialized did a lot of work and put a lot of effort into making its motor, and it is widely recognized as one of the smoothest out there, it still not offers this perfect harmony with the rider that I look for (I simply think that we still do not have the technology to achieve a really seamless rider and motor cooperation). Let me give you a few examples of what I mean (and please watch my recordings of the way the motor is working to get the better notion of what I am writing about).

When you start riding from stand still, the motor is engaging smoothly but with a delay. You have to do something like two or three crank rotations to get it fully working. In result, when you want to accelerate really fast, for example from the lights, you get the feeling that the first, like 2-3 seconds you are fighting with the motor instead of the more enjoyable feeling, when the motor is pushing you (when you are riding slow and want to accelerate, this problem usually does not occur). I think this is connected with the big limitation of the electric bike motors in general: cadence. Most of the motors are effective around 80 rotations per minute. Below 60 and above 100 rotations they can become almost useless. Specialized motor is working effectively between 60 and 100 RPM so in order to get most of it, before stopping on the lights you have to (just like you would do on a normal bike) change the gears so you can quickly gain the needed cadence and then shift the gears quickly as you accelerate (which is not a problem with this motor).

Next is the way the motor reacts when you stop pedaling. It still works for a little moment. Not a long one but you feel it and this is like a constant reminder that this is not really you but the motor that tries to follow your intentions. It tries very hard but nevertheless you feel that it still fails to respond instantly to your input. In my opinion this is the biggest challenge with electric bikes in general. The holy grail of electric bikes if you like. The first company that will crack this challenge will win the market. Specialized with its CREO is close, but not yet there. At least in my opinion.

Going more into the technicalities

You control the support level by pushing the control buttons that are very neatly integrated into the top tube. You have four options but the first two levels of assist are rather weak and to be honest I can’t really see the point of using them. If I want to have a proper workout I will just switch off the assistance completely and If I don’t want to break a sweat I will use the most powerful mode. Maybe others will find the two weakest levels of assist more useful, but I was riding mostly on the turbo mode where I could really feel the difference. Yet, like I said before, Creo is not turning you into a real Superman. No, you still need to put some effort and I really like that. I don’t want to be a passenger on my bike. I want to ride the bike. Only faster and longer. And Creo definitely delivers that.

Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to fully drain the battery (the weather and my health did not allow that long rides) but I can say that on my normal rides I think I could easily do more than 50 km on the turbo mode (and Specialized is saying that you should get up to 130 km of range in a single charged battery). Of course the real world range depends on so many things that it is very hard to give the exact range numbers but I would not worry that much about draining your battery too quickly (and you can always use an external battery to go even further, 65 km more further to be exact, according to Specialized). Going that far from home can sometimes lead to a challenging situation like rain or something. Normally I would be very worried about riding an electric bike in wet condition but Specialized reassured me that this bike will deal with wet or a mild rain with ease. This is a great news because all you need to do, when on Creo, is to focus on the road and enjoying the ride.

The thing that can be slightly annoying for some is the noise of the motor. Specialized Creo is not the quietest electric bike. Especially at lower speeds (and with the highest possible power support) people can hear that it is not you that are doing all the work. Did it bother me? Not really. I had no intention to fool others that I am more powerful than I really am. But you can say that it is a pity that electric bike with such a great and seamless motor and battery integration, gives everything away just by making a little too noisy sound…

How the Creo rides?

Beautifully. I really enjoyed riding Diverge gravel bike from Specialized but I truly think that with Creo, Specialized has nailed gravel geometry and this, in my opinion, contributes greatly to the overall wonderful feeling of riding this bike. Creo has slightly less BB drop (78 versus 85 mm of Diverge), a slightly longer chainstay (426 mm on M-sized Creo carbon and 430 mm on L-sized aluminum one versus 421 mm of Diverge) and a little big quicker handling. All those small changes makes a big difference. Especially on the M-sized carbon Creo I was hammering down the narrow forest roads with a great enjoyment. You felt safe (as you should be on a power assisted gravel bike) but at the same time the bike was quick and very nimble (again, as it should be when you are traveling fast on a challenging terrain). The bigger L-sized aluminum Creo was basically the same. Maybe a little harder to navigate (due to increase wheelbase and size in general) but it was still a very enjoyable and engaging ride. And to be honest, If I had to choose between those two sizes (which I should because as always I am in between sizes) I would choose the L (on the smaller bike the saddle to handlebar drop was a little too much for my back to handle on longer rides).

What about the comfort?

This is the favorite part for me. Why? Because I had the great opportunity to ride both the carbon and the aluminum version of this bike. There is a lot of discussion about the benefits of a carbon frames versus a more stiff and heavy aluminum ones but when Creo is considered, none of this really matters. Why? First, because Specialized is using its very effective Future Shock front suspension on both of them (in my opinion this is, at least for now, the most effective front suspension solution you can get on a gravel bike). The carbon Creo has the more advanced Future Shock 2.0 and the cheaper aluminum one is using the same Future Shock that you can find in the current Diverge series. You could think that Future Shock 2.0 will make the carbon Creo more comfy but in reality the difference was not that big, and I am almost certain that if I could change the medium spring for the softest one on aluminum Creo, the results would be practically the same and then, the only real benefit of having the second generation of Future Shock would be the knob that allows you to tune the suspension. Or, should I say, turn it on or off because in reality I found that there is no real difference between middle settings and you either have the Future Shock 2.0 on or off. OK, there is one more difference between Future Shock 1.0 and 2.0. The newer version of this front suspension is more sophisticated and it works more seamlessly and quietly while the Future Shock 1.0 is basically just the spring (that you can change to tune the suspension effect) and you hear it working (something like clicking).

Then there is the rear of the bike. Both carbon and aluminum Creo bikes are not the most comfortable gravel bikes when rear is considered (but to my surprise I was not able to find any measurable difference between carbon and aluminum version of Creo, even when I put on both of them the same wheels and tires inflated to the same air tire pressure and when I used the same seatpost and saddle on both of them). So the first thing you should do, after buying one, is to put something like Redshift suspension seatpost on them. With that addition you suddenly get the front and rear suspension of the rider and you can really enjoy hammering down the bumpy roads at very high speeds (just be sure to check the wheels constantly because although you will be floating above the bumps, the wheels will still get the beating and Specialized is using on both of the Creo’s wheels with only 24 spokes).

And one last thing. Although switching from 28 mm to 42 mm Soma Cazadero tires improved the comfort a lot, to my surprise, I was feeling quite comfy on those bikes even when riding on those very road oriented, narrow (28 mm) Specialized Turbo Pro tires. Even on (as you can see below) on a very bumpy road…

Even with 28 mm tires riding on this road was quite comfortable!
In this configuration (a supple Soma Cazadero 42c tires, Future Shock and Redshift Suspension seatpost) Creo, even in aluminum version is supremely comfortable!

The price and specs

Creo was first introduced only as a carbon bike and it was a very expensive one. The one I was testing was Creo SL Expert which in USA costs 9 000 dollars! But you pay not only for the years spend on development of this bike (this is, according to Spec, the biggest and most expensive bike project they did) but also for the specs. For example for this price you get DI2 Ultegra shifting which was something new for me. Especially when I wanted to adjust the shifting a little (I simply did not know how to do this) but the shifting itself was very quick and crisp (even under the load when motor was still adding 240 W to my ride). A real joy to use (once you learn to push the tiny button on the leavers that operates the rear derailleur). For thsat price you also get Roval C38 carbon wheels (which I used in comfort comparison between carbon and aluminum Creo). The gearing (on both bikes that I tested) was very well matching the motor capabilities. It was 1x drive with 46 Praxis chainring and 11×42 rear cassette. With that range you can be both fast on descends and easily (with motor help) conquer any hill.

In February 2020 Specialized also launched much more affordable aluminum Creo. I was testing the Crelo SL Comp version. It is much more affordable (but only in comparison to 9 000 dollars) because 5 000 dollars is still a lot for a bike. Even electric one. And even as good as Creo is. For this price you get a nice Shimano GRX 812 groupset (which I really enjoyed using, once I adapted to much bigger and flatter but also more grippy leavers) and a rather standard, but also quite good DT R470 wheels. If you ask me, I think that this spec is more than enough and works beautifully with the electric motor, so I would strongly recommend buying the cheaper, aluminum Creo. Like I said before, the comfort benefits of a carbon frame is largely neglected by the great Future Shock suspension abilities and you can’t feel the difference when the rear of the bike is considered (at least when using my testing methodology). The handling is mostly the same and when you put on this bike something like Redshift suspension sestpost, you will just fly over any road and not once you will be thinking that you maybe should buy a carbon version…

Would I buy it?

I think I would. I am really considering buying an aluminum version. But I would not use it as my one and only bike (even though I could easily mount a rear rack on it and use it as a base for child seat). Why? Like I already said, Creo provides wonderful, but at the same time very limited experience and those limitations (especially the 25 km/s speed limit but also still not perfect harmony between rider and the motor) makes it a great choice only for a certain kind of situations (like riding to work or conquering a hilly terrain on weekends). Then there is the price which hardly justifies the purchase when you want to use it only as a second bike. So, I think, especially in the times of COVID 19 crisis, I will need to postpone the purchase and focus on improving the power of my legs, so I will need the motor assistance a little less…

Testowanie elektrycznego gravela to było moje marzenie od bardzo dawna. Do tej pory miałem okazję tylko pojeździć odrobinę na elektrycznych góralach (wyposażonych zarówno w napęd BOSCH jak i SHIMANO). To było bardzo ciekawe doświadczenie, ale już wtedy po cichu liczyłem, że elektryki przenikną także do świata graveli, gdzie wspomaganie może być naprawdę użyteczne, a ograniczenia typu większa waga czy większe opory toczenia (versus rowery drogowe), nie mają takiego znaczenia.

Dzięki Specialized dostałem niesamowitą szansę, by przetestować jeden z najnowszych i najlepiej ocenianych gravelowych elektryków na rynku. I to nie w jednej, ale w dwóch wersjach (droższej, karbonowej i tańszej, aluminiowej). Moje wrażenia z jazdy można zamknąć w jednym, prostym zdaniu: Jazda na elektrykach Speca to fantastyczne, ale jednocześnie bardzo ograniczone doświadczenie. Dlaczego tak uważam? Zacznijmy od tego, że polskie prawo (i nie ma w tym żadnej winy Specialized) ogranicza wspomaganie w rowerze do prędkości 25 km/h. Wyobraźcie sobie teraz, że w krótką chwilę, pełni entuzjazmu osiągacie tę prędkość i nagle, niczym tato zabierający dziecku tablet w połowie fajnej bajeczki, zostajecie pozbawieni ogromnej frajdy. Owszem, powyżej 25 k/h możecie dalej spokojnie pedałować (bo silnik nie stawia praktycznie żadnych oporów), ale to już nie jest to samo, co jeszcze chwilę wcześniej czuliście. Więc naturalnie zaczynacie krążyć wokół 25 km/h choć normalnie, znacznie mocniej różnicujemy prędkość, z jaką jedziemy w zależności od warunków.

Druga sprawa to jak elektryczny silnik wspomaga rowerzystę, a dokładniej o to, jak w dużej harmonii możemy z nim współdziałać (i tutaj znowu nie do końca mogę obwiniać samego Speca, bo wydaje mi się, że po prostu technologia jeszcze nie rozwinęła się na tyle, byśmy mogli stworzyć prawdziwie harmonijne doświadczenie). Już tłumaczę, o co mi chodzi. Weźmy na przykład start z miejsca (np. spod świateł). Zanim silnik realnie nas wspomoże, mijają 2-3 sekundy, podczas których tak naprawdę trochę zmagamy się z nim, a nie korzystamy z jego wsparcia (w normalnej jeździe ten problem na szczęście nie występuje). Albo sytuacja, w której przestajemy pedałować, a silnik jeszcze przez chwilę działa, skutecznie nam przypominając, że to jednak nie do końca my odpowiadamy za jazdę. Oczywiście, do tego wszystkiego można się przyzwyczaić, ale tak jak napisałem, ciągle liczę, że kiedyś dojdziemy do momentu, w którym będzie można naprawdę harmonijnie jeździć na elektryku.

A co z komfortem?

Future Shock, czy to w wersji 1.0, czy 2.0 to moim zdaniem obecnie najlepsze rozwiązanie na rynku jeśli chodzi o poprawę komfortu jazdy na kierownicy. Więc nie powinno być zdziwieniem kiedy powiem, że zarówno karbonowy jak i aluminiowy Creo oferuje bardzo komfortową jazdę. Owszem, Future Shock 2.0 dostepny w wersji karbonowej jest ciutkę lepszy jeśli chodzi o to, jak pracuje (ciszej, płynniej), ale samo tłumienie jest na bardzo podobnym poziomie (a co więcej, pokrętło, które w teorii powinno pozwalać na modulację siły tłumienia, w praktyce oznacza jedynie opcję włączenia lub wyłączenia tłumienia, przy czym, realnie tłumienia w 100% nigdy wyłączyć się nie da). Jeśli chodzi o tył roweru, to moje pomiary nie wykazały żadnej różnicy (a użyłem tych samych karbonowych kół, tych samych opon o takim samym ciśnieniu powietrza, tej samej sztycy i siodełka). Oznacza to, że w obu przypadkach z tyłu było umiarkowanie komfortowo, bez rewelacji. Ale wystarczy tylko zamontować do któregokolwiek z tych rowerów sztycę od Redshift, by nagle stworzyć kapitalnie komfortowy rower. Kapitalnie komfortowy dla Ciebie, bo zawieszenie chroni Ciebie, a nie sam rower, co oznacza, że lepiej na bieżąco sprawdzaj swoje koła, tym bardziej że mają tylko 24 szprychy, czyli do najmocniejszych nie należą…

A jak się na tych rowerach jeździ?

Super. Po prostu super. Uważam, że Specialized stworzył kapitalną geometrię (lepszą niż w przypadku Diverge). W moim odczuciu to w ogóle jest lepszy, zelektryfikowany Diverge. Lepszy, bo trochę wyżej zawieszony (więc już tak pedałami nie uderzasz w podłoże), trochę dłuższy, ale i z szybszym kierowaniem, co daje ogólnie bardzo fajnie połączenie żywiołowości ze stabilnością. A obie rzeczy bardzo są potrzebne, kiedy zasuwa się ciągle w okolicach 25 km/h niezależnie, jak wymagający jest teren przed nami. Powiem więcej: moim zdaniem, to geometria i to jak CREO jeździ (niezależnie czy w wariancie karbonowym, czy ciutkę dłuższym i cięższym, aluminiowym) tak naprawdę robi robotę i bez niej, nawet najlepszy elektryczny motor nie miałby okazji naprawdę zaistnieć.

Czy bym go kupił?

Gdyby nie kryzys, który nadciąga szybkimi krokami, to myślę, że tak. Ale w wersji aluminiowej, i nie jako jedyny rower w moim garażu. Dlaczego? Właśnie z powodu tych ograniczeń, o których pisałem (limit 25 km/h oraz ciągle brak pełnej harmonii pomiędzy rowerzystą a wspomagającym go elektrycznym silnikiem). One sprawiają, że owszem, dojazdy do pracy stałyby się znacznie przyjemniejsze, a wypady weekendowe w górskie tereny, okazją do prawdziwego szaleństwa, ale na co dzień ciągle brakowałoby mi tego poczucia, że jestem ja i rower. I nic więcej. Dlatego nie pozostaje mi nic innego jak tylko pracować nad wzmocnieniem nóg i ogólnie kondycji, żeby tych dodatkowych watów pochodzących z elektrycznego silnika jak najmniej mi brakowało…