Here’s an interesting thought – you’ve probably seen a lot more electric motorcycles in racing than you ever have on the open road.
Performance Surges The same certainly can’t be said for cars. While electric auto racing series’ like Formula E and the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb feature electric classes with incredibly well developed – not to mention lighting fast – battery-powered race cars, electric car brands like Tesla and various all-eletric models from the Nissan Leaf to the BMW i8 are a completely common sight on the road these days. But where are all the electric motorcycles?
Interestingly, the motorcycle market has not jumped onto the idea of battery power the way the car market has. For the most part, major OEMs have all but ignored the concept (publicly at least), leaving developments in the niche to small startups like Zero Motorcycles, Brammo, Lightning, Energica, Alta Motors, and others. It’s a shame too – electric motorcycles are incredible to ride, with instant-torque anywhere in the power band, near-silent operation, and no need to shift gears that makes riding an electric motorcycle an experience so unique, it’s like riding for the first time again.
But for a number of reasons – high cost, limited range, long charging times, and noiseless operation that unnerves some street riders are among them – electric motorcycles have remained the domain of a curious minority, and large-scale commercial success continues to elude the handful of manufactures that make them. But even without the demand from of the open market, the performance of electric motorcycles has continued to surge forward, with relative performance gains dwarfing those found in gas-powered vehicles – and it’s all because of the fast-paced competition in electric racing.
Only a little over a decade ago, the idea of an electric motorcycle was primarily the domain of quirky inventors who found ways to make battery operated motors rigged together out of spare parts and battery banks cobbled together in home workshops. But those early prototypes demonstrated the viability of electric bikes, and the idea finally became the core product for a startup called Zero Motorcycles in 2006.
The early Zeros were ugly, underpowered, and too expensive, but the company persisted, eventually becoming the dominant name in an industry that had little competition in those early days – in fact, in the 2000s, most people didn’t even realize electric motorcycles existed. But it was in 2010 where electric motorcycles got their first opportunity to be seen on the world stage – seeing the increasing performance found in garage-built electric bikes being raced in local circuits around the world and being shared on social media, the organizers of the world’s oldest motorcycle race, Isle of Man TT, created a racing class just for them.
The class was called TT Zero, named after the zero-emissions rule for entrants. While early on it came off as a bit of a sideshow – a boring, slow, and eerily quiet class among the rocketing gas powered race bikes that dominated at TT – the tiny handful of contenders took it seriously, and competition in the last 7 seasons has been stiff. While racers from the UK tended to dominate the main classes, it was actually Americans who dominated the Zero class in the early days, led by inventor and electric vehicle pioneer, Michael Czysz.
Competition in the class got serious quickly – and the bikes became alarmingly fast. The class also attracted much more well-developed and resourced race teams, such as Victory Racing from the U.S. and Mugen Shinden, the Honda-backed team that has won the last four years running. As a result, performance has soared – the fastest speed around the mountain course in 2010 was only 96.8mph in 2010, but by 2015, the top speed had skyrocketed to 119.5mph. That’s not only a dramatic improvement in relative speed, but surprisingly, it’s not far off from the performance of the open class superbikes in the top-tier Senior class, who post times in the low 130s – only a 10-12mph difference!
But the Isle of Man isn’t the only legendary race where electric motorcycles have become in a class of their own, and demanded the attention of the world’s racing fans – another is our very own Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, another dangerous, fascinating time trial race where man and machine are put to the test against a course rather than against each other. Click Here…