A Curmudgeon’s View of Electric Bikes

The Electric Motorcycle, or … What is a Motorcycle?

I grabbed the chance for a quick ride on the an electric motorcycle last week and came away – totally and completely unimpressed.

This has very little to do with the product, and more to do with my own experiences and biases.

Riding the bike, and we’ll get to that, got me pondering what a motorcycle is to me and what I get out of riding them.  Therefore, all of my comments are totally and completely personal, and not intended as a put down of the individual line, which I think was “Zero.”   In fact, I’m grateful for the thinking time it generated.

I have decided that one of the greatest pleasures of riding a motorcycle is the acceptance for the total responsibility for how things are going to go.  As humans, we have a great and regrettable tendency to blame somebody or someone, and anyone or any agency will do, for things that go wrong. Our current society seems to make this easier than it has ever been in history.

To the contrary, every decision and physical act you choose to make when riding a motorcycle has an immediate and obvious consequence. There is no hiding from the reality.  At the most elemental level, a motorcycle left to its own devices, once underway, will crash.   Moving past that, Captain Obvious, when you brake either harshly or too casually, the results are right there in front of you. Perhaps literally. A botched shift is a botched shift, and a clumsy hand on the throttle will result in jerky progress, or worse.  You can waste fuel, burn off tire rubber, or abuse the engine or other mechanical systems at almost any time by making one or a series of poor decisions. The responsibility is yours.

There’s a sublime feeling to operating a motorcycle well, using both hands and feet, both sides of your brain, and many of your physical systems in concert. Your left hand gets to help steer and also operate the clutch. Your right is charged with steering, throttle and a brake lever, while your left foot operates the shift in cooperation with your left hand, and the right foot operates the brake in cooperation with your right hand.  A physical therapist or kinetic movement specialist might well advise that the foot controls be reversed, as they were on most British bikes of 50 years ago, because coordinating right hand and left foot and vice versa works better. When the controls were standardized in 1973 (I think) that argument was either not presented at all or with insufficient vigor.  We have what we have, and all of it in toto creates the only activity I can think of that uses all of your physical and mental attribute at the same time, all the time.  Yes, even that one.

For me, the coordination of brain and physicality required to operate a standard controls motorcycle is a large part of the allure, and riding smoothly and at speed is a reward that reinforces training, experience, and practice.

A welcome addition to that is sound.  Perhaps I should use the term “music.”  Not the noise created by open pipes or obnoxiously under muffled bikes, but the blend of engine exhaust and gears that sings out the joy of riding.  My Triumph Speed Triple creates a sonorous and resonant sound at 6,000 rpm that is so pure and musical that it raises the hairs on the back of my neck. It is one of the most wonderful sounds ever.

Here again, every action and decision will modify that sound. If you shift too soon and “lug” the engine, it sounds unhappy.   Rev the engine too high and the rev limiter will create an irritating staccato bark. This noise seems to be desired by younger sport bike riders, as if connoting prowess they feel they do not possess, but to me it sounds like ineptitude.   Accelerating through the 5 or 6 gears with snappy upshifts creates a lovely song, and decelerating on the brakes while downshifting is even better because it is harder to do, as you clench the brake lever while quickly and sequentially rotating your wrist to blip the throttle to match the engine revs to the next lower gear, while your right foot is pressing the rear brake lever (probably) and your left foot shifting down in sequence, all in a coordinated dance of speed, time, and distance.

This enjoyment of the immediate results of your own actions, and the necessity of taking responsibility, is perhaps why some modern technological improvements have been slow to be adapted by experienced riders.  Linked brakes were decried for years, and in some makes and models, still are. Slipper clutches make it easier to downshift and not screw it up to the extent that the back wheel is jack hammering up and down as the bike careens toward a corner.  ABS brakes mean that an ape on a bike so equipped can probably stop in less space than an experienced rider without ABS, with no technique at all.  Last (for now) traction control is making it much less likely that you will highside yourself across a ditch into a tree, or loop the bike over backwards.  Still, the obvious improvements in safety, which can be shown by crash statistics, make all of these things assets.  In normal riding, I can still take pride in great pace and grace without ever triggering the need for a slipper clutch, traction control or ABS brakes systems.

And so to the electric bike. The first thing noticed is the lack of a clutch and any concept of the “friction point.”  New riders often take some time to learn how far to let the clutch out before forward thrust is achieved, a delicate task made more complex because every motorcycle is slightly different in this regard. The pull of the clutch lever may be light or so heavy as to make you wonder what super hero the bike was intended for, and the actual take-up point will vary with the age of the bike and the health and adjustment of the clutch.

Still, there is that immediate feedback. Let the clutch out too fast with not enough revs and the bike will die. Too fast with too many revs and you will create an inadvertent (or vertent?) wheelie.  Too slow and too many revs and you’ll slip the clutch, accelerating wear and impeding progress.  Getting it just right, uphill or downhill, in the dry or in the rain, on a hot or cold day, on any surface, is an accomplishment.

With an electric, there is no clutch and no noise.  Once you turn the key, a twist of the throttle results in a slight delay to keep the unwary from having the bike accelerate before they expect it to, and away you go.   There is no noise and no shifting – just a magic carpet sort of experience.

There is also much less for you to take responsibility for. You need to squeeze the brake lever to slow down, and be able to lean the bike, or turn the handlebars, and it does what it is told to do by your inputs.

There is no sense of occasion, and no real feeling of being responsible for the skilled operation.

A couple of practical notes are that the bike I rode had no windshield, no saddlebags, no tail trunk, etc. It is essentially a bicycle with an electric motor.  If you add weather protection and storage capacity, how will that affect the weight, and thus the range?   I do not know and, to be a bit brutal, I do not really care. 

But again, to look at the big picture, this is  an area of new technologies that are developing rapidly. You would not be impressed by the performance of an internal combustion engine motorcycle made 100 years ago either, to place the two in similar places on their respective technological development timelines.  I’m sure they will get better, but less sure they will ever be significant.

One friend offered the interesting thought that the dirt bike versions might be more successful, because they offer the chance for recreational rides or even races close the populated areas due to eliminating noise. They also need less range. Would dirt bike racers accept bikes with no engine noise and no shifting?  I do not have the answer for that either, although the one moto crosser I asked was eager to ride such machines.

My best guess is that electric motorcycles might in time become successfully marketed transportation devices.

“Transportation devices” are not motorcycles to my mind. 

One is a tool, and the other is at the very least a philosophy, and for some a passion that fulfills most of the definition of a religion.

 Let us now ride…

David Preston                                                   Copyright 2012

 

 

 

About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Triumph Thruxton, a Fiat 500S and a VW Tiguan. What else would you like to know?
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2 Responses to A Curmudgeon’s View of Electric Bikes

  1. Doug Vavrick says:

    You’ve done a masterful job of capturing what is a complex dance of competently operating a motorcycle.

    “Dancing” is the metaphor I often use to describe how I feel while I’m competently operating my motorcycle. Kevin Costner danced with wolves. We dance with motorcycles. The bike is an equal partner in this dance, capable of making her own moves – both graceful and otherwise. The dance is easily ruined with disastrous consequences when those moves are in the “otherwise” category. The rider must be confident in his ability to lead his partner. The rider must know the sequence to the steps, or else the dancers will intertwine each other’s legs and immediately and ingloriously fall to the ground.

    I know that when I think about myself dancing with my bike as I ride, a tune will often pop into my head in order to provide the soundtrack for our dance. Under the right conditions, my movements on the bike might make you think I’m dancing to a tune in my head – and you’d be right.

    • david says:

      thank you Doug. There was a famous essay written by Ken Purdy, one of the pioneers of modern auto journalism, back in the 1950s. I think it was called “Dancing with Cars” and covered much of the ground you dance over. Purdy’s was longer, but yours may possibly be more eloquent.

      Your last paragraph is yet another of the many excellent reasons to not listen to ear bud music on a motorcycle – so much better to let the motorcycle bring a song to mind, or to create it! Thanks for some fine writing.

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