Electric Motorcycle Primer “InsideEVs Style” – Part 1: The Ride
Much as we’d like to applaud Cycle World for putting an electric motorcycle primer out there for the world to see, we’re a little disappointed at the actual content. Without getting our red pencils out and marking up the piece, let’s just say Cameron seems a little, well, scattered, and in several places, just flat-out incorrect. It’s clear he’s still in the learning-curve phase of the electric motorcycle phenomenon, and we can sympathize – we’ve been hammering away at this for almost a decade now. We’ll admit, it’s started the conversation in larger gas-motorsports circles we’re not privvy to, which is great, but the conversations are often just off-target. Rather than throw stones, we’ve decided to field our own Electric Motorcycle Primer.
Over here in the “Bikes” section of InsideEVs, we are, if nothing else, motorcycle enthusiasts. With over 45 years’ riding and owning experience, along with wrenching and building, we live and breathe bikes – gas, electric or other. The perspective we’re putting this primer together from is for the gas bike rider who’s interested in learning what electric motorcycles are all about. So let’s start with the reason we love bikes. The ride.
Simply put, after nearly a half-century of riding, the electric motorcycle ride was an entirely new, completely unique experience. It, quite honestly, took us a couple of years to even start to get our head around it. There’s not much anybody can say about anything happening in motorcycling that can match that claim.
So what’s different?
First, it’s smooth. Even when running at it’s hardest, there’s no vibration. We’re not just talking about the ride, here, but also in how the bike feels as it pulls. You can try to describe it in many ways – a jet engine, a big bungee strapped to a tree a mile away – but the only way to really understand it is to feel it, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before. Maybe the closest analogy we can make is if you’ve ridden a big single – a “thumper”, like the 600cc single-cylinder (legendary) Yamaha SRX, or the older, equally legendary BSA 441 Victor. Compare that to one of the big cruisers, like the Honda Goldwing series or the BMWs, even as far back as the legendary twin “boxer” engine. The vibration transmitted through everything on the bike – bars, seat, ears – is quite different, which is why the smoother rides are favorites of the long-distance cruising crowd. An electric motor is smooth power at a whole other level.
Well, there isn’t a power curve as we know it in the gas engine world, since an electric motor delivers power over a very large RPM range. Much is made of the claim that an electric motor gives you 100% torque at 0 RPM, but that misses the point. As the motor spins up, it delivers power, and if you want more power, give it more juice to simply spin the motor faster. As most people understand, a gas engine has a very narrow power band with very little power at the low end of the RPM scale. As the engine spins up, more torque is developed and you get higher and higher power output. There’s a peak power output where everything is running most efficiently, and then, as you spin it higher, your power drops off precipitously. That’s what’s called your power band, and that’s why you need a transmission.
With a gas engine you want to run the thing at your peak power as much as you can. The higher the horsepower of the engine, typically the narrower the power band is. Without going into all the laws of Physics involved, the process of designing a high performance gas engine is about taking a broad, flat power curve and squeezing it into a narrow, high peak – think molding clay from a pile into a point.
It is a fairly complicated discussion, but it all boils down to one simple thing. The faster that electric motor spins, the harder it’s going to pull, and the faster you’re going to go.
There is none. Couple this with the way the motor delivers power, and this is the single most significant difference in the gas-to-electric experience. You don’t think about when to shift. You don’t think about what gear you need to be in going into a curve, and then pulling out of the curve. You’re not downshifting to slow down, you’re not anticipating or planning your gearing strategy. So what are you doing?
You’re concentrating on exactly what you should be: the line, the road, your next moves, the sounds around you and the other drivers on the road. With a handful of unbridled electric power on-demand in your right fist, it’s truly a pure riding experience.
We hear it repeated constantly – electric bikes make no sound. It’s simply not true. They do, however, make a different sound, and they’re a lot quieter. In the case of a lower-RPM brushed DC motor that has a maximum speed of around 3000 RPM, you get a slight whine of the motor and brushes. If you have a chain, you hear that, and you hear a lot of clanging and chattering of the suspension that can be somewhat disconcerting until you realize it’s been there all along, it’s just that with a gas engine you couldn’t hear it. With a high RPM AC motor you get a much different high-pitched whine. Very often those motors will require some reduction gearing, so you get a secondary whine from that. As we noted in the Energica EGO review, you often get several different sounds overlapping with the changes in RPM. And it’s awesome.
Some have described it as sounding like a jet, some Star Wars fans say a Tie Fighter, but however you describe it, it ain’t silent. A little tip. You’re not going to hear this awesomeness listening to YouTube videos, and if the sound you’re hearing sets your teeth on edge, blame the speakers on your computer. Hold back your judgement until you hear one in the flesh, or ride one yourself.
And if you’re in the Loud Pipes Save Lives camp, well, all we can say is you need to get yourself educated. It’s a myth, and a particularly obnoxious one to any serious motorcyclist with significant experience and training. (Our favorite response is, “If loud pipes save lives, imagine what learning to ride that thing could do.”) That’s not to say that sound doesn’t make a bike safer. We love a good, loud aftermarket horn. Been running an air horn on every bike we’ve owned since 1976.
At the beginning of the electric motorcycle era you had a lot of gas riders trying to get their heads around what the electric ride was all about. Even people we respect, like Wes Siler (then with Hell for Leather) tried hard to fit the thing into the context he was familiar with. As time goes on, we’re seeing more people appreciate the electric ride for what it is – something new, and something profoundly different. We dug up this compilation of videos of roadracers from 2010 talking about their ride experience. We can’t say it better than that.
There’s another video where the guy doesn’t intellectualize much about the ride, but you get an impression of what he’s experiencing from his on-board commentary. Screaming, laughing, and giggling. When was the last time you did that on your bike? (Go to 2:04 for the start of the test ride.)
It may sound like heresy to say this on an EV site, but the reason we’re obsessed with the electric drivetrain ain’t the Green. It’s the power. And trying to describe that is a lot like trying to describe sex.
The best advice? Go give it a try yourself.
Catch up on the whole Electric Motorcycle Primer “InsideEVs Style” series:
Electric Motorcycle Primer “InsideEVs Style” – Part 1: The Ride …where in we talk about why we’re doing this in the first place. Because riding electric motorcycles is awesome.
Electric Motorcycle Primer “InsideEVs Style” – Part 2: The Drivetrain The bits and pieces, and how they’re different, but also how they’re the same as your gas bike.
Electric Motorcycle Primer “InsideEVs Style” – Part 3: Battery Care and Handling (the BMS) How a lithium battery pack is different than any battery you’ve ever owned.
Electric Motorcycle Primer “InsideEVs Style” – Part 4: The Rest … the other funny stuff about an electric bike.
Electric Motorcycle Primer “InsideEVs Style” – Part 5: Reading the Specs Wrapping up, using what we’ve learned by reading the spec sheets (and actually knowing what they mean).