Racing Into The Future
RACING INTO THE FUTURE
By Andy Lagzdins
I’ve always had a thing for being the underdog. Whether it was riding a 125cc bike in the 500cc Open class, running no studs in my tires in an ice race or racing my three-wheeled ATC250R against the quads back in the ’80s, it became apparent to me that I liked a good challenge. Having a third of the motor displacement, way less traction or even one less wheel than the competition made it just that much sweeter when I passed other riders or crossed the finish line first—all the stuff of some memorable stories when I’m hanging out with my buddies.
So here begins my latest underdog story, and this time I decided to race a bike so different, it did not fit into any class that I had history with. There was no clutch, no gears and no gasoline. Yet, it had 75 horsepower that could be transferred to the dirt instantly. Oh, did I mention it weighs 450 pounds and has about 5 inches of rear-suspension travel? Challenge accepted!
“But before I could even get the bike up to cruising speed, I hit a G-out and the rear bottomed like a ton of bricks, and tossed me into a handstand across the desert.”
I have to admit I’ve been interested in electric vehicle racing since the ’80s. My interest started a few years before NASA’s James Hansen told Congress that carbon-dioxide emissions were going to drive humans towards extinction. It was more about being on the forefront of a quantum leap in technology, leading the way in a new direction where few others had gone before.
ON THE HORIZON
I’d keep my eye out for Popular Mechanics articles on solar-powered and electric contraptions doing those maximum-distance events. They were all designed quite differently, but their aerodynamics combined with tall, narrow tires made them look like a cross between Soap Box Derby and Bonneville Salt Flats. While there were a few battery-powered motorcycles to read about, but even well into the 21st century, if you wanted to ride an electric motorcycle, you had to build it yourself.
Luckily, there was a vast array of motor kits and controllers and wire harnesses to choose from, so you could pick your donor gas bike for the heart transplant, lock yourself in your garage to assemble a “Frankenbike” and hopefully not electrocute yourself in the process!
Then, in the 2000s, with actual production bikes available, it got way easier to ride electric bikes. Of the few brands and models of e-motos currently available in the U.S., Zero Motorcycles is the most reputable and established manufacturer. They have been offering numerous versions of their bikes for over 10 years, including dual-sport, MX, Supermoto and street bikes.
THE DIRT DIRECTION
Because the first thing out of an e-moto denier’s mouth is, “Yeah, it looks cool, but how far does it go?”, my goal was to build an off-road bike that would push the range envelope. The range limitation of e-motos is very real. To put it simply, with current 2020 battery technology, a full-size e-moto dirt bike weighing 250 pounds can go 20–30 miles depending on the terrain and how aggressive it is ridden. This group of bikes includes the KTM Freeride E-XC, the Zero FX and the now-out-of-production Alta MXR.
But, I wanted to push and extend the range limits, and that meant a bigger battery. The biggest battery I could find was in the Zero DSR model with the optional Power Tank, which is basically an extra 60-pound battery that sits on top of the main battery. Zero spec sheets claim a 200-plus-mile range with the combination, but realistically and optimistically, I expected half that. That kind of mileage is good for a day of riding for the vast majority of riders and, more important for me, good enough to finish some desert racing events.
MAKING THE MODIFICATIONS
The stock Zero DSR needs major chassis modifications to be ridden fast in open desert, period. The stock 43mm Showa fork tubes bottom harshly on small jumps and G-outs. The rear shock runs out of adjustment quickly. The aluminum mag wheels are a catastrophe waiting to happen. The front brakes require you to take a number, wait in line and put an order in, only to find out stopping is not currently available in your area. For the upgrades, I wanted to use some components that were high performance, readily available and inexpensive. With the Honda CRF250X/450X being one of the most reliable and longest-running off-road models (virtually unchanged from 2004–2017), it seemed like a good idea to use as many parts from these bikes as possible.
So, I locked myself in the shop and fitted CRF250X forks, triple clamps, wheels and brakes. The rear wheel is a CRF450X hub with an Excel 17 x 3.50-inch rim laced up on it for a little extra insurance considering the weight of the bike. The front rotor was increased to 320mm for some added braking power and less fade. The stock ABS system was removed and Galfer brake lines were installed.
Legacy SoCal suspension shop Race Tech was the only shop around that was enthusiastic about working with me on the project, and they modified the fork internals and built a custom rear shock for the bike. Converting from belt drive to chain drive was a little tricky, and I had to have splines cut in sprocket blanks to match the motor output shaft. And, finally, some retro Yamaha bodywork created some brain-melting visual dissonance to top it all off. The Zero drivetrain stayed totally stock, mainly because I wanted to establish a baseline to develop the bike, and also to get maximum reliability for racing.
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
After running a 50-mile test loop to shake down the bike, I was ready to enter a National Hare and Hound race in Lucerne Valley, California. I had raced the NHHA series for a few years on bikes and quads with good success, so I knew what to expect. The loop was 40 miles in length and included technical trail sections and dry lake beds. Getting signed up was a little complicated because all the classes are based on traditional motor displacement. It was finally decided that because of the heavyweight and limited rear suspension travel I would run in
the newly formed Hooligan class, which included less desert-ready bikes like Ducati Scramblers and
But, it really didn’t matter what other types of bikes were on the track with me, because I was racing against the terrain, the distance and the limitations of the bike. I would be solely concentrating on soldiering the Zero across the finish line, using my years of experience to run my own race to do what no e-moto has done before.
OFF TO THE SMOKE BOMB
When the start banner dropped, that plan got tossed out the window. I think the dead-engine start got me a little excited, because I didn’t have to do anything but twist the throttle when the banner dropped. No pushing buttons, no kicking, no putting it in gear, just twist and here comes 70-plus horsepower! But, before I could even get the bike up to cruising speed, I hit a G-out and the rear bottomed like a ton of bricks and tossed me into a handstand across the desert.
I got back on the throttle and held my ground, even making some passes during the first few miles by picking good lines and out-powering other bikes in the straights. Then reality set in. I augured the front wheel into some soft sand in a crevasse and had to man-handle the bike out of the situation. It felt like I was bench-pressing enough weight to push my large intestine out of my belly button, all of which snapped me back into the original game plan—get the bike over the finish line.
BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY
It wasn’t easy letting other bikes go by me without a fight, but I managed to occupy myself by watching the instrument panel. The miles clicked off as the battery charge creeped down, and I worked out mileage and my rate of consumption to pass the time. Once I realized and respected the limits of the bike, it flowed pretty well.
The weight of the bike helped it hold a straight line in the deep sand, and the lack of clutching and shifting let me concentrate more on navigating the course. I crossed the finish line thinking that I could have gone faster and used more of the bike’s power, as there was plenty of juice left in the battery, but it soon sunk in that I had accomplished a goal that I had set for myself many years ago, and I felt pretty satisfied.
The total time spent on the 39.5-mile-long course was just over two hours. The bike started the race at full charge and had 29 percent left in the battery, and I ran the whole race in Sport mode. This is a great starting point, and it will only get more range and better power characteristics from here.
When the bike’s key switch is turned on, it connects to my phone via Bluetooth. The Zero app gives me battery and charge info, as well as allowing me to set motor parameters to fine-tune the power and consumption to the terrain and riding conditions. I can envision getting a new e-moto and sending the controller and motor to get modified by the hop-up shops of the future, similar to how we have been sending cylinders to get ported and bored out. Changing the motor-controller settings is like adjusting the fuel and ignition maps on an ECU. The equipment is changing, but the overall game is the same.
The e-moto revolution has grown considerably in the past few years, by some measures almost exponentially. Many of the major manufacturers are releasing electric concept bikes, and there are numerous brand-new companies taking deposits on bikes that aren’t even available yet. Yamaha took a big step with their TY-E trials bike, as well as a prototype motocross bike. KTM aimed at the core of the industry (kids) by offering a race-ready electric competitor in the 50cc class with their SX-E 5.
With the state of the sport (and the world, in fact) being upended in major ways recently, many people are looking outside the box to envision how riding and racing motorcycles will look in a changing landscape. From the viewpoint of a lifetime enthusiast and competitor, I want to be in the lead in everything I do, because for me, that’s where the most fun is. Then you add in the underdog aspect, and it gives me the motivation to take on even the toughest challenge, knowing that at the very least I’ll have some great stories for campfire sessions in the future.
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