THE SWITCH IS ON
Using electric bikes to help win motorcycle races
Way back in the early 1970s a former racer turned race promoter named Dave Coombs decided to start the mother of all motorcycle races on the rugged terrain in the beautiful countryside of Davis, West Virginia. It was to be the toughest race that only the best riders and machines could finish, a 100-mile race called the Blackwater 100. The race became known as America’s toughest race and drew off-road riders from all over the country bent on proving their mettle.
The race expanded into a series known then as the Wiseco 100 Miler Series, now known as the Grand National Cross-Country series, or GNCC for short. When three-wheeler ATVs and eventually four-wheelers, were added, the track distances were pared down from 100 miles to between 9–20 miles. Suddenly, the marathon torture-fests were reduced to roughly two-hour races for ATVs and three-hour races for the bikes, and, as a result, the series soared in popularity.
In the late 1980s, ATV safety concerns scared off racers and manufacturers from the races. Only a few ATV racers stayed in the game, racing machines mostly put together from aftermarket parts since the manufacturers pulled out of sponsorship. This gave rise to stronger, faster machines and a growing aftermarket. Pennsylvanian ATV superstar Barry Hawk was dominant in this era, racking up seven straight GNCC ATV championships from 1993 to 1999, and even raced and won the motorcycle title in 2003. He remains the only racer to have won a championship in both ATV and motorcycles in the GNCC.
Hawk has retired from racing, but took the job as manager of the Coastal Racing team in 2015. He makes sure that his team has everything they need and every advantage they can have to be successful. One of the necessary tasks each rider has is to survey the track as best they can. Pro racers are only allowed access to the track the day of the race, and amateurs are allowed to recon the day before. Nobody is allowed to use motorized vehicles, so they used to have to go on foot to survey the course. Eventually, about 20 years ago, mountain bikes that were rugged enough to handle the courses became popular. However, mountain biking a 20-mile racecourse right before the race is exhausting, so racers were usually only able to check parts of the course. Still, part of a course is much better than none at all.
A few years ago Barry had a chance to ride his first electric bike, a Polaris. He was impressed, but didn’t think that much of it. Shortly after that he happened to drop by our office and talked to Karel Kramer, who was at the time editor of Electric Bike Action. Kramer let him try a Haibike with a Yamaha mid-drive. That changed everything. He said, “This would be so sick to have for our tracks and our events, because you can cover so much more ground and use not nearly the amount of energy as a regular mountain bike!”
Hawk then contacted Ken Miner at Haibike and talked about their GNCC program. Since the team already has connections with Yamaha, it was a natural fit to outfit the team with a full set of Haibike mountain bikes to survey the track. Having been a part of the GNCC staff at one time, Hawk reached out to the management to clarify whether pedal-assist electric bikes fell outside of the “motorized vehicle” part of the race bylaws.
Since Coastal Racing was drawing a lot of attention with the electric bikes, a lot of the other teams were curious as well for obvious reasons. Not only did they want to ensure one team wouldn’t have an advantage, but they all wanted to be able to use electric bikes as well. The GNCC rewrote the rule specifically to allow Class 1 electric bikes to survey the course.
With that cleared up, other teams started to jump on the e-bike bandwagon.
Now the team can survey much more of the track without the fatigue, and support members can get to racers quickly during the race if needed, or family members can get from place to place to watch racers in different sections of the track. The e-bikes are always clean and shiny and up in the front of their area, often getting more looks and questions than the team’s gas-fueled race machines.
Hawk makes sure the bikes are fully charged and ready to rock the day of the race. Racers can usually see most or all of the average 10–12-mile course on the bikes. The one thing he has heard is that because the bikes can easily go much faster than a normal mountain bike, the guys can miss some details and some lines in some spots around the track. They might miss two to three better lines in the course of the track, but the advantage is in being able to see the entire track. Hawk expects that this is better than the four to five lines you would likely miss on foot or a mountain bike because you don’t get to see the entire track.
INTO THE FUTURE
At least one racer has voiced a complaint against the e-bikes, saying that they are a luxury item that many privateers can’t afford. Hawk retorted that it was a similar argument he had 20 years ago when people started using mountain bikes, that the less-affluent racers couldn’t afford them. Yet somehow, most everyone found a way, and that’s the same thing now. Technology keeps advancing, and this is the best tool they have to get the most out of their team’s efforts.
Back at home Barry’s 12-year-old son has put over 300 miles on the bikes over the summer break. He loves to jump it on small jumps in the yard, as well as just cruise around on it. Hawk estimates that his son, who is a very active kid anyway, hasn’t put five miles on his regular bike, but on the electric bike, he rarely comes inside until after it has turned dark!
The family also takes the bikes around to various events, and they’re proud of them and like to show them off, as well as share them. The family and the race team have turned into huge ambassadors for electric bikes. Hawk admits that he often takes bikes to places to show them off, and he loves getting others interested in electric bikes. He’s sold several friends on the bikes, though most of them have bought various other brands because there’s no Haibike dealer in their area of Pennsylvania.
Hawk and his Coastal Racing team have brought awareness and all the utility and fun that come with it to the GNCC racing community. To them, motors and bikes go together like, well, motors and bikes!
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO GET ELECTRIC BIKE ACTION
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