World’s Greenest Electric-Motorcycle Race
A green motorsport event? Yup, in this case a historic race on the Isle of Man. Gentlemen, start your (battery-powered, zero-carbon, no-decibel) engines!
“HE SAW THE RED MIST,” says the pimply preteen barista, describing some local motorcycle racer I don't know who experienced a phenomenon I've never heard of.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“He came to a corner and he saw redeverything just went red, like wearing red sunglasses.”
“If you see the red mist, you have to pull over and stop and walk away,” the kid continues, “but he didn't have a sense for the red mist. He didn't even slow down. He thought he could take the corner at 180 miles an hour.” The kid pauses for dramatic effect. “And that's why racers die.”
I seriously doubt that a kid too young to drive a tractor understands the visions of a motorcycle racer milliseconds before a high-speed accident, but…hell, yeah! If the red mist proves anything, it's that the races held here on the Isle of Man are the stuff of legend. And soon, they will only be more so. In just a few minutes, this underpopulated hunk of turf in the Irish Sea will host the world's first electric-motorcycle race, the TTXGP.
Starting at intervals, like in a time trial, 13 current-powered two-wheelers will take one lap around the island's historic 37.75-mile road course. The glossy TTXGP brochure claims that the motorcycles can reach top speeds of 150 miles per hour and have ranges of 150 miles. My four-cylinder heart redlines just at the sight of 'em. Ever since my college roommate and I went halfsies on a sputtering cruiser at the start of a New England winter, I've fostered a passionately meta-logical love for any vehicle that can nose-wheelie or accept ape-hanger handlebars. I've owned six motorcycles in a dozen years and crashed everywhere from Mexico to Maine. The only flaw with motorcycles, as far as I can see, is that they're powered by decayed dinosaurs.
Or they were until now.
At 10:30 a.m., a throng of journalistsincluding reporters for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, a BBC cameraman, and a Los Angelesbased documentary filmmakerare called off the starting grid. The grandstand goes quiet. One of the most wicked bikes in the race, the Mission Motors Mission Onecreated by design guru Yves Béhar and engineers from Google, Ducati, and electric-supercar builder Teslais pushed to the starting line. The rider gets a tap on the shoulder of his sponsor-emblazoned leathers, rolls back on the throttle, and launches what's being heralded as “the next generation of motorsports.”
And then the Mission One quietly piddles off at grocery-getting speeds. The crowd barely notices.
THE TTXGP, WHICH STANDS FOR Time Trial Xtreme Grand Prix, is at the heart of a small but growing trend toward environmental stewardship in motorsports. The Indy Racing League began using 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol in 2007, while organizers at Belgian racetracks like Zolder started quietly assembling a multi-fuel auto series this year.
But the TTXGP is also extremely odd. It piggybacks on the fabled Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, proudly hosted under a thick cloud of blue smoke for the past hundred years or so. With a few token straw bales and the occasional pad for safety, competitors in the 12 racesfrom the sidecar division to the vaunted Senior TTsnake past quaint towns, wiggle through pastureland, and scream over a tall, heath-covered mountain, following a track composed of country lanes and residential streets.
Each race draws some 60 mostly amateur competitors. Speeds hit 170 miles per hour. Every year an average of two racers go vroom, vroom, splat. In all, 226 people have died on the course, more than the slopes of Everest.
The traditional races of the IOMTT are all about risking your life in the reckless pursuit of speed. Saving the earth for future generations? Not so much. Roughly a year ago, however, Azhar Hussain, the head of a small iPod-accessories distributor, persuaded the race organizers that it could be. Partially convinced that their petroleum-powered sport was not long for our warming world, and eager for their tiny British protectorate to be known for more than off-shore banks and sheep, Isle of Man race organizers committed to the TTXGP idea.
Instead of the usual seven laps, the e-bikes would race only oneso they would at least hit highway speeds before running out of juice. And the event would be kicked off not with a Whitesnake concert but with a performance by the London Metropolitan Orchestra.
Old-guard fans protested. Some of the 1,500 volunteer safety marshals, predicting a future of electric-wheelchair races, threatened to strike. The symphony was sparsely attended.
But university students and garage inventors and well-funded startups around the world answered the call. Or so it appeared. Yesterday, only 13 of the 55 teams preregistered in December had their prototypes rolling. Today, three more teams prove nonstarters, thanks to, as one team leader puts it, various “teething issues,” including trying to replace a motorcycle's busted water pump with one made for fish ponds.
None of which dampens my mood. In addition to Mission Motors' Mission One, which I've been lusting after since I first glimpsed it on a motorcycle blog months ago, the field is chock full of interesting entrants, from the Motoczysz bike, a sleek machine created by Michael Czysz, a celebrity-designer-cum-inventor based in Oregon, to the joyously slapdash Team Tork bike, cobbled together by four charming engineering undergrads from India. Most bikes are still in the prototype stage, although one team, Brammo, has entered two concept bikes primarily to publicize a stripped-down version of its motorcycle, which will soon be sold for $11,995 in Best Buy stores. The odds-on favorite to win is London-based Agni Motors, headed by the licorice-thin mad scientist who invented the motor that most teams are using and who, I've been told, has managed to stuff the most batteries under his motorcycle's fairing.
THE MISSION ONE'S hushed start is not quite what I envisioned for the dawning of an era, but the other riders do their best to spice it up. Some play to the crowd with a wave. Others push with their feet like Flintstones. Only the Motoczysz bike, with its blue and green lights and Tron aesthetic, elicits genuine astonishment. It rockets off the line to a collective gasp…only to blow up three miles later, trailing a shower of shredded motor parts.
It's hard to understand all the drama, though. Unlike the standard TT, the TTXGP is not included in North One Television's 15 hours of race coverage. Instead of being beamed to millions of viewers worldwide, it's broadcast only on Manx public radio, the commentary delivered like an episodic campfire story by a handful of newscasters stationed around the course. What I pick up from the radio in real timeand will piece together later from random YouTube postsis that, among other things, a bike from a German team called XXL Racing tops 100 miles per hour and one of Brammo's bikes catches a respectable bit of air at Ballaugh Bridge.
Whatever the details, Agni Motors takes the checkered flag with a time of 25 minutes and 53.5 seconds. The Manx radio announcer sounds genuinely excited by the 87-mile-per-hour lap speed: “That's faster than the 50cc-petrol-bike record!” I'm impressed, until I later learn that the 50cc class was canceled after 1966 because, a fan informs me, “we were all losing the will to live waiting for them to come 'round.”
Three minutes later, the rest of the bikes begin streaming in, and they're really cooking, I think, until a neighboring fan remarks that we're standing at the bottom of a six-mile hill. Mission Motors, running “nonoptimum” parts, takes a disappointing fourth place, with an average speed of 74 miles per hour, and Team Tork hobbles across the line in what appears to be last, at 60 miles per hour.
Everyone seems happy enough, though. In the pit lane roughly half an hour later, the teams hug and climb the podium for the awards ceremony. The small crowd erupts as the announcement is made for the third-place rider. But they're not cheering for Mark Buckley, of the Brammo team. It turns out there was one motorcycle left behind, and its rider is refusing to accept a DNF. Instead, he's pushing his spent bike across the line.
The second-place announcement is interrupted as well, when two glorious troglodytes on gas-powered 1,000cc superbikes squeal out of the parc fermé for a warm-up lap, revving like chain saws. The crowd stares, paralyzed, totally distracted by the unbelievable roar.
MAYBE I'VE BEEN sniffing too much petrol, but at this point I'm a bit let down by the TTXGP. Thankfully, the scene in the grassy paddock lifts my spirits. Most of the e-bikes are parked side by side on the lawn, and fansin Amnesty International hoodies instead of full-body leathers, graying chinstrap beards instead of mohawksare shuffling around, tentatively asking questions. “What's the noise we heard at the start line? Was that cooling fans?” asks one. “Is it on?” whispers just about everyone.
“This is the most important thing that's happened here in 50 years!” gushes a white-bearded man with a blue polyester tie to no one in particular.
“Why do you say that?” I ask.
“84.19 miles per hourthat's an extraordinary speed!” he says, referring, I gather, to some e-bike's top speed.
I'm ready to say that if he thinks that's fast, then he's a bit of a weenie. But, it turns out, he's actually a geek, a retired satellite engineer for British Aerospace, and he launches into a dizzying lecture on how both satellites and these motorcycles are trying to get a lot of energy out of a small mass.
But I catch his drift; e-bikes have a lot of potential. In theory, they provide maximum torque at any speed and require virtually zero maintenance. The batteries can generally take 1,000 charges, enough for eight years of typical riding. And most have no gearbox or clutch; all told, they rely on just six moving parts. The only thing to break is your body!
But what's best about an electric motorcycle is that it can be cheap. Thanks to their light weight, they require fewer high-cost lithium-ion batteries than most electric vehicles and so can cost far less. Although Mission is currently taking preorders on its $68,995 Mission Oneand justifies the hefty price tag with super-trick features like the ability to “wrench” on your bike using a laptop or, soon (and how could it not be?), an iPhoneother teams, like Brammo, are spending big bucks and serious R&D to figure out how to make much more affordable mass-produced e-bikes.
“The future of electric vehicles is all about the battery,” agrees Bill Moore, longtimeeditor in chief of EVWorld.com. Improvements are guaranteed. Currently, per pound, a phenomenal battery delivers just one-tenth the power of gasoline, but Obama's energy plan calls for roughly $2 billion spent on better performance through chemistry.
Of course, stowed in the overhead compartment of my mind is the knowledge that whether batteries improve or not, only 2 percent of the electricity to charge them comes from nonpolluting sources like wind power. But that can be unpacked in years to come. For now, I need to stay focused. On beer.
AT 11 P.M., BUSHY'S seaside Beer Tent is humming. Men's bare chests and tattoos are on display under sweaty leather jackets. Fresh crewcuts sport the TT logo. Pirate earrings shimmer in the moonlight.
Making my way across the slippery cement, I stop to chat with two portly, balding men in khaki pants. One turns out to be a lawyer, the other a volunteer marshal.
“What did you think of the TTXGP?” I ask the marshal.
“Those bikes are fuckin' slow,” he says, not exactly offering the in-depth analysis I was hoping for.
“Is that you or the beer talking?” I ask, jostling to keep my place in the throng of chubby flesh.
“These are not the mere ramblings of a drunk,” interjects his lawyer friend, warm beer sloshing in his plastic cup. “At least not yet.”
“So what do you think?” I ask.
“The whole thing was dreamed up in a drunken meeting in the Far EastDubaiwith this Hussain guy. Normally here, there'd be wheelie shows and burnouts and…”
Before he loses his train of thought, he abandons his conspiracy theory for a woeful lament: “Drinking beer and watching the tits come out,” he sighs. “What electric biker is gonna do that?”
“I will!” I want to say.
But having failed at being an electric biker, I know that I can't. A month and a half ago, I began my quest to test-ride the Mission One. I e-mailed, I called, I begged. Multiple times. The press agent said no one gets to ride the prototype. Undeterred, I toted my leathers and helmet across the big pond and tried to con various other staffers, culminating in a plea to a Mission cofounder.
“I'll stay right here on the grass,” I promised. “I brought my helmet and leathers all the way from America!”
“You did?” he said, glancing toward the Mission One. “Ah, it's being disassembled. You should have let us know earlier.”
The four Indian undergrads of Team Tork, however, were happy to accommodate my request”Of course!” they offeredand I dinked around the paddock at three to five miles per hour before the batteries died and we posed for a Facebook picture. That, sadly, was all the firsthand experience I got with these questionable machines.
But, then again, standing around Bushy's, the tits haven't been coming out anyway. Maybe, like the TTXGP, I've just come to the party a bit too early.