Duke's Den - Is Electricity the Savior of Dirtbikes?

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

It’s always interesting to see how cutting-edge technology is incorporated into new motorcycles. Having written about bikes for the better part of two decades, I’ve seen the introduction of aluminum frames, inverted forks, electronic fuel injection, antilock brakes, a proliferation of exotic materials (titanium, magnesium, carbon fiber) and, more recently, semi-active suspensions and traction controls.

But this infusion of technology to motorcycles doesn’t really change what a motorcycle is and what, ultimately, you can do with it.

Enter the latest buzz in vehicle technology: electric power, which has the potential to change the ways we can use a motorcycle, especially riding off-road.

We’ve been early proponents for electric-powered motorcycles and have marveled at the astonishing development in performance we’ve seen over the past few years. Yes, they’re expensive relative to petrol-fed motorcycles. And, yes, we acknowledge range limitations that severely limit their use as everyday motorcycles unless your commutes are fairly short. In fact, the term “range anxiety” has been added to contemporary lexicon because of it.

Yes, that’s a house in the background, and its occupants were unaware there were three dirtbikes romping nearby.

Another e-vehicle foible (to some, though I’m not one of them) is the lack of auditory conspicuity when riding in urban situations. Almost completely silent when ridden slowly, e-vehicles are targets of naysayers who point out the potential dangers to pedestrians.

However, a recent experience testing Zero’s updated FX platform made me realize the e-bike equation changes radically when riding in the dirt.

Read our Zero FX Review

First off, battery range won’t be an issue unless you race Dakar or Baja. Even then, it wasn’t a problem for multi-time Baja champ and Dakar racer Scot Harden, who spent the day riding FXs with us and didn’t fully deplete the bike’s 5.6 kilowatt-hour battery reserves. And the FX is no slouch in terms of power, belting out an impressive peak of 70 ft-lb of torque and a claimed 44 horsepower.

Scot Harden interview with video

But our day aboard FXs, which conveniently are also legal for street use, taught us a much more important lesson about e-bikes: Their nearly soundless nature changes the paradigm of how motorcycles can be used.

We rode three FXs in Harden’s rural backyard from morning till sundown without annoying anyone – not the neighbors surrounding our improvised track, nor the equestrian stables next door. Take a look at the video below in which we attempt to describe visually how the off-road game is changing.

If you think my paradigm-shifting description to be overblown, you might not be aware of how Europe’s off-road market has been decimated due to vast land closures primarily due to sound emissions from dirtbikes. Land closures in America, while not as draconian as in Europe, are a constant threat on our shores.

The dirtbike’s savior may turn out to be electric power. Dark Green Motorsports operates an off-road riding facility dedicated to renting quiet and easy to operate Zero Motorcycles e-bikes in North Carolina, and I predict we’ll see similar operations popping up over the next several years. Or imagine transforming an old warehouse into an indoor, all-season riding location for electrically powered dirtbikes, whether you BYOB or rent one.

“If you too narrowly define what you think motorcycling is and what two-wheel recreation and transportation is, then you can see all sorts of roadblocks,” explains Harden, who is Zero’s vice president of global marketing. “But if you change your focus for just a minute and look into other areas, you can see nothing but opportunity, and that’s where we’re looking.”

Related Reading
MO editor Troy Siahaan races Pikes Peak on a Zero FX
MO editor Troy Siahaan races for 24 hours on a Zero FX
2013 Brammo Empulse R Vs Zero S ZF11.4 – Video
2012 Lightning Motorcycles Exclusive First Ride – Video
Scot Harden 2010 interview
Electric Motorcycles Primer
All Things Electric on Motorcycle.com

Kevin Duke
Kevin Duke

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  • Bugs Bugs on Apr 15, 2014

    I have a 2011 Zero X. I have 3 acres surrounded by subdivisions. We ride our Zero X in the back of the property and don't disturb any neighbors. It is a lot of fun and fast enough to scare yourself on our little supermoto track. It hurts just as much when you fall off as a gas motorcycle. :)

  • PaulScott58 PaulScott58 on Aug 12, 2014

    I'm late to this discussion, but just wanted to offer that I got a 2013 S after having a 2012 S, both great bikes. Harlan Flagg of Hollywood Electrics told me I could upgrade the controller from 420 amps to 660 amps. For $2,500, I dropped my 0-60 time from the stock 4.8 to three seconds flat! I have the smaller 8.5 kWh battery, so my bike is about 50 lbs lighter than the 2014 SR, but has the same power. It's freaking quick!

    I just wanted to tell you this in case you were thinking of getting one of these for off road riding. You'll of course get the off road model, but consider the smaller battery since it's got plenty of range for off road riding, but costs less and is much quicker.