Do racers dream of electric bikes?Silent motorcycles and their riders cheat death on the Isle of Man

The Isle of Man is a strange and alien beast. Perhaps not on the surface, which is strewn with green fields dotted with grazing cows and picture-postcard cottages. But it plays host to a competition and a culture that are unlike those anywhere else in the world. If you live on or are visiting the Isle of Man, you are a motorcycling enthusiast, and odds are pretty good that you also like danger, speed, and the intoxicating smell of petrol.

The one-week Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) event is regarded as the pinnacle of road racing for bike fanatics. A fast and varied course spanning most of the island provides a terrific challenge for both rider and bike, and every year — almost without exception — there are fatalities that underscore the perils of taking it on without the proper caution or training. It doesn't sound like a terribly welcoming place to be bringing experimental new technology to, but electric bikes have carved themselves a niche over the past few years and continue improving in their own category of zero-emissions racing, dubbed TT Zero.

This year, I found myself on the Isle of Man following the fortunes of the rookie Victory Racing team from the USA and its pair of prototype electric bikes. Victory’s entry into the TT Zero class offered me a chance to learn about the current state of electric bike development and, along the way, discover the unique culture and global community that have built up around the Isle of Man and its iconic race series.

Victory came to market as a Harley-Davidson competitor when it was launched by snowmobile maker Polaris a decade and a half ago. Lithe, high-tech race bikes are about as far from Victory’s core two-wheeled competency as possible — but then these TT machines are actually the product of multiple years of development. At the start of this year, Polaris acquired the motorcycle division of Oregon-based Brammo, whose all-electric Empulse forms the foundation for the present race bikes.

Gary Gray, Victory’s product chief, tells me the company has made "quite a few changes" in the brief period of time it’s had to work with Brammo’s assets, including the development of improved, structurally reinforced battery packs, new motor windings for better performance, and a reinforced frame to deal with the loads and strains of the rough TT track. Each bike weighs roughly 220kg (485lb) — not far off from the typical 200kg dry weight of a gas-powered bike — and is designed to have just enough energy to complete the single-lap race and no more. The perfect run for one of these electric bikes will see it crossing the finish line with zero charge left.

"Our number one priority is safety," says a serious-looking Gray as he surveys his team of engineers making final preparations before the bikes’ first practice run. Each battery is fine-tuned so that it discharges at the same rate and small adjustments are made to the scant padding to tailor the bikes to the particular rider’s preferences. Gray isn’t alone in feeling trepidation about the 37-mile course ahead, which runs through towns, villages, and a treacherous mountain section that claims the lives of professional competitors and amateur bikers each and every year. For a company looking to make its racing debut, Victory is showing great confidence by heading straight into the scariest and most challenging road race on the planet.

In any other category, Victory’s inexperience would mark it out as a major underdog, however that’s not the case in the still-fledgling TT Zero class. There are only seven teams competing in the electric race, and three of them are composed of volunteers from UK universities — researchers who are combining their academic work with a passion for speed. Each battery-powered bike is built and engineered specifically for the TT and Victory is one of only three teams that were able to bring two electric vehicles to the Isle of Man, resulting in a total of 10 riders for the entire race. Compare that to the 71 competitors in the Sidecar race or the 91 in the Superbike class. Such a ragtag group of mostly amateur teams doesn’t immediately inspire great faith in the popularity and growth of electric racing, but it belies a recent history of superbly fast innovation and improvement.

See next: Isle of Man TT photo essay

At the top of the electric heap is Team Mugen, a Japanese outfit that’s entering its fourth TT Zero contest and is returning as the reigning champion. Best known as Honda’s semi-official performance tuner, Mugen is the brainchild of Hirotoshi Honda, the son of Honda founder Soichiro. It’s an independent company doing its own thing, though the motivation of its owner seems innately tied to the legacy of his father. Honda bikes have a grand history of excellent performances at the Isle of Man, and Mugen is building up a similar reputation for Hirotoshi in the electric races. Now 73, the Honda scion says that his company’s involvement in the TT Zero event is purely for the advancement of technology and the education of the young — and I fully believe him, given the lack of any immediate commercial or monetary benefit to competing in the race. Participating in TT Zero is about pride, speed, science, and little else.

Mugen’s progress is a perfect example of the steep trajectory of improvement in electric bikes: the company started competing in 2012 with an average speed around the TT track in the high 80s miles per hour, but by last year it was already speeding past an average of 117mph and this year set a new electric record with 119.3mph. Colin Whittamore, the UK General Manager for Mugen, puts it quite beautifully when he says "it’s a long way to go over the course of 80 minutes." Mugen only has four competitive races under its belt, each lasting roughly 20 minutes, and yet it’s accomplished a leap in performance that took gas-powered bikes a full 48 years to complete. The top bikes averaged 87mph in 1936 and didn’t surpass 117mph until 1984. "The gains to be found" with electric racing, says Whittamore, "are huge, and quite unusual for motorsport." To illustrate, he tells me that the original 2012 Mugen electric motor was twice as heavy as the current one and provided only 60 percent of the power.

The competitive field may be small and highly specialized, but the competitive quality of the electric bikes is no longer questioned. Five of the six bikes that completed the TT Zero run averaged in excess of 106mph — an unthinkable feat only a few years ago — and Victory’s debutant bikes weren’t too far off Mugen’s impeccable pace, achieving average speeds of 111.6mph and 109.7mph each. Mugen repeated its 2014 result by grabbing the first and second spots on the podium with both its riders breaking last year’s speed record and averaging in excess of 118mph. Victory claimed third and asserted itself as a significant player for future races to come. For a first performance, in a contest where just getting a battery-powered machine to complete the course is a feat in and of itself, Victory achieved its basic goals and then some.

Electric bikes are now within striking distance of the very best lap speeds around the TT track, which average just over 130mph in the hands of the most expert riders. And what’s more, those very same riders are enthusiastically embracing the new type of bike. Until recently, Bruce Anstey held the outright TT record with 132.3mph on his Honda superbike, but he also rides for Mugen in the TT Zero competition. His teammate and this year’s repeating TT Zero champion, John McGuinness took that gas-powered record from him this year with 132.7mph. McGuinness, despite some initial misgivings, is now one of the most ardent advocates of electric racing.

"I probably did snigger a little bit in the beginning," says McGuinness, "watching that first race in 2009 and seeing bikes with washing machine motors and car batteries strapped to them. But they’ve come a hell of a long way since then." Heading into this year’s Isle of Man series with 21 victories on the island, McGuinness is the most decorated living TT racer, and together with Anstey adds a great deal of credibility to the battery-powered race.

"Watching that first race in 2009 and seeing bikes with washing machine motors and car batteries strapped to them."

But whether the mount is electric or gasoline, it’s hard to overstate just how dangerous and technical the Tourist Trophy is — even for established racers. The margin for error through some of the course’s most difficult sections is effectively zero, with even the smallest mistakes spelling disaster. William Dunlop, another established TT veteran with a spot on the top 10 speed list, was intended to lead the charge for Victory Racing before a crash in practice for the Superstock race ruled him out with a broken rib. He was replaced in the TT Zero competition by his Tyco BMW teammate Guy Martin, yet another racer with extensive TT experience, who finished fourth in the eventual race behind fellow Victory rider Lee Johnston. Johnston also picked up an injury ahead of the electric contest, but was able to carry on with a heavily bruised right shoulder and arm.

Interestingly, there were no crashes or calamities on the electric bikes, with the exception of one university team blowing out its battery in practice and thus forfeiting its spot in the race. Because the electric bikes are still unproven, no one is yet willing to push them to their limits, and that caution seems to be paying off with a safer contest. John McGuinness has even said that he probably could have surpassed the 120mph mark had he gone flat-out from the very beginning, but he started the bike in the less aggressive of its two modes, again prioritizing safety over absolute speed.

At the present pace of innovation, by next year Mugen is almost certain to be riding past 120mph and Victory could be approaching today’s record. 2016 should also see the return of MotoCzysz to the Isle of Man. One of the true pioneers of electric racing, team owner Michael Czysz has been battling cancer in recent years, but he’s indicated his desire to get the team that dominated battery-powered TT racing before Mugen back into the competition.

As in the automotive industry, alternative powertrains are a long-term inevitability for the motorcycle business. Even Harley, the patron saint of two-wheeled chrome and noise, is crafting an electric strategy around its Project LiveWire. There may be no better proving ground for the technology than the 37 brutal miles of the TT course. Each team is contributing to the wider understanding of how to make electric motors more efficient, batteries more durable, and bike designs both more efficient and more durable. And none of them are doing it for any immediate profit. This is the biggest collection of friendly losers I’ve ever met, with each team committing significant investments of time and money into a race with a negligible prize fund and a track record of taking the lives of some of its biggest stars.

"One of the many reasons why you race is brand exposure," says Victory’s Gary Gray, "but we’re learning a lot here about what it takes to deliver electric performance reliably." His team isn’t selfish with those lessons, either, as I witnessed them helping engineers from the University of Nottingham’s TT Zero crew with parts and advice for putting together their bike for the upcoming race. This warmly collaborative approach may be merely a function of the wide gap in expected performance and might therefore fade away as competitiveness increases, but it’s still laudable and helps to advance research and development.

If speed is the only metric by which bike racing is to be judged, then battery-powered bikes have already proven their worth. But the fans that make the hallowed pilgrimage to the Isle of Man every year don’t come just for speed. They come for the spectacle of speed. That means thundering engine noise and a haze of exhaust fumes mixing with the waft of burnt rubber. "I think 100 percent that it’s the lack of noise that puts a lot of people off," says Mugen’s John McGuinness, in discussing why fan adoration hasn’t kept up with the rapid development of electric bikes. There’s an amusing dichotomy developing around battery power: the very things that the fans find off-putting and inauthentic, the lack of noise and smell, are the things that riders actually like. Victory’s Lee Johnston says he prefers the "peaceful" ride he gets on the electric bike, specifically calling out the roaring engine noise and gas fumes as downsides of conventional gas-powered bikes.

Johnston, McGuinness, Anstey, and most of the other riders appear comfortable and ready to embrace electric bikes as another, no less reputable form of two-wheeled racing in which they can compete. Some complain about the lack of power at the very top end, saying the bikes don’t allow for the same acceleration out of a corner and that "you’re on full throttle 80 percent of the time," but I’ve heard a lot more positive accounts of riding these bikes than negative ones. The rider’s job is simpler when you don’t have to be figuring out when and where to downshift, and the differences in skill become concentrated in how cleanly and efficiently each racer navigates the course. It looks to be the perfect diversifying race, offering a different test to the established bike classes. And yet, diversification seems like something the traditionalist Isle of Man audience will be reluctant to embrace.

"From a petrolhead's point of view, this is the only race left that's still pure. No safety, no bullshit."

"From a petrolhead's point of view, this is the only race left that's still pure. No safety, no bullshit." This is the candid assessment of Miquel Gimeno-Fabra, a researcher on the University of Nottingham team, who’s quick to tell me that his views are not to be interpreted as those of his institution. He’s right, all the same. The Isle of Man attracts a peculiar class of ultra-committed fan that seeks to preserve what’s viewed as an endangered tradition of risky and thus spectacular road racing. Electric bikes might be fun to ride and all, but if they’re safe and quiet, what’s the point of running them around the TT track at all? Like skydiving or climbing Mount Everest, tells me Hirotoshi Honda, the risk is what makes things interesting.

Coming to the Isle of Man is a unique experience for any sports fan. Firstly, there’s the incredible commitment exhibited by everyone around you: more than 14,000 motorcycles were ferried onto the island for this year’s TT series, all of them helmed by bikers in full racing gear. It’s not just dudes, either, as women are here in great number as well, riding their Suzukis and Kawasakis alongside male friends. One couple, David and Karen, got married at this year’s TT after coming to the show for 10 years in a row. The local Radio TT announced the happy news with the note that she was, in fact, wearing a dress at the wedding — a leather outfit might have been just as likely in this odd islandish realm.

It's like a Super Bowl where all the fans are wearing shoulder pads and helmets

Imagine attending the Super Bowl with a majority of the spectators wearing shoulder pads and helmets and you’ll get an inkling of how alien the Isle of Man can feel. That need not mean unwelcoming, however, as I was struck by how sociable everyone was — despite looking like spacemen and indulging in an occasionally reckless pursuit of high-speed thrills, these are probably the friendliest people I’ve met at any sporting event.

The TT race organizers contribute to the open atmosphere by providing an unprecedented level of access to the fans. You can stroll around the paddocks, observe the adjustments being made to each bike, and even walk up to your favorite rider and ask him for an autograph. When races are going on, the roads are closed down ahead of time, but people tend to crowd into the front yards of the houses adjoining the course and lean in to snap their own photos of the racers speeding by. It’s another risky habit on an island whose appeal seems inextricably linked to the atmosphere of ever-present danger.

My time on the Isle of Man has left me with some conflicting impressions. On the one hand, the TT track is the perfect proving ground for electric bikes as a credible racing class, one that could in due time compete with even the most powerful of superbikes. On the other hand, the Isle of Man series is revered for preserving a classic road racing heritage, and fans may never fully embrace the more modern variety of bike. The washing machine jokes persist.

No matter how people may feel about electric motors being part of the Isle of Man races, ultimately everyone agrees that they’ll play a hugely important role in all aspects of motor transportation. "It's just a matter of when. Electric vehicles, cars, bikes will be the future," says Mugen’s Whittamore. "We believe that electric is the future for all vehicle types," says Victory’s Gray. Neither of these companies has a road-going electric machine to sell — at least not yet — but both are accelerating development toward the future of which they speak with their participation in the TT Zero.

The electric bike is growing up fast, and these are the people we have to thank for it.

* *

Photography by Vlad Savov

Lead video footage provided by Victory Motorcycles

Edited by Chris Ziegler