June 1, 2009 In less than a fortnight (June 12), the world will witness the FIRST clean emissions Grand Prix. Known as the TTX GP, the race represents history in the making - the modern day equivalent of the landmark Paris-Rouen Horseless Carriage Competition (Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux) of 1894. The winning bike and its rider, will claim an eternal place in the history books. In the build up to the race, TTX GP founder Azhar Hussein built a demonstrator electric superbike based around a Suzuki GSX 750 and dubbed it the TTX01. It's the first prototype of what he hopes will become a production motorcycle within a year or three. Long-time motorcycle writer Stuart Barker journeyed to the Isle of Man to become one of the first people in the world to sample the battery-powered TTX01 and his impressions are our first glimpse into the future of motorcycling. Stuart discovered that riding a silent motorcycle is an eerie experience, but not completely devoid of fun. Welcome to the future!
As I glide past a people carrier at 70mph on a silent motorcycle, it's hard not to wonder if I'm involved in something very special.
The occupants look rather bemused as I swish part, clearly wondering how I can be accelerating without making any noise. Better than that; I'm actually going uphill, accelerating, and still making no noise. If this was a movie, the driver would hold up a bottle of booze and give it a comedy double take.
It's not a movie. It's reality. But it's still a hard reality to get my head round. I'm on the Isle of Man TT course - travelling in the opposite direction to the racers – and heading up to the famous Creg-ny-Baa pub. It's no more than three miles from the TT grandstand where my journey began but I'm still anxious about whether I can make it back without having to push for most of the way.
'Keep your eye on the dash' I was told before setting off. We've run it up to 18 amps before but if it goes beyond 10, start making for home.'
The throttle is now full open and I'm tucked in as tightly as I can get behind the screen, but it's almost impossible to guess what speed I'm travelling at. Only now do I realise how much of a part noise plays in the perception of speed. And since I'm not making any, it's hard to make a call. 70mph? 80? I've been told the bike is good for over 100mph but I've ridden this stretch of road many times at over that (there's no speed limit on this part of the TT course) and it doesn't feel remotely like it. Or is that just because of the lack of noise again? This is clearly a whole new world and it's going to take some getting used to.
My mount is the battery-powered TTX01, built as a showcase bike in less than six weeks just to prove that electric bikes are feasible and can go faster than golf buggies. It's been built by the people behind the TTXGP, the world's first clean emission motorcycle race due to be held on June 12 this year, right here on the Isle of Man as part of the annual TT races.
But if the bike looks familiar, that's because it's actually a 1997 Suzuki GSX-R750 – albeit devoid of its natural internals. I've ridden the '97 model before, way back in 1997, but it sure as hell didn't feel like this. For lurking beneath the one-off paint job that's turning so many heads here on the bike-knowledgeable Isle of Man, is not an across the frame four-cylinder combustion engine as you'd expect from any normal member of the Gixxer family, but two 11kg batteries. I'm riding a real-life Scalextric toy and it feels truly bizarre.
A dated 750cc Superbike may be an odd choice as a demonstrator for electric power but the man behind the TTX01, Steve Ali Labib, says it was a case of needs-must. 'Other bikes were considered first but neither Norton or Triumph showed any interest in our project, and with a limited budget and a very tight deadline we had to grab the nearest bike for the project. We picked the GSX-R because it was very local and available immediately.'
The TTX01 isn't much to look at but then neither are test mules built by mighty manufacturers like Honda, Yamaha or Ducati. New paint job aside, the bike looks tatty, even rusty in places. But it does its job. It works. And that's what's important. It's been built as proof that an electric motorcycle can travel at reasonable speeds and still feel, and ride, like a real bike. It's a prototype in the truest sense of the word, a pioneering piece of technology which could be our first glimpse into a future that, whether we like it or not, may be forced upon us by dwindling fossil fuel resources and increasing environmental concerns.
The news from the future is mixed. The good news is that riding an electric bike still feels, to a certain extent, like riding a normal motorcycle. It's still fun. And it's still way better than sitting in a car. Don't get me wrong; at this stage of its development, no-one is going to swap their own GSX-R750 (even a '97 model) for the TTX01 version. The original bike's power, handling and range are infinitely better than the imposter's, but that could change in time. As development of alternative-fuel bikes accelerates and more power is found, battery life/range is increased, and funky new lightweight chassis are designed, it's going to become a lot more fun to ride them. But there are some things that may be harder to adjust to – and they're not the most obvious issues like noise.
Anyone who has ever ridden a two-stroke bike will know about their lack of engine braking. Approach a corner on a four-stroke machine, close the throttle, and your bike will start to slow down. Simple. But it's not so on a two-stroke. Close the throttle on that and you carry on at near the same speed. Brakes are everything. And so it is with the TTX01. Imagine approaching a corner on your R1 or Blade then just whipping in the clutch and cruising round and you'll get some idea of what it's like. That's not to say a rider wouldn't soon get used to that – in fact, I'm betting that in a couple of hours he would – but it was disconcerting on the limited time I had on the TTX01. And so was the lack of gyroscopic effect through the corners. That effect, which can give a rider the feeling of a bike being 'planted' to the road as it corners, was totally absent, another result of having a battery placed where an engine normally would be. Only time would tell if a rider would learn to accommodate that feeling as well.
But maybe I'm just a dinosaur relic of the combustion engine age. Maybe I'm completely missing the point by comparing the TTX01 to the 'normal' motorcycles that I love so much. Surely zero emission bikes are aimed at a whole new market? At people who wouldn't dream of riding noisy, smelly motorcycles that require all that gear-changing and clutch action.
Maybe the idea of being able to simply twist and go on the short trip to work in the knowledge that you don't need to stop for petrol (and, ultimately – once the actual manufacturing of zero emission bikes is more eco-friendly – that you're reducing your carbon foot print) is going to appeal to the masses in a way that combustion-engined motorcycles have never quite managed to do.
I must admit that seeing a GSX-R750 plugged into a wall like a remote-controlled toy on Christmas morning was a weird site for me, but in ten years time it might be just as normal as seeing a bike in a filling station is today.
The TTX01 was charged through a connector cable which was housed under the pillion seat. Take the seat off, plug the bike in, and wait for a charge. A full charge can take up to two-and-a-half hours but as I was keen to get on the bike and get some photographs in the bag before we lost the scant winter daylight, I settled for a 40 minute charge. That, I was assured, would be enough to get me to Creg-ny-Baa and back no matter how fast I rode the bike. Good. Because I knew the first thing anyone would want to know about an electric motorbike was how fast it could go. With a home-brew digital speedo that didn't appear to be working properly, the answer was inconclusive but I was later informed that there was a GPS system on the bike so my top speed could be checked out online. Sadly, the info was only stored for three days and was lost before I got a chance to check my speed.
There's certainly one side effect of running a noiseless engine and that's the fact that you pick up on so many other noises you wouldn't normally hear. Apart from the to-be-expected wind noise coursing through and around your helmet, I was aware of lots of clunking and rattling on top of the noise of the wheels going round. How much of this was due to the fact that the GSX-R750 was 12 years old, and how much was down to the less-than-perfect fit of all the new components (after all, the chassis wasn't designed around a battery), was difficult to tell, but it wasn't the most reassuring feedback as I wound the throttle on.
I, for one, like nothing better than the sound created by booting up through the gears on the exit of a roundabout with an after-market pipe fitted, but that isn't necessarily everyone's cup of herbal tea. In fact, the man behind the TTX01 and the whole TTXGP race which will be held at this year's Isle of Man TT (see separate story), thinks the bike's silence leads to a whole new, and extremely pleasant, two-wheeled experience. He says 'I normally ride a V-twin – a Honda VTX1800 – a huge bike with a throbbing engine which is massively loud. What I've found since I started riding the electric bike is that my VTX seems even louder now and it seems to fatigue me more when I'm riding. With the lack of noise on the electric bike you just enjoy the ride more. I'm a cruiser rider anyway. I'm never in such a hurry so I just like to enjoy the ride and I find I can do that more on the electric bike. It's generally a much more pleasant experience.'
In reality, the engine isn't 100% silent – at least when you begin to pick up a little speed. But at low speeds it's a completely eerie thing to experience. As I sat on the TTX01 in the TT pit lane and asked what I needed to know about operating the bike, one of the TTXGP crew stuck the GSX-R's key in the ignition and turned it, as normal. 'Just thumb the starter and that's it' she said. I did. Nothing happened. Or at least, it seemed as if nothing happened. But it had. Had this been any normal bike, it would have been in gear, idling away and ready to go. But this wasn't a normal bike; the complete absence of a clutch lever gave that away, as did the fact that my left foot sat on a footrest next to which there was no gear lever. Bizarre. Puzzled, and feeling like a 17-year-old in a school playground sitting on a 125 waiting to negotiate a slalom course of road cones for the first time, I turned the throttle. Still not convinced the bike was actually 'live' because it was making no noise at all, I lurched forward, just as I'd have done if I had been that 17 year-old kid aiming for those road cones. With no clutch to help ease my way forward (another weird thing to get used in this day of firsts), I bunny-hopped into action and glided up pit lane completely bemused. This wasn't right. It just wasn't right. And judging by the looks of others, I wasn't the only one feeling that way.
The Manx people are used to seeing all sorts of sights on their roads, from Mike Hailwood testing his bike in the good old days to former World Superbike Champion James Toseland doing a photo shoot for the local paper. It's nothing new on an Island that's hosted motorcycle racing for over 100 years. But this was something new and I was aware of more than one digital camera capturing the occasion as I left pit lane and pulled onto the famous Glencrutchery Road. Will I be on faded pictures in 50 years time as grandfathers explain to their kids that the picture was taken way back when electric motorcycles were such a novelty as to be worth photographing? Will those very kids be riding 200mph silent stealth machines with limitless ranges and zero carbon footprints? The mind boggles.
Still marvelling at the novelty of the TTX01, I couldn't quite recall what the ever-so-quiet whirr of the bike reminded me of. When it did finally come to me, it was so obvious I'd missed it. Anyone who's been awake at 4am on a still night and heard the milkman doing his rounds will know what the TTX01 sounds like – a milk cart. Or one of those little battery-powered sit-in toy cars that kiddies get for Christmas these days.
Neither vehicle was anywhere near as fast as this though. Turning up the newly changed Governor's Bridge section, up though the Nook and past Bedstead and Signpost Corner, I was amazed at just how much this felt like riding a real motorcycle. Maybe it was because the GSX-R donor bike was so familiar. Had the battery-power been harnessed in some futuristic lightweight carbon chassis things might have felt radically different. With its heavy engine stripped out, the Gixxer should have felt much lighter than standard but that was never an over-riding impression, even though at 165kg, the TTX01 is a full 11kg lighter than the original Suzuki. Again, maybe I'm used to the light weight of modern Superbikes and the 12-year old machine felt relatively heavy by comparison. And as no-one was keen to remove the bodywork without the bike's builders present, I really had no idea what was still hidden beneath the fairing.
One thing that was difficult to overcome was the sensation that the bike had stalled at every junction I came to. Sitting on a completely silent bike, waiting to pull into traffic goes against everything we riders know. So you have to bite the bullet, turn the twist grip, and pray that the thing pulls away cleanly before the approaching car actually reaches you. It does. Every time. And my confidence in the TTX01 begins to grow.
With the fabulous TT Mountain Course looming ahead, I'm sorely tempted to see what its long open corners feel like on my electric Gixxer but after a few passes for photographs at Creg-ny-Baa I remember what I was told about keeping an eye on the amps that I'd used. What was it? 'If you go over 10, you'd better head home.' Shit. I'm on 14.5. I tell the photographer we'd better call it a wrap and get going. As an after thought, I ask him to follow me in his car and see what speed I can manage. He reckoned 80mph on the drop down to Brandish and there may have been more to come had not the TTX01 suddenly decided to show its Achilles heel - the battery died on me.
There's no bump-starting one of these babies and no reserve tank to get you home either so keeping an eye on the amp reading must become second nature to electro-riders and, despite being amply warned, I was caught out. Reserves of power from somewhere surged through intermittently and by a combination of pushing and free-wheeling - with the occasional assistance of an amp or two from the TTX01, I made it back to Glencrutchery Road.
As I approached the TT grandstand, a two-stroke stink-wheel scooter rasped past going in the opposite direction, the smell of his two-stroke mixture intoxicating on the cold winter air. His bike represented the very antithesis of what mine was all about. Noisy, smelly, polluting, it was everything riders of my age loved about growing up with bikes in the politically-incorrect 1970s. But the bike I was on now represented the future. Clean, silent, eco-friendly. But then, I'm pushing and scooter boy is riding. My technology simply isn't ready yet but I'm convinced its time will come.
Azhar Hussein boldly predicts that, given an adequate level of development, alternative fuel bikes could be lapping the TT as fast as current models within five years. Maybe he's right. Maybe he's not. But that's the wonderful thing about being involved at the embryonic stages of any new technology – no-one can predict where it's going to lead. And the possibilities for alternative fuel bikes are almost limitless, not only in how they make their power, but in how that power is harnessed. Remove the need for a heavy combustion and all the moving associated with it and the overall design of the bikes will be revolutionised. There's no doubt that this is a brave new dawn for motorcycle engineering and it's only to be expected that the first tentative steps into that new world will be shaky ones. At the very first TT in 1907, riders had to peddle their single-geared machines up the steeper hills on the course but within a few years they were lapping the Island at speeds which were simply incomprehensible at the time. Now, 102 years after that pioneering race, the Isle of Man is once again playing host to the beginnings of a new era in biking history and it's hard not to get excited about it.
Meanwhile the scooter rider turns his head slightly and looks at me through his tinted visor. Smugly? Sympathetically? I'll never know. But I do wonder what the future holds for our respective mounts – and who will have the last laugh.