Batteries Included

Twist the grip, and. . .

What's it like to ride an electric bike? Hang on, we'll tell you.

"OK. How much are they?"

The question came from the driver of a low-riding sedan who'd been trailing me through canyon country just outside Ashland, Ore., where I was silently speeding through the straights and corners on a Brammo Enertia electric motorcycle.

It's hard to ride anywhere on an electric motorcycle without attracting attention. At least that's been my experience. As a motorcycle critic and journalist, I've ridden most of the e-motorcycles that are on the market, starting with an electric retrofit of a gutted Yamaha R1 produced by the Oakland shop Electric Motorsport in 2007, continuing on to the now-defunct Vectrix Maxi scooter later that year, the Zero X dirt bike in 2008 and now the Zero S and Brammo Enertia street bikes.

As a longstanding rider of internal combustion product, it took some time to wrap my head around the electric riding experience because it's so unlike anything else I'd experienced. Turn the bike on, and there's no sound, no vibration, no smell. The usual visceral clues and overall gestalt of a bike are missing, so it's hard to know what to expect.

Until I twisted the grip. That's when the real pleasure of an electric kicks in, in all its torque-y, G-force glory. It's incredibly fast off the line--so fast, in fact, that I'd put an e-bike on the line next to almost any gas-powered motorcycle or car and feel confident that I'd win a green-light skirmish on takeoff.

But the thrill is over after that, because electrics only reach a top speed of about 60 mph: I was cranking on a wide-open throttle but being passed by trucks and cars.

In traffic, electrics are practically noiseless, which is both good and bad. It's only when the bike's wheels start to roll and the chain begins to spin that there's any sound whatsoever, and even then it's just a slight, whirring whisper.

After years of rumbling engines and tailpipes, it was fun to be able to hear something other than my bike (or wind noise). But it's also a little creepy. Although it's easier to hear surrounding traffic, that traffic doesn't hear you. I'm not much of a believer in the loud-pipes-saves-lives theory, but I do a lot of lane splitting and riding an electric bike feels like the equivalent of tiptoeing. Car drivers who collide into bikes often complain they didn't know the bike was there. A soundless bike gives drivers one less clue to our existence and puts more pressure on riders to be more vigilant.

At least it does when they're moving. When they're stopped, they're such a curiosity that they're almost impossible to get moving. "Is that electric? How fast does it go? Where can I get one?" --S.C.

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This article was originally published in the April 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Batteries Included.

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