Like the man said, truth doesn’t make a noise.

So it’s been a good couple of weeks for electric bikes.

First the legend that is John McGuinness wins the TT Zero race on the beautiful-looking Mugen Sinden, turning in a 117+mph lap; an amazing feat given where electric race bikes were just a few years ago.

Then, about as far away from TT racing as you can get in bike world, Harley-Davidson unveiled its “Livewire” road bike, which Robin wrote about on the site here last week.

And these headline events are just the news-values tip of the iceberg, as electric bikes become commercial realities across numerous OEM platforms, from mundane commuters like BMW Motorrad’s “C Evolution” to the insanely styled “Saietta R” from Agility Motors, made in the heart of London.

But…but…there’s an issue, at least for me (although it’s one I think I share with lots of you out there – tell me what you think).

Something’s wrong, and it’s this: I don’t want one. Not any of them.

This is almost unheard of. I want pretty much everything. I treat vehicles like playing records, or would given the budget and the chance. If I had the money I’d ride an Ironhead bobber when I was in that mood, a Fireblade when in another. I’d drive an 80s Bentley when that mojo was upon me and a rodded Chevy pick-up another time. Basically I could have ten garages full of vehicles and still want more – there’s always another mood.

And yet these bikes – fast, economical, beautifully designed – don’t move me at all.

The reason why, I discovered after a little soul-searching, is they doesn’t make a noise, or at least not one which excites me. That’s it. Pathetic isn’t it?

Or is it? It set me thinking.

My son is seven. He loves Moto GP, Top Gear and his collection of toy cars and bikes. We saw a Ferrari FF the other day and he was beside himself with excitement, especially when it left the traffic lights beside us.

When he plays with his cars and bikes they all make the requisite noise, via him of course. Bikes howl, big trucks roar, sports cars wail.

If I told my son about electric cars like the Tesla and the fact that they just hum, and then bought him a model, he wouldn’t play with it. He has no concept of climate change, but he has a perfectly developed concept of fun, excitement and whether something’s cool or not. Where vehicles are concerned, that’s about noise.

saietta r
The Saietta R by London based Agility Motorcycles

I’m the same, I realised. Yesterday, on a long day’s riding, my friend Kevin observed that my K1300S, with a quick-shifter and a Remus pipe, “sounded like a GP bike, with that burp on the upshift”. I loved the noise of his Ducati too.

Kevin and I are grown-ups and parents, yet we both understand that noise adds to the sense of theatre and danger where cars and bikes are concerned.

I used to drive my TR6 with the roof down and the tonneau cover on in the rain, just for that noise.  I love the fact that my bike pops and bangs on the over-run. The pipe that makes it do that cost £500, and only serves to burn more fuel than the thing did before. My VT custom can be heard coming from the next county, and rightly so.

The thing I realised this week is that these noises appeal to the most base elements of our psychology. The smell of petrol and oil or the note of an exhaust all suggest danger, speed, risk and fun.

They are the soundtrack of abnormality, of wandering too near the edge, of leaving your comfort zone. They touch something in us which evolution hasn’t yet extinguished, the need to release hormones and chemicals to prepare us for “fight or flight”; as opposed to go to meetings and filter emails.

The internal combustion engine is an iconic thing thanks to changing the socio-economic reality of the world, but it’s easy to forget that the reason some of us love it, rather than simply acknowledge its importance, is exactly because it is a smelly, dangerous, smoky machine full of fire and noise. It’s primeval.

Maybe this is generational? Those of you who enjoy the excellent Front End Chatter podcast with bike journos Simon Hargreaves and Martin Fitz-Gibbons (free on Soundcloud or iTunes, btw) will have heard them having this argument, with the younger man excited by the sheer possibilities of this technology and the older one wholly unmoved by any of it.

Perhaps it’s time for the old farts to move over, but all I know is that brunette who fell for me when I was 18 did so mostly because of how much her dad disapproved of my RD350. His scowl when I turned up in a cloud of smoke and a wail of exhaust made me feel like a badass, and her feel like she was living a little closer to the edge.

Chivalry dictates that I gloss over the details, but I don’t think that summer would have been quite so good for me had it been battery-powered.

7 comments

  • I find myself in general agreement – except the Livewire, whose styling (and the brand) leave me cold, but I thought its power efficient straightcut gears gave it a rather evocative soundtrack. This may, of course, be entirely down to bias derived a lifelong love of science fiction…

  • Good point; although I think:

    a) riding all bikes, be they electric, ICE or otherwise, may turn out to be generational (or, rather… er… epochal?)

    b) the fact it, at the moment, takes more than 5 minutes to ‘refill’ an empty tank is an issue, plus …

    c) the whole ‘why?’ of it in the first place – you still need a f. great power station burning fossil fuel (or splitting atoms) to generate the power; it’s merely refining (!) the process.

    d) … and yes, the Mugen is a sexy bike to look at and a technical masterpiece about which I would like to know more… but has it got the same clockwork fascination of reciprocating parts that so enchanted, among others, Soichiro? You remember the lightbulb moment when you looked at a diagram of a four-stroke engine and suddenly understood the self-reliant beauty of the Otto cycle… it’s the respiratory nature of an engine, the way it eats, breathes and farts, just like we do. When I was a kid, legging it across the fields, I’d imagine my body was an engine, pistons pumping furiously, breathing harder and harder to get air in to help burn the fuel. Electric bikes may succeed as transport, but I sincerely doubt they will ever permeate our lives with the romance of petrol. You can’t even smell electricity, let alone set fire to it.

    It’s just electrons, ain’t it? (no, but still…)

  • Anybody who buys into the ‘knit your own yoghurt’ cliche of the Top Gear crowd doesn’t know their arse from their face. Want instant torque at any RPM? Go electric. Want cowboy hat/dishdash free power sources and to maintain your motorhead indefinitely? Go electric. Noise? Wang the tunes up to 11 and open the throttle all the way.
    I say give one a try first before you write them off. I can’t tell you about bikes as the electric ride I was going to use for a J.Groates to Land’s End fell through, sadly.
    I loved the Tesla onesie though. Cracking straight line drive (it is American after all) with background scifi hum, tire to tarmac and wind noise was enough for me.

  • As Henry Ford probably didn’t say, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”.

    Electric motors are better in literally every way than petrol. They’re quiet, smaller, don’t require gearboxes nor chain drives, they can regenerate power and they have full torque from bugger all.

    But, we’re humans, we don’t do things because they’re optimal. We die climbing mountains to put a flag on a bit of hopeless, forlorn rock that’s a it higher up than another bit of bleak stone purely because we can. Petrol engines are amazing things because they’re inefficient, dirty, mortal and wear out, just like us.

    But we’ve got to acknowledge that, like steam engines, their day will end for mainstream use. I don’t mind that future. In the same way we might toddle over to the Great Central Railway to marvel at the steam engines and inhale the sooty, sulphurous vapours, one day we’ll take our grandkids to see the classic FireBlade firing up.

    Then whizz home on some sort of hyperbike.

    I’m okay with that.

  • Really interesting comments so far. It is quite a divisive issue isn’t it? I like Khal’s view, which is bit like what Jay Leno said when he described electric cars as the saviour of petrol cars – i.e. we’d commute electric and have a dirty great muscle car in the garage for weekends.

    • Ooh, good debate.

      I was fortunate to test the KTM Freeride E last year and for talentless off-roaders like me it was a godsend. My feet, bound in clumsy, bulky off-road boots, only had to dangle at the floor as everything i needed to control the bike was on the bars. This saved a little more brain power so I could concentrate on riding and enjoying off-road. Option 3 of the three power maps was also too much, so the ability to change power settings was welcome.

      But I think electric bikes are great for my kids. I’ve got a couple of Razor 24v bikes and they are so good. My boys can ride them everywhere and nobody cares. Sure, the sound and smell is missing, but not having to travel so far to ride or constantly looking over our shoulders is ace.

      I think I’m like most riders in that I want a dream garage filled with a lot of stuff; high-tech, petrol-fed trickery with a bunch of riding aids, some old, carb-fed piece of crap with shit brakes and an electric bike would be welcome (as would a maxi scoot, don’t judge me).

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