I’ve ridden the future of motorcycling – and it’s electric. While I’ve written predictions about electric bikes in the past, the 11.5 hour motorway car journey to accept the kind invitation from KTM to try the Freeride E-XC and SX gave me plenty of time to think about whether I might be right for once. And the bikes proved it. Even if you’re not an off-road rider.
For non-KTM fans, there are five bikes in the 2015 Freeride range, which are all built to be accessible to the beginner and more casual off-road fan. For the traditionalists, there’s the two-stroke KTM Freeride 250 R and the four-stroke Freeride 350.
And then there are the electric options. The Freeride E-SX is the stripped down off-road bike, the Freeride E-XC is fitted with lights and a number plate to be road legal and the soon-to-arrive Freeride E-SM is a supermoto. All of the E range feature the same 16kW (22hp) motor which is legal for those on an A1 licence. Although electric bikes have been around for a while, from off-roaders to Isle of Man racers, the KTM range is the first from a mainstream manufacturer, and means that 16-year-olds can start off with an electric bike.
The reason for spending almost 12 hours in the car was the venue for the KTM Media Day – the E-Scape electric riding zone near Warrington in Cheshire. At the moment it’s the only venue which caters purely for electric bikes, offering test rides and track time on the KTMs and smaller electric bikes for kids and teens.
It has to be said – it’s a great venue. The team at E-Scape were all very friendly and welcoming, and put any inexperienced riders at ease straight away. Having not ridden off-road for a while, I needed a bit of a refresher before hitting the full track – as well as borrowing a pair of goggles and gloves from their well-stocked supplies. And I was glad I’d not headed straight out as the track is designed to be accessible but still capable of providing a bit of a challenge and air time for even the newest rider.
The KTM Freeride E-XC and E-SX in detail:
So the electric range are broadly similar to the petrol bikes in terms of size and style. The E-SX weights 106kg, and the E-XC tips the scales at 110kg, compared to the petrol bikes in the 90kgs, but it’s light and agile on the move. And stationary it’s clear that some of the weight is obviously down to the battery (27kg), but it doesn’t cause it to feel top heavy at any point.
It’s a reasonable size – like any off-roader it needs enough ground clearance to work, so I was slightly on tippy-toes at 5’8 (in off-road boots at least). But it’s as manageable as any off-road bike I’ve ridden (examples include the Suzuki DRZ400S and BMW F650GS)
What they’ve done is to use the 43mm WP forks and swingarm from KTM’s 85SX bikes, but stiffen the springs to cope with the added weight. But they’re still soft enough to give a reasonable amount of comfort and give as I wobbled my way through the whoops and over a couple of jumps. The forks and WP shock with progressive damping are adjustable but I certainly never felt the need.
But to be honest, you probably won’t notice the suspension to begin with. The two big first impressions you get from setting off on the Freeride E bikes is noticing the massive amount of torque, and then wondering why you can’t find a rear brake pedal or clutch.
Despite the E-Scape staff patiently explaining that there’s no gearbox, and the rear brake is on the handlebars as with a pushbike, it takes a couple of minutes to get used to the concept. But in the meantime, it’s the fact that there’s no gearbox and the 42Nm of torque is delivered instantly that brings a smile to anyone’s face.
It means you don’t have to worry about being in the right gear, or experience the joy of stalling. Two things which certainly frustrated me when I started riding off-road at a relatively late age, and which I’ve seen confound and annoy plenty of new off-road riders on various schools and training days.
That means you can focus on the right line and the right position to handle corners, jumps, dips and whoops.
The flipside is that there’s no engine braking. Not an issue on the E-Scape course, but you might not want to immediately tackle a long steep descent without a bit of practice to get used to the handlebar rear brake lever. Once you do, it’s pretty effective (handlebar rear brake systems aren’t unknown, and if you’ve ever ridden a mountain bike off-road, you’ll be fine).
I might not have been the fastest rider out on the track (That would be the very friendly FIM SuperEnduro rider Paul Bolton – check out his Facebook page and Twitter), but even when I tried to push the bike and tit about on purpose, it proved hard to actually do anything untoward. Partly because the torque from nothing means you can power out of pretty much anything.
You’d have to try pretty hard to mess up – particularly as the KTMs have three power levels to choose from. That means you can save on battery life (About an hour if you’re conscience, but a bit less if you’re really hammering it), and also get used to the power delivery before whacking it up to maximum.
It also displays how much juice is left, and informs you when you’ve started and stopped the bike. As with almost any motorcycle, there’s a kill switch (and key for the E-XC), but there’s also a way to keep it stationary when you want to keep it running.
It’s handy, because obviously the bike itself is pretty darn quiet. There’s some noise from the moving parts, and a slight whine, but that’s about it. You can still hear riders approaching behind from the sound of their bike and the gravel and rocks under their wheels, but it makes riding somewhat more relaxing as well as less likely to annoy walkers, ramblers, horse riders, and anyone living nearby.
The KTM Freeride Battery:
Given KTM have a well-deserved reputation for making brilliant (and successful) off-road motorcycles, I’m guessing some of you will have skipped to this section as the one big unknown.
The Samsung-made 12v KTM PowerPack li-on battery weights 27kg, and is changed by just flipping up the seat and loosening four bolts in a matter of seconds. It’s got a die-cast aluminum case with 360 lithium ion cells and the BMS battery management system, and as a result a spare isn’t cheap. And you’ll need to plug it into a KTM charger.
Charging time is around 90 minutes from a wall socket for a full battery, while 50 minutes should get you 90% of the way there. Which means 2 batteries could give you pretty much continuous riding on the first and second power modes (Although you’ll probably be knackered before then!). And although a spare battery is a big investment (£2900), it should last around five years and 700 charges before the performance starts to diminish to around 80% over time. The KTM charger costs £700 if you need a new one, by the way.
In terms of cost, you’re looking at around 60p per session unless you happen to have solar panels installed.
The other question for any electric off-road bike is the combination of electricity and water right under your bottom. In addition to the sealed case, the KTM PowerPack also features moisture sensors that will shut it down if water gets in to prevent the 300 volts becoming a problem. But the combination of electric motor and battery means the Freeride E bikes are splash proof, but KTM recommend you don’t jet wash the bike or tackle deep water. Not a problem for most of us, but if you do get any water in the motor it’ll be a trip to your KTM dealer for specialist attention.
On the road, the torque remains impressive, and the Freeride is quick up to the 50mph top end. It’s also cooler than a scooter, and much less susceptible to novice mechanical incompetence than a traditional motorcycle. The only regular task is replacing the transmission fluid every so often. The E-SM will come with sticky tyres and a higher gearing, so it’ll be interesting to see whether the road focus is as fun as the dirt potential.
The future of motorcycling?
So there’s one final point to mention – the cost. The KTM Freeride E-SX costs £9999, the E-XC at £10299, and the E-SM at £10599. That compares to a petrol KTM Freeride starting at £5999. The £4,000 difference is accounted for by a £700 charger and £2900 battery, but it’s a sizeable investment.
That means at the moment it’s not going to be a big seller, particularly for a cash-strapped teenager, but that isn’t the point of the bikes. If you look at the car market as an indicator, electric-specialists Tesla have already sold more cars in 2015 than ever before, and hybrids and charging stations are a common sight. By getting in early, KTM are building up valuable experience.
And at the same time, indoor karting centres with electric karts have sprung up all over the place, allowing kids to get cheaper and easier access to them. By the same token, the electric off-road ‘riding zone’ is a relatively cheap and fun outing for two wheels. The training courses on offer are from £15 up for between 30-60 minutes and 35 minutes on a KTM Freeride on the full track (Ages 16 and up) are £25. That’s pretty reasonable, and the bicycle-style controls will be more familiar to non-motorcyclists.
It also reminded me how much I missed riding off-road over the last few years, and how much I’d like to be able to get to somewhere like E-Scape once every couple of weeks to improve my skills rather than letting them atrophy. After all, there’s plenty of proof that you can ride well off-road as you get older.
Personally, I can see two markets for the first generation of the KTM Freeride. Those who want to be able to nip to their local MX track or trail regularly with very little hassle will get a lot out of the E-SX and E-XC. If I had the cash, I’d be persuading my local track to let me keep the bike and charger there – or the nearest pub to my local green lanes.
The other potential market will be urban commuters for the E-SM. Within most big cities, and certainly in London, even the dual carriageways are almost all 50mph limits, so with a slightly higher gearing the KTM Freeride E-SM could make a decent commuting tool. And 30-45 minutes from London covers a pretty big population. One charger at home, and one in the office, and you can commute for the same price as a 500ml bottle of cola – and avoid congestion charges, the new emissions charge, and the overpriced, overcrowded hell which is rail travel. All whilst saving the environment. A rough estimate would be £1.20 in electricity (or half that if you nick the return trip from the office plug socket), compared to around £5 of petrol. So commuting every day with an electric bike would save a little under £1,000 per year. Keep it for 5 years and you’ve saved the initial extra cost.
The other element will be if electric motorcycles can secure Government subsidies for purchasing them as big as those for cars. The UK Government recently announced a £7.5 million fund which offers a subsidy of up to £1500 to buy an electric motorcycle, taking the purchase price of the SX down to £8499 with the full subsidy amount. It also takes the E-XC down to under £9,000.
But realistically it’s the specialist venues that are likely to be the most popular place to see electric bikes. And the E-SM opens up a world of urban potential. Speaking to the E-Scape team, the local noise offices struggled to even get a reading when checking on the bikes, and the local residents backing onto the property didn’t even realise the site had opened as it creates much less noise than the nearby dual carriageway.
We might not all be riding KTM Freerides this year. But they’re only going to get better, and I spent a long ride home wishing I was able to be a kid living near Warrington. I might have to settle for a late-30s birthday party there instead…