Zero to Lose (Or, Where’s Lightning NOT Going?)

pphlIt’s June 29, the 2015 Pikes Peak (officially, the Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb) is going on as I write this.  Let me tell you a tale of two electric motorcycle companies (…plus).

Last Year, Lightning Motorcycles won the 2014 Pikes Peak outright- not just in an electric-motorcycle class.  The Lightning bike was the fastest motorcycle up the mountain, period, gasser or electric.  And yet, Lightning’s not even showing up this year, nor is Mission or Mugai, but Zero Motorcycles is.  Even then, Zero is racing their FX model, a lightweight dual-sport, not their performance machine, the SR.  What’s going on here?  The FX has no chance of winning, but Lightning is showing us zero.

A charitable person might say Lightning is too focused on getting their design into production. A cynical person might say the company is still getting their act into shape. More reasonably, a charitable person can say Lightning already got their publicity/advertizing out of last year’s win; the company now has less to prove out of their basic tech. A cynical person can say they don’t have enough financing to head out to the mountain, and are in the hole trying to get vehicle production going (when it’s already behind schedule) without enough preorders and thus, deposits.

Which of the above is true? Like Harley, there doesn’t have to be a single answer, and the ground truth is likely some combination of these. Lightning apparently isn’t talking, at least not publicly, so the rest of us are speculating. One possibility is that last year’s team sponsor, the solar company SMA, pulled out of their deal, for any of a million reasons, and Lightning didn’t have a replacement backer.

Zero Motorcycles, meanwhile, is taking a shot at the slope. Zero does have something to prove; the company was originally founded as an e-bike company, for boosted mountain bikes. They went upmarket (to motorcycles) from there, but may still carry a bit of a stigma as being ‘just overgrown bicycles,’ as at least one reviewer put it. More specifically, the company may be feeling heat from “competitor” BRD. Zero is offering their FX model as a dual-sport and urban-assault ride, with aggressive marketing pitches. This overlaps almost perfectly with the BRD Redshift MX (pure offroad) and Redshift SM (street version). At least, Zero would be feeling heat, if BRD actually had units for sale. BRD is experiencing teething troubles like any startup, and vehicle startups in particular.

With no BRD Redshifts out, 2014 may be Zero’s year to plant their flag and establish a positive reputation for the Zero MX, before BRD can steal their spotlight. Zero doesn’t even have to win. Merely competing without incident gets their name out (“no publicity is bad publicity”), when the public at large (and even many in the moto world) are still foggy on the brand and the model. The company isn’t spending much money, so there’s not much downside. The FX’s rider, Jeremiah Johnson, appears to be some sort of semi-pro or well-off privateer, and the bike doesn’t appear to be a real tuner special. If anyone’s spent more than travel expenses and incidental money, it’s Hollywood Electrics, the largest-selling Zero dealership, contributing some internal mods and their labor.

In other words, Zero Motorcycles has put up little, and has little to lose, but a lot of intangibles to gain. Nearly-free advertizing, and hopefully positive advertizing at that (cross your fingers). Even if the motorcycle suffers “a mechanical,” Zero learns from the experience and can design better 2015s or 2016s. This is why they say “racing improves the breed;” the stress uncovers some types of flaws that may continue to lurk when riding street. (This would include flaws in the racing team’s organization and processes, though again the factory doesn’t appear to be very involved here.) So why not follow Lightning, and enter the competition?

BRD, though, isn’t going for it. Apparently, they’re in a similar situation as Lightning, and had already promised bikes by 2013. Yet in an interview, BRD’s Marc Fenigstein claims they have plenty of preorders and VC money. If true, this would mean they are literally too busy to head to a small town in Colorado with all that gear. Too busy, even, to hire separate race crews, or “sponsor” quasi-privateers. If false, it could mean there’s a real issue with the Redshifts, and the company won’t attempt the mountain. In the middle, one possibility is that the Redshifts got overhyped in their ad copy, and in reviewer test rides on level ground; now, BRD could be having trouble getting uphill numbers that meet these high expectations. The remaining issue on an uphill course like Pikes Peak is that EVs that weren’t specifically modified have a weight penalty versus gassers; the Redshift might be perfectly capable of impressing people in a cross-country race, but not here.

This brings up yet another possibility. A field course like Pikes Peak (twisties, laid out with no heavy earthmoving) is no dumb oval, and is heavily dependent on racer skill. I’ll leave the possibility that these companies failed to sign top racing talent for whatever reason, and decided not to put up serious money without a serious name onboard.

One company, though, is Brutus Motorcycle, a maker of custom cruisers (including electrics). Like Mission and Lightning, they aren’t aiming for the mass market. Custom cruisers are expensive as it is, and electrics on top of that result in even higher upfront costs. Brutus has thus been going for years at handbuilt quantities. If one is already handbuilding customs, then producing a race special is just one more job, and the company may have decided the publicity is well worth it. Did you know about Brutus before this post?

All in all, the industry wins. Zero is getting something out the time trial, which puts more heat on BRD, and any coming KTM bike, or a putative Brammo Encite. Brutus, too, is getting their name out there for their cruisers. Since they don’t literally compete with anyone (except arguably a Harley LiveWire that you can’t buy, and isn’t a cruiser), they gather publicity to the EV field from people who aren’t into dirt or sport bikes.

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One thought on “Zero to Lose (Or, Where’s Lightning NOT Going?)

  1. Pingback: Riding-Season Reasons | cableflux

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