Why It’s a Big Deal that Zero Motorcycles Is Coming to an MSF Course Near You

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For as much harping as I do about Zero Motorcycles, here comes some news from the Scotts Valley company that even my cold heart can appreciate. For those who don’t know, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) has very strict criteria for the motorcycles that its classes can use during the hands-on portion of their curriculum. The various restrictions include things like seat height, displacement, weight, power, and so forth. Additionally, the classes concern themselves with the cost of the bikes themselves, the cost of maintaining the machines, and the cost of the replacement parts, which invariably will be needed as new riders cut their teeth on two-wheeled transportation.

Getting the nod from the MSF that the Zero XU can be used for its rider courses, Zero Motorcycles’ urban commuter is the first electric motorcycle to be certified for use in the popular rider training program. Not only a boon to the California-based company, the news is a step-forward for the MSF, as the clutchless, gear-less, noiseless, and effortless motorcycle is the ideal platform for a new rider to learn how to safely ride a motorcycle. Best of all though, the news bodes well in training soon-to-be motorcyclists more effectively, as well as increasing the likelihood of attracting otherwise disinterested riders into the world of motorcycles.

The whole subject harkens back to a conversation I had with then Skip Barber instructor Michael Czysz about the mental bandwidth required for riding a motorcycle (or really anything in life for that matter). His theory states that your brain has only so much processing power available when it performs a given task, like for instance riding a motorcycle around a race track.

For a new rider, riding on a track at speed is very difficult, as they still have to think about the basic operations behind riding a motorcycles, e.g. shifting, braking, throttle-control, etc. More advanced riders have already mastered the basics, and can focus on things like body-position, brake-markers, the racing line, and so forth. Meanwhile, professionals motorcycle racers have become so tuned with the track and their bikes, they operate on a completely different sensory plain, managing things like wheel-spin, tire feedback, and suspension response with the same effort that it takes many of us to breathe.

Now, take that philosophy to a truly green motorcyclist, and you begin to see the importance of using electric motorcycles in an environment like the one MSF provides in its rider training courses. Removing extraneous elements and mental distractions, a bike like the Zero XU allows an even lower step for new riders to enter into the world of motorcycling. Instead of having to worry about shifting and operating a clutch, the single-speed electric motor simply requires a new rider to learn basic throttle control.

Additionally, the lack of noise, heat, and other elements not only make it easier for a rider to get instructions from the MSF RiderCoaches, but it also means that their attention can be focused 100% on learning the basics of acceleration, stopping, and counter-steering on a motorcycle. Not only would such a platform open up two-wheeled adventure to those who may have been put off by the challenge of basic motorcycle operation, it provides a stepping-stone to students whom require more time to hone their motorcycle-craft — with the Zero XU in this case providing a platform for new riders to more effectively compress the mental bandwidth of motorcycle basics down into a stream of consciousness that allows room for more advanced motorcycle operation.

I can already hear the collective eye-roll from veteran motorcyclists who don’t want to see new riders licensed when they cannot operate a “real” motorcycle, as taking the MSF rider test on a Zero XU could easily be considered cheating in some books. To that, I succinctly reply: a motorcycle is a motorcycle. But more long-windedly, I think my track time on the BRD RedShift SM prototype at the Sears Point Raceway kart track provides an interesting anecdote.

Already a veteran of riding a motorcycle that sucks, squeezes, bangs, and blows, my lap times on the electric-powered BRD were a solid two seconds faster than those I was capable of on the KTM 250 supermotard we were splitting sessions on (that’s a sizeable improvement on a track with near one-minute lap times). This result had as much to do with the technical specifications of the two machines available, as it did with the electric powertrain on the BRD allowing me to concentrate on other things on the track, instead of the clutch and transmission operation of the petrol-burning ‘tard.

Because of my brain having the available extra mental bandwidth, I was much more likely to learn the intricacies of riding in a supermotard environment (something I had never done before that bike test). Unsurprisingly, where my lap times on the gas-powered KTM plateaued after several laps, my lap times on the BRD were faster within just a lap of being on the bike, and continued to drop with each subsequent lap around the course, until I ultimately had to bring the electric bike back into the pits at the end of my session.

The interesting experiment we didn’t get to perform in this test would have been sticking me on the KTM again, and seeing if my lap times on it now dropped because of what I had taken away from the BRD. I suspect they would have, and that the electric would be to blame for ramping-up my learning curve on riding these style of bikes, and thus converting me to the dark side of cheaper motorcycle track days.

Chalk up my response to this news with Zero and MSF then as a win/win/win for the organizations involved, as well as the new riders who will benefit from learning via electric. Does that mean one of the Seven Seals has just been broken. Repent petrol-sinners!

Source: Zero Motorcycles