I always joke with industry folk that “it’s called Asphalt & Rubber for a reason,” as I am a dyed in the wool street bike guy. So when Alta Motors invited A&R to ride the new Alta Redshift MXR, I knew there were better people for the job than I.
This is where heterosexual life partner Carlin Dunne comes into the mix. On top of being one of the fastest men ever up Pikes Peak on two wheels, as well as the fastest electric motorcycle to compete in The Race to the Clouds, Carlin is an accomplished off-road racer – both with and without a motor between his legs.
So, we sent Carlin down to Southern California to ride Alta’s newest machines, and with already a bevy of time in the saddle on electric motorcycles, I can’t think of a better person’s opinion for these electron-powered off-road racers. I think you will find his insights very interesting. -JB
It was a crisp mid-week morning as we pulled into Perris Raceway for the 2018 Alta Motors product launch. Backed up against a boulder strewn hillside, opening up into a open valley, Perris MX offered a unique backdrop for the unveiling of a uncommon motorcycle.
The weird new kid usually gets picked last for dodge ball, so in its sophomore year, Alta hopes its 2018 offerings and their undeniable performance numbers will get them on the court in the brutally competitive MX bike market.
And here we are today at Perris raceway, being presented with two models from their 2018 range, the competitively priced Redshift MX and the new Redshift MXR.
A Quick History Lesson
Formed in 2010, Alta Motors set out to successfully accomplish what many had tried before, but ultimately failed to achieve. Where others had set out to make a superior electric motorcycle, Alta believed they could build a better motorcycle, period.
To develop a radically different motorcycle in a declining motorcycle economy is a ballsy task. Many before them had the passion to build a great electric motorcycle but the business, the supply chains, the dealer network, and delivering a competitively priced product to market ultimately proved their demise.
As the motorcycle industry stood back and watched electric motorcycle Darwinism take place, we are finally seeing the strongest exit the jungle and into the marketplace.
Alta delivered its first bikes to market last year, with a hefty price tag of $14,995. When you stop and think about it, $15k for cutting edge new tech isn’t a bad deal, and for them to come to market with that number is a big accomplishment.
Ultimately in this arena though, you are guilty until proven innocent. Unless you were an early adopter with deep pockets, the Alta remained an unlikely option for most.
On the Track
My first ride of the day would be the 2018 Redshift MX. Basically a updated version of the 2017 model, the MX comes with a two more ponies and a dramatically reduced price tag. Where the 2017 came in at $14,995, the 2018 price tag reads a realistic $10,495.
Like trying trendy new cuisine for the first time, you don’t just jump in. You take a minute to make sure it wasn’t barking in the alleyway ten minutes before your arrival. In this case I gave the bike a once over from front to back.
The hardware looked quality, Brembo brakes, 1”1/8 bars, and Renthal grips were a welcome site. The WP Suspension 4CS forks and the Warp 9 wheels were good enough to get the job done.
Riding a electric bike is an experience. At first its like sensory deprivation because of the obvious lack of engine noise, gears, clutch, and vibration. Our bodies and minds have been trained to use these cues from the bike to gauge speed, and gear selection, amongst other things.
With these cues gone, my first couple laps felt a bit odd. I cased and flat-landed a few of the more forgiving jumps on the course. I figure lap three is when the transition began to take effect.
Instead of searching for the cues that weren’t there, I found everything else that was. Although absent of any substantial engine noise other than a fun gear whine, the tires running across the dirt are incredibly noisy. One journalist compared it to riding across a hardwood floor.
As the laps progressed, I found myself verifying my speed and traction by the sound of the tires – hardpack sounds distinctly different then loam, mud sounding nothing like sand, for instance.
Reconfirming what my eyes have seen, this extra sensory input gave me the confidence to dial in a slide and brake a little harder.
Later on I heard someone exclaim, “I could hear my tires getting grip.” – another item on a list of “different but not wrong” things about riding an electric bike.
Onto the Redshift MXR
After a quick lunch break to recharge the batteries (literally), it was my turn to take the MXR out.
One of the many new features of the Redshift MXR is an updated battery design, which offers more energy density and quicker charge times (1.5hr for 0-100%) with a overall reduction of heat generation.
Similar to internal combustion bikes, heat is the enemy, in electrics it is a little different though. Rapid discharge of the lithium cells creates excessive heat and instability to the battery pack.
To avoid this, the controller reduces output until temps subside. Basically, if you rode the bike hard, it would slow down when the battery got hot. With the upgrades to the R5.8 battery pack of the MXR though, we were told this would be very unlikely to happen.
First lap in, it was blatant how much better the WP AER air forks were than the MX’s 4CS forks. The front rode higher in the stroke, with more small bump sensitivity and less dive.
For reference, parked in my garage is a 2018 Husqvarna FC450, with the same suspension package. Other than a different linkage ratio, the Alta Redshift MXR was suspended with the same components as my ride at home.
For even more added familiarity, the MXR was spec’d with Dunlop MX3S tires, Brembo bakes, and Renthall grips, just like my Husky.
I thought the excellent spec I was accustomed to would give me a head start with the MXR. However, it may have been more of a placebo than anything else.
In this case, what the spec actually offered was a distilled feel for the MXR. The differences felt were a lot more obvious, and a direct result of the Alta made chassis and power plant.
I started out in Map 2 of the four available, and was greeted with output and characteristics similar to the MX in its top map. Bumping up to Map 3 offered a nice increase in power and torque, totally manageable and playful.
I was expecting a linear jump to Map 4, but boy was I surprised. Map 4 aka “overclocked mode” is completely unrestricted, until you overheat the batteries of course.
The butt dyno was confirming the claimed 50hp at the rear wheel, and if you could find the grip the Alta MXR would deliver as much torque as you could ever want.
Somehow even with enough torque to pull out a tree stump, and horsepower numbers comparable to a piped out 250, the MXR was easy to ride. It didn’t head shake or do anything weird, but it still turned exceptionally well.
I’d say a lot of this boils down to the two biggest differences of the electric power plant compared to your bike at home: gyros (or lack thereof) and mass distribution.
A Quick Talk About the Wonders of Going Electric
Think about your ol’faithful internal combustion engine (ICE). Happily idling there, cams whizzing, crank and tranny spinning, piston violently changing direction thousands of times a minute, all driven by harnessing the energy of non-stop explosions.
When you think about it, it is a pretty crude way of propulsion. Refined over a century into its current potent, user-friendly package. The thermic engine is really just a series of gyros, spinning mass reluctant to change direction.
Add heavy wheels to the mix, and it is a wonder the bikes even change direction at all. We’ve spent a hundred years cleverly engineering thermic motorcycles not to destroy themselves, and us along with them.
I’m not a hater by any means, I love burning gas and kicking ass, but the more I think about the inner workings, the more I dream of a more elegant method of propulsion.
When you look at an electric motor, there seems to be a lot less internal struggle.
Alta’s drive system consists of only two spinning shafts. One in the electric motor and one countershaft. A simple gear driven reduction between them means the motor can spin counter to the rotation of the countershaft and wheels, helping to negate the already greatly reduced gyroscopic effect.
Moto GP crankshafts have spun backwards for years, and for example Ducati is proud of their backward spinning crank in the new V4. This feature is one of many elegant advantages to Alta’s electric drive system. Pretty cool, but how’s it translate into the real world feeling?
Meanwhile, Back at the US Postal Office…
About 15 minutes into my moto on the MXR, and I was really starting to understand what it does and doesn’t do.
The reduction in gyroscopic effect is very obvious from the get go. The bike wants to turn in, with very little effort, dipping into a rut with ease.
With the motor between your feet, it feels like the axis of the bike is where you are standing. It reacts to subtle inputs at the pegs and bars with uncanny responsiveness.
Overall, this made for a playful ride that reacted well in the air and on the ground. For the most part the Redshift MXR did a great job hiding its love handles.
The MXR weighs in almost 30 lbs heavier than the class leading KTM 250SX-F. It is only when making big changes in direction, making a big flat high-speed turn, or worse yet getting out of control, do you feel the MXR’s true weight.
In the interest of journalistic thoroughness, I did all three.
The added mass made redirecting the bike’s inertia a bit more laborious than your standard 250. To summarize, the tip-in was great, the turn was a slightly more work, the drive out was magic. Ahh, the drive, now this is one of the coolest parts of the bike.
The power delivery and torque felt smooth and direct, with almost no vibration. The MXR seemed to be constantly finding traction when there was none.
With the open-loop traction control system that subtly reels in the power when the bike spins up wildly, you find yourself driving forward where traditional bikes tend to burn out. It is similar to the new KTM and Husky TC systems, and it works seamlessly with the MXR’s natural power characteristics.
Quite honestly, I was having so much fun that I hardly noticed the battery run dry. I just happened to look down to see the flashing amber light notifying me that my juice box was empty and playtime was over. I was legitimately bummed to have to park the bike for a 1.5 hr recharge.
This cold hard line in the sand was the only disappointment in a otherwise spectacular machine. Re-fueling the bike is fast compared to other electric motorcycles, but not fast compared to other motorcycles.
With this being said, I could have ridden it in one of the three other modes to extend ride time to over four hours, but in the “overclocked”, wide-eyed, see the face of God, stupid grin mode, I only got a 25-minute moto in, before it was time to recharge.
Not all MX tracks have power plugs either, so a 2500 watt generator may have to be penciled into the cost of purchase as well.
Soon, it was time to load up and hit the road. Our time had run out. The day had reaffirmed what I knew of electric bikes, as well as opened my mind to its unique possibilities.
Getting to ride many electric motorcycles over the years has helped me to have an even greater appreciation for what the Alta team have done here. They did the hard thing because they knew it was right.
All of a sudden the electric dirt bike and more specifically the Alta Redshift MXR have become a legitimate option in the market place. No longer relegated to a novelty bike, the power output and handling must be respected.
For the nineteen-year-old ripper with dreams of Supercross podiums, this bike isn’t going to be your daily ride. For the Baja bound, probably not your top pick.
But this is the bike for a rider who wants eat trail for breakfast, pull a playful moto, or finally have that backyard turn track they dreamt of, without pissing off the neighbors. If everyone could afford a second bike the MXR should be in everyone’s garage.
Next time you are at the track, just imagine a housing development over by your favorite turn. That is the reality of the world we live in.
Us motocrossers must adapt to survive, and if that means banging bars on offerings from Alta, that’s fine by me. Just think of the possibilities and all of a sudden the future looks electric.
Photos: Alta Motors
When Carlin Dunne isn’t racing to the top of Pikes Peak, or doing solo-rides in Baja, he can be found at Ducati Santa Barbara, where he sells horsepower to fellow speed addicts. Be sure to follow him on Instagram for all his two-wheeled endeavors.