Electric Bike Racing

October 8, 2012

Electric bike racing has caught on with a fringe group of electric bike riders who build and hot-rod electric bikes to  go at fast speeds and compete in closed course race tracks. Most of these builders / racers document their builds and race stories / photos on the forum endless-sphere.com, which is an excellent resource for someone who is interested in getting into the electric bike racing scene.

The racing ebike scene is showing the awesome performance that electric bikes are capable of, and  has inspired many people to want to own and ride high power electric bikes, and might be the reason for a recent surge in performance in commercially available electric bikes. In fact, there are a few companies currently offering ready-to-race electric bikes.

Competing with Pedal Bikes

Photo credit Optibike


A few years back a few pedal bike race organizers decided to allow electric bike riders  to enter their races in a separate section of the race. These races mostly consisted of long courses on a closed-to-traffic street. Of course, the electric bikes are much faster than the pedal bikes (road bikes) so in most of these races, the electric bikes would win if they could manage to finish without breaking down or running out of battery (a tall order for an ebike).

Most notable of these races was the bicycle race up to the top of Pikes Peak Colorado which started in the summer of 2010.  A handful of electric bikes would enter Pikes Peak bicycle race each year (read our story on  crushing pikes peak with a hub motor). The 20 mile race uphill proved to be a grueling test for most electric bikes, with only a few making it to the top in 2010 and 2011. Then in 2012 all entering electric bikes (around 10 ebikes total) finished the race on a shortened 10 mile course.


Electric Bike only Races


In the beginning, electric bikers would try to organize their own electric bike events. As an example of these electric-only races, in San Francisco a rare electric-only race was organized in 2001 and then again 2011 (the San Francisco Electric Bike Hill Climb) in which a handful of electric bikes raced up steep hills Although there are many electric bikes in San Francisco, and many ebikers showed up to watch the event,  only 5 ebikes actually raced.

It soon became clear there was not enough race-worthy electric bikes to reach a critical mass of riders to make organizing an electric bike race practical. Electric-only events have the advantage that they can race without annoying people because of their silence. Races can be held anywhere, and if organized slyly…without a permit.


Competing against gassers


Motor bicycling (which is small 2 stroke motors on bicycles) has an established racing scene, and their own  forum on motorbicycling.com. These gas powered cycles are cheap to build, easy to maintain, and are proven reliable. They are easy and cheap  to race, and compared to electric bike racing, gas motor bicycle racing is thriving. In 2010, an Arizona  group of gas powered motor bicyclists organized a race called the “Death Race”. This is a race around a go-kart track with  2-stroke gas-powered motor bikes.

Electricbike.com contributor “Dogman” negotiated a deal with the organizers to allow electric-powered bicycles to race alongside the gassers. This reinvigorated the ebike racing community on endless-sphere as members built ebikes to “crush” the gassers using electric power. Some members drove thousands of miles to compete in this race, but still only a handful of  race worthy electric bikes showed up. At this first race, electrics had a hard time finishing the race and there were many electric failures. However the precedent of electric bikes racing in gas bicycle races had been set.

Because there are many gas powered participants who enter these kind of races, and the now welcome electric bikes, electric bike racers now do not have the problem of  reaching a critical minimum number of racers to race. In California especially, electric bikes have entered many gas-powered bicycle competitions, and as electrics have worked out the reliability kinks they have grown to dominate these races.


The Race Track, Acid Test for Electric Technology


Just as in gas technology, the race track has proven a great testing ground for the reliability of electric components.  Electric-power technology for bicycles is brand new, and few people are pushing the envelope outside of racetracks.  Heat building up in the motor, the battery, and controller is the biggest issue when racing. Many racers use different kinds of cooling technologies, and more and more electric bikes are actually finishing races, where just a few years ago few electric bikes could make it through an electric bike race without a major component failing.

Read the misadventures of Thud for an example of all that can go wrong while electric bike racing.


Commercially Available Racing Electric Bikes

The Hanebrink Hustler on the racetrack. Photo Hanebrink


At the moment there are 4 electric bikes that  I know of that are commercially available and have been proven to be race worthy. The 4  bikes are the Optibike 1100 ($15,000 , the Stealth Bomber ($12,000), the FFR Trike ($8,000), and the Hanebrink Hustler ($15,000).   As you can see it is expensive to buy a fast electric bike. Most race bikes are home builds and are considerably cheaper but not as reliable and safe as the 4 ebikes mentioned above. (read article on the high cost of speed)


Stealth Bomber Electric Bike


Optibike racing at the velodrome


The Nature of Electric Racing Bikes


Because generally there are less than 7 bikes competing in each of these races, and the fact that there has not been a serious electric bike related injury, there has also not been much regulation in terms of classes etc. So what has happened is racing electric bikes have evolved into  bigger and heavier machines. A typical “unlimited” race bike can weigh in close at 200 pounds. Robust electric components turn out to be heavy. In essence these are electric motorcycles with pedals. Until organizers assign watt limits, or weight limits, electric race bikes will continue to evolve to be bigger, heavier and faster.

There is a huge performance  difference between entrants in an electric bike race. Close races between electric bikes is very rare. Because the bikes have gotten so big, heavy and powerful, pedal input is not necessary, and rarely used. In general the electric bikes are much faster than their gas counterparts in straight aways and accelerating out of curves. However because of the heaviness of these bikes they do not handle as well as the gas bikes do in corners. A typical gas bike weighs less than 60 pounds.  So the the straighter the course the better electric bikes do against gassers.

Because of the massive power of some of these electric bikes, ebikes have managed to win nearly all of the races in the unlimited section where they competed in head-to-head against the gassers. Well…at least the ones where they managed to finish in without overheating!


Reasons to Get into Electric Bike Racing

Electric bike racing makes a lot of sense over gas bicycle or motorcycle racing:

1. Electric bike racing is relatively cheap.  Although it costs  a fair amount to build and upkeep an electric bike this cost is very low compared to the cost of car or motorcycle racing.

2. Electric bike racing is thrilling. Even though relatively inexpensive, electric bike racing is thrilling to participate in, in fact it’s just as thrilling as a gas powered race.

3. Electric bike racing is safe. Compared to gas powered vehicles, most electric bikes are safe and sane when it comes to performance.  A gas powered motorcycle or go-cart can easily achieve speeds of over 100-MPH on even small tracks.  In the small community of electric bike racers that exists now there have only been a small number of minor injuries reported.

4. Electric bike racing is a great proving ground for your electric bike. If you think you have built or bought a reliable electric machine, a race is a great way to prove it.

5. Join a thrilling community. Electric bike racers feel they are at the cusp of  technology that is about to take the world by storm. It is a exciting and satisfying community to take part in.   See our ebike racing hall of fame. See our list of the 10 fastest electric bikes ever built. 

Eric has been involved in the electric bike industry since 2002 when he started a 6000 square foot brick and mortar Electric Bike store in downtown San Francisco. He is a true believer that small electric vehicles can change the way we operate and the way we think.


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