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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Electric Bikes on Display at Infineon

Mercury News

The question came early and often: "Excuse me, is this thing on?"

The answer was simple and silent as Kenyon Kluge sped his motorcycle down the straightaway at Infineon Raceway early this week. There was hardly a sound from the engine nor a sign of exhaust.

Look closely at the back of the bike and there's something missing.

There's no tailpipe.

This motorcycle is a zero-carbon, clean-emission electric prototype, one of a new generation of motorcycles designed for the city, highway and even off-road and race tracks.

"This is just the first step," said Jennifer Bromme, the rider and owner of San Francisco-based Werkstatt Racing and Repair.

Bromme and her crew hastily put together a team within the past month for this weekend's Time Trial Xtreme Grand Prix U.S. Championships, the first zero-carbon motorcycle race run in the United States.

The TTXGP is part of the West Coast Moto Jam at Infineon Raceway this weekend. Practice is today, with qualifying Saturday and an 11-lap feature race at 11 a.m. Sunday.

"The technology . . . it's really exciting to be part of something so new," Bromme said. "Everyone's experimenting. The development is incredible. There is room for really rapid growth."

Living and working near the epicenter of development for computer and alternative energy technologies, Bromme is convinced zero-carbon is the ride of the future.

"It's like mainframe computers or the Internet," Bromme said. "There will be a day when this is the standard. . . . There will be a place for internal combustion motorcycles, but they'll probably be considered vintage. I love vintage bikes, though. This won't happen right away, but in a few years."

The future is being crafted in shops and garages across the country — often on shoestring budgets. For the most part, these aren't university professors or NASA engineers pushing for new motorcycle technology. Bromme, Kluge and others learned their trade riding and working on race bikes.

"My regular gig is as an electrician. I worked for Zero Motorcycles and grabbed some spare parts," said Kluge, founder of K-Squared Racing. "I worked on a race bike to convert it. It took a little guess work. I combined my knowledge as an electrician and my experience working on bikes and it worked fine."

Kluge explained the difference between the two basic approaches to converting bikes to an electric motor. Both models have their trade-offs — a 300-pound motorcycle with lighter, smaller motorcycles batteries can reach speeds of 90 mph but might go farther. A 400-pound bike with a heavier battery can go faster — 120 mph, but might not be able to go as far before needing a recharge.

The typical street model can go 40 to 60 miles before it needs to be recharged and batteries can last up to seven years.

In a competitive environment, riders have to be concerned about speed and power consumption. After all, they can't recharge their batteries during a pit stop.

"It's interesting in a race. The fastest bike might not always be the first one across the finish line," said Bromme, whose bike has a KLM-based chassis powered by a lithium polymer battery pack.

TTXGP raced last year at the Isle of Man in Europe, where Chris Heath rode to an open-class victory for Oakland-based Electric Motorsport Inc's Native Racing. More than 10 race teams are expected to converge this weekend on the Sonoma Valley, including local entrants from San Francisco, Oakland, Sebastopol, San Mateo, Woodside, Palo Alto and Santa Rosa.

"The Bay Area is a building ground for alternative energy," Bromme said. "It's a matter of money. People don't want to spend so much on gas. We're always looking for new technology and this is a great way to promote it. The technology is finally catching up."