If you’re like many motorcyclists, you’ve been casually dismissing electric motorcycles as “not viable”—not enough range, too heavy, too expensive, and so on.
But maybe you’ve perked up your ears a bit of late, as the tech continues to get better, less expensive, more “viable.” On the Isle of Man, top TT Zero lap speeds have been steadily increasing, with John McGuiness’s lap speed hitting 117 MPH in 2014, not too far behind Bruce Antsey’s outright top lap speed of 132 MPH in 2014.
So maybe you’ve heard of Lightning Motorcycles, maybe you haven’t. Maybe our tongue-in-cheek “Ride The Lightning” cover blurb just had you saying “Metallica, YEAH!” Or maybe you said to yourself, “Yeah, I’d like to ride that 200 HP beast.”
Doesn’t really matter, anyway—if you’re reading this, you’ve now heard of Lightning Motorcycles, and their LS-218, claimed to be the “world’s fastest production motorcycle.”
Now, we’re wont to be rather skeptical of such claims, and maybe you are too. And anyway, one could argue that being the fastest production bike is a dubious claim in a world where speed limits top out at 70 MPH. One might also argue that Lightning isn’t really making “production” motorcycles—they’re just a handful of folks in Palo Alto, essentially hand-building these things.
Whatever. These are all moot points. As Eric will tell you shortly, the bike is ridiculously fast. His first words to me after riding it: “The bike is an animal. Fastest thing I’ve ever ridden.” Remember, this is a guy who goes by the nickname “GoGo.”
Before Eric tells you about the ride, let’s talk about the tech. Set the stage, if you will.
Again, Lightning calls their LS-218 the world’s fastest production motorcycle, electric or not, and backs up that claim with a video of the speedometer on the bike hitting 218 MPH at Bonneville.
Let that sink in for a moment. This is a bike you can buy today, starting at under $40k—less than Kawasaki’s H2R—and take out for a 200+ MPH joyride down I-5. Who needs high speed rail to El Lay?
Wait… forget we said that. The last thing we need is some over-financed, entitled brat pulling a chunk of his trust fund, buying an LS-218, hauling ass down The Five with news choppers capturing every minute of it, and then saying “But CityBike told me to!” in the interviews after daddy’s lawyers bust him out of the hoosegow. We’re not taking the fall for that one, sport.
Back to the matter at hand. The LS-218 is fast. Here are the numbers:
168 foot-pounds of torque. (That’s not a typo. We double-triple-checked.)
10,500 RPM “redline”—if that’s even relevant.
218 MPH top speed, with high speed gearing and fairing.
100 mile average range with the 12 kWh battery pack. Presumably worse in practice since no one who rides one will be able to keep their throttle hand in check.
The bike weighs 495 pounds, and comes with a RaceTech fork, upgradable to Öhlins, and an Öhlins TTX shock out back. Both ends are adjustable for preload, compression, and rebound, with the rear also getting a ride height adjustment. Swingarm is billet aluminum.
Brakes are Brembo, wheels are Marchesini forged magnesium. Transmission? None, thank you very much. Direct drive for direct results from the liquid cooled motor, in speedy fashion.
The Lightning LS-218. Photo: Bob Stokstad.
Charge time is 30 minutes on a fast DC charger, 120 minutes on a level 2 charger. If you’re an internal combustion person, these designations will be meaningless, but the important thing here is that neither of these are standard wall outlets. A level 2 charger, though, is a pretty standard upgrade for the electric car crowd, requiring just a 240-volt source. You didn’t need that clothes dryer anyway, right?
So I know what all you cheap-ass, excuse me, frugal, CityBike readers are saying right now. We said it too. This is an expensive bike. Forty grand will get you a couple of fast street bikes, a couple dirt bikes, maybe even a project bike or two, and a crappy old truck to haul ‘em in. Good times, right?
The point here is that Lightning is doing some magical stuff, out on the edge of electric motorcycle technology, with impressive performance in various events from Pike’s Peak to road racing.
I commuted on a Zero electric motorcycle for a couple weeks in 2014, and while I’m a lifelong gearhead, who grew up with grease-stained hands and gasoline for cologne, I’m excited by the dawning of this new age of electric bikes. You should be too.
Riding The Lightning
By Eric “GoGo” Gulbransen
I’ve been conscious of electric motorcycles for years now. I’ve filmed them at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and at Laguna Seca. I’ve interviewed their engineers, their riders, and I’ve even pushed them around the pits. But I’ve never ridden one. Never that is, until the Lightning LS-218. It’s a beautiful motorcycle, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
What you might need me to tell you, though, is what it’s like to ride. I was lucky enough to ride one recently in the city, on the highway, and in the mountains—the perfect test.
I went into this experience a blank canvas: I had never even seen a Lightning LS-218. I knew nothing about it. Richard Hatfield, Lightning’s Founder and CEO, met me at the door with a welcoming smile and talked me through a quick tour of the company’s Palo Alto headquarters. He’s clearly done this before; I imagine it’s a daily routine.
It’s pretty cool to see a motorcycle being built right here in the Bay Area. I leered at half-built bikes on stands, just waiting to be finished; carbon fiber body panels in various states of completion sitting patiently on racks; techs meticulously forming parts one sexy, sweeping curve at a time.
The business end of it fascinated me—just how do you start something like this? The technical side overwhelmed me—apparently there’s a lot more to electricity than plugging a toaster in the wall. But curiosity tugged relentlessly at the back of my Vanson jacket like an eight year old at an amusement park, “What’s it like to ride this thing?!”
Finally, with my leg over the bike and helmet sliding over my head, Richard went through his pre-flight checklist of riding instructions with me. As my faceshield went down I cringed a little for him.
Imagine what it’s like putting some stranger on your most prized creation, and aiming them both for the technical, bike-eating mountain roads around Alice’s.
Richard led us out of Palo Alto driving the Lightning support van. It only took me about a hundred feet to feel comfortable on the LS-218—it’s easy to ride. With all the talk about electronics, power delivery and re-gen, I welcomed how natural the bike felt once underway.
That seems to be one of the most compelling traits of electric motorcycles: infinite adjustability. If you want more aggressive power delivery, you can have it. Less? You can have that too.
I don’t own an electric car, but I’ve seen them around enough to know they are whisper-quiet. I’m also a motor-head—I’ve raced open class twins for decades. For me, power comes in the heart pounding rhythm of twin cylinder war drums.
Lightning’s LS-218 is not quiet. This bike whines its way up to speed. The faster you go, the louder it gets—makes sense to me.
What doesn’t make sense is how much power it makes. Apparently this machine is such a wild stallion that it can’t even be strapped to a dyno without burning the rear tire to shreds. Engineers had to build a special assembly for the dyno to measure the Lightning’s 200+ horsepower. I was told all this at the factory but I don’t weigh such claims and numbers with much enthusiasm—I’m a seat of the pants guy. And I’ll tell you right now: my pants say this is the most powerful motorcycle I have ridden.
Take any standard motorcycle out there, roll it at mid-speed, mid-throttle, and then quickly twist its throttle to the stop. What happens at first isn’t all that exciting: the motor gasps for air, the pipe resonates a low drone of exhaust, the chain draws tighter and tighter as you wait for it all to get faster and faster and louder and louder.
Do the same on the Lightning, and you better hope you did your homework last week.
First of all: the sound. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the sound it makes echoes off the pavement below you like an F-22 Raptor launching from the deck of an aircraft carrier. It’s intensely thrilling and intimidating—because the wild stuff comes before you get there. If a standard sportbike’s motor screams once you’re running flat out, the Lightning’s motor screams a warning: “You better be ready for flat out!”
I’ll admit, I never ran flat out on the Lightning. The world we were in was just too small.
I rode back and forth through a string of esses so we could get photos. This was a great opportunity for me to focus on the Lightning, and on first two passes, I gently leaned it in and out of turns. The next few runs I set it free, faster and faster each pass. This is how I get to know a bike.
The Lightning holds its weight slightly higher than a traditional sportbike, yet it’s surprisingly easy to throw around. No surprises on the brakes, they’re right on with anything at this level.
The LS-218 likes to turn, yet it’s stable—a good pairing. The riding position is aggressive; it’s bred from racing. I felt at ease approaching turns, I felt at ease and confident approaching and executing turns, and I loved powering up and rocketing toward the next one. This is a solid, well-designed machine with tons of potential.
In its present state, the steering stops offer a limited range of turning ability. While this is appropriate for the track, it’s not ideal for the street—you need that extra steering lock to navigate slow-speed stuff like parking lots and U-turns. Richard told me they already have plans to offer more lock.
When you roll off the throttle, the bike goes into a regenerative mode. This is the bike’s way of using motion to create energy.
Inertia is the resistance of an object in motion, to change in its motion. Imagine trying to stop a free-rolling freight train by reaching out and grabbing the last car. It could take miles to slow down even though it’s not under power. That is inertia.
The LS-218 uses this same inertia to recharge its batteries as you ride—every time you roll off the throttle —by capturing the motion of the rear wheel, instead of just letting it freewheel. Again, the intensity of this function is adjustable.
The more aggressive the regenerative setting is, the farther you can go on a charge. Right now the Lightning travels about 100 miles on a charge; surprisingly far.
The other surprise about the Lightning is its “wet” weight—just 495 pounds. That’s not much more than many leading inline-four Superbikes on the market today, which is remarkable.
To me, the idea of an electric motorcycle has always seemed like a novelty, an interesting idea to play around with. But I never took them seriously.
I stand corrected. The Lightning LS-218 is not a toy; it’s one very serious machine. In fact, I left the Lightning factory that day wondering what it might be like to race one, against the best of the rest—the gas-powered sportbikes.
Aw come on. What are motorcycles for, if not to dream.
GoGo is one of CityBike’s go-to fast guys. When we need someone that’s actually fast and skilled enough to really understand a fast bike, we turn to Eric.
This story originally appeared in our June 2015 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.