It’s safe to say that, so far, sales of electric motorcycles in any class have been almost inconsequentially small. But, on the basis of a short test on a pre-production KTM Freeride E motocross bike, it’s equally clear that this could simply be because the right bikes haven’t been available to buy – yet.
The threats to off-road riding have made access to the sport harder than ever, with tracks shutting down and those that remain being mostly remote and restricted to fewer operating days because of NIMBYism.
One of the prime reasons is noise, a situation made worse by the increasing popularity of four-stroke bikes, whose noise carries a lot further than two-strokes did.
KTM believe the Freeride E could be the answer. Its fully electric powertrain is completely silent, it boasts performance and weight roughly on a par with a 125cc two-stroke, and the firm sees part of the growth for this type of electric motocross machine being urban off-road tracks.
A KTM practice track near their Austrian factory, at Mattighofen, is the venue for this first ride of a final-stage prototype. The man from KTM started by showing me where the easily removable battery pack is located. Remove just four bolts, and the waterproof battery can be lifted out and swapped.
The battery is a 2.1kWh lithium-ion cell, and is claimed to enable the motor to produce 30bhp and 31lbft of torque, which matches a 125cc two-stroke for power – but buries it with roughly double the torque.
Where most electric vehicles fall down is weight, with heavy cells ruining an otherwise light package, but the Freeride E weighs almost exactly the same as its petrol equivalent, at just 95kg.
The battery will put up with around 40 minutes of hard riding in the most powerful setting, but there are three modes to choose from, and the less aggressive modes will deliver more time in the saddle.
Once switched on you select your preferred power mode by holding down one of the three buttons mounted between the headstock and seat. The biggest change over a ‘normal’ motocross bike is the lack of a gear lever and rear brake pedal, the Freeride instead operating a scooter-style twist-and-go transmission, with both front and rear brakes operated by the handlebar levers.
As is the nature of electric-powered vehicles the low-down poke is immediate, and in the full power mode it can be unsettlingly aggressive for the uninitiated. In the most powerful setting the low-down torque results in instant wheelspin on loose surfaces.
I spent most of the test in the middle power setting, which was potent enough for fun, but lacked the fiercely instantaneous bite of the most powerful mode.
Its low weight contributes to making it feel manageable for riders more used to road bikes. Riding it was great fun, but I’m not going to pretend I had the opportunity – or talent – to push it anywhere near to its handling or performance limits.
But it did remind me just how much fun riding off-road can be, and without the potential hassle of noise pollution to worry about, any area of private land becomes a guilt-free playground.
KTM aim to have the production bike on sale in 2014 for less than €10,000 (£8300). When you consider a petrol KTM 125 SX costs £5500, you’ll be paying a premium for this new technology, but that might be the price of greater riding freedom.