Michael Czysz's Mind-Bending Electric Superbike - Dreaming in Digital

American motorcycle designer Michael Czysz embraces electric power

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Adam Campbell

"I've got this thing I do to relax," Michael Czysz says. "I imagine I'm on my bike, and I just shift gears in my head. I did it just this morning in the shower. Then I caught myself-my bike doesn't do that anymore! It doesn't have gears. It doesn't even make noise. So I'm not dreaming in electric yet. I'm still dreaming in gas."

Even if his brain hasn't crossed the digital divide, Czysz's design facility in downtown Portland has been completely transformed. The dyno sprouted what looks like a rogue electrical transformer to power high-voltage electric motors. The old engine-assembly area is now a gleaming "clean room," where cutting-edge lithium-polymer batteries are painstakingly built by hand. Three MotoCzysz C1 internal-combustion prototypes-the fabled "American Contenders" intended for MotoGP competition-have been retired to the office. The shop, where real work gets done, is 100 percent electric now.

When Czysz decided in 2003 to abandon a very successful, 20-year architecture career to build a world-class MotoGP racer, it was an outrageously ambitious undertaking. He re-imagined the motorcycle from the ground up, arriving at radical solutions like a "frameless" carbon-fiber chassis (predating Ducati's latest design by six years), the patented 6X-Flex "coaxial-steering" fork and a longi-tudinally mounted, narrow-angle V4 engine with twin counter-rotating crankshafts.

The timing couldn't have been worse. A 2007 rule change lowering the MotoGP displacement limit to 800cc made the 990cc C1 irrelevant for competition. Then the economic recession, and the subsequent reprioritizing of both the automotive and motorcycle industries, made interest in-and funding for-high-performance internal-combustion technology evaporate overnight.

"The change to electric was more about inevitability than opportunity," Czysz says. "I traveled around the world, met with a number of manufacturers, and everybody said the same thing. 'We're not really working on high-performance ICE [internal combustion engines] right now. We're not sure what we're doing, but we're not doing that.'"

Inevitability quickly became an opportunity. "I realized almost immediately that everything we were trying to accomplish with the C1 project, we could do better with an electric bike," Czysz says. His primary objective was to isolate the chassis from the dynamic forces exerted by a heavy crankshaft, pistons, rods, valves and cams all spinning at 15,000 rpm. An electric motor, by comparison, has a single moving part-a small rotor-that exerts a negligible effect on chassis dynamics.

The e1 (Electric 1) went from sketch to completed racebike in five frantic months, debuting at the Isle of Man for the inaugural TTXGP electric motorcycle race in June of 2009. That first bike was beautifully finished and flush with innovations like hot-swappable batteries and a fully integrated digital drivetrain. Unfortunately, it barely made it past Bray Hill before one of the Agni motors-the only major component not designed and built by Czysz-melted down. We were there and caught up with Czysz immediately afterward. He was distraught to the point of distraction, and on the verge of abandoning the motorcycle business altogether.

Visiting his Oregon headquarters one year later, the story couldn't be more different. After winning both the 2010 Isle of Man TTXGP and the inaugural North American round of the FIM's ePower electric-bike world championship at Laguna Seca, Czysz now considers last year's "failure" a gift. "Losing that race was the best thing that could have happened," he says. "If we had won, we would have probably put a bit of polish on last year's bike and maybe made a small improvement. Instead, we scrapped everything and started over. Now we're miles ahead of where we were."

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