I admit I had some very irrational thoughts when finally given the opportunity to stand in front of the electric Alta Redshift MX wearing full riding gear.
My most primal fear was that if I even thought about touching the throttle the bike would blast out from underneath me. Chad Redman, Alta’s marketing coordinator laughed and told me not to worry.
Admission: I can’t explain to you (because I don’t understand it myself) what a high speed PCAM is or what a 350V lithium-ion battery pack with a 5.8 kWh capacity equates to. The South San Francisco headquarters of Alta Motors Co. has walls lined with whiteboards displaying diagrams and charts of acronyms, numbers and lines, all indecipherable to someone with a bachelor of arts degree. I set all that confusion aside because there’s just one simple thing I want to know: Is this a real dirt bike?
Will I have as much fun as I did the first time I rode Yamaha’s first-generation YZ450F or Suzuki’s first RM-Z250? I swing my leg over all 37 inches of seat height, place my open palms on the grips and look down.
Feels like a dirt bike.
After the quick three-step starting process (key, on switch, start button) the control panel in the center of the handlebars blinks green. “We’re live, dude!” it informs its rider. With great trepidation, but also anticipation, I slowly (emphasis on slow) roll on the throttle. Just like a gas-powered motorcycle hums when the throttle body is turned ever so slightly, the Redshift wakes up with a purr that I feel more than I hear.
I look over at Redman who is patiently waiting to lead me across the street into the company’s urban testing grounds, a gritty railyard flanked by train tracks and the hillside neighborhoods immediately south of downtown San Fran. When I work up the nerve to gas it — can I still use that term? — the Redshift responds and I’m rolling. I laugh, actually laugh out loud inside my helmet, while crossing the street and riding through a long asphalt parking lot.
Rolls like a dirt bike.
At five mph, I have the same feeling I do when operating an electric golf cart, like I’m floating, as if a silent mythical force is propelling me along. The first obstacle is a tight right-then-left corner with a squeeze between a metal post, a wall and a concrete foundation that wants to rip my right foot off the peg. Thirty-four years of riding experience has my brain telling my extremities to pull in the clutch halfway, downshift to first, dab a foot and blip the throttle. I have no clutch, no shifter and I almost panic like I’m in one of those weird dreams about racing where I’m missing parts and pieces. I let off the throttle and roll up in silence, squeeze the front brake slightly and assume the same body positioning I would on any motorcycle. When I need some gas (or is it energy?), I crack open the throttle and the bike leaps forward immediately, just enough. I’m through the menacing urban chicane without taking my feet off the pegs.
Responds like a dirt bike.
During the tutorial back in the parking lot, Redman explained the contents of the console screen on the handlebars, which sits where a crossbar pad normally would. It shows data: mileage, hours on the battery, battery life, miles per hour and, most importantly, the digital “maps” settings. I was aware of these from doing research but I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept
Growing up racing, I don’t recall being a very good test rider. Dad would make suspension adjustments but I wasn’t proficient in diagnosing the changes. So, I assumed I wouldn’t notice the difference between the Redshift’s maps, which can be changed with the left thumb, even while moving. On the control panel’s screen they show up as 1, 2, 3 and 4. Alta’s marketing materials label the maps as Trail, MX Race, Performance and Overclock (translation: OMFG!).
The railyard is a strip of land that Alta has nicknamed their “backyard playground.” It’s not choice riding terrain; dry, dusty Carlsbad Raceway-like hard-pack dirt, littered with loose stones. I could tell a lot of time has been spent out here because they have several short layouts filled with berms, square-edged braking bumps and ruts. Less than one lap into riding I noticed something I’ve never been able to hear while riding a motorcycle; the sounds tires make while cornering: the grinding and flexing of the knobs, the sliding in and the breaking loose out of corners. At first, it gives me the sensation that I’m feeling something that isn’t happening, which is a flat tire. After a few laps, I enjoy the enhanced sense because I feel as if I understand sooner when I’m losing traction and I can adjust my body position and the amount of throttle.
Even though I have no clutch, shifter or multi-gear transmission, I don’t feel more distant or out of tune with my motorcycle. Rather, I feel closer to it. Imagine never needing to feather the clutch again (or change clutch plates). The power is always there, every single time I want it, and I’m not riding only flat corners. There is a steep cliff, 15 to 20 feet tall with two approach options: a deep rut or a flat face that went vertical at the top, like a skateboard halfpipe. The obstacle was a cinch to clean, even with a short approach.
After 15 minutes of riding, I switch to map 2, which delivers enough power to be considered the equivalent of a 250 cc four-stroke off-highway competition bike. I notice the difference while exiting the very first corner I hit. The front wheel comes off the ground and the bike pulls considerably more. Map 3 is very similar to 2 but with more bottom end, making it very useful for starts. And then there is map 4…
This is a real dirt bike!
Map 4 is everything the powerplant has to offer, all at once. The ground is so loose I heard and felt the wheel start spinning a split second before the bike nearly accelerated out of my hands. It’s way too much torque for the simple turn tracks I am riding, but if you’re an expert-level rider who can handle that much punch, it’s enough to satisfy on a motocross track.
The drawback is that map 4 will drain the battery the fastest. Kris Keefer of Keefer Testing Inc. has been helping Alta with development for four years. He’s a pro-level rider and has put more than 1,000 miles on his current test bike. His recently published podcast (find show #14) about the bike is worth listening to if you want to hear more nuts and bolts and more backstory on bike development and how much riding range he’s been able to get from the battery.
I rode for about an hour, cycled through all the maps and I still had a 55 percent charge left on the meter.
By now, you might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the weight: 261 pounds. which is 30 more than Yamaha’s YZ250F. It never once felt like I was riding a “heavy” bike. It’s a non-issue. There is no rotating mass; the battery weighs 70 pounds and contains no moving parts. It’s balanced well in the chassis. You will notice the weight difference only when you lift the Alta onto a stand.
Final thoughts on the electric revolution
If I were an engineer, maybe I could explain the complicated software code it took to make an electric motorcycle feel so normal, so similar to what I’ve known for 34 years, which is the awesome power of internal combustion engines. My favorite part of riding the Alta came after I had cycled through all the maps. I went back to map 1 and worked on my cornering technique. I used to spend hours riding figure-eight tracks in the backyard, trying to get through the rutted corners faster and faster. The old coaching adage, “Sometimes you need to slow down to go faster” is especially important in riding and with the limited power delivery of map 1, I was forced to slow down. With fewer factors to be concerned with, I immediately recognized the potential here: This type of bike could help riders improve their skills easier and could offer a better riding experience to new riders, which is something the motorcycle industry could use.
Alta’s CEO, Marc Fenigstein was quick to point out to me, however, that this is not a training bike. It’s not a bike intended only for entry-level riders. And he’s right. Yet, at the same time, because of the map settings, it’s a perfect bike for a beginner. To me, it felt like I had three different bikes all in one (maps 2 and 3 were very similar for me).
The biggest limitation I can see with the Alta Redshift MX is the range, in certain conditions. If you want to ride all day in the desert with your buddies, the Alta isn’t going to last. If you’re an expert-level rider who wants to pound long moto after long moto, bring your generator to the track. But the high majority of riders are not at that level and will wear down before the battery does.
Skepticism is normal, of course, but here’s what I learned in the boardroom when I interviewed the three co-founders: They’re not trying to take away your two-stroke or four-stroke. They’re not trying to put an end to gas culture. They truly believed they could create a better tool and they admitted they would have been fools to think they could have developed a better internal combustion engine than what’s offered by Honda or Yamaha or KTM, etc. Given their backgrounds in engineering and design and electric vehicle technology, they determined electric was the best platform.
Alta has 28 dealers around the country today and they’re on track to double that by the end of the year. (Alta also offers a RedShift SM street-legal supermoto option, which I did not ride. Alta began shipping them to dealers this week.) At $14,995 MSRP, the Redshift MX costs nearly double the price of the 2018 Yamaha YZ250F ($7,699). KTM’s 250SX-F is the most expensive 250 at $8,699. Fifteen grand for a dirt bike is a breathtaking amount of money up front. But the thought of never having to buy race gas, change oil, work on a motor or, ugh, clean air filters, is really attractive.
Changing tires still sucks, though. There’s no getting around that.