Every so often, there comes a motorcycle, expected or not, that fully captures the attention of the industry and threatens the status quo. Think of the Yamaha YZ400F in 1998.
In a motocross world dominated by two-strokes, Yamaha stepped up to the plate and offered a competitor that many would contend only belonged on the trails. This radical experiment started a revolution in motocross and is largely responsible for the four-stroke movement we are still experiencing today.
Welcome to 2022. The Stark VARG may just be the next such bike. Having pre-sold more than 10,000 units in the first three months, this electric motocrosser has clearly made an impact on the world.
Why so popular? My best response would be "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." This is a saying I use when referring to the now defunct Alta Redshift. The Redshift, an impressive electric dirt bike in its own right, undoubtedly left a void when production ceased in 2018. Has the Stark VARG filled that void? I was invited to the Stark Future HQ in Spain to find out.
I arrived in Barcelona after a few tedious flights and had an enjoyable dinner of Spanish tapas with the Stark crew and some riders from other media outlets who had tested the bike earlier that day. Fighting the effects of the inevitable jet lag late that evening, I got the disappointing word from Stark that my test would have to be postponed a couple of days. It turns out one of the five test bikes had a complication with the insulation on one of the wires and that was causing intermittent connection issues. No big deal, I thought. We can move a few things around and I will test the bike in a few days.
Then came an even bigger ambush: two fateful blue lines on my at-home antigen test, revealing that I was positive for COVID the day before our rescheduled ride, leaving me to sit in a hotel room, wondering if this bike test would ever come to fruition for me.
I know you're here to read about the Stark VARG and not my travel experience. So, with that out of the way, let's fast-forward through 10 days of quarantine and get on with the ride.
Alternative power and alternative uses for golf courses
Golf MX is a track located about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona in the beautiful countryside of Catalonia. The track gets its name because it was quite literally a former golf course. The country club atmosphere is still alive and well, with a clubhouse for changing into your moto gear and a tree-lined driveway leading to the main motocross track.
The track has some brief, albeit steep elevation changes and a mix of soil similar to what you might find on the West Coast of the United States. Incorporating sections that were formerly sand traps that snagged unlucky players' golf balls, the track had been prepped deep that morning, and with only two of us on the track that day, the 90-degree temperatures made for some challenging conditions once the harsh sun dried the tilled sections of hard earth into callous chunks.
On paper, the Stark VARG's power specifications make some very impressive claims. The Stark VARG can be ordered in two versions: a 60-horsepower Standard version and an 80-horsepower Alpha version. Comparing this to its internal-combustion brethren, which we will inevitably do multiple times in this article, a modern 450 cc four-stroke MX bike is consistently churning out approximately 55 horsepower.
Foaming at the mouth to experience the surefire thrill of the Alpha model, I would be lying if I said I wasn't slightly disappointed to learn that our test bikes were all configured with the Standard 60-horsepower tune. That disappointment lasted only about two corners, though. You see, it's primitive human nature to want more but the fact is that 60 horsepower is still more than the fastest internal-combustion motocross bikes made today. Very few individuals walking this earth can truly ride a 60-horsepower motocross bike to its full potential and I would be kidding myself if I thought I was one of them.
In any case, power is not only abundant, but also instantaneous. Electric dirt bikes like the Stark VARG eliminate the gearbox and clutch from the equation. The result is that the rider is always in the perfect gear and always in the meat of the powerband. It no longer becomes a game of manipulating the bike to create power. It becomes a game of training your throttle hand to take this abundance of instantaneous power and redirect it into traction to the ground.
The VARG has some impressive mapping capabilities that are accessed through their VCU (vehicle control unit), which is essentially a military-grade smartphone that wirelessly connects to the bike. Stark claims up to 100 different ride mode settings and unlimited flexibility when customizing each mode, all by using the Stark app. This includes power curve (how much power is delivered at different levels of throttle rotation), traction control, engine braking, and a virtual flywheel. Being that my test bike was a pre-production model, this customization feature on the VCU was still in beta mode. However, it was possible to have our assigned Stark mechanic change power output, throttle response and engine braking on the back end.
After a few laps, it was clear that even with 60 horsepower I was repeatedly breaking the rear tire loose when exiting corners and not being very efficient on the bike. Just stop and imagine this for a second: The bike pulls through what can only be described as first through fifth gear all within the twist of the throttle. It takes a lot of finesse to control all that acceleration within millimeters of actuation in your throttle hand. Or at least it did for me.
With that realization in mind, I took a big gulp of my pride, brought the VARG back to the pits and requested that we de-tune the power 10 percent, with the expectation that this would allow me to put more traction to the ground. Additionally, I felt the bike had a bit too much engine braking for how deep the track was ripped that day. To lighten up the feel in corners, we added more "freewheel" to the regen, allowing the rear wheel to emulate engine braking more like a two-stroke than a four-stroke.
Heading back out, I felt these modifications to the mapping made the bike not only easier to ride, but also more efficient. I still had more than plenty of power to make my way around the track, but the bike was more forgiving when my throttle hand wasn't perfect.
There is a common phenomenon that happens when someone rides an electric dirt bike for the first time. It usually results in the rider returning with a big grin on their face. Having spent the last four years testing different electric dirt bikes, the shock factor has subsided some for me. That's not to say I didn't have a large grin on my face after my first laps aboard the VARG. That smile could still be seen under my helmet, but I was more focused on taming the beast that is the Stark VARG. It's a legitimately fast bike and demands your full attention.
The inevitable comparison to the four-stroke competition
Stark Future is boldly taking the stance that their bike should compete toe to toe with the modern 450-class four-strokes. They showed their confidence by having a lineup of almost every 450 cc MX bike on the market available and encouraging us to ride these bikes after spinning some laps on the VARG. Having spent much of my ride time piloting the Austrian brands over the last decade, I naturally chose the Husqvarna FC450 as my benchmark of choice.
I am not going to bash gas bikes here. Let it be known for the record that I am very fond of the Husky and immediately felt right at home on the bike. There were some obvious differences, though, that were magnified by riding both bikes in consecutive order. In a lot of ways, I found the FC450 to feel more mellow in the power department. Although the bike does indeed have an abundance of power, I was often able to lug the bike around in third gear and that made it feel predictable. The 450 must build rpm and work its way into the meat of its power curve. Eventually that power curve begins to diminish, making the range of power somewhat easy to anticipate. That isn't the case with the VARG. When you reach peak power in a specific gear on the ICE bike, the VARG continues to pull, as if you had shifted up a gear, with no lapse in rpm. This makes the electric bike easy to ride in the sense that you can completely forget about shifting, but it also makes it somewhat challenging to predict speed. Keeping this in mind, riders need to accelerate with caution.
To stop the enormity of power that the VARG produces, Stark fitted the bike with Brembo hydraulic brakes mated to 260 mm front and 220 mm rear Galfer rotors. Stark gave us the option of choosing our rear brake as a lever on the handlebar (where you would normally find a clutch on a traditional gas bike) or the time-honored location at your right foot. Having spent adequate time aboard a KTM Freeride E-XC, which utilizes its rear brake as a left lever on the handlebar, I came prepared knowing that I personally dislike the rear brake on my handlebar. Chalk it up to years of brain conditioning, but I just can't get comfortable with a rear handlebar brake on a bike over 200 pounds.
Those who can overcome their conditioning will benefit from the lever-operated rear brake, especially in righthand corners. If you're too stuck in your ways, like me, you can order the VARG with a traditional rear brake lever on the right footpeg and be comforted to know that it functions just as you have come to expect from any traditional dirt bike.
In the suspension department, the VARG is fitted with a KYB fork and shock with a triple adjuster for changing high- and low-speed compression and rebound damping. The spring rates on my test bike were set for a rider more than 20 pounds heavier than myself, so I unsurprisingly found the setting to be initially stiff. I made small adjustments to the compression and rebound throughout the day and ultimately found a setting that worked for me. Having made a name for itself for having superior performance over the years, it came as no surprise that the KYB components worked well. The fork felt good through the stroke and seemed to have a lot of hold up when I would under- or over-jump an obstacle. I can only imagine my enthusiasm growing for the setup when properly sprung and dialed in for my weight.
Stark claims their frame is the lightest motocross frame ever made. They achieved this by incorporating their chromoly steel frame design into the battery and motor, allowing them to shed materials that ICE bikes need for structure around their gas engines. The frame is mated to a 7000-grade aluminum subframe and 7075 T6 forged triple clamps.
I found the bike to feel precise and direct. It feels stiff but not harsh. On what can only be described as a par four with a dogleg right on the back nine of the Golf MX track, there is a single that drops off into a brief downhill, terminating at a sweeping 180-degree corner. That's where I noticed quite a big difference between the 450 and the VARG. Once again, the Husky handled the corner with ease and felt precise. It was only when I then went back out on the VARG that I noticed how much easier it was to point the bike in a specific direction. When dropping into said corner, the VARG felt direct and resolute with the line I chose to direct it toward. The bike felt planted and confident, which translated to my confidence to carry more momentum through the corner. Only when comparing the 450 back to back did I notice that it felt as though I was having to fight the bike somewhat into my line choice. This sensation could be attributed to the fact there is less rotating mass inside the electric motor, however, it is without question that the chassis complemented this trait and allowed me to feel like I could change direction with confidence.
The VARG tips the scales at 242.5 pounds, approximately 9.5 pounds heavier than the wet weight (or 15.9 pounds dry) than the FC 450. This extra weight is noticeable when lifting the bike up onto the stand but that feeling does not translate to the track. The lack of rotating mass mentioned above makes the VARG feel like it went on a diet when in motion. The difference between curb weight versus bike feel is a trait I have noticed on all the electric motorcycles I have ridden and the VARG is no exception.
We were reminded prior to our test that the bikes provided were still considered pre-production. This included the battery, which is a feature that I was most eager to evaluate. It is no secret that the Achilles heel of electric motorcycles is their range and Stark has made some very bold claims about the range of the VARG. They claim that their six kWh battery, with its air-cooled honeycomb magnesium case, can provide similar range to a full tank of gas on a 450 cc motocross bike. Stark says this translates to riding a 35-minute moto at "Grand Prix" intensity (which they can verify with their former pro test rider, Sébastian Tortelli), or up to six hours of easy trail riding.
Due to the structure of our test day, the beta readout on the VCU display, and the fact the production model battery is expected to receive some changes, I cannot confidently critique the range of this bike. With that colossal disclaimer out of the way, I will say that after running eight laps at about two minutes per lap on the MX course, mixed with a 30-minute session of mixed enduro riding, my display was touting a state of charge of 66 percent. Not bad.
The bike comes equipped with a 3.3 kW charger, capable of charging the bike in one to two hours, depending on the particulars of your outlet. Since this is a European motorcycle, the charger is designed to benefit from the extra juice provided by the 220-volt outlets that are common in that part of the world. For riders here in the United States, it is recommended that you also utilize 220 volts. Who needs a clothes dryer, anyway? If this is not possible, the bike can still be charged via 110 volts, using an adapter, but charge times will increase.
What this means for a day at the track is that you need to plan accordingly. Stark is of the mindset that many riders will get tired long before the bike runs out of juice. While this may be true for some, we know the die-hards will take offense at this statement. In an interview I did with Stark Future CEO Anton Wass, he revealed that Stark Future is working to implement Stark-spec chargers at tracks where VARG sales are most popular. In the meantime, riders with the stamina to ride all day might consider bringing a generator to the track for supplemental charges in between motos.
The Stark VARG features a base MSRP of $12,900 for the 60-horsepower version and $13,900 for the 80-horsepower Alpha version. Riders can select a 19-inch rear wheel if they're going the motocross route or an 18-inch if the bike will see more single-track than airtime.
The price reflects a premium product, no doubt. But each year that passes, we see premium MX bikes costing increasingly more. Take a Honda CRF450WE or KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition, for example. Those bikes MSRP for $12,399 and $11,699, respectively. While you do get some unique factory parts on these models, the same caliber of high-end components come stock on the VARG. For a new technology from an emerging manufacturer, I'd say those prices are competitive, given the temperature of the market.
It's good to have more options
Price aside, the real takeaway here is that it is favorable to have options. Some may not be convinced electric is the best option for their application, and that's OK. But if this bike helps to keep threatened riding areas open, introduces new riders to the sport, or injects fresh enthusiasm into a seasoned rider, that's all positive for the sport we love. And I think this bike is fully capable of doing all that.
So, are we on the cusp of a bold new era in pro motocross competition? That is largely up to the sanctioning bodies of the FIM and AMA to determine. What we know for sure is that the Stark Future team is eager to get the bike onto the big stage of MXGP, pro motocross and Supercross. Whether the VARG can dethrone the 450 cc MX bikes at the highest level of our sport will have to be measured by riders far above my skillset.
Regardless of its appearance in the pro ranks, we should celebrate the fact that a very capable electric motocross bike will soon be available to the public. For a washed-up vet rider like myself, the VARG is truly capable of pulling me around a motocross track significantly quicker than I am on the gasser counterpart. Throw in the bonus of no air filters to clean, oil to change, or valves to adjust and the VARG quickly becomes a serious contender for my hard-earned dollars.
The author is the founder of the Electric Cycle Rider web site.