Knox EXCLUSIVE: Alta’d reality: Alta Redshift first ride

Alta Redshift SM

Alta Motors’ electric bikes use a unique, high-performance design. Here’s what it’s like to ride one

LIVING IN Germany in 1888 was pretty weird. The country itself had only existed since 1871, and if you were in the city of Mannheim, there was some proper freaky stuff going on. Bertha Benz, wife of inventor Karl Benz, could be seen ‘driving’ about in Karl’s new Benz Patent Motorwagen – the first proper ‘car’ ever made. The locals in Mannheim probably didn’t think too much about the wacky machine cruising about town with the bold, beautiful Bertha at the controls. Compared with the horse or the steam locomotives they were used to, this slow, ungainly hell-beast on wheels probably seemed like the end of days. Who could have seen how it would develop over the next century?

San Francisco is nearly as weird as 19thcentury Mannheim. A gridlocked city built on a hill, where naked protestors regularly march along the streets of Haight-Ashbury and Folsom Street holds a regular ‘Leather Pride’ BDSM fair. It’s also the heart of Silicon Valley – on my drive here from the Royal Enfield launch in Santa Cruz, I’ve passed the HQ of Apple, Facebook, Google, eBay, Tesla, and a load more. They legalised cannabis not so long ago too. It’s an incredible place.

And I’m here to see another strange thing – the Alta Motors electric bike. Not quite as wild as a petrol-powered motor car was in 1888, but it’s fair to say that a battery-powered two-wheeler is still an unusual beastie, even here in California. Particularly one with a performance bent, like this: Alta maintains that its bike is electric so it can go faster – not so it can ‘save the planet’ or cut pollution in the city. Those are just welcome bonuses.

Now, unless you’re a bit of an offroad fan, you might not have heard of Alta until recently. In 2016 the firm was racing in the Red Bull Straight Rhythm event, and also ran at the Erzberg Rodeo this year with Lyndon Poskitt. The firm really hit the mainstream headlines when it agreed a tie-up with Harley-Davidson though, helping H-D with its plans for an electric bike line. But Harley has dropped its partnership with Alta (the Milwaukee outfit is now opening its own electric R&D centre near here…), so the firm is back on its own, building a range of high-tech battery-powered motocross, enduro, supermoto and dual sport bikes at its small factory in Brisbane, south of San Francisco.

We’re heading out on two bikes today – the SM supermoto and the EXR dual-sport enduro version. Both have lights, numberplates, indicators, and are fully road-legal. They have different brakes, wheels and tyres of course, and the final gearing’s also tweaked, but the rest of the fundamentals are the same. Alta’s high-tech motor package, built into the rear aluminium frame section, (which Alta calls the ‘bulkhead’) and the front frame section, plus a one-piece plastic seat unit/rear subframe. Both bikes have quality WP suspension, and proper Brembo brakes, a four-pot caliper up front on the SM and a twin-piston sliding job on the EXR enduro machine. Metzeler 6 Days dirt rubber on the EXR and Pirelli Diablo Rosso II tyres on the SM round off the solid chassis spec nicely.

The EXR boasts the firm’s more advanced ‘R’-rated battery pack while the SM we’re riding uses the older ‘A’ battery pack. The differences are technical – but the ‘R’ offers extended thermal performance, more consistent performance throughout the discharge and a 20% increase in power over the ‘A’ pack. That adds up to 50bhp and 42 ft lbs from the EXR – and that will be the spec for all 2019 Altas. Think of it as a set of funky new Duracell alkaline AAs instead of some old Ever Ready zinc-carbons in your Walkman.

I jump on the SM first, and go through the start procedure. One potential pitfall of a near-silent electric bike in a ‘live’ state is that you accidentally touch the throttle, and the thing surges off into the distance. So there’s the usual sidestand cut-out switch and an ‘ignition’ key, plus a kill switch and a start button, all of which you need to operate before getting a flashing green light on the dash surround. Then you’re ready to go.

We head out of the slick industrial park and up into the hills behind. All the Alta models have a range of four throttle maps, easily selected via a switch on the bars, with varying levels of grunt, throttle response and regenerative braking. Dave Sonsky, Alta’s marketing director recommends I start on map ‘1’, but I’m feeling cocky (and having ridden the Zero electric bikes a couple of times, I know the scoop with an electric bike’s instant torque), so I start out on ‘2’.

HELLO! The Alta definitely has plenty of zip off the line, even in this softer map. Like the Zero (and any electric vehicle), the motor provides maximum torque from zero rpm. You can feel this with an electric drill – if you’ve ever had a drill bit jam in a piece of metal or wood, you’ll know that the motor instantly twists round, enough to really hurt your wrist if you’re not careful. Now the Alta bike has much more sophistication than a dumb electric drill, but the principle is the same. Super-powerful, instantaneous, magnetic forces are turning the rear wheel here, not gradually-increasing amounts of internal combustion forces.

Those forces, coupled with the super-light dirtbike chassis (the SM weighs just 128kg) makes for a very nippy beastie indeed. Alta claims 42bhp and 38 ft-lbs of torque for the older ‘A’-pack in the SM, which is sort-of Suzuki DR-Z400 power, but with nearly 50 per cent more torque (it is, also, BIZARRELY! the exact same performance specs as the Royal Enfield 650 twins I was riding the day before!!) 

But from the rider’s seat, it feels like much more. Dave, who’s leading me out, is wheelying away from every stop sign, and although I’m being pretty careful, I’ve soon clicked up a map to ‘3’, and the front wheel now lifts at the slightest provocation. Of course, like all leccy machines, there’s no gears or clutch or any of that really – it is a proper twist ‘n go affair, a fairly loud electronic whining sound accompanying your seamless acceleration. I rapidly see about 80mph on the teeny dash as we buzz around on the way out of Brisbane, with a bit more to come it seems.

After a couple of miles, I click up to ‘4’ on the map display, for the full Alta effect. It’s impressive stuff once you adapt to the unique throttle response, although I just can’t stop myself reaching for a clutch and gear lever. It’s weird, because when I ride scooters or Honda DCT bikes, I adapt quickly – but the environment here is so much like a proper ‘performance’ dirtbike that my mind is constantly being fooled.

The drive from the electric powertrain is just massive, pull-your-arms-out stuff, and I can see why Alta riders are clocking up a load of impressive results in US off-road competition – including a podium at the AMA EnduroCross Reno event last month. Unlike other electric race bikes, remember, the Altas are racing against normal 2- and 4-stroke offroad bikes, making their results even more impressive. The firm reckons that even simple things like not worrying about gear changes or clutching lets its riders concentrate more on the track ahead, while the massive motor torque adds new control opportunities in mid-air. And for those less experienced off-roaders, there’s no worries about stalling, or trying to start a hot engine while you’re stranded in the middle of a swamp. Nice. On the downside, some riders still like to have a clutch for fine control in tricky trials-type conditions, so there is a bit of a compromise there.

There’s none of that hardcore offroad stuff today though – I’m just having a blast whirring about the local backroads with Dave. We end up in a little state park area, with some quiet trail roads, and I swap over onto the EXR. It’s taller, obviously, and the shorter gearing and ‘R’ battery pack gives it even more pep off the bottom end. The knobbly rubber and smaller front brake is obviously sub-optimal for the asphalt surfaces we’re riding on, but the extra suspension travel is welcome over the rougher stuff. What I do notice is the lack of ABS, and I keep locking up the rear on the brakes. There’s no need for Alta to add ABS to its bikes for the US market at the moment (it’s one of the handicaps preventing them exporting to Europe just now), and the offroad competition focus of the design shows here too. 

That focus shows elsewhere too. So while the chassis kit is pretty much beyond reproach: 48mm WP forks, Brembo brakes, proper tyres, in a solid frame and swingarm design, stuff like the switchgear, dashboard and lighting is more basic. It’s bizarre to see such a high-tech bike with no ABS sensor rings, and sporting an old-skool halogen headlight bulb rather than an advanced low-energy LED lighting matrix. Kit like that takes a lot of time and cash of course, and Alta’s obviously been prioritising the hard stuff – battery and motor tech, rather than a slick headlight… You imagine that when the firm expands its focus onto more mainstream road-biased machinery, these areas will be properly addressed though.

Stopping off for more awesome Californian coffee (I’ve had some smashing Java on this trip), I give the Altas another once-over. They are impressive things, especially given the small size of the firm building them. If there was a logo from one of the big bike firms on the ‘tank’, you’d not think it out of place. The welding on the frame sections, the design of the motor unit with its cunning gear drive – it all looks like proper high-tech, high-performance, well-thought-out stuff.

I enjoy the couple of miles back to the Alta HQ on the Redshift SM, and am sadder than usual to get off it and into my hire car to head for the airport and home. These two electric bikes definitely have something special about them, with super-lively performance and impressive handling.

At the moment, though, an Alta is as relevant to me here in London as Bertha Benz’s three-wheeled Motorwagen. They’re not homologated for use on the roads in Europe, and would need ABS, plus other approvals to get there. Having said that, the firm is close to signing a distribution deal for the MXR motocross off-road versions on sale in the UK – so offroad racers will be able to get hold of one soon. Alta is pushing new concepts like indoor MX racing, which the silence and zero exhaust emissions from the ‘leccy machines makes possible.

The price is a little steep at $13,495 (as a rough comparison, a much-slower Honda CRF450L is $10,399 in the US), although you would save over time on running costs; servicing, engine rebuilds, fuel. Alta cuts its prices recently, and claims the total costs of Alta ownership are similar to a petrol bike now. And it’s fair to say they’re still very much aimed at off-road competition, indicators, numberplates and headlights aside. Range is limited to a claimed 40-60 miles, depending on usage, the battery packs aren’t easily swappable, and charging takes around 90 minutes on the ‘R’ pack. Sure, you could use an Alta SM or EXR as a 10-mile commuter round London as it is, but I’d want a more road-friendly design to use as a practical daily riding option here in Blighty.

The roots are definitely there for that though. Alta’s clearly a firm with a load of smart folk, and I’m sure they could build something really impressive for the street, using their battery and motor know-how. A small naked roadster, with a slightly longer range, proper roadbike equipment and a streetbike chassis – incorporating the technology behind that banging little 50bhp motor? Yes please…


2019 Alta Motors Redshift SM ($13,495)

Engine: High-speed permanent magnet AC electric motor, water cooled

Bore x stroke: NOPE!

Compression ratio: HAHAHA!

Max power (claimed) 50bhp@14,000rpm

Max Torque (claimed) 42ft lb@ all the rpm

Transmission: single speed geared motor drive, no clutch, chain drive

Frame: cast/fabricated aluminium composite frame

Front suspension: 48mm WP fully-adjustable forks

Rear suspension: WP monoshock, fully adjustable

Brakes: single 320mm disc, four-piston radial Brembo caliper (front), 220mm disc, single-piston caliper (rear), no ABS

Wheels/tyres: tube-type Warp 9 wire spoked/Pirelli Diablo Rosso II, 120/70 17 front, 150/60 17 rear

Rake/trail: 25.5°/na

Wheelbase: 1,492mm

Kerb weight (claimed): 128kg

Fuel capacity: 5.8kW/h battery pack, 1.5hr fast recharge