In 2012, I sat down with Michael Czysz at the launch of a new version of SolidWorks CAD software in Boston. The idea was to talk about SolidWorks and how he’d used it to design the electric superbike that was sitting in front of us, but we instead ended up in a 45-minute discussion of aerodynamics, rider psychology, and the bike itself, the MotoCzysz E1pc.
Michael Rutter had just ridden the E1pc to first place in the Zero TT—a one-lap, all-electric motorcycle race around the 37.7 mile Isle of Man Road Course. Rutter had ridden the bike to the first-ever 100+ mph lap of the circuit on an electric bike, at an average speed of 104 mph (though, as Czysz explained in the interview, they had a 120 mph pace until they throttled back to conserve energy).
Czysz was understandably proud of the achievement, and I was shocked to find out this TT class-winning endeavor was a side project for him. He’d worked on the bike in his free time, when he wasn’t running his architecture firm, Architropolis.
Here’s a video of that lap:
And a Architropolis-designed house:
Czysz died this week after a battle with cancer at the age of 52, and it’s an incredible loss for the motorcycling world.
From my short time with Czysz, I remember his healthy, CEO glow and his expansive, fascinating responses to my questions. Here was a man who’d mentally conquered motorcycle design and amassed 30 patents, who had designed an unconventional MotoGP bike out of thin air, and who had advanced the state of electric motorcycles to a point where they could match a Supersport’s pace. He was a visionary who could dream up the future and transform it into reality.
Today, after delving into his accomplishments and reading up on him and his bikes, I’m even more in awe.
Consider that the engine of his first bike—the MotoGP-eligibleC1 Prototype—consisted of two parallel-twins mounted end-to-end but with counter-rotating cranks.
The idea was to cancel out the gyroscopic forces generated by each crank to create an utterly flickable machine. The later versions evolved into a twin-crank, offset square-four with three camshafts—it had better packaging than the earlier model, and still all-but eliminated gyroscopic forces from the engine.
Czysz didn’t stick to standard solutions for the suspension either. Right from the start, his bikes used flexible carbon slabs as the telescoping fork’s lowers—they were stiff longitudinally to cope with enormous braking forces, but laterally flexible to enable mid-corner bump absorption when the bikes were leaned over. The shock was housed in the steerer tube of the C1, and migrated to where the gas tank would be on the electric E1pc.
The C1’s fork also featured a changeable insert at the bottom of the fork leg that allowed the rider to adjust trail independently of other front-end geometry variables. To discover other Czysz innovations, head over to their website.
Here’s a clip from Charge, a documentary on the early days of electric motorcycle racing (available on Netflix):
The world is a bit more somber, now that Michael Czysz is no longer roaming around somewhere working on his brilliant projects. To give a final insight into the depth of his expertise, I’ve transcribed my favorite moments of our conversation in Boston: his thoughts on the advantages of simplified control layouts possible with an electric motorcycle, and the resulting reduction of rider workload.
Czysz offered a good insight into the reasons an enthusiastic car driver might prefer a paddle-shifter on a track, but a conventional manual gearbox on the street. When public speeds are limited by social courtesy and speed limits, “superfluous dexterity functions” are welcome, as 100 percent focus on corner speed will end in tears. In a racing environment, these extra management tasks are a hindrance, as they sap speed and demand mental real estate.
Here’s the audio of the interview in full.
Nick: Are there other control layouts you’ve experimented with on your electric superbike?
Michael Czysz: We have. Not a lot. We have enough on our plate, and it’s hard enough to get people to take the electric component seriously or understand where we’re coming from. We don’t want to reinvent the motorcycle for the sake of just reinventing it. You would think that possibly the front brake is not in the best location, due to the fact that braking and throttling is something that is… the relationship is so tight there is in fact no dead time between the two. It’s one or the other all the time and so to put that on the same hand probably doesn’t make the most sense, but at [this]point we haven’t experimented with moving that, what we have experimented with though is rear brakes at the left hand and other stuff which has been really successful. Next year you’ll see some new controls coming that are not on current bikes in current locations. Note the lack of gear shifter or clutch lever in the picture below.
Nick: Motorcycle control layouts are terrible, I’m looking forward to seeing if that gets changed around, at least on race bikes.
Czysz: It’s hard though, because it’s hard enough just going from street to GP shift, back and forth. If a thumb brake or something is added, that takes a long time for somebody to get used to. You’re going at a level that’s so high, you don’t want to consume a lot of energy. “Do I shift up, do I shift down?“—it needs to be automatic. It’s not easy to make these changes, but we’re definitely moving that direction.
Nick: What’s it like riding the E1pc, with its throttle response and lack of gears?
Czysz: It truly makes the other bikes feel antiquated. You don’t get this perspective on day one, or as a bystander.There’s no bystander that walks up to that bike and says, “That’s going to be the future, that’s a better bike than the gas bike,” without having some insight. The best insight, of course, is spending time [with electric bikes]and riding them.
The first time I got on an electric bike, I had no passion for the electric drive system at all. The bike was heavier, it was far slower there was no benefit. What do you expect? It was the first bike, and I had just gotten off a bike that had been in development for 50 years. Not a very good comparison.
Four years into this, I still appreciate the gas bikes immensely for the things that are exciting. I like the downshifting, I like the upshifting, I like the uneven torque. This is why it is fun to wheelie. I like the clutch, I like to back it in. All those fun things we have to build around basically the deficiencies of the bike.
You get on this bike, and [you] have an extreme appreciation for how fast you can go and how slow it [feels like you’re going]. I see how much these bikes can improve over the next couple of years. It truly is a more Zen-like experience than a gas bike. If you want to go faster and you want to feel speed, and you want to feel like you’re acting upon speed and controlling that by degrees and percentages, nothing comes close to an electric bike.
On the importance of reducing mental demands:
Czysz: When I’m on the bike, I feel like “Ah, that wasn’t a very good lap” I look down and it’s like “Geez, that’s two seconds off what I could do with my Aprilia RSVR,” or “That’s a top speed faster than whatI could do with my KTM RC8R,” or “It’s equal to the latest Ducati that was next to me,” and it doesn’t feel that way.
Nick: You’re just cruising along…
Czysz: This is what you want. The number one goal for me as a motorcycle designer is to make the motorcycle feel like it’s going slow. To feel like it’s so controlled and there’s no extra drama. So the rider feels like he can go find another one percent or half a percent or something. You can’t do that when you feel like you’re on the edge of losing traction, or being thrown down, or being high sided, or whatever.
Everything has to be perfect and in order, with no drama, and then you can yourself elevate the performance of the vehicle. So when we’re maintaining 1000cc speeds, yet it doesn’t feel like we’re doing that, the sound the vibration, and all that—which is exciting—also is distracting.
Nick: It wears you out.
Czysz: It consumes some part of your mental ability. There’s no doubt in my mind. You can say “Oh, it’s all in the background. I downshift and I don’t use any energy.”
You probably don’t think you do consciously. But subconsciously, there is a small portion—call it 2 or 3percent of your brain—that’s still doing those mechanics. If you can all of a sudden apply that 2 or 3 percent to something like corner entrance…
Nick: Initially, I thought you were talking about NVH, but it sounds like you’re including not having to consider things like gear choice.
Czysz: That’s part of it. The whole experience is much simpler. You might say “Oh God, who wants to ride a simple bike?” Don’t worry. You turn around and make it again exciting by going faster.
The riders will always go to their maximum. The question is “what’s occupying their ability to do their maximum?” Is it superfluous dexterity functions, or is it just focusing 100 percent on line, corner entrance speed, and corner exit? We’ll always go to our 100 percent ability.
Nick: With a peaky 500cc GP bike, half your effort is just taming the powerband?
Czysz: Exactly. Or waiting, or strategizing, when I can get on, or cracking on the throttle so I can soften the initial blow. Or dragging the rear brake when I’m cracking it, so I clean up the exhaust system, so then I can get the… all these things. They’re doing all these things. And that’s what’s so incredible about racing, and motorcycle racing in particular.
That’s the genius, but if you could grab that same rider and say “here, I’m going to take 3 or 4 of those items, or five or ten percent off your plate, or off your mental processing, and give it back to you, and what are you going todo with it? They’re going to apply it to speed. So, ultimately, a simpler bike will be a faster bike.
Nick Goddard will give any rideable a chance. When he’s not riding a stand-up electric scooter, the latest superbike, or an ultimate wheel, he’s contemplating how BlaBlaCar and free-floating vehicle share will change the transportation landscape. See more of his work here.