Pikes Peak, Colo., 26 June—“It’s wet up there, really wet,” says Rob “The Bullet” Barber, the pro racer who’s riding the Ohio State student team’s electric motorcycle up this mountain in the hundredth annual running of this race, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
Water in general is bad news for the bike, called the Buckeye Current, whose batteries and wiring are rather open to the elements. But here the problem is much more basic. The tires—racing slicks, which are smooth rather than treaded—can’t funnel water away and thus prevent hydroplaning, that is, slipping and sliding.
Another hour and the sun would surely burn the water off the pavement, but the show must go on, and the electric motorcycles are the designated first act. Barber thinks that sticking to the schedule is ridiculous: surely the gasoline-powered bikes ought to go first. And why can’t the organizers send up scouts to brush away the worst of the wetness?
The reasons are two: simple logistics and the demands of the penned-up crowd of spectators. There’s only a two-lane road snaking around this mountain, and safety demands that only one lane be used. Everyone who arrives here must therefore go to whatever altituted they’ve chosen and then stay there for the entire day—the road is closed until it’s over. And many ticketholding spectators are in line for the privilege, some of them having come here the previous evening.
After delays, Barber is given the go-ahead. He turns on the car-alarm noisemaker, which the rules require of otherwise stealthy e-bikes, and scoots off to the starting line. Contact is lost with his bike’s transponder, so the only way the team can follow his progress is through visual sitings at a couple of points. The minutes tick by.
“Our time is 11:16,” says Polina Brodsky, a recently graduated mechanical engineer. That’s about as good as the team’s result last year, when road conditions were much better. But faces fall even so.
Only two days ago the team had been despondent, thinking that a hardware bug would prevent their even entering the race, but with the bug solved they are back to hoping to finish first among electric bikes. They even dreamed of achieving a sub-10-minute time, a course record for any motorcycle—electric or gasonline-powered.
Aaron Bonnell-Kangas, the grad student in electrical engineering who’s led the team all year, conceals his disappointment. Brody Ringler, a third-year electrical engineering student, is plainly crushed.
There are another 12 hours of racing to go in the other categories—cars, modified cars, cars, cycles with sidecars, runabout buggies, even a semitrailer which gets stuck in a ditch). But for the team, the day is pretty much over. When they meet up with Barber at the end, when he is at last able to come down from the pinnacle, he is beaming. It doesn’t seem to be an act; but if it is an act, it’s very good.
“You guys were great,” he says. “It’s as good as last year’s time, and on a wet road. And the bike was great.” Indeed, the least-charged lithium-ion cell is still 10 percent charged—which means the bike could have made it down the mountain on its own. It was walked down, just the same.
Back at the home the students are renting in Colorado Springs, Barber says that winning the course hadn’t been on this year. “The Victory bike was just so powerful,” he says, referring to an electric version of a bike made by Victory and ridden by Dan Canet. It posted a 10:17 time—a full minute faster than the Buckeye Current.
“I don’t know how they do it, Victory is very quiet about the design,” says Barber, whose regular job is as in IT at Cisco, in Manchester, U.K.
David did not vanquish Goliath; the student team did not defeat the specialty firm. Not this year.
During the week the team members talked about a number of possible improvements. Maybe an improved battery-charging system, one that automatically finds a more perfect balance so that all the cells can charge together without causing one of them to overcharge. Or they could change out the system that manages the delivery of alternating current to the motor. Or they could just pare some weight from the bike.
“I can’t say what we might do,” says Brodsky, diplomatically. “We’ll decide these things together, after looking at the data logs from today.”
Brodsky has been elected by the team to lead them next year. She started with the project after it started, six years ago, when she was a senior in high school.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.