This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
If there is a heaven for motorheads, it probably has dirt bikes.
The screaming fast — and screaming loud — two-wheeled projectiles fly through dirt and often air in a dazzling display of what small engines can do. And the smell of burning oil and sound of crackling exhaust are as much a part of the experience as mud on the visor.
Can this crowd go electric?
“Epic. It’s a game changer,” said John Soldan after riding a Stark Varg, one of the first large battery-powered off-road motorcycles to come to market, during a recent Edge Powersports demo event at Jordan River Off-Highway Vehicle State Park in Rose Park.
Electric motors are legendary for delivering torque, which is the force it takes to turn the wheels, and they can handle any speed without the need for a transmission.
“Very smooth. Very fast,” said Soldan, a motorcycle and car enthusiast who said not having to worry about shifting and clutching allowed more focus on driving.
Quiet, but not silent
Electric dirt bikes don’t have the deafening roar of regular ones, but they aren’t quite silent. Anyone nearby will hear the engine’s whine when they’re going all out. Yet from a distance, it’s barely noticeable.
Electric dirt bikes only comprise a tiny sliver of Utah’s large OHV presence at this point, but their growth is outpacing gas-powered vehicles. And while it’s possible to get an electric side-by-side UTV in Utah, they’re still rare. Electric motorcycles, which can get by with much smaller batteries, are starting to have their day.
“It’s a pretty popular segment right now,” said Rob Coats, sales manager at Honda World in South Jordan, which carries small electric dirt bikes from Talaria. In the first three or four months they’ve had them, they’ve sold about 20, Coats said.
Coats said they are bringing in customers that aren’t the traditional off-road motorcycle crowd. “We’ve had parents buy them for their kids, and older folks buy them to carry on their RVs,” he said. “The real hard-core dirt bikers aren’t buying them.”
But that may change as bigger bikes enter the market.
“It’s going to save motorsports,” said Bryan Green, sales manager at Edge Powersports in Draper, noting that he’s seen public concerns over noise and pollution from gas-powered bikes grow in recent years.
Kid bikes lead out
Youth dirt bikes, with wheels from 12 to 20 inches, have been leading the way to electric adoption, said Green. There are major brands selling the tiny bikes, and kids compete in racing programs around the state.
The batteries typically allow for about 4 to 6 hours of ride time, enough for a full day in many cases. And because the batteries are much smaller than those on electric cars, they can charge up in two or three hours using regular 110-volt power.
According to the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles, the numbers are small but growing fast. In 2020, there were 42 electric motorcycles registered as off-road vehicles in Utah. That grew to 105 in 2021 and 172 last year.
But not all electric bikes get registered. Electric transportation has brought a flood of new entrants — both manufacturers and sellers, including locals who sell out of their garages and online retailers who deliver bikes via freight shipping. Law enforcement officers across the state can write citations when they find unregistered bikes, but it’s impossible to know how many are out there.
The rise of electric dirt bikes is creating problems for public lands managers in Utah, because buyers don’t know or aren’t paying attention to where they’re allowed to ride.
“The confusion refers to what trails they are using,” said Chase Pili, OHV program manager for the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation. Like any motorized off-road vehicle, electric dirt bikes can rip up landscapes.
They’re motorcycles, not bikes
Pili said some electric motorcycle riders think they can go wherever an electric mountain bike is allowed, and that’s usually not the case. Each federal and state land manager may have different rules for both electric bikes and electric motorcycles, so there is no statewide rule.
In general, electric dirt bikes are only allowed where gas-powered dirt bikes can go.
“Just check with the local land-management agency,” said Pili. “They’ll be upfront and honest and give you the best information.”
Utah requires all off-road riders to complete a certification course before riding, and there are separate courses for adults and youth. That is where riders find out more about where their vehicles are allowed.
State and local law enforcement can, and do, cite riders who don’t have certification, but Pili said state data shows about 90% of riders they encounter have completed the course. He said 230,000 people have completed the certification, which is required even if you’re only renting an off-road vehicle.
He also said officers can write citations to electric motorcycle riders who go where only bikes are allowed, but the emphasis right now is on education.
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