Thun­der and Light­ning

IT’S ABOUT TO­DAY. THIS STORY ISN’T ABOUT THE FU­TURE OR WHAT IT MAY HOLD.

Motorcyclist - - Contents - BY ZACK COURTS PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY SPENSER ROBERT

Ex­plor­ing the state of the art with the Light­ning LS-218 and the Kawasaki H2.

It’s about the pin­na­cle of per­for­mance in two-wheel propul­sion as it stands in the year 2017. Right now. This story is about the best evo­lu­tion of each tech­nol­ogy and a city in which both bikes come alive. World-beat­ing power and a quar­ter-mile of as­phalt.

Take a mo­ment to con­sider the small mir­a­cle of th­ese two ma­chines— pos­ing side by side, a Christ­mas tree in the mid­dle and a straight stretch of pave­ment shim­mer­ing un­der the lights ahead—ris­ing to the top of the mo­tor­cy­cling world. A su­per­charged liter­bike, Kawasaki’s H2, and the elec­tric Light­ning LS-218, named af­ter its record-break­ing land-speed run. Sim­i­lar enough that it’s im­pos­si­ble to know which will win and so dif­fer­ent it’s hard to know where to start.

We could go back a cen­tury and a half, to when there were more elec­tric ve­hi­cles than gas-pow­ered ones, but there’s no sense in dwelling on the past. Bet­ter to go to a place that rep­re­sents the cut­ting edge of tech­nol­ogy in so­ci­ety: San Fran­cisco, a city hot with welders burn­ing and new build­ings reach­ing into the sky, while be­neath on the ur­ban jun­gle floor the dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion of a new gen­er­a­tion of tech­nol­ogy flows in tor­rents. It’s the per­fect place for an alldig­i­tal su­per­bike to face off against the best in­ter­nal com­bus­tion has to of­fer.

Stage lights il­lu­mi­nate in se­quence. Edg­ing the LS -218 for­ward means twist­ing the grip ever so slightly, wait­ing for an omi­nous click from the mo­tor and the top run of the chain to stretch tight. It stares down the strip through squinty LED eyes. Silent and stoic. The H2 burps bari­tone revs out the pipe. Four cylin­ders in line but with a spe­cial tone— the chirp the engine makes when the throt­tle closes is a friendly re­minder of the forced in­duc­tion along for the ride. The H2 hints at some­thing spe­cial ev­ery time you look at or lis­ten to it.

De­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive of mo­tor­cy­cles and mo­tor­cy­cling, Kawasaki might feel like a reg­u­lar-size com­pany that aligns with other brands around the world. It’s not. Kawasaki Heavy In­dus­tries is a colos­sal busi­ness, more than 100 years old with tens of thou­sands of em­ploy­ees work­ing on trains, ships, aero­space, gas tur­bines, and in­dus­trial ro­bots. The H2 isn’t just a su­per­charged, $28,000 mo­tor­cy­cle. It’s the best ideas the brain trust of a global su­per­power in aero and fluid dy­nam­ics, met­al­lurgy, and engi­neer­ing can as­sem­ble, all in one place.

Which is why the paint glis­tens just so. It’s ap­plied by hand and ac­tu­ally isn’t paint at all. H2 body pan­els are primed, wet sanded, and then a chem­i­cal com­bi­na­tion is sprayed on, which cures by re­act­ing and cre­at­ing a layer of pure sil­ver. Lay­ers of clear coat are added un­til it looks like the whole bike was carved from a bub­ble of mer­cury. It’s men­ac­ing. It re­flects the light of the dragstrip and soaks it up at the same time. GREEN LIGHT.

Light­ning started a lit­tle more than 10 years ago, with a lithium bat­tery shoved into a Yamaha R1 frame and just enough horse­power (about 65) to make every­one be­lieve that elec­tric propul­sion could be the fu­ture. Over the past decade, the com­pany has won the Pikes Peak In­ter­na­tional Hill Climb, FIM world cham­pi­onship events, and reached 218 mph at Bon­neville. Ac­cep­tance grew with the ac­co­lades. Now any­one with $38,000 and change can pur­chase a bike with the Light­ning power and pedi­gree. Noth­ing hap­pens in an in­stant, but the LS-218’S evo­lu­tion has been rapid.

The ma­chine is rapid too. Af­ter an eighth of a mile, the LS-218 is still wheely­ing, push­ing more than 200 hp to the tar­mac. The only sound is chain spin­ning and wind hiss­ing around the car­bon body­work. Six and a half sec­onds down the strip and still not wide open. Aboard the H2, revs climb into five dig­its. The su­per­charger im­peller spins at 10 times crank speed, smash­ing air through 16 valves slam­ming open and shut hun­dreds of times ev­ery sec­ond. It’s a blur of al­loy and fire, dipped in black chrome. It’s be­hind the Light­ning but catch­ing up.

Iron­i­cally, ev­ery­where other than a dragstrip, catch­ing up is what the Light­ning still has to do. Rid­ing across San Fran­cisco Bay and into the city showed the LS-218 for what it is: a race­bike with lights, and an un­apolo­getic one. Even tall rid­ers are stretched out to­ward the low clip-ons. Necks are craned and wrists are crimped. A big and bright LCD dash shows rpm and speed, along with a gag­gle of other data points that you have to learn to read be­fore you take off. The blinker switch is tricky to reach, the seat is thin, and there’s not much steer­ing lock.

The H2 is docile, in large part, and not un­com­fort­able. The rid­ing po­si­tion is ag­gres­sive but also com­pact. The han­dle­bars feel close to the seat, and if you scoot up you can trun­dle along pretty hap­pily at city or free­way speeds. At 525 pounds it’s about 30 ticks heav­ier than the Light­ning but doesn’t feel over­weight. The lit­tle stuff has a well-ex­e­cuted feel

KAWASAKI HAS TO OF­FER IS A MON­U­MEN­TAL STEP FOR­WARD FOR ELEC­TRIC BIKES.

to it: Every­thing from the hy­brid ana­log/ dig­i­tal dash to the switchgear to the way the seat meets the tank feels like it’s evolved over gen­er­a­tions of street­bikes.

And it has. Kawasaki has al­ready solved hun­dreds of prob­lems that Light­ning hasn’t run into yet. Suspension tun­ing, trac­tion con­trol— all of the nuances and com­plex­i­ties of be­com­ing a ma­ture, re­fined mo­tor­cy­cle—are yet to come for Light­ning. Al­most all of the nuances, any­way: The H2’s throt­tle re­sponse is atro­cious. It doesn’t mat­ter wide open.

Most of the way down the strip, the two beasts are at full sprint, both pulling ma­ni­a­cally to­ward 150 mph. The Light­ning starts to run out of gear­ing with its 66-tooth rear sprocket, while the Kawasaki catches fifth gear, su­per­charger spin­ning at 120,000 rpm and singing its song. Nine-point-nine-four sec­onds af­ter the start, the H2 has cov­ered a quar­ter-mile and is trav­el­ing 148 mph. The Light­ning is less than a hun­dredth of a sec­ond and 4 mph be­hind.

Play the game of “if the Kawasaki just had a pipe on it” or “all the Light­ning needed was dif­fer­ent gear­ing ” all you want. It’s all to­tally true and to­tally ir­rel­e­vant. Both bikes could go faster, and that’s ex­actly what makes the par­ity so beau­ti­ful and so re­fresh­ing. Cov­er­ing a quar­ter­mile in 10 sec­onds is a bench­mark of speed that serves as its own achieve­ment.

Keep­ing up with the best Kawasaki has to of­fer is a mon­u­men­tal step for­ward for elec­tric mo­tor­cy­cles. To be com­plain­ing about lit­tle stuff like hardto-reach switches and too-bright screens is so en­cour­ag­ing it could al­most bring tears to your eyes. That stuff will evolve quickly. What the elec­tric mo­tor­cy­cle in­dus­try needs is more emo­tion. It needs things that leave you at a loss for words.

It’s not just about rolling up next to a su­per­bike and push­ing your chest out. Mo­tor­cy­cling is about a con­nec­tion with the ma­chine. Whether it’s free­dom or ex­hil­a­ra­tion, there has be a sense of to­geth­er­ness. Pure thrust can be that con­duit. Per­for­mance is a pil­lar of mo­tor­cy­cling imag­i­na­tion. When there’s enough power on tap that it’s in your hands to con­trol it, there be­comes a sense of co­he­sion be­tween the per­son and the ve­hi­cle. It de­mands re­spect and re­wards un­der­stand­ing.

What it means is that the end of this drag race is ac­tu­ally just the be­gin­ning of a new era of com­pe­ti­tion. The Light­ning LS -218 isn’t per­fect, but the fact that there’s even a con­ver­sa­tion—that an elec­tric bike ac­tu­ally cre­ates feel­ings that are hard to de­scribe—holds more po­ten­tial than just horse­power.

ABOVE The mean streets of San Fran­cisco. Meaner with the Kawasaki and Light­ning strut­ting their stuff. No pas­sen­ger pegs and no non­sense. Street le­gal, yes, but it’s de­bat­able if they should be.

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