How to Revolutionize the Electric Dirt Bike
A Swedish company called Cake is building a radical electric motorbike. Its significance is much larger.
I’m stranded at the edge of a field in the middle of nowhere, Sweden, idling on a Cake Kalk motorcycle. I’m not entirely sure what came over me, all I know is I was supposed to take this off-road bike for a test drive and it just kept urging me further and further into the Great Scandinavian Unknown. The route degraded the further I went: empty back roads became dirt roads that narrowed to neglected trails. Eventually, the trail disappeared altogether. Now I'm in the woods.
I may have gone too far, and I'm afraid if I try to backtrack I'll fail, and then have to concede that I'm lost. Which I clearly am. And I’m not riding any ordinary two-wheeler—this Cake zero-emission motorcycle is powered by a 15-kW electric motor and lithium-ion batteries. So even though we are idling, all is eerily silent. So is the forest, save for the occasional editorializing of a bird high up in the fir trees. It's like 100-degrees out, as an abnormally angry Swedish sun beats down through the branches.
How the hell did I get here? It is a question you too might find yourself asking should you ever throw your leg over a bike like the Kalk.
There is only one person to blame for my folly (besides me). That is Stefan Ytterborn, Cake’s founder and CEO. “Our motto is 'It's more Patagonia than Kawasaki',” the Swede will tell me later as he explains why his creation lured me into the forest. “What we're trying to do is establish an entirely new category of motorcycle.”
One of the minds behind Ikea's success, Ytterborn comes from a background in contemporary architecture, design, and marketing. He cut his teeth at Nordic powerhouse companies like Ikea, Saab, Erikkson, Nokia, and Finnish interior design company Iittala.
When global tastes shifted from the Moët excesses of the '90’s into a more sensible and minimalist aesthetic, Ytterborn began exporting Sweden design to the world; in 1995 he invited 19 Scandinavian designers into the fold at Ikea and was partly credited for the furniture company’s explosive growth. It's hard to overstate the influence Scandinavian and Bauhaus aesthetics have had on his career.
But it was Ytterborn’s family's fascination with skiing and snowboarding that inspired his first major entrepreneurial venture. “I saw my kids wearing these terrible fitting helmets that looked even worse, and I recognized a huge hole in the market for quality protective gear that was actually well designed.” So he started POC. The company grew quickly, winning awards and sponsoring sports giants. Athletes like freeskier Tanner Hall and Scottish trials cyclist Danny Macaskill wore for POC gear, and American alpine racers Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso captured gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships in Ytterborn's helmets.
“But I didn’t see a viability in a company that could only invoice for half the year,” Ytterborn explains, so he ended up selling the company to the Nasdaq-traded Black Diamond. “That’s when Cake was first envisioned.”
In the two years of development since then, Cake’s initial product has slowly taken shape via the rigorous and often brutal gauntlet of trial and error. As with most endeavors of innovation, trying to find the right path was the fruit of countless prototypes and failed experiments.
Building an Electric Business Model from Scratch
In the electrified dirt bike world today there are two schools of thought. The first has a manufacturer taking a traditional off-road motorcycle and replacing the gas-fueled powertrain with an electric one. Austria’s KTM does this, and so does a San Francisco upstart called Alta. These guys aim their products at the existing dirt bike customer base. “That's not stupid,” concedes Ytterborn. “It's a wonderful way of serving that market with something that is electric, with all the benefits that come from that. But it's not about optimizing the electric drivetrain in a backcountry environment.”
The second school starts with a traditional push-pedal mountain bike and outfits it with batteries and small electric motors. There are dozens of these small manufacturers around the world, from the Czech Republic and Slovakia to Australia and Holland.
Ytterborn chose neither school. Instead, he formed his own and enrolled immediately. While quick to give props to the likes of KTM’s Freeride and Alta for playing a critical, Tesla-like role in increasing market awareness and build quality for electric bikes, the people that inspired him most were the small-scale entrepreneurs, guys tooling around in their barns creating hybrid two-wheelers using a Frankenstein combination of bicycle and motorcycle parts.
"If it hadn't been for these garage-built hybrids,” Ytterborn says, “I would never have come to the conclusion of commercializing their initiatives. To adapt it where we have something that is seamless, more like an iPhone than a homemade telephone from 1975.”
Ytterborn doesn’t come across as a Deus-style motorcycle enthusiast, as one might expect from the head of a startup motorcycle company. Ytterborn approached the conceptualization, engineering, and execution of the Kalk not as a diehard rider, but as a veteran of gravity sports, road cycling and design.
"It’s not like we’re pretentiously trying to think outside-the-box,” he tells me. “We simply come from somewhere else.” This independence led to an untethered imagining of what Cake could be—a blue-sky startup unrestricted by the motorcycle industry’s notoriously calcified thinking.
“I've been on electric motorbikes for the past three or four years," Ytterborn says. "I bought them all just to understand what works and what doesn't. And what we learned trying all these bikes was that it's all about power-to-weight ratio, because the electric drivetrain behaves totally different from a combustion engine.” His conclusion? To optimize the off-road experience, Cake needed to start from scratch.
One of the biggest challenges was achieving precise throttle response. Consistent, immediate and smooth output required countless hours of testing, a year and a half of coding and recoding. In Christmas of 2016, Cake scrapped its work and started over.
"Of course it's wonderful to do big jumps, running through the woods at high speeds or whatever, but where an electric bike really amazes me is on tricky terrain." This spring, he was going uphill on a steep grade, over deep, wet moss. It occurred to him that if he'd been on a combustion bike he would have just ripped through it. "But on an electric bike, you can go one mph, climbing really slow, and if there's an obstacle you just think, ‘I need to get over it, I need more power,’ and it just gently takes you over it in perfect condition.”
And since the Kalk is electric, there is one gear and no clutch. (As most novice motorcyclists will testify, shifting on a bike is one of the trickiest processes to master.) The finished Kalk is a startlingly easy-to-use machine.
"That potentially makes me happiest: It actually does what you think when you're riding it."
What the Cake Is Made Of
By simply swapping out drivetrains like KTM, bikes end up weighing over 300 pounds. This is fine for MX or enduro applications, but for the back-trail exploring that Ytterborn sees as Cake’s bread and butter, the bikes are simply too heavy.
"What you did today in the woods,” he says, referencing my afternoon lost in the Swedish wilderness, “flying on the trails, you'd never be able to do that on a 350-pound motorcycle.”
At the same time, outfitting a mountain bike with motors also has its issues. The most vexing one is that bicycle components are far too fragile for the increased stresses of electric motors. The solution? Build your own damn parts.
As Ytterborn’s son (and Cake social media director) Karl explains, “We realized that all of the most sturdy downhill bicycle parts were too weak, and all the motocross parts were too heavy, so we developed every single component from scratch.” Everything from stems to hubs is custom made, including an aluminum frame and swingarm, and carbon fiber body panels. When initially testing front suspension prototypes they realized stock 36-mm forks were too swampy and weak. So Cake collaborated with their fellow Swedes at Öhlins to build 38-mm forks exclusively for Cake—the precise size and strength for the duty at hand.
The wheels are built like highly reinforced downhill bicycle rims. This shaves 40 percent off the weight, but it also brings another helpful consequence: You can actually change a flat yourself. A struggle with traditional motorbikes is if you get a puncture in the woods, you better start walking. With a mountain bike wheel, simply bring a fresh tube and you can wrench it right there in the field. Cake developed an extra wide tire that uses 50% more rubber than a mountain bike to maximize the contact patch and designed a tread that avoids 90-degree angles, limiting environmental damage on the trails.
After experimenting with dirt and mountain bike handlebars setups, they settled on a custom-built unit using geometry closer to a mountain bike. “For test rides, we've used both experienced motocross and mountain bike riders,” says Karl. Over the course of these tests, they discovered a downhill bike-style stem that's offset towards the front. “This makes the bike much more agile and nimble—it's easier to throw around and you have more control.”
In the end, there are only three stock parts on the entire bike: brake levers, foot pegs, and rubber handles. That's it.
What they've built is a vehicle imagined to be the ultimate exploration machine. It's silent, so nobody knows you're zooming through their woods; its tires don't damage the ground, and there's zero pollution. The Kalk is light (143 pounds), nimble, and easy to ride, and its 31-pound-feet of torque and top speed of 50 mph can get you out of (and into) any trouble, and the 50-mile range is just enough for serious trail riding.
Somehow, the Cake made me more confident, bolder. Before I knew it, I'm on the edge of a forest scratching my head wondering how the hell I got there.
A Designer's Bike
Ytterborn wants to do to with Cake what he did with Ikea and POC: bring affordable style and aesthetics into serial production, to democratize design.
When the Kalk was first launched in January at Denver’s Outdoor Retailer Show, the bike was recognized as “Best in Show,” and sold out all if its 50 Launch Edition bikes in less than 3 weeks to 15 different countries. It went on to receive Teknikföretagen’s Grand Award of Design and Sweden's national design award, the Design S. Recently it was nominated for a 2019 German Design Award, and this month was nominated for the Design Museum's Beazley Designs of the Year award. Even if it doesn’t win, a Kalk will be on display at the celebrated London museum until January.
The innovation doesn’t end with the product. Cake commissioned pro enduro racer Robin Wallner to design a standardized 246-by-164-foot track optimized for its official category of ‘Light Electric Off-Road Motorbikes’. While motocross tracks are generally considered a noise nuisance, the silent, clean Kalk could run on a track next to a nursery school during naptime. You could theoretically build one of these tracks in the middle of Central Park, or by the Griffith Observatory. In the backcountry, an off-road motorcycle’s appeal is obvious, but the possibility of urban race parks cracks open a whole new market.
Cake has also been in talks with Formula E to build tracks that would fit in their city circuits for pre-races, as well as ski resorts to develop trail concepts. After all, Ytterborn sees the Kalk’s closest parallel as a downhill mountain bike, more so than an enduro racer. “It's perfect on any trail,” he argues. “It’s like riding the fiercest downhill course on Whistler, but you don't need a hill.” For surfers, skiers, skaters or anyone drawn to adrenaline sports, these light electric motorbikes could become a viable summer pursuit.
Given Ytterborn’s impetus has always been environmentally driven, he aligned Cake with Utellus, a Swedish renewable energy company, to develop three levels of solar panel packages to charge the bike for 100% zero emission cred
What It Costs
Cake designs and manufactures most of his own parts, and that comes with a price. The production version of the Kalk costs $13,000, which Ytterborn recognizes is high. The KTM Freeride E-XC, a comparable electric off-roader that comes with optional extra battery packs, is around $8,300 (extra batteries cost $2,500 each). But Ytterborn doesn't think of KTM as competition, preferring to compare the Kalk—loaded with aluminum alloy, carbon fiber, and levels of elaboration far beyond what the KTM has brought to market—to a top-tier mountain bike, which can easily run $12,000. For Ytterborn, the Kalk is to Cake as the Roadster was to Tesla—a proof-of-concept initially relying on early adopters. He is in no rush to ramp up sales, preaching deliberate patience in moving forward: in 2019 they hope to sell 300 bikes in North American and another 300 in Europe, roughly doubling that in 2020 until hitting a target of 5,000 bikes by 2022—at which time the Kalk will retail for around $8,500, or the same as the KTM.
“How you open the markets to Aspen, or Vail, or a wider market, you need to establish the credibility of promoting something that has true quality, that is among those who put the highest demands on products. That's why we're starting with a fairly expensive product without any compromises, to make sure that we have the perfect vessel that supports the intentions we have targeted.”
Soon a street-legal commuter version of the Kalk will debut with headlamps, blinkers, dashboard, etc., and what they dub a "heavy motorbike" in the future, loaded with ABS brakes and other requisite technology.
“But our intention is not to take market share from the motorbike market,” Ytterborn points out. “It's about growing the motorcycle market. We're not saying ‘Look at us: we're better, we're faster.' We're just different.”