Britain’s newest – and (at the time) only – off-road electric bike trail park opened in 2014. RUST was there to try it out…
The ride of the future might in fact be a turning back of the clock. charging around the advanced course at the UK’s first electric off-road bike centre on a sunny early-summer afternoon, the sensations were distinctly old school – and reminded me of my early days on dirtbikes, racing my mates and howling with laughter. Not for the first time the guy riding alongside me – Steve Ireland of WOR fame – was showing me his wheel as I slowed too much for the approaching corner. Clearly Steve is a disciple of the ‘Rubbing-is-Racing’ school of competition.
And there was no end of skids, from both backing-in the rear and power sliding on corner exits – and of course the odd unintentional front lock-up. The track was smooth, not whooped-out, and there was scope here and there for a lunging pass. And given that these were almost silent electric bikes we were riding, there was plenty of opportunity for chatter and sledging (as the cricketers call it) as we skidded between the saplings.
And just over the fence – right there – were the neighbours, blissfully oblivious to the eight-bike scrap taking place not 100 yards from their back door.
This is E-Scape, deep in the development-restricted green belt of sleepy Cheshire. It’s a brave new venture by a farmer and land-owner who’s combined the directives of rural-diversification with his love of off-roading. Stuart Rutter is a keen dirt biker, a regular at WOR events with a long list of past dirt weapons, including Huskeys and KTMs; but he’s better known to this magazine as the importer of (and investor in) the very first electric dirt bike we tested back in 2005 – the American made Electric Moto T6 Blade.
‘The inspiration, the beginnings, started in about 2005. I’d been working with Steve Ireland putting on events on some land I had in Wales, but noise complaints led to us being shut down and that got me started on looking for a silent alternative. It was then I saw these American guys developing an electric bike called the Blade and my interest evolved from there. If I wanted to continue riding bikes in my Welsh woodland then here was the answer.’
Despite years of research and multi-million dollar investment (only a few thousand of which came from Stuart), the Blade never amounted to more than a few demo bikes and a whole heap of disappointment. Shame, because we felt it had real potential. In the meantime Stuart was looking for something to do with a small pocket of land he owned in Cheshire.
‘I had the remainder of what had once been a reasonable sized family farm. It was a small site – just seven acres and a few pig sheds – and I was wondering what I could do with it. Then I thought why not make use of the land and the buildings for off-roading – not just for my own pleasure, but for the wider public. An electric off-road riding centre! But because we’re situated in green belt it was a tough planning process to go through. From the start we had to establish that this is genuine sport and recreation as the planners would define it, not just a boys-with-their-toys thing, and that took some persuading.
‘There were so many other hurdles as well, the whole planning process took about four years from start-to-finish. And when it came to getting the neighbours to warm to the idea it soon apparent they weren’t in favour of the plan at all. There were over 100 objections to it. So after the planners had been I had another twelve-month battle to convince the neighbours it was worthwhile.’
Like any building project, planning is just half the story. So after the four years battling the planning system came a three-year build.
‘I initially went with the idea of having contractors build it, but the prices they quoted just made it unviable. Fortunately I have a construction background – actually I started my working life with a town planning degree – and I’ve done a few building projects of my own, so it was a case of just getting stuck in. I’ve probably sat behind the wheel of a JCB for the best part of the three years now, doing all the groundworks, putting in the track, building the new roads and digging the footings for the building before finally handing over to the trades to do the brickwork and the roofing. It’s been a combination of project managing and working on site.’
And, as we should be able to deduce from the start date, Stuart’s done all this in the time of a world banking crisis. Did that cause him problems?
‘Of course! I’d been offered a loan from the bank to the tune of £300,000. I didn’t take it up immediately, I’d said I’d call upon it when I needed it – when I’d run out of my own money. That was okay by them. So the months went by and naturally when I did go to the bank to call upon the loan they said that had been months ago… that things had changed… and I couldn’t have it.
‘Without the loan, and needing to finish the project, I had to cash-in everything I had. I had some properties in Wales, development sites, so I had to sell them at a knock down price, to get the cash in and get this place finished. It was quite a deal, but now I’m glad that I did it as I’m much happier today, not being beholden to a bank for the £300,000 plus interest.’
Stuart is also smiling because he’s made his venture as green as he possibly can. With electricity being supplied by 100% renewable resources, he’s taken his environmental footprint as low as he can go. No wonder he’s won support from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA – whose logo proudly adorns E-scape’s website), as well as the EU.
Life is not Hollywood: ‘build it and they will come’ does not always work in reality. In business there’s almost never a time when you can sit back and rest. Build-it is only the start.
‘Yes, the real work starts now’, agrees Stuart. ‘Because now we’ve got to make it work. We’ve got to be marketing it and in these early days, gauge it right so we don’t over-stretch ourselves with the limited resources we have.’
As it happens the start has been very encouraging. And, of real interest to the wider industry, it’s been significant that some 30-40 per cent of the attendees so far have been female.
‘Because there’s no noise, no gears, no clutch, it’s not that dissimilar to riding a bicycle, so anyone can ride these things.’
Not that Stuart’s suggesting girls don’t ride dirtbikes – of course they do – but he’s well-aware of the fact that dirtbiking is a male dominated sport, so as Stuart points out ‘where maybe they’d be petrified of a petrol-powered bike, within five minutes they’ll get to grips with this and realise it’s just like a bicycle – only they can go faster by twisting the throttle. Once they’ve got that, they’re fine.’
Aside from the unisex approach, Stuart’s been clever to identify the family market and he’s been sharp enough to understand that too much training and not enough fun can kill a concept. On the other hand, he’s shrewd enough to ensure that everyone – beginners and experienced riders alike – must first complete a familiarization/training with the electric bikes before being set loose.
Stuart and his assistant Jack Machin (a young student, about to graduate, who over the past 12 months has himself committed heavily to the project) have both become qualified ACU instructors. But as Stuart points out, the training is just about providing the basics: ‘get them started safely, basic off-road skills are all we’re looking to achieve.’ And this approach is paying off. With a simple familiarization process, riders can quickly progress out onto the well thought-out and beautifully constructed courses – carefully planted with various grasses and trees so the tracks are almost invisible at ground level (except for the track you’re following). There’s an easy programme for progression and return visits are common.
‘We’ve had many families come in, not just dads and lads, but mothers and daughters, and mothers bringing their kids in for a birthday treat. It’s great because with the 6-12 age group there’s more interest from girls, our Saturday lunchtime short circuit club is all girls!
‘It’s a great feeling to take someone who doesn’t have that big an interest in off-road riding, and to see them come off the track buzzing about it and wanting to go again – to have converted someone. I think it’s good for the sport in general and I’m hoping we will see quite a high conversion rate of people who hadn’t even considered off-roading before, and are now considering it. The girls who come at the weekend lunchtimes… it’s fast becoming a new hobby for them.’
It helps that at E-Scape there’s a fully-equipped café serving real coffee, a selection of healthy food and home-made cakes all at sensible prices. And there’s a large decked verandah overlooking the course where parents can sit outside and watch all the action (or stay inside looking out through the dramatic full-width glazed doors. For parents that provides an opportunity to relax with a cappuccino or a spot of lunch, whilst their kids burn off some energy outside. This part of the operation is run by Stuart’s wife Lesley.
‘The parents are blown away by it’ she says. ‘They can come here and relax, watching the kids having fun with something that challenges them and doesn’t involve an electronic screen. So far the parents are being really positive. And some of them were the same people who were objecting to the scheme in the first place. They’ve come up to me and said, “We were wrong.” ’
Stuart’s got a few other clever ideas up his sleeve as well. The E-Scape Lunchbox is one such idea. Offering a mid-week, mid-day 20-minute ride, a sandwich and a drink, all for £15. And with a number of business parks within a ten-minute drive he’ll be looking to attract the corporates as much as the families and individuals. In fact he’s already hosted his first corporate event, which proved a big success.
This isn’t a confession, just a fact. Up until now I’d not (personally) ridden an electric bike – although TBM has tested them on numerous occasions. Truth be told I’d not really wanted to either. But having ridden Stuart’s Quantyas, I’m now quite the supporter if not an actual convert. Electric bikes, for the time being anyway, are not going to replicate or replace the full combustion-motor experience. But they do definitely have a place in our world – offering a unique sense of fun that’s all their own.
It might be something like indoor karting as compared to the normal road car experience. You love the kart, if gives you a real thrill, but you know it’s not going to replace your Mondeo Estate any day soon. The electric bike experience is similar. It’s dirt biking without the chore… No noise, no clutch, no starting, no gears, no heat, no smells, no washing, no transporting, no problem!
I like the lightness, the lack of complication and the fact that they go just fast enough, but not too fast. You get a speed thrill, but not a speed-scare. You get to play the racer, doing skids and small jumps, but not so much you’ll need a full-on medical crew in constant attendance. And Stuart’s been canny with his track building, it’s off road, but its graded, and there’s a perfect match between the shale-like graded track and the trail-type rear tyres on the bikes. The front – on the bigger bikes – remains a conventional motocross type, by the way. Alongside the Quantyas there’s a full range of OSETs too to suit kids of all ages and abilities. Stuart’s got that covered too…
And about two-minutes into riding these bikes you ‘get it’. It is after all very simple; so you quickly assimilate to the slight lag in throttle response, how there’s very little in the way of engine braking and how it’s very easy to get along with the handling. These are sub-90kg bikes, a little smaller than a conventional bike – like a small 125, and some are made to 85cc dimensions. And with modest power they can be bossed about.
That said it takes some getting your head around what do when jumping. I’m pretty sure it’s the same as with a conventional bike, power on to lower the back, power off to lower the front. I found it easier not to think and just make short skippy-hops rather than attempting big air, but some of the lads with us had no issue with launching into some tidy flights. That said the course has been set up to be really easy. The jumps are all small and manageable and you have to work to get the bike flying high. If you want to practise your MX technique then go to an MX track.
Much like riding full-suspension mountain bikes, yes, these electric bikes give us a fair chunk of what we already enjoy. It seems they also give us something that we might have lost along the way – that plain old-fashioned fun factor that playing round in the dirt used to be before all the long travel suspension and costly four-stroke tech got in the way of good times.
And that fun experience combined with a proper grown-up facility, beautifully landscaped, with all the amenities you’ll need makes for a great day out. A great way to sample something different – something that in years to come we may all have to become a lot more familiar with.
As I said at the beginning of this story, there’s a real retro-feeling to riding these bikes. When I was a kid we used to hare around on field bikes in grass paddocks. Because the paddocks were flattish, because there were no braking bumps, no jumps or doubles, you could ride pretty close to one another, it was proper racing (in our imaginations). On this track the electric bike experience felt like that… it was easy to ride close to each other, handlebar-to-handlebar stuff. But mostly it was just plain old-fashioned fun…
The Immediate Future
Some day very soon KTM will – after so many false dawns – finally release upon us their Freeride-E. Quite how well it performs we’ll have to wait and see. On their website they’re claiming a 95-kilo package with a 10hp continuous level of power with a peak power of 30hp. That actually should be good enough for a fair bit of fun. It’s more power than most 250 four-strokes make and the bike weighs far less. But the quoted run-time doesn’t sound so good at just 30 minutes. You’re not going to go too far on that. And we don’t know yet what the pricing is going to be.
Nevertheless KTM have taken an active interest in Stuart’s E-Scape operation, and we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Freeride-Es appearing there very soon. Stuart was lamenting the fact that Quantya are no longer imported into the UK and their nearest competitor – Zero – have abandoned the UK marketplace too. Meanwhile high-profile American city-scooter specialists Vectrix have recently failed altogether – now in liquidation – after just seven years.
All of which make the E-future look less than rosy. Hopefully with the arrival of mainstream manufacturers such as KTM and BMW (the latter going large on a new range of electric-powered scooters), there’s a fair chance that a revival is on its way.
Ben France, student (studying welding)
‘We heard about this place at college (Hartford College), so came down, did our basic training and learnt the circuits. It was great and we wanted to come back straight away. I ride a Yamaha WR125X on the road, so the electric bike is different. Weird almost… the power is constant, there when you want it. It’s simple too, there’s no clutch and the brakes are more important, but its so reactive, a little touch of throttle and it goes, and it’s so much fun. And having the single gear, when you’re going around corners you don’t have to worry about changing gear. I’ve never been off-road on a bike before so it makes that a little bit easier to learn.’
Daniel Stubbs, student (studying motorcycle mechanics)
‘I’ve never done anything like this before. Stuart and Jack explain to you all the techniques and stuff; to start with I was everywhere didn’t really know what I was doing, but within 10 minutes you start getting the hang of it and can start riding the bikes properly. Not everyone has an off-road bike, so to come here and use theirs – it makes it a lot easier, more accessible.’
Daniel Antrobus, student (studying motorcycle mechanics)
I’ve done a little bit of off-roading. It is different, with the gears and the bikes themselves. But to have others to ride with, and we’re all on the same bike, it makes it a lot of fun. It’s a good track, too, with a few jumps and stuff and the more you come the better you get, you can always go faster, improve on the jumps, and it’s not expensive either.’
The Distant Future
Stuart’s development of the UK’s first electric off-road bike centre has stood in the way of another of his projects – to build the ultimate electric off-road bike. Having something of a technical mind, and having got his sleeves rolled-up and delved deep into the electric bikes he’s owned, he’s got to the prototype stage in developing his own electric machine. It even has a name – Brutal Blau, though don’t read too much into the German sounding name (Brutal Blue), it’s just a handle Stuart dreamed up one day.
Ironically the project has stalled (unlike an electric bike) and is likely to remain that way as Stuart explained he can see far greater benefit coming from equipping his centre with the products of mainstream brands. And in so doing becoming a place where you can effectively try before you buy. But Brutal Blau certainly shows the direction electric bike development can go.
For a start he’s built his bike as a full-size model, with the 21in/18in wheels and suspension we normally associate with enduro bikes. And with a full size frame – his own design, made in aluminium – he’s been able to build-in a far more powerful battery pack. It would seem to be more sophisticated too, with 23 cells – capable of individual renewal (money saving) – there’s a combination of more power (good for an equivalent of a peak 30hp), longer duration and better energy management. All this in a package that weighs just 95kg.
Stuart tested Brutal Blau at a ride day at Geraint Jones’ fam in Mid Wales, and the bike lasted a full near three-hour ride, with 30% power still left. By the way, to recharge the battery takes two-hours and costs about 60p (we like that bit). Stuart’s love of Hare & Hounds racing has guided the development and so the seat hinges off easily and with a hinge on the bash plate too it’s a matter of seconds for the battery to be removed and replaced. So a three hour race – where power usage would be that much more than a trail ride – is looking very possible given one or two pit-stops.
As Stuart has said, he has no plans to develop his bike any further just yet, but it certainly shows we’re getting closer to the possibility of a viable electric enduro bike.
Try it Yourself
E-Scape are based in Preston Brook, Cheshire, about two minutes drive from junction 11 on the M56. They can instruct absolute beginners, and they’ll happily accommodate experienced riders too. They do a wide range of packages from beginners instruction to free-riding sessions for the more able riders, and there are ‘clubs’ so the kids can ride regularly with their contemporaries. The hour-long clubs cost £15. Free-ride sessions start at £15. Some of the sessions can seem short at 20 and 35-minutes but bear in mind riding these bikes on this course is surprisingly intense – you’ll be worn out long before you’d expect!
Lesley’s domain, the cafe, is a beautiful world and with a super-flash kitchen she’s keen to impress with a range of teas, coffees and lunch bites all at very reasonable prices. She even lists crepes on the menu – which we missed, damn!
For more information look them up at www.e-scape.org.uk or phone them on 03330 117233