Education through an electric bike

Lake Elmo resident Kevin Clemens set national and world land speed records in 2012 on his electric motorcycle at Bonneville Salt Flats. (submitted photo)

Racing through the salt flats on his self-designed electric bike, Clemens hopes his record-setting efforts encourage people to consider energy, infrastructure and creating a better transportation system for the future. (submitted photo)

Rebecca Rowe
Review staff

Quite a few men and, of course, women, enjoy tinkering in their garage.

Not many, though, have utilized their time to build a  motorcycle capable of claiming international speed records.

Kevin Clemens, 55, of Lake Elmo set two national and two international land speed records last summer while participating in the ninth annual BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials.

The records were achieved at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats while riding a lightweight electric motorcycle designed in his back yard.

Clemens began designing motorcycles as an attempt to highlight the potential of electric vehicles.

“Overall, I seek to develop materials and curricula that will help to educate the public and foster the acceptance of electrified transportation,” said Clemens, who has advanced degrees in engineerabout 500- writingansportation  book,of Mongoliaduring the unpopular conflict.

He initially worked with heavy laden, albeit extremely fast, vehicles as a research scientist investigating racing and sports car for Michelin Tires.

From the Artic Circle to the deserts of Mongolia

Eventually, Clemens was chosen to serve as the technical editor for “Automobile” magazine, a position allowing him a great number of adventures.

“This was 1991, and I got a call from David E. Davis asking me if I was interested in the position,” Clemens said. “I thought about it for around 10 seconds and realized the opportunity to write for the major car magazine in the country comes once in a lifetime, so of course I said yes.”

While with “Automobile” magazine, he drove north of the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter, across the searing deserts of China and Mongolia in the summer, through perils in the republics of the former Soviet Union, in 55 foreign countries and all 50 states.

“I wasn’t really a writer before I started with ‘Automobile.’ Having your editor say ‘this is terrible; do it again’ was the real way I learned,” Clemens recalled with a laugh.

Electric vehicles

Seeking more understanding and knowledge, Clemens applied for and was selected as a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow in 2007 at the University of Michigan.

“It really altered everything. It was an incredible opportunity to sit and think. Most of the time you don’t get to think. Most of the time you end up having to do things quickly without putting a lot of thought behind it. Here, I wasn’t expected to anything but think,” Clemens said.

If a question arose in his mind, such as where does oil truly come from, he simply consulted with an expert in the area freely available to him as a fellow at the large research university.

Clemens’ experiences at Michigan culminated with the book, “The Crooked Mile.” It examines energy and infrastructure, and how the two fit together to create a better transportation system for the future.

“After the fellowship, I had real difficulty returning to writing about 500-horsepower sport utility vehicles and thinking about them as being a good thing,” said Clemens. “I still believe it is nice to have 500-horsepower sports cars and take them on the racetrack, that is fine, but really there are many places you don’t need that performance. What you need are vehicles that are more environmentally responsible.”

Ever the optimist, Clemens’ wife, a physician at Regions Hospital, encouraged him to include in “The Crooked Mile” positive, action-oriented solutions to address somewhat depressing past and present-day problems.

And Clemens’ realization: whereas the energy conservation issues he was focusing on may not be solved in his lifetime, hope existed with the children. Now, though, how could he communicate his message to the young generation of today?

Returning to academia with this specific question in mind, Clemens’ ended up earning an additional master’s degree from Hamline University in environmental education.

Bonneville entered his mind, having visited the Salt Flats in the 1980s while working as an engineer for Michelin Tires.

“I started thinking that I really need to put my money where my mouth is. If I’m really that interested in environmental issues, alternative fuels, changing the way we do things, and educating the younger population, maybe I should look at electric motorcycles and a Bonneville record,” Clemens said.

“It sounded like a great way to publicly educate about the potential of electric vehicles.”

Bonneville 2012

Clemens competed in two classes at the ninth annual BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials. The 150kg partially streamlined class allowed aerodynamic bodywork. No such improvements were permitted in the 150kg unstreamlined class.

The national and world partially streamlined record was set by Clemens in 2012 at 78.4 miles per hour. Clemens broke his 2011 national unstreamlined record of 61.5 miles per hour, setting a new national and world mark in 2012 of 64.1 miles per hour in this category at the Salt Flats.

Although the records may seem modest compared to the 200-plus mile per hour speeds unlimited electric motorcycles can attain, building a lightweight electric motorcycle creates plenty of engineering challenges.

“The more weight you are allowed, the more batteries you can put on the bike and the faster you can go,” Clemens said.

It is important, though, to remember the reason why Clemens embarked upon his now legendary Bonneville journeys.

Interest is great in Clemens’ activities and creates awareness of the topics of energy, infrastructure and creating a better transportation system.

Records and motorcycles, of course, attract interest of boys and girls across the state and throughout the nation.

He has visited classes and colleges with his record-setting bike and is currently working to integrate aspects of electric transportation into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) materials.

Clemens, therefore, has been successful considering his original objectives.

And, unsurprisingly, his work is not done.

“It has been very interesting to show kids the potential of electric vehicles through the medium of my electric motorcycle,” Clemens said. “People are interested and like the idea.  We’re pushing the envelope and doing something cool. It all has great potential.”

Approximately six months away, Clemens is preparing for his 2013 return to Bonneville. He will seek to break 100 miles per hour and set records for motorcycles with sidecars as well.

Rebecca Rowe can be reached at

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