Free To Go

From almost the first days that I rode my BMW /5 motorcycle, it was clear that it was nearly as capable in the dirt as it was on pavement.

Now we’re not talking Travis Pastrana backflip dirt, or Erzberg Rodeo dirt, but simple, straightforward feet up enduro riding dirt. On fire roads or reasonably sane trails in the woods, the boxer-engined Wunderbike was surprisingly competent when ridden rationally and within certain fairly sensible limits.

The fact that I know about those limits begs more than a few tales.

The first limit involves the limits of the tires fitted to the bike. Over 35 years of riding it, my tire choices have slowly evolved from the ubiquitous Continental SuperTwins street tires of the early eighties, through a series of mild dual sport skins like Avon Distanzias, to the set of Heidenau Scouts that I’m getting ready to fit. What one can do with this motorcycle in the loose stuff involves how much stick one’s skins can provide.

The second limit involves mass management. The great drive and good torque make tractoring up incredible grades — tire grip permitting — almost trivial. Working down the same grade on 450 plus pounds of motorcycle is … less trivial. I never recall experiencing unplanned vehicle rider separation going up hills. I did, however, get fairly skilled in learning to pick up and recover the motorcycle when facing down grades. Sadly, what goes up must eventually come down, but some planning is your friend here.

Water crossings are also well within the boxer’s capabilities… the older bikes, with their air intakes up on the frame backbones, are good swimmers… as long as the water level is under the roundels, you’re good!

As a youthful boxer affectionado, I sought out every trail and offroad opportunity I could find. The Baltimore City watershed, starting from Loch Raven park, had multiple trails that were built to support water lines, power lines, and other infrastructure, and the /5’s near-silent stock exhaust allowed me to explore without disturbing other park users or attracting the wrong kind of attention. Activities which would have brought the long arm of the law down swiftly and hard on my two-stroke riding contemporaries never resulted in any awkward conversations with the constable. Being street legal meant coming out near a public road at the end of trail just meant throttling up and disappearing into the normal flow of traffic.

The Pretty Boy reservoir system and the Papapsco State Park System … which was within a 10 minute ride of my early work location at the Social Security Administration’s Woodlawn Datacenter also provided hours of exploring and honing my dirt rider’s skills. I might not yet know everything that BMW’s Factory ISDT riders knew about boxering the dirt, but the gap was slowly narrowing.

Which brings me to my most exciting dirt adventure.

Sometime in the mid 1980’s I headed west out of my then-home of Baltimore to my first BMW Rally — the Baltimore and Metropolitan Washington BMW riders (BMWBMW) Square Route Rally — based out of the American Legion’s Camp West-Mar outside of Thurmont Maryland. 30 plus years later, I live in Frederick County, but to young Rally Pup, the green mountainsides, twisting roads and deep forest were like another planet.

On Saturday afternoon of the Rally, after field events had wrapped and way before dinner, a natural lull presented me with what sure seemed like an opportunity to explore. The old American Legion Camp is laid out like any military installation, with a ring of barracks arranged around a Mess Hall. On the far edge of the Camp, two barracks are separated by a slightly larger gap, and that gap contained a dual track that disappeared into a green tunnel into the woods.

The temptation was more than I could possibly bear.

I pulled on my gloves and helmet, kicked the bike — which still had its original 4-speed then — to life, and quietly motored into the green.

For a guy whose home was in the brick rows of the BelAir/Edison neighborhood of Baltimore city, it was absolutely heaven. The trail was a grass and mossy dual track, with a heavy tree canopy that allowed the sun to filter through in places. Speed wasn’t important. Just maintaining headway and reading the trail was completely immersive. I was focused, calm, centered.

As I exited a corner in that trail, though, I heard an unfamiliar sound.

“CHAKA-CHAKA-CHAKA-CHACKA-KA-CHAKA-CHACK-CHACK-CHACK…”

I pulled the clutch in and coasted to a stop. I knew every noise that motorcycle made, and I was fairly confident this wasn’t any of them.

I was having a full-on ‘Mr. Jones Moment’ again — I knew something was happening, I just didn’t know what it was, yet.

I peered ahead into the forest, squinted a little, and as I did, the unexpected sight of a squad of fully armed United States Marines in tactical gear slowly came into focus out of the camouflaged position where they’d been invisible mere seconds before.

My /5, known for a slight noisy top end, hadn’t hung a valve. The “CHAKA-CHAKA” had been the sounds of 16 M-16 safeties coming off.

The Squad Leader addressed me in that subtle and gentle manner for which the United States Marines are renowned.

“THIS IS A RESTRICTED AREA!”

I took about three-quarters of a second to absorb this, and then about another three-quarters of a second waiting for my heart to restart.

“Am I free to go?”

“Yes, Sir.”

I gently dropped the clutch, did about the smoothest in place O-turn I’ve done before or since, and gently headed back towards Camp West-Mar along the same vector from which I’d come.

Now, folks that have spent their entire lives in Thurmont Maryland are well aware that Camp West-Mar isn’t the only installation back in them there woods. Seems that there’s also a little place called Camp David, and the two camps, as I now fully understand, share an extended property line.

Seems The Boss Was In Town that weekend, along with his heavily armed little friends, I was the only dimwit that wasn’t fully aware of same.

You do your Adventure Riding, and I’ll Do Mine.

With a change of underwear, and a cold beer (or two), I’d be just fine.

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Bonding

In the life of a motorcyclist, taking delivery on a brand new motorcycle is one of those milestone moments that becomes a nexus around which your entire riding experience revolves.

In more than 30 years in the saddle, I’ve only bought myself one new motorcycle.

That wasn’t going to change today.

 

***

 

After my son Finn’s Buell Blast had proven itself not quite up to the task of being reliable, daily transportation, it became more or less obvious that, in the interest of his safety, a more modern and well engineered motorcycle needed to be obtained. It may have been more obvious to Sweet Doris From Baltimore, Finn’s Mother, and less obvious to me, but no matter.

I did some searches on Cycle Trader to check real world values on some of the motorcycles that I thought would represent a step up in power and handling for Finn, while not completely breaking the family bank.

I’ll admit, that especially when it comes to motorcycles, I’ve got opinions.

After surveying the market for my small target group of medium displacement twins — 650 Versys, FZ-7s, CB500Fs — the CB500F was quickly identified as the most versatile machine that could be obtained for the least dollar. A John Burns review of the CB — in which Burnsie shared that the motorcycle had totally surprised him by its capabilty, and left him in the difficult position, for a motorcycle reviewer, or having absolutely nothing to kvetch about — convinced me this was the one. There were leftover CBs in dealer inventory all across the country, and a nice one was located for the right price in Baltimore at Pete’s Cycle.

65 miles from the front door.

Sold.

After many, many, MANY phone calls working the entire sale remotely, and then a few more calls with my Credit Union taking a small loan, the deal was done. $93 a month was a bill I can cover for Finn until he graduates, and once he is gainfully employed, I can sign both the title and payment book over to him.

Welcome to adulting lesson one.

Now all we had to do was pick it up.

 

***

 

In your rose colored fantasy motorcycling world, when you pick up your new motorcycle, you are standing on some dealership lot in Huntington Beach or Cosa Mesa, it’s 84 degrees out, the Pacific Breeze washes over your skin, everybody is wearing jams, sneakers and shades and calling each other ‘Dude’.

Now let’s snap out of it and get to the real world, shall we, Bucko?

When Finn and I got up on our anointed Saturday morning, it was 36 degrees out, cloudy, windy, and with a radar trace that showed a stationary front hanging out just to the north of Jefferson where it was dropping light rain and even some sleet in places.

Just ‘effin perfect.

Finn, it should be clearly stated, is a night owl. So right off the bat he wasn’t at his absolute best as we were sucking down some coffee and cereal and trying to bolt together a plan.

“First, this is your bike, so you have to get first saddle time. So, we can either throw our riding gear in your Corolla, drive to Baltimore, and you can head back out this way with me available to take a shift if it gets too cold or rainy, or you can ride cupcake on the LT and we can make a moto trip out of the deal.”

“Let’s take your bike.”

That’s my boy.

“Good, nobody ever got wet riding an LT, and on the way back out at least I can talk to you from a bike to see how you’re doing …”.

 

***

 

Finn and I got fully geared up — me in my second skin the ‘stitch, and Finn in his insulated textile riding pants, jacket and gloves — both of us with a light technical fleece to layer up for warmth underneath.

The weather report showed rapidly rising temperatures, so I felt pretty good about our prospects. The only concern was the behavior of that stationary front — Baltimore was forecast to stay dry, but Jefferson was not — so it was inevitable that somewhere on the way back our trip would break bad. It was just a question of how far west and how close to home we would be when that happened.

Finn and I headed for the garage and threw up the door behind the LT. While I was dialing in a few clicks of preload, Finn was fastening his helmet and gazing down the driveway.

“It’s raining.”

“Of course it is. We should punch back out of it on the other side of Frederick. I’ll roll the Fat Girl down to the bottom of the driveway. You pull the door down and meet me down there.”

20 seconds later, he was comfortably astride the LT’s pillion, and we were shields up and heading for Pete’s and Baltimore.

 

***

 

Somewhere between Frederick and Mount Airy, and maybe a few more miles further east than I’d been hoping, we did punch back into the clear, and the temperature finally started to rise in a meaningful way.

If there’s one thing an LT is built for, it’s carrying full bags and a passenger, and doing its best to vaporize some miles. With a pillion up, the bike runs smoother and handles better, and with a new motorcycle waiting on the other end, running 80+ on the Interstate seemed like something both of us would naturally want to do.

When we hit the more congested Baltimore Beltway, I backed it down a few, selecting a speed that was just 3 or 4 above prevailing traffic, so we could pick our spots of clear pavement and try to defend them.

Belair Road came up soon enough, and less than a mile south of the exit I made the left turn into Pete’s parking lot. The business is built on the side of a hill, so the parking lot slopes pretty sharply down towards the rear of the building, where there is a motorized security gate and the Service Department’s entrance.

I’ll admit that parking an 850 plus pound motorcycle on steep grades does not appeal to me, so I cut to the right inside the lot and found a nice level spot next to the razor wire topped fence that borders Belair Road.

Pete’s Cycle Company is located in Fullerton, a neighborhood located in Northeast Baltimore. When a young, CB750-riding me had last been their customer, they had a storefront located in Hamilton, a neighborhood located about 5 miles to the south and closer to the center of the city. About 20 years ago, they made a business decision to move out of the location where they had done business for more than 60 years to a larger facility. This location is a few miles further from the troubled neighborhoods that are the home turf of the city’s ’12 O’Clock Boys’. The ‘Boys’ got their name because of their advanced skills illegally riding dirtbikes with their front forks pointing to the noon position. Dealers throughout the entire Mid-Atlantic region, from York, PA., to Staunton, VA., have had visits from ‘The Boys’ to make crash and grab nighttime dirtbike withdrawals, so those few miles are probably not signficant. But between the cameras, razor wire, barred windows and mechanized gates, one can tell Pete’s isn’t going to make such extreme discounts easy to obtain.

After stowing our helmets and gloves in the LT’s cases, a slightly chilly-appearing Finn and I headed into the building to look for our salesman.

I’ve been in my fair share of motorcycle dealerships, but the view upon entering Pete’s was a bit of a shock.

Right inside the door were 3 Polaris Slingshots — including one with a roof that I’d never seen before. Next to these were a half dozen or so Can-Am Spyders. The rest of the substantial showroom was jammed with bikes — Hondas, Ducatis, Trimuphs, Suzukis, Kawasakis — heck, there was even a nicely cruisered-out Royal Enfield, but it looked like a bike someone had traded in.

Remembering that the motorcycle we were buying was not a ‘planned motorcycle’, to avoid further trouble I went well out of my way to avoid the Africa Twin and NC700x that Pete’s had on the floor.

One of the folks roaming the floor asked if we needed any assistance.

“Yup. I’m looking for Jim Stantz.”

“Ok, that’s him in the black windbreaker all the way over ….there.”

Just what I needed — a reason to traverse the entire showroom. It was almost like making a desperate alcoholic walk across the entire liquor warehouse. Eyes down…eyes down….

“Hey Guys! You must be Greg and Finn. You guys rode in from Frederick today?”

“Yeah, its raining out our end..nice enough here in Baltimore, though.”

“Our business manager — you’ll be meeting with him in a minute — rode in from Frederick this morning, too…said the same thing. The bike’s out back. You want to see her before we do the paperwork?”

Well, yeah.

Jim walked us down the back stairs and out past the service department. Pete’s has a covered back porch where the new motorcycles are placed after they’ve been prepped for delivery. Right outside the door was our CB500F.

Maybe all bikes look better in person than they do in stock photos. Whether they generally do or not, this one sure did.

I took a quick sideways glance over at Finn, and he was slackjawed and googly-eyed in a look of pure, unadulterated motopleasure.

The CB was finished in all flat black, with its tailsection and radiator cowls finished in silver. The tank had a nice Shelby-style dual racing stripe applied down the center of the tank. The engine was also painted black, with the clutch, alternator and valve covers painted in a copper color to mimic the magnesium cases that Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) uses on their RC racing specials. The shapes of the tank and tail section, as well, were intended to mimic those of the big CBR100R and its motoGP big brother, the RC213v.

For what is admittedly a reasonably priced street motorcycle, the CB gives an enthusiast a great deal to look at and to enjoy.

As Finn’s initial state of pleased shock wore off, I asked him if he wanted to sit on the bike.

He slowly walked around the left side of the machine, gripped the front brake lever and threw a leg over.

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The bike fit him like it was made for him.

Jim walked him through the features and controls of the bike. Finn set the adjuster of the front brake lever to fit his hand.

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Finn turned the key, and watched as the instrument display went hits animated calibration routine. The odometer display read “0.7”. He pulled the clutch in, and pressed the starter.

The bike started from cold on the second compression stroke, and what filled the air around us was the sound of a thoroughly modern motorcycle — the high pitched ‘wheep-wheep-wheep’ of the high pressure fuel pump and the fuel injectors opening and closing. With the water cooling jackets and double overhead cams there was no noise from the reciprocating parts of the engine whatsoever — no valve noise, no piston clatter. The exhaust had a nice brap to it without being obnoxious — a pleasant change from a big single with a drag pipe — and the engine responded to throttle by spinning up absolutely instantly — clearly flywheel mass hadn’t been anywhere on the engineering requirements.

We sat for a few seconds listening to the CB’s perfect steady idle, and then Finn killswitched it.

“C’mon, guys — let’s sign a few papers and get you out of here and back on the road.”

And that was really all there was to it. I was ushered into the business manager’s office, made my downpayment, signed the sales order and the title work, and we were back downstairs again in a flash.

Finn rolled the CB off the porch, and pushed the bike through the mechanized gate, which then motored shut behind us.

Jim reminded Finn he was on a set of new, unscrubbed tires.

“No horsin’ around until they’re scrubbed in, eh?”

Jim then shook our hands, thanked us for our business, wished us a safe ride home, and went back inside the dealership. I walked up the hill and retrieved Finn’s helmet and gloves from the LT’s cases.

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Ready to Roll

“You want to take a few loops around the parking lot just to get a feel for the clutch and brakes? When you’re done you can pull up next to the building up by the entrance there, and I can lead us back to the highway. Lemme go get my gear on.”

As I walked back up the hill to my bike, Finn motored up and down the hill in the parking lot a few times. There was a wider area down at the bottom of the lot that worked well for turning around. Finn seemed almost instantly comfortable on the CB — clutch and throttle control were spot on, no extra revs, and he visibly worked the bike from side to side underneath him to get a feel for the mass and turn-in response. By the time I had my second glove on, he was already waiting for me at the exit.

I fired the LT back up, did my U-turn, and rolled up beside Finn and the CB.

“We should probably just go back to the beltway just to get the heck out of town. Once we get on the highway, you lead, pick your own pace, and I’ll keep people off your six. Vary speeds a bit — speed up and then slow down — during the first couple of miles. Then we can run out to Maryland 32 where we can pick up Maryland 144 which will give us a nice backroad ride back to Frederick. Sound like a plan?”

“Sounds perfect. Let’s go.”

And with that we gassed it and headed back up Belair Road.

 

***

 

Watching Finn in my rearviews was easy — the CB’s new tech LED headlight made it completely stand out from the background and from other vehicles.

It wasn’t until I got home later that I had to conclude that at least one Honda Design Engineer watches too many ‘Transformers’ cartoons. Or Gundam Anime. Or something.

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You tell me you don’t see Optimus Prime

Finn’s run up the Beltway was a little tentative, which is exactly what you’d hope to see. As we hit the onramp to I-695 West, though, Finn cut in smoothly and gently rolled the gas as we got to the apex. Both Finn and his new bike looked rock solid.

Fortunately, we got a rare break in the traffic and were able to enter the highway with no frantic adjustments to line or to speed.

As we cleared the interchange, I moved determinedly right, and motioned with my gloved hand for Finn to move by.

The first sound I heard was that of the CB breathing — again that little whistle of the FI plumbing working — then the bike moved smartly past — followed by a very well-defined, metallic ‘Braaap’ of the CB’s twin pulling about 5000 rpm.

You can tell a lot, sometimes, from people’s body language, and shifting up to top gear, Finn was sitting poised and tall.

So we worked our way back around the Beltway and out to I-70, doing our best to keep the CB varying load and speed, and trying to avoid the inevitable flow control chaos that inhabits each of the interchanges. It was fun, and as we hit some clear pavement on 70 West, I enjoyed watching Finn further feeling the CB out. He’d settle in around 70 or so, and then give the bike some enthusiastic throttle and move smartly away. Smooth, flexible power to move freely in highway traffic wasn’t a given on his Blast.

When we rolled up on 32, I passed Finn and led down the interchange. I led us through the left and a right to put us on Frederick Road, headed west towards Jefferson.

Considering how the day had started, conditions weren’t half bad — intermittent clouds and sun, dry pavement, and a temperature in the low 50s. Where the interstate removed the hills, 144 slides around them — the road is always rising and falling, and twisting this way or that.

For a young man with a brand new motorcycle, this flat-lighted day was his first opportunity to get to know and bond with his machine.

 

***

 

The time we spent on that rolling road seemed to stretch out that day, a few good minutes seeming to hang in time for a lot longer than they actually were.

At a stop sign I pulled up beside Finn and popped my visor open.

“How’s the CB, man? How are ya liking this road?”

“This thing’s absolutely awesome, Pop. And I’d like the road a lot more if I had any freakin’ idea where I was.”

“That’s cool, Finn. And I know where I am, so I’ll lead. Pick a good following distance, and ride your own pace.”

And so we rolled — moving up and down through the gears, and breaking in the sides of new tires as we crossed first through Howard, then Carroll Counties. That LED headlamp was there in my mirrors, cornering crisply and doing all the right things.

 

***

 

On the other side of Mount Airy, though, things finally went bad. 144 West runs in shadow, it’s tight and it’s twisty, and today it was dark and was cold.

With no warning the rain hit, the temperature dropped sharply, and my biker sense looked at that road and what it saw was slippy not sticky — it was cause for concern.

At the next stop I signaled.

“You want to stop – eat – warmup…or just wanna get home?”

“I’m OK – let’s keep bangin’.”

“OK – weather is going to shit. I’m going to hop back on the highway and we’ll take it back to 340 and home. We’ll make the left up ahead and the ramp is immediately on the right.”

We rolled our bikes back up through the gears and as we merged onto the highway I waved Finn on by. As the rain picked up the temperature dropped into the low 40s. On a naked motorcycle, it couldn’t have been fun.

Not all motorcycle bonding experiences, I guess, have to be pleasant ones. The tough stuff, it seems, is some of what it takes to learn to trust your machine.

 

***

 

As we got closer to Jefferson, the weather continued to display its blatant disregard for our well-being.

Both Finn and I managed to get through the complex interchange at 70 West and US 340 — with its elevated ramps crisscrossed by 5 inch wide steel expansion joints — evil slippery stuff on a rainy day like this. No wiggles, no goofy stuff, no falling down. Just continue to gas it and go.

We maintained positive throttle coming up Dynamometer Hill, and on the other side of the hill we took the exit for home. I pulled ahead as we ran though town, and hit the neighborhood and then the driveway well before Finn.

I dismounted and threw both doors up by the time Finn rolled up.

He rolled the CB into the left bay, blipped the throttle once, again, and then killswitched the bike.

“This is such a nice motorcycle. Thank you. Thank Mom. As soon as I finish school in June, we are GOING on a trip.”

Clearly getting chilled down and dampened hadn’t done anything to hurt Finn’s enthusiasm.

“C’mon man, let me fire the woodstove up and make us some lunch. You can look for someplace for us to ride to while we’re warming up.”

The Costa Mesa Bros got nothin’ on us.

 

I Surrender

I never thought it would come to this.

When I bought Finn his Buell Blast, my operative assumption had been that a piece of machinery that simple couldn’t really break in any meaningful way.

That assumption has proved so repeatedly wrong I find myself humbled in ways to which I am simply not accustomed.

I’m not merely wrong. I’m colossally, cosmically, monumentally, fundamentally and eternally totally wrong.

My shame in this knows no bounds.

 

***

 

I don’t know, but after I put the motor back in after it fell out, I had what I guess was a false sense of security.

The Blast seemed much more solid on the road, and on a warmer day — say 70 degrees — the carburation seemed spot on and it was making good power.

Bliss, they say, is fleeting.

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Another series of texts from Finn.

When these arrive out of the blue the import is seldom good.

“Stinking bike blew the quiet core out of the muffler.

You’d think I’d have noticed THAT when it happened. 😉

Checked back on the ground in the garage. It’s gone.”

How the asshole reduction baffle — Jardine calls it a ‘quiet core’ — intended to make their racetrack pipe almost socially acceptable — could have been shaken loose is beyond me. I’d used blue locktite on the baffle securing bolt and added a fillet of high temp copper silicone to secure the insert in the exhaust outlet. That insert should have been in there. Instead, it was outta here.

So now the Blast was blasting around sounding like an asshole’s motorcycle.

Then the temperature went under 40 degrees and the bike’s not exactly auto auto choke decides it doesn’t want to fully disengage. A good running motorcycle transforms into an unridable mess — backfires, momentary power loss.

If you are trying to run down Greenbelt Road or US1 in the left lane in morning rush, a big hairy backfire and three seconds of no power are enough to get one steamrolled. It ain’t fun, and it sure ain’t safe.

When this information was shared, Sweet Doris from Baltimore overrevved and threw a rod. “My baby boy is going to get run over by some Crazy PG County Driver on that ‘motorcycle’.”

No mas. Make it stop.

I really wanted to like the Blast. A small light simple single. Descendant of the Vincent Comet.

But it kept betraying me. Shaking parts off. Developing the same intake leaks, carb warmup and drivability problems.

It’s goddamn engine fell out, for Pete’s sakes.

I still want to like the Blast.

Maybe if throw out its fuel tank, carburetor and ignition and replace them with modern components I might yet.

But when I look at it now, all I see is a motorcycle that has been trying to encourage people to run over my son, and an undeniable evidence of my utter and indelible wrongness.

I did a quick review of the few motorcycles currently made that are even remotely related to what we used to call ‘a standard motorcycle’.

I didn’t really want to put Finn on a smaller motorcycle, given his maturing skills as a rider — so the new generation 300s and 400s were non-starters. Fully faired sportbikes, four cylinders, things called ‘Ninja’ and cruisers were out. What one had left were about 5 bikes with displacements between 500 and 800 ccs., and the Honda CB500F was the most versatile, most comfortable, and like a lot of past Hondas, had been so perfectly useful that nobody bought them.

Plus, It’s a Honda.

I probably neglected to mention it was also the least expensive.

If I lived in LA, where coolth apparently has more impact on what people buy to ride, I could buy a leftover 2015 model of these bikes for around $3,800 which is crazy short money for a two cylinder, double overhead cam, water cooled, fuel injected, highway capable modern motorcycle.

In less cool Jefferson, though, there are still leftovers that can be had, and the best such deal I was able to find was at Pete’s Cycle in Baltimore, which had been my dealer when I first started riding my first motorcycle, my CB750K1.

After a phone call or two, I put a deposit on the CB.

It’s a good-looking motorcycle — matt black paint with silver tank shrouds and tailsection. There’s a good looking set of twin silver stripes around the top of the tank, a nice racetrack spec fuel filler, and bright blue anodized fork caps with preload adjusters decorating the bike’s cockpit.

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A unsplatted Finn is worth immeasurably more than $4,699, plus freight, assembly, title, taxes and tags.

Finn’s 20th birthday is on Thanksgiving. Apparently he will be celebrating early, and for sometime thereafter.

 

***

 

Postscript:

Just got back from Baltimore with the bike – A lovely, cold, rainy 65 miles home.

Despite that, I don’t think Finn is going to stop grinning for some time.

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Great Grandson of the Black Bomber

 

 

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That’s how it feels sometimes, when the forces of the universe align, riding the Zero Motorcycles DSR.

I don’t mean in a literal way, although that would be an easy mistake to make.

Back in the 1950s, Physicist George Dyson, in a quest for higher performance space vehicles that could enable interplanetary travel, came to the conclusion that the best impulse/mass… how much thrust one extracted from a given mass of rocket propellant… could be obtained by using nuclear bombs for fuel.

It’s also easy to understand how most of us would have failed to come up with that idea, as it immediately requires that a host of other problems — like not being instantly vaporized, for example — be solved in order to be truly practical. The aforementioned George, however, did come up with the idea, and was pretty well along with it, even having done the math to the point where they were confident they could get a 4000 ton spacecraft they’d designed to earth orbit with only 800 very small nuclear bombs, setting off one every second during the ascent.

At this particular juncture, some nice people who were writing something called the Limited Test Ban Treaty pointed out that those 800 very small nuclear explosions were probably not the best thing for the planet they intended to leave, and that they really needed to think about this at least a little more.

The point, though, is that when one reaches the end of the line for developing and maximizing any source of motive power, one absolutely has to think in new, oblique and unprecedented ways.

And while applying throttle to the Zero’s Z-force direct drive electric motor may not cause space and time to bend while accelerating at the speed of nuclear plasma, it can be powered by the biggest nuclear reaction — at least in our neighborhood — that fusion reactor we call The Sun.

 

***

 

Look, I’ve got gasoline running in my veins.

One of my earliest childhood memories is lying on a mechanic’s creeper next to my Uncle Dick, looking at the roof of his shop through the eight empty holes of the engine he was rebuilding in his Ink Black 1963 Thunderbird.

My first ride was a Rat 8.0 Liter V-8 Cadillac whose carbon footprint was very deep and very, very wide. The bias-belted tires of the late 1970s really had no chance against a young man’s hormonally depraved foot and 465 foot pounds of torque.

I started riding motorcycles because the Sedan Deville had a 27 and a half gallon gas tank, and my first jobs just couldn’t feed the beast. This led me to a CB750 Four, carburetor jets on my kitchen table, learning to set adjustable valves, points with dwell and timing lights, and then a blur of Airhead boxers and KBikes, a Suzuki or two, and a smattering of others – Buells, Kawis, HDs – involving a vortex of exhausts and tuning and suspension work, transmission rebuilds and rewires until there’s a half million moto-miles gone and here we are.

The sound of a Harley XR going around the blue groove at the Frederick Fairgrounds, or the bark of a big bore MotoGuzzi pulling by on a country road is enough to stir me to my soul.

But love her though I may, I’m not so blinded by love that I can’t see she’s packing her suitcases with a ticket in her hand for the midnight train.

Seven major industrialized nations have already announced a date by which they will prohibit the sale of internal combustion engines. On Monday morning in Detroit, General Motors Corporation announced that they will cease the manufacture of internal combustion engine powered vehicles. Let me slow that down for you. General Motors… Will Not… Make Motors. At least not the Internal Combustion motors — like my old Cadillac’s 8.0L V8 — that we know and understand.

Major, prestige nameplates in Automobile design and manufacture — Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes, BMW — either have electric prototypes in testing or early production models to help them defend their customer base from the likes of Tesla and Rimac.

When whole technologies and the economies on which they are based reach a tipping point, you can either recognize that this is happening, or be left utterly behind. And using fossil fuels — gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas — to power human transportation has reached that tipping point.

Electric powered vehicles are not a dream of some possible far off future. Electric vehicles are the solution happening right now. It’s both an incredible and economy-changing commercial opportunity, as well opportunity to completely break the mold — to use creative approaches that can discard old limits and create totally new rules for vehicle design and engineering.

 

***

 

I came to the conclusion long ago that electric power required for modern American life — from lighting to laundry, refrigeration and air conditioning — was an excessive use of resources, especially when powered by coal, oil or gas burning electric generation plants. I’d been profoundly interested in renewables, but their use required me to pay two or three times what normal users paid for energy, and with both a silly need to eat and children’s educations to fund, it simply wasn’t realistic. I settled for making changes that lowered my family’s consumption — LED light bulbs reduced household usage by more than 60% — and kept evaluating solar energy systems in the hope that the economic justification or at least something close to parity, would finally materialize.

Then, a statewide organization called MD-Sun helped set up citizen purchasing co-ops in all of Maryland’s Counties. The co-ops allowed purchase of systems — unlike the lease providers like Solar City — at a substantially discounted rate. My house faces directly south — so was perfect for solar-voltaic electric production. I was able to get a loan that would allow me to purchase a system that would make all the power my family used — working with the installer’s engineer, we played with the configuration until I had a system that made well more than my historical usage. I’d replace my $103 monthly electric bill — pretty modest usage because of my energy saving measures — with a $100 monthly loan bill, and a system that was designed to make surplus power that would be redistributed to my neighbors and have the utility paying me. Surplus power that could also be used to power an electric vehicle.

 

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How to Power One’s Zero Motorcycle

***

 

Which brings me to the Zero Motorcycles DSR.

I’m not a normal motorcyclist, if there even is such a thing.

I ride for daily transportation. I grocery shop and commute on my bikes, although in today’s virtual world I don’t go to work or clients as often as I once did. More than one client in my working life has taken a huge double take when I walked into their data center with my riding gear on and a full size 5U server or network appliance under my arm. I take my bike on business trips when most people use planes. I take long rides — multi-state multi-1000 mile blasts — where most people use ministers or therapists.

My motorcycles are not toys, they are tools. And my tools have to work.

So when I first approached Zero about their motorcycles, my ask was simple. Now that I had a source of renewable energy to ‘fuel’ one, I want to see firsthand if making the change to an electric motorcycle would require adjustments to my riding life, or if it would be frictionless, just like flipping a switch.

 

***

 

My buddy Paul and I were standing out in the parking lot at Powersports East, in Bear, Delaware, taking to the dealership’s Pete Clarkin about the 2017 Zero DSR that we were picking up there.

“I have seen this happen more than once. Guy will come in here, tell me he’s ridden everything ever made and ridden everywhere. That he’s a safe and skilled rider, and wears all the gear all the time. And he will snap the bike into ‘Sport’ mode, and we will end up picking him and what’s left of the bike out of the yard sale at the end of the block.

Please don’t be that guy.

Ride the bike around in ‘Eco’ mode for a day or two, just to get a feel for the thing. Then, when you think you’re ready, dial up ‘Sport’ mode.

You still won’t be ready.”

Standing out in front of a showroom filled with Ninjas and YZRs and GSXRs, ZX14s and Hayabusas, in addition to the Zeros, there was something about this advice that allowed for the possibility it wasn’t entirely balls-size-of-Cleveland, bravado-stuffed biker bullshit. My experience with motorcycle dealers is that they are not prone toward emphasizing the inherent risk we all assume when we ride that may be present in some of their more potent product offerings.

For a dealer to be communicating that this motorcycle could bite me, was noteworthy, and had the feel of something to which I needed to pay attention.

I sat in the saddle of the DSR, turned the key to start the system’s boot sequence. The LCD dash activated and calibrated its instrument display – showing mode selection, battery status, power/regen levels, and road speed. Picking up the sidestand cleared an interlock and its associated safety warning. Activating a very motorcycle-standard handlebar ‘kill’ switch armed the system — a very smartphone appearing green ‘power’ icon — subtly modified to have a little arrowhead included — GO! — appeared on the Zero’s display. I used the mode selector switch on the right handlebar to toggle to ‘Eco’, and gently turned the throttle.

With an almost inaudible ‘whirrr’, the bike smoothly moved forward. I figured I would run the DSR up to the end of Powersport’s substantial parking lot, and just get a tiny taste of its manners before loading into Paul’s truck, which was parked around back. At walking speeds, the Zero was very docile and trivial to control — in ‘Eco’ mode low end throttle response was very gentle, and the bike was light, firmly suspended and perfectly balanced. It became instantly apparent that this was the easiest bike to ride precisely at very low road speeds I’d ever ridden — with the Zero’s direct drive transmissionless operation, speeding up was adding some throttle, slowing down was giving some back.

I did a few O-turns, loops and figure 8s of the kind that likely gave you fits when you took your motorcycle license test. Cake.

I headed around toward the back of the dealership. Paul was walking up ahead, doing something with his phone.

I trolled up beside him at minimum speed and said in a quiet conversational tone, “Hey Paul.”

He jumped and his eyes got big.

He hadn’t heard me or the Zero coming.

We loaded the DSR into the bed of Paul’s Tacoma, and headed back home to Maryland.

 

V__AB36

***

 

Bikers like to look at bikes. At least I do, anyway.

When sitting in the driveway, just drinking in the Zero’s appearance, there is precious little to cue one in to just how revolutionary the Zero’s design really is. Think about it — the base engineering requirements that have driven every motorcycle from DeDion, Peugeot, and Harley to the present day — a place to store oil and gasoline, an internal combustion engine, and a way to get air into and noise out of same — completely don’t apply as none of those considerations are even present. It’s clear that at an early point in the design process the Zero’s designers made a conscious decision to abide by the innate conservatism of motorcycle enthusiasts. No matter how different the underlying mechanics of the machine might be, the Zero needed to at least look like a motorcycle.

 

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Green Power, Green Location

And while some of the design details are 21st Century spacey, the design vocabulary — the structure and interrelationships between forms — are very motorcycle conventional.

The main frame of the DSR is a very stout, narrow twin spar aluminum frame with its main frame members running about 20 degrees under the horizontal axis — a frame that wouldn’t look out of place on an early GSXR or ZZR — and a structure whose rigidity is pretty apparent. Sitting on the lower left frame member is a rubber plug that shields a bog-standard NEMA 5-15 connector, just like you would see on any server or piece of network gear — it’s here where one attaches the standard low-speed charging cord whenever one is looking to add electrons to the bike’s battery pack.

The swingarm is also aluminum — again, a beefy structure with substantial stiffening ribs — looking very similar to those of recent KTMs. Both the frame and swingarm have substantial lateral braces — provided by large and really large diameter tubes — that add tremendous amounts of resistance to torsional flexing with essentially zero weight.

Looking at those big holes in the Zero’s frame made me want to spin up a lathe and make some precision alloy caps to close off your new toolbox and power cord storage compartment.

The marketplace will no doubt provide.

The entire structure is then finished off in a very purposeful looking flat matt finish black.

Suspension, both front and back, is high specification stuff by Showa. In the rear is a fully adjustable, gas charged piggyback shock. In the front is a set of again fully adjustable 41mm ‘upside down’ forks. Both ends of the motorcycle have a pretty respectable and off-road capable 7 plus inches of suspension travel.

Brakes are J. Juan units — a Spanish manufacturer — a dual piston caliper in the front and a single piston one in the rear, using wave-style rotors and ABS provided by Bosch.

Wheels are cast type — a 19 inch in front and a 17 inch in the rear — wearing dual sport MT-60 rubber from Pirelli.

The DSR’s seating position is dirtbike or adventure bike standard — a nearly bolt-upright seating position, lots of legroom with the metal, wide, offroad footpegs right under the seat, and a wide, black finished standard handlebar — I can remember a time when these were called the ‘superbike’ bend — putting one fully in command of the road ahead with the ability to quickly and deterministically shift weight and cornering forces into the nimble chassis.

Even though it doesn’t, the DSR appears to have a conventional gas tank, with shrouds reaching around the fork legs — the view from the saddle could easily be mistaken for that of any current mid-displacement Honda. The ‘tank’ contains a deep, locking glove box, which is sacrificed if one elects either an expansion battery pack – called a ‘PowerTank’ – or the optional J1772 standard fast battery charger — which Zero calls a ‘ChargeTank’. Finished as mine was, in a highly metallic charcoal grey and matt black, the Zero has a very conservative, almost stealth-bomber kind of appearance, that does its level best to avoid calling attention to the bike’s enormous performance potential.

“Tank” and an almost useful glovebox

At this point, however, the Zero is completely out of conventional.

Where the internal combustion engine sits in a gas motorcycle, the Zero carries its Z-force 13.0 kWh lithium-ion power pack. Stylistically, the Z-force powerpack is literally a big black box. Fortunately the bigness, blackness and boxness of the power pack is well camouflaged by a combination chin fairing and some swoopy looking fairing grills that wrap around the side of the battery case. The underside of the battery case and the motorcycle has a pretty substantial bash plate that looks to cover the electric motor controller’s heat sink.

Which brings us to the little miracle that makes the whole thing go — Zero’s proprietary Z-Force electric motor. In DSR-spec, the sealed, permanent magnet , air cooled motor, which is roughly 9 inches in diameter and approximately 11 inches in width, makes approximately 70 horsepower and 116 peak foot-pounds of torque.

Shhhh… that’s a Z-force Motor hiding in there….

 

The Motor’s air cooling fins and the Showa piggyback shock

 

I would be remiss, as a motorcycle journalist, not to provide some comparisons for context. A supercharged Kawasaki Ninja H2 makes 98.5 peak foot-pounds of torque, while a BMW S1000RR makes 86.2 peak foot-pounds. Neither of these two motorcycles could be characterized as ‘weak’ or ‘slow’. Viewed in terms of accelerative twist, the R-spec Zero thumps them both.

The Z-force motor is located directly between the rider’s footpegs, and is so small and inconspicuous one almost needs to either actively seek it out or be told where to look for it. The Z-force motor drives the motorcycle though a Gates Kevlar reinforced toothed drive belt, via direct drive with no transmission. And while dirtbike manufacturers have been struggling for years to locate their drive pinion gears concentrically with the swingarm pivot, to keep power application from adversely affecting rear suspension action, in the Zero, achieving that goal is trivial — that’s where the direct drive pinion sits, with room to spare between the power unit and the inside of the frame rails.

Making a motorcycle that can safely manage that magnitude of power output was not a trivial engineering exercise. Electric motors, for those that may not have direct experience of them, can make their full rated power from essentially zero RPM. I remember reading contemporary reporting, when the company was still in the early prototype stage, about one of the first garage-built proof of concept prototypes, which made use of a simple hardware throttle control. The power delivery was so abrupt, that the prototype was a nearly unridable wheelie machine. One turned the throttle, and was immediately wearing the motorcycle for a hat.

Modern Internal Combustion motorcycles — which make use of electronically managed fuel injection — can store multiple power maps in software, where ignition timing and fuel delivery settings control engine output and, hence, vehicle dynamics.

The Zero motor controller does essentially the same thing, but instead maps road speed to input current provided to the motor. The Zero’s multiple controller maps – ‘Eco’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Custom’ – represent physics models which only provide as much power as the chassis and contact patches can manage at any given road speed. ‘Eco’ is designed to maximize range, and does this by limiting engine output to 40% of maximum, provides maximum engine regeneration – recharging batteries using the energy from deceleration — and limiting road speed to 70 mph. ‘Sport’ mode takes the DSR off its leash — 100% of engine torque is available at full throttle at road speeds above about 35 mph — road speed is limited to 98 mph and regeneration is minimized. ‘Custom’ allows any user with a Bluetooth capable Apple or Android device to configure the available power, regeneration and speed settings to their preference.

Once I’d downloaded the Zero Motorcycles app and paired up  an iPad we had laying about with the Zero, I was very quickly able to dial in something that worked for me. My ‘Custom’ mode paired 100% torque output — c’mon, wouldn’t you? — with about 70% of the available regen power. This setting allowed the bike to shed speed and off throttle engine brake in a way that mimicked the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) bikes to which I was accustomed, while allowing me to access all of the power the motor could produce. Subjectively, it seemed to me, that the power map used by ‘Custom’ mode was a little more aggressive than the map in sport mode. On my first ride out with the new settings, the DSR snapped off an effortless monster power wheelie on a level road at about 45 miles per hour and 3/4 throttle– indicating to me that 100% motor output was available at a lower road speed and throttle setting.

It’s important to realize that such a system isn’t an active rider aid system that responds in realtime to loss of traction or directional control like the systems fitted to modern KTMs or the Yamaha R1. The Zero’s motor controller is a passive system — the limits of output are based on extensive testing but are static — the limits are fixed and do not respond to conditions like loss of traction or wheels that come off the pavement. This approach does leave some of the bike’s substantial power off the table — especially at low road speeds — power is applied where the maps show it’s feasible a significant percentage of the time — where an active approach can max power out until sensor input indicate that the performance envelope has been exceeded. Given the extraordinary engineering involved in creating this powertrain, I suspect it’s only a matter of time until the next generation Zero joins the active rider aid arms race.

While, for a motorcycling nerd like me, the tech is interesting, none of it means a thing if all of this design and engineering doesn’t result in a good motorcycle.

And the Zero DSR — whether on a ribbon of twisty pavement, a dirt road, or blasting though a steam ford — is a very, very good motorcycle.

I’ll admit that at first, I approached the beast with a little bit of trepidation. I’ve spent more than thirty years developing skills and honing feedback and reflexes that are based on the character and power delivery of internal combustion engines. Opening the throttle starts a long and complex chain of events that starts at the intake butterflies and ends at the rear contact patch — and accounting for those processes, the time they take to complete, and what they feel like when happening, was a set of skills that had the potential to be completely and utterly useless with the Zero.

So I was a good boy – my first two rides out from home – totaling about 50 miles – were spent in ‘Eco’ mode, trolling around at limited power output and reduced throttle response, just ‘to get a feel for the thing’. With the leash in place, it was clear that this was well-developed motorcycle — the bike was narrow, nimble and tautly suspended. The DSR turned in well to corners, held its lines precisely, and wasn’t flustered by trail braking. The motorcycle, also being fairly light by road bike standards – at 413 pounds all up, remembering there is no such thing here as wet-weight — stopped with authority, despite the use of a single front rotor and fairly pedestrian-appearing dual piston caliper. The fact that – in ‘ECO’ mode – regenerative engine braking adds a fair about of stopping power to the overall equation likely doesn’t hurt. I even took the bike onto some of the dirt roads that crisscross the valley around my home — the suspension and tires made short work of quick riding in the dirt, and the bike was perfectly set up for those conditions where it makes more sense to ride standing up.

Had this been my motorcycle, I likely would have spent some time dialing the preload and compression damping back some to gain some additional suspension compliance. But it wasn’t, so I didn’t.

It’s not like I didn’t notice some adaptations I needed to make. The motorcycle’s direct drive was the most noticeable of these. The first downhill stop sign I came to was probably as funny to watch as any Charlie Chaplin silent film — despite my conscious mind understanding the required operator’s changes, my left hand was flailing impotently looking for the clutch lever that was not there while my left foot was doing the gaffed-bluefish-on-the-deck-boogie looking for the shift lever that wasn’t there either. I must have looked like a hunter’s duck that had been merely winged by a few errant pellets after an off-target shotgun blast – limbs flailing and spiraling towards a bad re-introduction to the ground.

The other adaptation was the almost complete and utter lack of sound.

Having ridden BMW motorcycles for much of my riding career, I am accustomed to relatively quiet motorcycles — a tendency for which several of my neighbors have formally expressed appreciation. Even my sewing machine quiet K1200LT, though, has some intake shriek to tickle the motorhead bone.

Quiet is one thing. The Zero’s dead silence is quite another.

When underway, the Zero’s only sound is a muted ‘whirrr’ which seems to be coming from just behind the rider. The overall sound of a ride on the Zero is comparable to the sounds made by my pedal bicycle on the road, except my pedal bicycle runs out of steam at about 25 mph, where the Zero has another 75 or so more available. I had been under the mistaken impression that my favorite Shoei Qwest helmet was a very quiet helmet. On my first ride above 50 mph on the Zero, I heard whistles, booms and rumbles from the Qwest I had never heard before and have never heard since Zero got their motorcycle back.

I know there are a large percentage of motorcyclists — I’m talking to you, Harley Guys That Remove Your Stock Exhausts Before You Take Delivery On Your New Bike, and you too, ZX-10 guy whose racetrack pipe causes my heart to stop when you pass me on the Baltimore Beltway at somewhere above a buck ten — for whom the sound of an uncorked motor is an absolute requirement.

But did you ever stop to wonder what sounds you weren’t hearing while you were making that incredibly anti-social din?

I know I hadn’t, but the first few miles proved to be a revelation in that regard. All of a sudden, there was a world of roadside sounds — birdsongs, singing locusts, crickets, the song of the wind — that I had simply never heard. As a frequent camper, bicyclist and hiker, riding a motorcycle had been transformed into communing with nature, instead of scaring the bejaysus out of it.

There are obvious upsides and downsides to The Silence of The Zero.

On a potential downside is your utter invisibility to all manner of wildlife. I live in a very rural area, and on an average 10 mile ride on one of my internal combustion motorcycles, I will see two or three deer. When I come upon these deer, they are usually running panicked from the roadway due to the sound of the motorcycle.

Making that same ride on the Zero, I was seeing a dozen to two dozen deer, not to mention innumerable squirrels, groundhogs, birds, and even a coyote that we suspected existed, but had never seen. And when I’d get within visual range, instead of bolting, spooked, if any of the deer noticed me, they were standing still just looking at me, with a look that said “Where the hell did you come from, human, and why are you flying along three feet above the ground?”. I found myself wondering if this behavior represented a hazard to motorcycling me, but saw no evidence of it.

On the upside is the fact that no matter how immature or irresponsible your piloting of a Zero motorcycle may be, there is no sonic signature to alert anyone – for example, say, law enforcement authorities – of your misbehavior. During my test of the motorcycle, I commuted back and forth from rural Jefferson, Maryland to Reston, Virginia, which is one of the single most congested traffic locations of anywhere in the United States. During the afternoon rush home, I would make use of the Dulles Greenway, a privately owned tollroad which bypasses about 15 miles of utter gridlock on Viriginia Route 7. The toll for this 15 miles is a usurious $6.50 during rush hour, so the law of economic selection tends to create a tendency for the road to cater to folks of well above average means. My fellow road users, as a direct result, tend to be driving Mercedes-Benzes, BMW M cars, Porsches, Teslas with even the occasional Maserati or Ferrari tossed in just for flavor. On the Greenway, folks are properly armed for an automotive fight, and they tend to play rough. On a motorcycle, one needs to be on the hunt for escape routes, and work hard to maintain one’s access to proper safety buffers and a view of open pavement.

On one run home, I found myself caught between several of these GP Wannabes, and their behavior was threatening to box me in a position that would not leave me in control of my safety. My only opportunity was to take advantage of the Zero’s superior acceleration, hit an opening that was rapidly closing, and put myself out in front of them while I still had the chance to do so. So I rolled the DSR’s grip to the stop, and hit the hole. As I cleared the potential hazard, I began to give the throttle back and reduce my speed to something more in line with that of the surrounding traffic. The minute I was in the clear, of course, I looked to the median of the highway, where there were, of course, three Virginia State Troopers on their pursuit Harley-Davidsons, assigned for speed control duty. On the advice of my attorney, I will not state what my road speed was at the time, so you will have to reach your own conclusions. As I travelled past the three good men in grey, not a single one of them looked up from their instruments or took so much as a glance in my direction.

I have come to the conclusion that silence can be the skilled rider’s friend.

So these little accommodations aside, what is the Zero like when the leash comes off?

After my brief acclimation period, I rolled the bike out of the garage on the third day, leathered up, booted up the motorcycle, and toggled the bike from ‘Eco’ to ‘Sport’ mode. I took a few deep, cleansing breaths to help me focus, and rolled the bike down my driveway to the street.

I gently applied some throttle and my eyes got wide. The gentle, progressive response of ‘Eco’ mode was gone. In its place was immediate, muscular, shocking, spine compressing acceleration, the likes of which I have never experienced.

Goodbye, Dr. Jekyll. Meet Mr. Hyde.

And it’s not like I’ve been internally-combustion sheltered. I’ve got saddle time on bikes like KTMs with the RC8 engine, on Kawasaki Ninjas. On four wheels I’ve driven Corvettes, Nissan 350Zs, Buick Grand Nationals, the 8.0 L Cadillac V8, Mercedes 3.5s and 6.3s. All of these vehicles make big power, but its power that has at least some measurable lag time before the RPMs come up and things begin to happen fast.

The Zero’s Z-force R specification motor has no such lag. Power is immediate, and overwhelming. Your prior motorcycling experience and skills are not prepared for such a fundamental change in the character of how motive power is delivered.

As I started to adjust my formerly firmly held convictions about the nature of acceleration, I guided the DSR over towards Maryland Route 17. MD 17 between Brunswick and Burkettsville is one of my roads, a scenic stretch of highway that mixes wide open straights with tight, technical sections. Every bike I tune or test eventually ends up on 17, where I know every bump and stone, every corner entry and exit, and know where every sideroad and driveway enters the highway. MD 17 may not be a racetrack or the Isle of Man Mountain Course, but I do know the safe and quick lines up the road, and where one can use the power one has at one’s disposal.

At the southern end of the run, a traffic circle dumps the rider onto a wide open straight of about 3/4s of a mile in length. As I got the DSR straightened up, I leaned forward over the bars, and as I cleared 40 miles an hour, rolled the throttle to the stops.

My visual field telescoped until I was only seeing tiny points of light. When my eyes and other parts of me that are best left unspecified unclenched an instant later, the Zero’s digital speedometer was running through 85 miles an hour towards even bigger numbers. I’m not entirely sure how I’d managed to keep the front wheel on the ground.

“Ho-lee Sh….” was all I could manage to mouth in the privacy of my helmet.

I’ve talked to lots of other first time Zero pilots now, and that particular exclamation is pretty much universal.

I found myself giggling — sounding just a little unhinged — as I slowed the Zero for the chicane where 17 crosses a small ridgeline, and sets up for a roughly two mile straight.

On the off chance it was a fluke, I did again.

It wasn’t a fluke.

The next two or three days of riding followed pretty much the same pattern.

Make familiar gesture with right wrist. See bright flash. Rematerialize in another location.

Boom. Giggle. Repeat.

It took a little while to get that out of my system. Hopefully I can be forgiven for such a simplistic ritual, but it was just so outrageously fun I just had to keep doing it.

My preconceived notions about the Zero’s power delivery had basically revolved around the concept that the skills of an analog motorcyclist — feeling torque load the contact patches, gently guiding the bike through corners by getting power and cornering forces into delicate equilibrium — was basically not going to be possible using electric power. That all of the minute delays — essentially buffers to throttle response present in an internal combustion powered motorcycle — the time it takes for intake charge speed to increase, the number of engine revolutions required for the engine to start moving mixture efficiently and climb into its peak power band, the inefficiencies induced by two or three or four changes in direction of the power transmission as output works its way through the gearbox and driveline — that these minute delays, taken in the aggregate, were what allowed a human pilot to be quick enough to manage the system at the edge of its performance envelope.

The electric driveline– with none of these delays — potentially brought instant response, and with that instantaneous character, it was potentially beyond the reflexes of a human pilot to control.

That was the pre-conceived notion. The reality of piloting the Zero proved to be a great deal more subtle.

As I spent more time in the saddle of the DSR, my skills began to adapt. This process was not without a few hiccups. Years of backroad corner dancing have taught me that power needs to be applied well before a corner apex to properly manage the drive out. Problem was, that my backroad rhythms had an extra second to a second and a half of lag built into them that was no longer appropriate. The first few genuinely spirited corner exits had me in the throttle what was now way too early, with predictably hairball results — spending quality time sideways making what Troy Corser used to jokingly call “Darkies”.

But as I spend more time and practice working at it, I began to adapt. The direct drive did actually free up mental bandwidth that had formerly been dedicated to downshifing and transmission operation to my cornering lines and position on the road. I learned to wait later — way later — before asking for power. I began to understand that the Zero was capable of making moves and hitting holes that were simply impossible on an ICE bike. What had seemed impossibly quick a few days before quickly became normal.

Further acclimation time revealed additional layers of capability I hadn’t imagined. Far from the digital, all-or-nothing power response I’d anticipated, I began to appreciate the job that Zero’s engineers had done in their implementation of the motor controller. It really was possible to modulate and manage the throttle while underway at a spirited clip. The power delivery curves present in the controller did allow a pilot to actively manage power delivery in the same way one does on a gas bike — just faster. As I finally got comfortable with managing the motorcycle, I knew I’d got it right when my deepest corner lines were now producing perfect lined up exits, with the DSR’s front wheel skimming the pavement as the bike gained the next straight.

Riding the dirt roads of Frederick County Maryland also proved my powers of imagination to be completely deficient. My initial concern was that the bike’s prodigious torque would prove to be a handicap on loose surfaces, but again, the Zero provided happy surprises.

There’s probably the equivalent of 5 Encyclopedia Britannicas worth of speculation and development knowledge concerning what is required for Internal Combustion Engined motorcycles to make and maintain traction in the dirt. The entire history of American Flat Track racing is a graduate level education in exactly that. The firing order, cylinder arrangements and tuning of flattackers have all been engineered to manage how the power pulses of individual cylinders firing are transmitted to a loose surface.

The Zero powertrain, however, has no power pulses whatsoever — it’s just a continuous rush of smooth power. The net effect of this is that the rear tire, rather than being handed the unenviable job of dealing with a blast of power which breaks the tire loose — a long interval before the next blast while the tire decelerates and fights to regain traction — and then the cycle repeating, simply has to deal with steady application of torque. The Zero simply has an easier time staying hooked up.

If you want visual proof of this, go to YouTube and watch this Motorcycle.com video called ‘The Life Electric: Preston Petty“. Petty is a dirt track pioneer who races a Zero. My moment of illumination comes when the video shows Petty and a gasoline-powered competitor exiting a flat track corner side by side. Both of them open the throttle. The gas bike throws a big hairy roostertail of dirt. Petty’s Zero throws no dirt, but simply walks away from the gas bike. Smooth power equals dirt traction — one can see it plainly right there.

So far from trying to pound me into the dirt like a tent peg, a combination of smooth power delivery, the DSR’s Pirelli MT60 tires which kept both ends hooked up, and great structural rigidity and suspension made the Zero the most confidence inspiring dual sport I’ve ridden yet.

***

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there aren’t a few niggling flaws to break up this orgy of acceleration. But those flaws are few, nothing approaching fatal, and might say more about the persnickity preferences and motorcycle use patterns of this observer than about the DSR.

The. Rear. Brake. SQUEAKS.

Normally, this is not a big deal.

But on a motorcycle that makes so little sound you can clearly hear birdsong and roadside crickets, any untoward noise, no matter how tiny, sounds ten thousand feet tall.

The situation probably isn’t helped by the fact that — with the regenerative braking provided by the Z-Force electric motor — one never really needs to use the rear brake that hard, so the pads never get any significant heat in them therefore they glaze.

Whether the solution is a set of softer pads, or an appropriate pad backing plate, or both, if necessary, matters not. They gotta fix this.

‘Cause IT SQUEAKS!.

Then there’s the small matter of the saddle.

People accustomed to riding motorcrossers will think I’ve slipped my tether. They’ll think this because they ride standing up all the time, so to them it doesn’t matter. But to the rest of us that have occasionally ridden sitting down, the saddle is ‘firm’. The seat pan does, of necessity, have a fairly domed shape because of the space required for the many high density connectors required to connect the power pack to the Zero’s engine. The shape is good and supportive in the right places. But either a little denser foam or a tiny bit more of it would make a huge difference if you’re ripping off an hour’s ride to work.

So why is the seat pan domed, you ask?

The bike’s built-in glovebox — while hella useful — has a fatal flaw. It can’t be opened without the key. One of the most likely uses for the glovebox — when it doesn’t get replaced with either another battery unit or a fast charger — is for toll money, or for a whole multitude of small items I want to be able to access while on the road. I have another bike with a glovebox — that’s how I use it. Tolls, maps, directions, my phone — anything I don’t want to have to fish out of a pocket. The box should have a lock that allows one to leave it in a locked or unlocked position — then unlatched with a button, rather than a key, so it can be accessed from the saddle without having to turn off the motorcycle.

One of the things that caught my eye, and not in a good way, was the routing and finishing of some of the electrical connections and brake lines on the motorcycle. In particular, the connections to the ABS wheel sensors are concerning — the sensor lines have been stretched far too tight, and the tie wraps are visibly too tight as well. I suspect that many of the 12 volt lines to cycle parts, like brake light switches, and lighting, are similarly assembled. The sensor lines are so visibly overtightened that they are severely stressing the boots where the lines enters the sensors. Zero motorcycles may make far less vibration than most motorcycles, but they do make some, and those connections are highly likely to fail to fail at those points where they are either overstressed or abraded by tie-wraps that are too tight. I’ve seen lots of higher mileage motorcycles fail and/or get recalled because of assembly issues exactly like these.

The brake lines are another issue. The rear line is routed in such a way that it effectively makes it almost impossible to access the rear master cylinder reservoir — the line cuts right across the top of the reservoir cap — I don’t know how one could unscrew and remove it. The first person to have to flush the brakes on one of these will say bad words. The front line is also a problem — on my DSR it was clearly way too long. It made a huge S bend which had it making a large curve behind the wheel, coming across in front of the forks and then making a huge bend back to connect with the caliper, which is back again behind the forks. Being too long means the master cylinder needs pressurize way more line than it needs to, the large bends are stress points that will be where the line will eventually fail, and the big loops of extra line are all exposed to be snagged if one is operating the DSR in gnarly off-road conditions, like cutting though foliage. Buying off the shelf brake components can force some compromises, but front and rear brake line selection and routing bespeak a certain lack of experience in designing and subsequently servicing motorcycle brake systems that will provide long, trouble free service life.

 

***

 

So now you know what the electric motorcycle is like to ride, the equally large question is what is it like to live with every day? And, as it turned out, it makes riding life a great deal easier, at least in getting from here to there in local duty.

I set up a dedicated charge location in my crowded garage by running a heavy duty extension cord in from a dedicated circuit. For 30 days none of my three gasoline powered motorcycles was even started.

The Zero simply doesn’t need any of the drama associated with gasoline powered motorcycles. There’s no choke, startup or warmup drama – you just boot it up and ride. There’s no oil to check, or to change, no plugs, no chain to lube, no valves to adjust, nothing. In the life cycle of the bike, you’d need to be concerned with keeping it in tires and brake pads and a brake flush every two years or so. With regenerative braking, your pads are likely going to last a long time, too.

Most of my riding errands involve getting to Frederick and back for banking, groceries, trips to the hardware store and the like. Zero was kind enough to fit this bike with a topcase which made such daily chores painless. These trips — like picking up a week’s groceries for a temporarily single guy — were easily completed with two full reusable grocery bags in the top case. I’d get back from a 25 mile or so errand (with slight scenic elongation), and after 3 hours on the charger the bike would be back at 100%.

Commuting was another task that sounded more challenging than it proved to be. My office is located 43 miles from my home, and the ride mixes up serene country roads, a some sections of gridlocked two lane and 4 lane country highway, some high speed sections where both congestion and vehicular aggression require high intensive and high performance piloting, and some urban local streets with in-city traffic lights and stop and go. It almost like an engineer designed a ‘Get-to-work-torture-test-track’ with a little bit of the worst of everybody’s commute.

In short, perfect for what I was looking to find out.

Day 1, I’ll admit I had range anxiety – I was looking at an 86 mile round trip, and didn’t know if I’d be able to locate a plug to top the batteries up while I was at the office. Theoretically, this was well inside the Zero’s stated range, but the route has a minimum of 25 miles of elevated highway speeds, which tightened calculated range up considerably. So I loaded my laptop backpack and my insulated lunchbag into the topcase, pulled on my ‘Stich, dialed up some ‘Eco’ mode to conserve power, and headed down toward Most Congested Northern Virginia.

The first stretches of the run to the office were well inside the bike’s operational envelope in ‘Eco’ mode — Route 15 South is a 45 mph speed limit rural highway, and I was able to stay at a comfortable cruise until I hit the inevitable congestion just outside of Leesburg. In stop and go or low speed rolling traffic, the Zero quickly revealed an unsuspected virtue — with the direct drive and regenerative breaking dialed up, the bike was trivial to operate — open throttle to speed up, close throttle to slow down — no clutch work, and dead comfortable at speeds barely above a walking pace, especially given the bike’s light weight and narrowness.

The plan held together as I hit Virginia 7 East — which still has a few traffic lights to cause congestion on what is a major highway. When I picked up Virginia 28 South — which is a 6 lane limited access highway, though — I needed to make some adjustments. After hitting ‘Eco’ mode’s 70 mph software speed limiter — implemented because air drag at higher speeds accelerates rates of battery drain — once, then twice, and having the previously mentioned coterie of Northern Virginia’s performance automobiles treating me like an exposed sitting duck, I quickly decided that survival was way more important than battery levels, and switched the Zero into ‘Sport’ mode. The Zero does allow for mode switching while in motion — selecting a new mode on the fly will have the newly selected mode show up blinking on the bike’s LCD display — closing the throttle momentarily is required for the new mode to become effective, at which point the label goes solid on the display.

Thus re-armed, I was able to properly defend myself on VA 28 and the Dulles Toll Road until my arrival at the office in Reston. My battery capacity display was showing a pretty healthy 59% charge remaining. Rolling into the parking structure, I started the hunt for an undefended plug. My building does have some commercial electric vehicle charging stations, but they only provide J1772 fast charging plugs, which were of no use to my standard charger-equipped Zero. I slowly trolled through the garage, heading towards the upper floors where there were nearly no cars present, using my newly developed feral-plug-sniffing skills. Upon arrival at the second highest level of the garage, I saw it — a weatherproof, GFI equipped 15 amp socket mounted on the surface of a concrete structural support column.

I pulled the DSR right up next to the column, placed the bike on the sidestand, and dismounted. I pulled the charge cord from the ‘tank’ mounted glovebox, plugged it into the frame-mounted connector, and lifted the lid on the socket, plugged it in, and crossed my fingers.

 

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Feral Plug Sniffing Skills Rewarded

A second and a half later, I heard the welcome sound of the bike’s charge solenoid slamming shut, and the green charging telltale on the bike’s display lit up.

“Yes!”

The display indicated a little over 5 hours until the battery pack would be fully recharged. We’d be riding home with a full battery.

I swapped my backpack in the topcase for my helmet, and went into the office for the day’s work. On my way through the lobby, I stopped to let the building manager know who I was and why there was a motorcycle in their garage that was plugged into their electric socket. She was very cheerful and understanding about the conversation, which was a relief.

The day at work was like any other day, except that I was a little more cheerful than usual at the thought of the ride home.

At the end of the day, I saddled up and was fortunate enough to beat the largest portion of the evening pulse coming out of Reston — I stopped at one light for one change and then merged smartly onto the Dulles Toll Road. After stopping to pay the toll, I was looking at 15 miles of high speed highway — in Loudoun County’s green rolling countryside — to bring me to the south side of Leesburg. With no bodywork and the dirtbike upright riding position, keeping pace with 80 mph traffic was about the only time the DSR felt slightly out of its element, and the rate of battery consumption was the highest I seen.

At Leesburg, everyone in traffic heads north for the Leesburg Bypass, so I didn’t. The Bypass is designed to save time by taking traffic around the town, and, as a result, becomes its own self-contained traffic nightmare — the average backup there in the evening averages between 45 minutes to an hour to clear the 2 and a half miles of the Bypass.

I picked my way through the backstreets of Leesburg, and headed towards an inexplicable throwback to colonial times — 12 miles of dirt road that start right in the middle of one of most overdeveloped and congested areas in the United States.

 

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Dirt Road Heaven In The Middle of Congested Hell

I could tell you more about this road, but then I would have no choice but to kill you.

Five minutes away from utter gridlock, I was standing up on the pegs of the DSR, working my way over the loose and rutted surface though deep forest and dappled sunlight, past pastures filled with horses that were utterly unconcerned with my silent passing. I’ve been down this road many times before — usually on BMW boxers — on both street and dual sport tires — but never felt as comfortable or as in command as the tires, structure, suspension and power characteristics of the Zero DSR made possible.

All good things must pass, and eventually my dirt road ran out. Another 20 miles of twisty pavement brought me back home — with 57% of the battery capacity showing remaining. In many more such round trips, it was the lowest number I would see.

In the time I had the Zero, I made several attempts to stretch the bike out to see what the maximum range of the bike was in my kind of mixed dirt and secondary roads use. Because that usage does involve stretches at speeds between 45-70, my 110 mile average was a bit lower than the bike’s stated 140 mile city use range.

The biggest influence on battery life and range on the Zero is the attitude of the rider. The more restrained one’s right wrist is, the further the Zero’s battery pack will take you. On these commuting rides, I’ll freely cop to riding like a total knob. Where possible, the throttle was wide open, either as a response to the aggression of drivers around me, or alternately, because the Atom-bomb rush of the Zero’s acceleration is so compellingly addictive. I’m usually a very conservative street rider, but the sheer quickness of the Zero made the formerly inadvisable, or in some cases, impossible, completely trivial.

My conclusion, though, is that as a commuter’s motorcycle, even making absolutely no effort to conserve power and extend range, the Zero made short work and would continue to make short work of an 80 + mile round trip with minimum drama and maximum fun. It was easier to ride in congested conditions, was more agile and responsive as a defensive driving weapon, and required virtually no maintenance in doing so.

In the 30 days the Zero was in my garage, I didn’t buy any gasoline for my other motorcycles. Watching the telemetry on my Solar System as I’ve been obsessively doing, the juice being used to top the Zero’s batteries off each night — even when they were close to fully depleted — wasn’t even making a dent in the array’s overproduction. I ended up the month that the Zero was my only transportation with the local utility still owing me close to $70 for the wholesale cost of the power we produced over what we used ourselves. Zero’s calculations show that the cost of power — when purchased from a public utility — to fully charge the DSR at about $1.45, which will get one roughly a hundred twenty miles, or a ‘fuel’ cost of about 1.2 cents per mile.

Producing one’s own solar power though, gives a whole new meaning to ‘free ride’.

The world around us has already changed. Regardless of what may be happening with our public policy debate in this country, the market has already decided that Electric motive power is the only possible response to the damage that has been done to the Earth’s environment since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. I recognize that the technology to enable long distance motorcycle touring is not yet here, but the in the long run, the technical issues are absolutely solvable. For every need short of that lunch-run-to-Montana, today’s Zero’s Z-force Technology is cheaper to run, lower maintenance, and well up to the task of use for everyday transportation.

But none of that would mean anything if it wasn’t simply more fun to ride, and whoa, is it ever.

In fact, it’s the bomb.

 

 

 

***

 

Portions of this story were published previously in the November/December 2017 Issue of Motorcycle Times

Big Rides, Little Rides

Sometimes I just have to go for a ride.

There are as many possible reasons as there are sands on the beach, but the result is always the same.

It’s just me in my helmet, with the sound of the air rushing round it, unplugged, off-grid, in that place where I can make some time to think.

A few years back, I’d exhibited what for me was an uncharacteristic tight little cluster of significant errors in judgement.

I’d made a righteous hash of multiple areas in my life all at once. I needed some time with myself to “think-think-think-pooh” back to some sane and well-adjusted place.

I needed to go for a little ride.

I loaded some camping gear onto a seat bag on my LT, arranged for some time off from work, and went stands up and rolled west.

The first place I even considered stopping was on the north end of the Mackinac Bridge, in the Village of Saint Ignace.

With choppy bright blue waters all around, and pine forests behind me up the hill, I set my tent and contemplated the view of my mistakes stuck back on the water’s other side.

The next day saw Sault Ste Marie, and Thunder Bay, Ontario, after endless switchback and hillcrest runs over Lake Superior bays, and nearly a hundred miles of riding my LT standing up on dirt, where the Ontario Department of Highways had seen fit to entirely remove the TransCanada Highway for maintenance – “We only got about 5 weeks a year to do repairs, eh?”.

The next day took me in morning mist through Grand Portage and Grand Marais and as sunshine broke into Duluth, smelling intensely of freshly toasted grains. By the time I pitched my tent again in Escanaba – next to an R90S rider named Kennedy – I’d figured some stuff out, and was spiritually ready to turn my wheels for home.

Sometime all it takes is a little ride to figure things out, and arrive at that non-spatial location of illumination.

Lately though, I’ve been thinking about a big ride.

Big rides are more than merely rides – they’re milestones, they’re symbols, they are accomplishments. Big rides are confirmations of the possible, voyages that nourish and sustain the soul.

It’s been a couple of years since a Big Ride, and my Big Ride batteries are showing red, and in need of a charge.

I’ve ridden from Maryland to the Southwestern Deserts and back, but time and opportunity to dip my boots in the Pacific have thus far eluded me.

I have a long-lost cousin I have never met – a fellow obsessive and talented motorcyclist – a professional racer both on and off the road – that lives in San Diego. I met Oliver in the comments section of BikeExif.com. Our similar surname set off alarm bells, and after lengthy e-mail exchanges it became clear our Orthodox Christian families had been forced to flee from the same Syrian Village by the rampaging Ottomans in the late 1800s.

We share our love of the Iron Steed though we have never met.

My newest client at work is The City of San Diego. I have been told to expect to have to spend some time with them if our work with them moves forward. A few days with The City with a few days advance notice is all it would take to have my long ride batteries recharged for years.

With a willing spirit, the right motorcycle, and a body that is still able, it’s three days at speed from Ocean City to Del Coronado.

It’s a long ride that would be one for the ages. Another chance to cross the green of Tennessee, to ride the Mountains of New Mexico and Southern Arizona… to blaze through Roswell and White Sands. The Southern Transcontinental routes have much to recommend them when compared with the Rolling Wheat Ocean that is crossing Kansas.

It’s too soon to begin rejoicing, as lots of moving parts have yet to align, but this would be the biggest of big rides – a tale to tell the kids and their kids, should they have any.

Not all ‘little rides’ are little, not all ‘Big Rides’ are big, though – sometimes a motorcycle ride is just a ride.

The weather here in Central Maryland has been unpredictable and unseasonable lately. Where in mid-August we’d normally be sweltering in high heat and higher humidity, we’ve had long strings of cool and rainy weather punctuated by little breaks of springlike dry cool days and cooler nights. In what are supposed to be August’s Dog Days, there isn’t so much as a puppy anywhere in sight.

During one of my frequent trips to dwell in admiration of the Garage Art Collection, I found myself gazing wordlessly at my oldest motorcycle, my 1973 R75/5. There is something about the Toaster Tank that makes it appear older than its actual 43 years. Between the fork gaiters, the nacelle headlamp with its built-in combined instrument, the simple, unlabeled handlebar switches, and the zeppelin-shaped mufflers, it suggests BMW designers that could not decide which 20th Century Decade they were designing for – in what was then the most modern design they had ever produced, there were obvious design references to motorcycles they had built in the 1930s.

I’d been busy lately with other things, and other motorcycles, but that day I needed to ride that motorcycle – which I’ve owned for over 30 years – even more than it needed to be ridden.

Cutting up Mt. Phillip Road towards the west side of Frederick, the oldest of my Alloy Girlfriends was light of foot and dancing divinely. Threading the combinations of left-right corners and sharp changes in grades and topography, I surfed the big smooth waves of torque produced by the bored-out, small valve motor. I was bathed in the sunlight, the cool breeze through my ventilated leathers, and in echoes of the engine’s machine gun report coming back from the hillsides above the road. Front and back wheels moved on the long throw suspension, soaking up the road’s manifold irregularities with none of it affecting the frame or the rider. My overwhelming impression was of an almost meditative lack of conscious riding decisions – after so many miles together this old motorcycle is like an extension of my own body – the bike simply does what my mind requests without action, translation or boundaries between us.

You would be lucky to have with your lover what I have with this motorcycle.

That afternoon had many more sunny miles through Gambrill, back down Maryland 17 to Burkettsville, and through the bottoms back home.

Some motorcycle grace takes a lap of an inland sea, or the crossing of a continent. Sometimes though, that illumination, that joy can be achieved in a simple half hour on a sunny afternoon.

 

***

 

This piece originally appeared in the September/October 2017 Issue of Motorcycle Times.

 

Shaky

I spent today making another tool laden Blast reassembly run from Jefferson to College Park.

A few days ago, Finn calls me up on the phone and says “My Bike is Shaky.”

“It’s making a jingling sound, and seems to be vibrating a lot.”

Now for a Buell Blast operator to say the bike is vibrating a lot is not news, but if it is vibrating more than it normally does, this is a concern.

I tell Finn I’ll call him back.

I do a few web searches. I have come to love the members of the Buell Blast enthusiasts online community, who have already seen every possible failure this simple machine can have.

Some of them more than once.

I call Finn back and then tell him to send me pictures of “That Big Rubber donut underneath the steering head.” He sends me this.

Holes with Nothing In Them

 

Strangely, it’s the isolator — the rubber torus in the middle of the mount — that is known to fail — the rubber tears. This isolator, though, appears to be fine.

Notice on the near side, where there is a hole in which should be an isolator mount bolt. Note that there is not one.

Then please notice on the other side, where there should be another one. There is one there, but its orientation indicates it is no longer connected to that to which it should be connected.

Finn is on campus… he’s calling me from the Architecture Studio.

He’s been riding like that for 2 or 3 days.

I told him to ride it to his place – 3 miles – really gently, and text me when he got home.  He made it.

A few days later I made the run down to look at it first hand. Turned out the Blast had completely spat out its front motormount. There is very little reason why this motor did not fall out. It looked like the wishbone that the cylinder head mounts to got hung up on the horn arm mount bolt as it was headed downward and that snag was sufficient to keep the engine in the motorcycle. Curiouser, the ignition grounds through that unconnected motormount bolt so I don’t know why it was still running.

Getting on the phone looking for this obviously critically stressed hardware did not yield joy. HD parts support is starting to thin out for the Buells. I don’t know whether Harley’s commitment for Buell parts support has just ended, or will end soon, but increasingly the parts are held by a third party contractor, and not HD themselves. The cost has increased accordingly. Getting OEM hardware was challenging.

Challenging, but not impossible.

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5 Buell OEM Parts Bags – 40 Bucks

Today I loaded by my LT with a service stand, a floor jack, a tool box, a few ratchet strap sets, a hunka wood and a service light.

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Rolling Motorcycle Service Shop – Not easy to transport a swingarm stand

I rode back down to the Garage at Finn’s place. After wrapping a strap around the motor, and using that and the jack to cajole it back into position, we were able to get the front engine isolator mount set back right. A few dozen dollars, some new bolts, standoffs, nylock nuts and Blue Locktite got everything that needed to be attached to each other attached to each other.

All of a sudden that bike seems way more of a piece and is seems to be delivering way more power. When I was road testing it, it spun its back wheel in the fat part of second gear, coming out of a traffic circle. It’s never done that before.

Finn thinks the motormount had been failing for quite some time – that one bolt had been gone for a while. He said he kept hearing ‘a jingle’. We found the reinforcing plates and one of the nuts captured in the frame when we pulled the tank. The jingle is gone now.

My Brand New Uncle Joe is willing to trade me the Blast for a Pacific Coast he has and a few more dollars.

At the risk of screwing bikema completely, I suspect the Pacific Coast would not require multiple mechanical emergency rescue missions.  But if I can’t trade the Blast I really can’t afford another motorcycle. We’ll just have to see how Finn ends up feeling about that.

On my way out of his place, Finn lead me on his Blast through Greenbelt Park – It’s US Department of the Interior-managed park that’s about 2 miles away from his place, and in the middle of a very densely developed urban area about 10 miles from Capitol Hill.

One right turn off the highway and its like you’re in one of the Great Western National Parks – deep forest, log buildings, all the Civilian Conservation Corps-built log guardrails.

We ran into a small herd of very young deer coming out of the second corner.

Amazing.

Greenbelt Park has about 3-4 miles of winding park road that is just perfect if you have a fine running 500 single.

I tailed him around before heading back home.  He looked great out there.

Cutting good lines and having some fun. He’s got skills.

I had a lovely ride home, stretching the LT out coming back across Howard and Frederick counties in the late afternoon sunshine.

For a day that started with a broken bike and dirty hands, it was a very good day.

Howdy Neighbor

I’ve just finished a month with an electric motorcycle — a Zero Motorcycles DSR.

It’s been an eye-opening experience, and frankly more fun than I could have possibly imagined, mostly as a direct result of its simply incomprehensible levels of acceleration.

The Historian Lord Acton wrote “Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”.

Color me absolutely corrupted.

Being able to pass any vehicle on the road temporarily turned me into the silent terror of America’s highways. Presented with any opportunity for a conspicuous display of my ability to bend the space-time continuum at will, I bent it.

I did find that this behavioral tendency tended to attract a lot of unwanted attention from owners of very expensive hypercars, who saw in me and the quickly disappearing Zero a rare opportunity for competition. What none of them understood was their conspicuous automotive expenditures only bought them advantage at hyper legal speeds where I had no interest in going. At speeds between 40 and 90 miles an hour, their six figure conveyances might have well been a 1961 Rambler American.

But that’s not really why we’re here.

If the first question everyone has about an electric bike is “How fast will it go?” , the second one inevitably is “How far will it go?”.

And truthfully, in this transitional time before the ubiquitous gasoline fueling infrastructure that took 100 years to mature gets pushed aside by the electric recharging infrastructure that will inevitably replace it, how far an electric vehicle will go is a far more pressing question.

When a gasoline-powered vehicle runs is running out of fuel, unless you are in one of the truly desolate places in America or have been a unique combination of well above average unlucky and well below average smart, one just stops at the next gas station that presents itself, takes 5 minutes to refill your tank, and gets back on the road.

When an electric vehicle starts hitting its energy red zone, one’s options are far more limited. In electric automobiles that support the J1772 fast charging standard, there are a limited number of public chargers that can be used – some in office parks, some at businesses that cater to clientele of an environmental bent — but even those fast chargers, if one can locate one, do not compare with the speed and ease of petroleum refueling.

If, however, you are riding a Zero Motorcycle with the stock charger, the message is even more mixed. The good news is that any standard electric plug will recharge the bike. The bad news is if one is fully discharged, a full charge will take roughly 8 hours.

In the time that I rode the Zero, I quickly developed a feral ability to sniff out unguarded electric plugs. I spent a lot of time slinking around in alleys, in the service ways behind buildings, and generally behaving like an electron junky.

I got, if I can pat myself on the back, pretty good at it, too.

This lack of easy or socially acceptable recharging options leads to condition called ‘range anxiety’. In almost all of my time with the bike, good planning made range anxiety a non-issue. A 43 mile ride to work, a parking garage with a plug, and a 43 mile ride home had me operating in the top 40% of my ‘tank’ during commuting duty — totally anxiety free.

As a motorcycle tester, I feel like I have a professional obligation to test all aspects of the motorcycles I test — good and bad — and if need be, to ‘test to destruction’ to see what the absolute limits of the machine might be. In the case of an electric motorcycle, there was a part of me that felt it was necessary to get deep into range anxiety — if need be, to the point where range anxiety went totally pear shaped — in order to truly understand the fundamental nature of the machine.

If a potential owner might have to deal with it, so did I.

 

***

 

I was going to have to return the Zero to its manufacturer the next afternoon. I knew I was really going to miss having it around, so I structured my last day with it so I could take a long ride and really put it though its paces one last time.

After getting some chores done, I geared up, booted up the Zero and took to the road. The Zero is an excellent dirt road motorcycle – light, rigid, well suspended and riding on a set of truly dirtworthy Pirellis – so I resolved to head south across the Potomac into Virginia, where I knew there was a sizable network of unpaved roads in the rural highlands just south of the River.

Right after turning off of US 15 South into Lovettsville Road, Furnace Mountain Road cuts nearly straight up the cliff face and heads into the Potomac Highlands. This is a road that would probably be better on a 250 motocrosser, as it is steep, rutted and the turns are tight, decreasing radius bends. As long as one stands up, counterweights the pegs, and is judicious in application of the Zero’s throttle, the bike is confidence inspiring and holds its lines well. Furnace Mountain is lined with small pastures filled with horses, and the bike’s near silence is a treat as the horses don’t spook and stay near the fencelines to see the human as he flies quietly by.

After a few miles of dusty sliding, Furnace Mountain dumps back out a few miles further up Lovettsville Road. I turn west towards Lovettsville, but turn right almost immediately. Each of the sideroads — Ropp, Enfield, Quarter Branch — that run north from Lovettsville Road towards the Potomac are all little unpaved adventures into residential rural holllows. There are whoops, corners and shaded straights galore, and I spend the better part of an hour seeing how much of them I can explore.

Eventually though, I find myself out of dirt to ride and back on pavement in Lovettsville. I give the bike some substantial ‘whizzzz’ and head down the sweepers of the Berlin Pike back towards the river, Brunswick and to Maryland.

 

***

 

The Zero’s instrumentation does its best to calculate remaining range, based on an aggregate view of the pilot’s driving profile. So someone tiddling along at 35 to 50 miles an hour on dirt roads as small power request levels will show 100+ miles of range remaining. On the other hand, someone flogging the beast for all it’s worth on clean, open pavement, will find that number falling precipitously.

And as I rolled down the Berlin Pike — a road I know well, characterized by a series of measured, downhill, wide open sweepers — my inner riding Dr. Jekyll was quickly replaced by a leering, speed-addled Mr. Hyde. In what was somewhat unusual for me, my entire family was on the road, leaving me to spend my time however I pleased, and with this bike, how I pleased was to ride until I could ride no more.

I have a favorite loop that takes me up Maryland 17 out of Brunswick, and runs me up to the Catoctin Mountains of the North County, over the mountainous and highly technical Maryland 77 past the site of the BMW Square Route Rally, the Presidential Retreat at Camp David, and through Cactoctin Mountain National Park. I know the loop is roughly 60 miles, and the range calculator showed some 80 odd. It might be tight, but I should be able to get home.

So, in the cool of a crisp autumn afternoon, I just zoned in on my riding as only one can on a Zero. With no transmission to work, no noise but the wind to break focus, I just concentrated on my lines and flew up these roads.

And that’s when I first noticed a disturbing trend — the range remaining indicator was falling faster than my mental map of the actual road range remaining back to Jefferson. From Middletown up to Camp David, the road is uphill all the way, and my enthusiastic use of the throttle was a departure from the easier dirt miles of the earlier part of the day. The Zero’s computer was making adjustments as my usage patterns changed, but the trend lines were starting to appear alarming.

At a certain point, I realized if I wanted to avoid a long walk — remember that all my family members (and my truck!) were all out-of-town for the weekend — I was going to need to make radical adjustments to my use of the remaining battery power. As I turned down MD 77 East, which is where the road comes back down off the mountain, I toggled the Zero from ‘Sport’ to ‘Eco’ mode — mountain road heroics were going to have to wait for another day — the mission had now changed to radical power conservation.

Working my way down the steep mountain road with the bike’s Regenerative Braking set to max, I actually was able to use the grade to put some miles back in the battery — I think a came off the top of the mountain showing 12 miles of range remaining, and hit the bottom showing 16.

Problem was, I was pretty sure it was 18 to get home.

As I pulled on to US Route 15 South, I went into extreme electron conservation mode. I set a speed of about 40 miles per hour in the right lane. I know that the greatest use of power on the Zero is actually wind drag, so I pulled my arms in and got low over the tank — years of bicycle racing have given me an innate sense of how to get aerodynamically ‘clean’ — and I did my best to exercise maximum self-control and use no more ‘throttle’ — to request no more power — than was absolutely necessary to keep the DSR making progress towards home.

This, no doubt, was extreme range anxiety. I felt exposed and helpless. It was absolutely excruciating.

Watching the range numbers incrementing down, I knew I was going to have to adapt — I would need to find an unguarded plug somewhere and pick up a few percent of charge to successfully make it home.

Rolling into Frederick — showing 2% of charge and 3 miles range remaining — I exited 15 on Seventh Street and headed for the 7th Street Shopping Center. In the entrance to this traditional old shopping center is the North Frederick Post Office. I trolled around the rear where their loading dock sits — on either side of the dock were two surface mounted metal electrical boxes. I rolled the bike up next to the dock, dismounted and pulled the charge cord from the bike’s glove box. I plugged the cord into the bike’s frame plug, inserted the business end into the socket, and crossed my fingers.

Nothing.

My friendly local USPS workers had killed the breakers to these receptacles. This was going to get harder before it got easier.

I mounted back up and trolled down the service access behind the stores.

Nothing.

I rolled around behind the Get-Go gas station.

More nothing.

Just before achieving Peak Range Anxiety, I took a turn behind the McDonald’s next door.

And there, on the back of the McDonald’s, more or less next to the twin drive through lanes, was a surface mounted receptacle.

I pulled up on the grass and onto the sidewalk in front of the restaurant’s back door. I plugged the charge cord back in.

“Thonk.”

It was the sound of the battery pack’s charge solenoid closing. The green charging telltale lit up on the instruments and began to blink.

Looked like we’d be riding home tonight.

After a few minutes looking around sheepishly, counting all of the surveillance cameras scattered around the drive-through, and waiting for someone to show up and run me off, I decided that I might as well kill the required plug time by getting a burger.

“Da daht daht daht daaaaaa….”

 

“I’m NOT lovin’ it!”

Inside the restaurant, I looked up at the displays that showed the surveillance camera images from the drive-through. The monitors cycled through the cameras one at a time. Much to my amazement, the spot next to the back door where the Zero was parked appeared to be the only ‘blind spot’ in the entire system.

I tried several times to flag down the Shift Manager to come clean about the bike out back. She appeared more than a little pre-occupied with the manifold missteps of her team. Finally I just have up, ordered my burger, and took a seat.

 

***

 

After finishing my bacony barbecue death by onion straw sandwich, I went back outside to the bike, that was showing a still grim 4% on the battery. I twiddled. I hopped up and down on one foot. I did a little dance. I did stand-up comedy for myself. I didn’t laugh.

Finally — watched pot syndrome? — the charge indicator rolled up to 5% and 11 miles of range remaining.

Jefferson was 7 and a half to 8 miles away. I’d gotten pretty good at electric hypermileing. I had a completely false sense of security.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

***

 

Back astride the world’s most muscular motorcycle, I went back to doing the world’s most convincing Moto-impresson of a postwar French Velo-Solex moped. Tiny amounts of power request. No road speeds ever exceeding 35 miles per hour. I worked my way out of the city on surface streets and then got back on Maryland 180, the Jefferson Pike, for the final few agonizing miles home.

Jefferson sits on the other side of a substantial ridge that separates the City of Frederick from the Middletown Valley. If one is headed to Jefferson on US 340 West, the hill leading up to the town is tremendously steep – I jokingly call it Dynamometer Hill because I will run every vehicle I drive at full throttle up the hill to see what it can pull at the top. MD 180, being an older, two lane country highway, isn’t quite as steep a grade, but one still has to clear the same hill.

Once over the top of the grade, it’s a 25 mph speed limit through the village of Jefferson and downhill all the way back to my garage.

As I started the Zero up the hill – showing 2% charge remaining – bad things began happening. After about 200 yards of climb, the charge indicator dropped to 1%. I backed out of the throttle. After 500 yards, it zeroed out. As I hit the slight level spot that breaks the climb into two smaller ones, the motorcycle’s instrument display rebooted — the torque and regen displays snapped from 0 to 100% twice, and then the motor cut off.

Years ago, Jefferson had, ironically, an old school speed shop — Grassello’s Speed — that would have looked equally comfortable in Brooklyn, Detroit or LA. Grassello’s had been a hairy chested, big block powered, supercharged, side-piped street drag racers hang. Grassello’s did motorcycles, too, only with more of a focus on chromed skulls and Maltese crosses and such.

Grassello, his bad self, passed on a few years back, and these days the shop is a wreckage of its former not that swanky self. The roof of the building is bandaged with giant blue tarps, and the whole lot is evidence of someone who has an unhealhily obsessive interest in collecting Chevrolet Corvairs. Not restoring, or even repairing, mind you, but merely collecting.

So it was into this rusty and decrepid Corvair graveyard that I coasted to a silent and very terminal feeling stop. Less than 2 miles from home, it was very dark, very quiet, and frankly, kinda spooky.

I turned off the bike’s ignition, placed the motorcycle on the side stand, dismounted and removed my helmet. Because Grassello’s had been a commercial property at one time, it was not beyond the realm of possibility that there was an outlet box somewhere. The building still clearly had power, because the bay display windows that had formerly held shock absorbers and Cherry Bomb Glasspacks were now filled with odd sculptural collages of the formerly alluded-to Chrome Skull Collection, with each lit by a single low-wattage lightbulb.

I tried to navigate the building’s front, but was impeded both by the hazardous assemblage of spare fenders, transmissions and engine blocks as well as the nearly utter lack of any usable light.

Fortunately, my cell phone has a flashlight app. I pulled the phone from the cargo pocket of my pants, and pressed the power button. After an uncharacteristic delay, the phone displayed a blinking red battery icon, indicating it did not have enough battery capacity to start. So not only could I not use the phone’s light to look for a plug, I couldn’t use it to call for help, either.

This would be as good a time as any for me to state that there are times when I hate batteries.

This was clearly one of those times.

Out of power to ride, and out of power to communicate, it was going to take the low-wattage power of my introverted personality to find some assistance somewhere along this dark stretch of country road.

Because the lights were on the shop, I knocked hard on the door. No one answered.

I looked around to see what other options I might have.

Across the street was a large house with all lights blazing. To get there was a potential push up a very long, very steep driveway, though.

Back down the hill I had just come up, though, was a neat little home where folks also appeared to be in residence. I gulped, took my helmet in my hand, and hiked back down the dark shoulder of the highway, trying to stay out of the roadbed and trying not to stumble in the darkness.

At the end of my short walk, I found myself looking at an aluminum screen door.

I knocked.

After an awkward delay, a tall, slim gentleman opened the door.

“I’m dreadfully sorry to bother you, but I’ve broken down, and I need some help.”

While my characterization of my problem was not technically accurate, this was no time to split semantic hairs.

“Sure, how can I help?”

So I laid it all out — “I’m on an electric motorcycle — I’m less than two miles from home, and I just need an electric plug to get enough charge to get over the top of the hill. Do you have an outside electric socket?”

“Yes — down at the far end of the porch. So you just need a regular socket?”

“Yes — regular plug — charger pulls about 8 amps at peak — 20 to 25 minutes should be enough to keep me from having to push it home. Bike’s up in Grassello’s lot. I’ll just drift it down the hill.”

Hiking back up the hill to the motorcycle, I kept having comic flashes of myself as a frustrated baker who had come up short of an ingredient mid-cake – “Howdy, neighbor – I just need to borrow a cup of electrons…..”

Once back up the hill, I remounted and turned the key — I did have enough juice for lighting, but not enough for motive power. I flintstoned the bike back out into the road, drifted back down the hill, across the lawn, and up onto the porch. I plugged the bike in, got the reassuring “Thonk!” of the charger kicking in, and then settled down to wait for enough juice to get me over the top of the hill and back to the garage.

With at least some time on our hands, we new neighbors introduced ourselves. My rescuer was named Lee, who turned out to be a retired Army vet. While in the service, Lee had apparently been trained as an electronics and electromechanical technician, so he was genuinely interested in the Zero’s hardware, and was in a position to ask some genuinely insightful and perceptive questions.

Belt Drive?

Silent?

Regenerative Braking?

Check, check and check.

Having run the Zero’s Z-Force pack into deep discharge, it took a little longer than usual for some progress to start showing up on the charge indicator. But instead of an awkward wait, with a lot of finger twiddling, rock kicking and staring obliquely at the ground, it turned into a genuinely fun conversation about electric vehicles — both motorcycles and cars — battery technology, as well a few genuinely fun motorcycle tales from the countries where the Army had stationed Lee — Germany, Japan, Singapore.

What had started out as quite the drag actually turned out to be fun. I don’t recommend running an electric vehicle’s battery pack into deep discharge as a method for meeting one’s neighbors, but when life gives you lemons, I always try to make delightful lemony cocktails. To your health!

After a slightly longer than anticipated delay, we started to see regular increments showing up on the battery charge indicator. When it hit 6%, I called time, and packed the charge cord back into the DSR’s glove box.

I gave Lee effusive, copious, heartfelt thanks, geared back up, booted up, and rolled off Lee’s porch, crossed over a small part of his lawn, then turned around in the road and headed back up the hill.

Given the bike’s utter silence, which had been one of Lee’s more pressing areas of inquiry, I heard him clearly say, “Oh, maaan” as I accelerated past him and back up the hill.

Forty seconds later, I hit the top of the grade, and began the descent back down the hill and into Jefferson. A minute after that, I was in front of my garage, pulling off my helmet, and plugging the DSR into the charge station I had set up in my shop.

I’d left for a little ride sometime around 3 p.m. — it was now closer to 10 than 9. I was definitely ready for a Nanticoke Nectar to bleed off the effects of extreme range anxiety. I’d been focusing intently on minimum power draw and maximum aerodynamic efficiency for the better part of 3 hours, and I was completely spent.

In the news surrounding Hurricane Irma, it was reported that Tesla automobiles had determined that — rather than building battery packs of two different capacities to sell at two different price points — it was more cost-effective to build one battery pack and implement the effective capacity in software. This became obvious when Tesla chose to temporarily unlock the ‘unlicensed’ battery capacity to help owners evacuate during the storm.

As someone who has ridden motorcycles that did not have fuel gauges and did have fuel petcocks with ‘reserve’ settings, this little experience made something obvious to me. Zero, as a motorcycle company that has its roots as a technology company, has some pieces of motorcycling tradition and practice that are not entirely internalized by them, that are not part of their engineering DNA.

Tesla has demonstrated that range and battery capacity limits can be implemented in software. A range and battery calculation that, for example, ‘informs’ the rider that a displayed 0% capacity remaining is actually 5% or even 10% capacity remaining would be consistent with the ‘reserve’ notion that all experienced motorcyclists understand in their bones.

Until that happens, though, Zero pilots that find themselves in the 10% or less battery capacity range need to understand that material changes in riding conditions can cause actual range to vary substantively from calculated range.

I wouldn’t have understood this unless I’d elected to ‘Test To Destruction’.

Gotta think that would look great on a T-Shirt. Wonder where I can get some printed up?