Had Quite The Adventure Monday Evening

The Big Boxer

American Honda Motor Co. has finally come through and provided a 2018 GoldWing Tour to test.

I had to pick up the bike from the previous journos at Maryland Public Television’s studios for the MotorWeek program in Owings Mills, MD. When I got there, the bike was parked in Goss’ Garage. As somebody that has watched the show and Pat Goss’ maintenance segments for years, I’ll admit I had a tiny star-struck moment firing the Wing up on the set and riding it out.

Backroaded about half the way back to Jefferson to come to terms with the bike and operation of the Dual Clutch Transmission — needless to say this is not your Grandpa’s Touring Sofa — then hit the interstate and wicked it up into the engine’s Happy Zone.

Look for a full test in the September/October Issue of Motorcycle Times, with extended coverage in RPP.

Now I just need to find some places to go!

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Omps, The Indian and the George Washington Heritage Trail

Some where due east of Omps – The Indian on The Trail

 

During Daytona Beach Bike Week in 2013, Polaris Industries, the owner of Indian Motorcycles, unveiled the Thunder Stroke 111 engine, a brand new design that they intended to use to power the then soon-to-be-introduced Big Twin Indians. Indian, at that point, didn’t yet have a motorcycle, but they did have that engine — an 1811 cc , air and oil cooled, electronically fuel injected, gear driven primary, six speed helical cut gear transmission unit construction motor. The Thunder Stroke looked like an old Indian PowerPlus or Chief motor, but was filled with current tech engineering — it was a stock motor whose specs threw shade at Hot Rodded Harley-Davidson CVO motors, and looked bigger, better and shinier while doing it.

I remember thinking, as Indian’s presenter rolled that throttle open a few times, that while I never much was drawn to the notion of being a Harley Davidson man, that the sound that motor was making was enough to make me at least wonder whether I might somehow be an Indian man.

It was absolutely an open question, and there was only one way to get an answer.

And now that answer was sitting right there in front of me.

 

***

 

Folks that know me well know that in Biker-stuff, my demonstrated tastes have been a sort of gumbo of Eurotrash sporty touring and Techno Geek Road Warrior. I will ride my BMWs — some old, some less old — anywhere, anytime, and in conditions that make some folks question my sanity, as if that was ever even a question.

This means I eschew excessive ornamentation, I am alergic to both excess mass and motorcycle cleaning, and that I like my motorcycles simple, smooth, revvy and good in the corners. Anything beyond that — like outright speed, or weather protection — is just a bonus. I do have a minor fetish for mileage vaporization — the ability to comfortably maintain high sustained speeds for point to point transportation, but that is such a fringe enthusiasm that I hesitate to publicly admit to it.

So when I finally arranged to test a 2018 Indian Roadmaster, it was with a frothy mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm, and just a small seasoning of chagrin.

My oldest and most loved motorcycle — after sleeving up and hotrodding the motor — displaces 900 ccs and weighs about 450 pounds.

The Roadmaster’s specs — 1811 ccs and 920 lbs — completely double that.

I’m used to revs. This wasn’t that.

All my motorcycles have — to a greater or lesser degree — balanced seating positions where one’s arms, legs and haunches equally share the load of the rider’s weight.

The Roadmaster has long floorboards and far forward controls. One morning when starting out with the bike I Charlie-horsed myself reaching forward to toe the bike into gear.

It wasn’t helping that my good, good friends were randomly texting me pictures of objects with ever increasingly comical amounts of conchos and fringe. When I told one of them I had ridden the Roadmaster in my Aerostich suit, he laughed right at me. For a long time.

He may be laughing still.

I, on the other hand, am not laughing at all.

 

***

 

The reason for my lack of mirth is because, despite its ever-so-slightly tacky, over the top horseback cowboys gone chrome aesthetics, the Roadmaster is a very good motorcycle. The saddle of the Roadmaster has a rear Saddle Jockey – a leather skirt at the rear of the saddle — exactly like a good Western horse saddle. Don’t get me wrong — the Roadmaster’s motor, for example, is pure moto-porn – all finning with edges milled, the shapes of the barrels and heads. It’s just some of the details — things like the ‘Indian Motorcycles – 1901’ Indian Head badge on the clutch cover, or the ‘111’ script on the air cleaner — that is just a bit too big or a tiny bit too much in one’s face. I completely understand why the designers might have gotten very worked up at the prospect of Indian’s return, but let’s just say they might have gotten just a tad overstimulated in some respects. That aside, the Roadmaster is comfortable in that skin — it isn’t intended to be anything other than what it is, which is a massive, air cooled hunka hunka burning love, throbbing American road motorcycle. Rolling through the gears on my way home from Twigg Cycles, the dealership that had facilitated my Indian test, it was immediately apparent that this was a far more functional, modern motorcycle than its visuals were designed to suggest.

With its investment cast aluminum chassis, modern cartridge forks, monoshock rear and big ABS disc brakes, the bike’s roadholding punched way above its significant weight — it changed directions briskly without being a wrestling match and didn’t get bent out of shape when it did. The bike’s overall chassis and suspension performance was tight, and in the interest of comfort, about two clicks of compression damping short of taut, but still well controlled. The 1811 cc Thunder Stroke motor was a mountain of torque — travelling up the South Mountain Grade on I-70 East there was enough power everywhere to put yourself anywhere you wanted to be in the traffic stream and go there with authority. The Roadmaster’s gearbox was bank vault solid — the helical cut gears shifted with feedback and precision — a pleasure to operate. Air control in the cockpit was good – with the adjustable screen dialed all the way up it was serene enough to run with helmet visor open.

It took me only a little while to figure out that my customary technique, which involves strong countersteering and leaning inside, needed to be modified to a more lead with one’s lower body technique – which makes sense on a machine with a 26 inch saddle height — that had me comfortable rolling the corners by the time I’d finished my run down Maryland 17 and got back to Jefferson.

I spent a fair amount of time looking at the motorcycle that evening.

There was clearly a lot more to the Indian rebirth than conchos and fringe. It was going to be fun to find out what that lot more was.

 

***

 

My life, even with a test bike in the driveway, is just like anybody else’s. Saturdays have chores and shopping and runs to the hardware store, so on Saturday I do what I always do, which is use my motorcycle for any errand for which it is feasible. Overnight Friday it continued to do what it’s been doing, which was to pour raining, so when I had to grab some tools for a project up at my local hardware store, I was starting with a soaked, completely cold motorcycle.

The starting drill on the Roadmaster, given its keyless ignition setup, is exciting — one pushes the ‘Power’ button on the right side of the dash — its one that looks like it escaped from an iPhone and then spent some spare time lifting weights — and then watches while the color LCD goes through its little rumbling motors and sweeping flames animation. Once complete, one rocks the kill switch from ‘not run’ to the ‘run’ position, and the bike’s electronics manage the motor start sequence. The Thunder Stroke motor has a starting decompression system, which slightly opens the exhaust valves until the motor catches, which it does on about the third compression stroke. The motor comes up to an immediate steady idle, although from dead cold, it does exhibit a little bit of a lean stumbly character once underway, along with a slightly sticky clutch which makes selecting first gear and shifting a bit high effort until the motor begins to warm. None of this is the least bit surprising in a mammoth air-cooled motor that has a nearly 4 inch wide cylinder bore. After a mile or so, though, with some heat in the cylinder heads and the oil, the bike returns to its hard hitting, smooth shifting self.

After getting the necessary metal cutting blades I needed for my project, I rode back (the long way) to the shop, just enjoying the Roadmaster’s mechanical personality, and looking for any excuse to roll the ride by wire throttle open and shift the gearbox up through the gears. The Thunder Stroke’s exhaust note — with factory pipes in place — is just perfect, low toned and rumbly, with no burble or backfire on the overrun.

After wrapping up in the shop for the day, I saddled up again and headed over to Brunswick, which was sponsoring a Bike Night. Sweet Doris From Baltimore and I wandered around, ate some crabcakes, and quickly came to the conclusion that most of the ‘Biker Activities’ — beer, swag sales and bad cover band — were of limited appeal to us, so we took up a seat behind the Roadmaster and engaged with the many riders who stopped to look when they walked by.

One Gazillion Harleys and Just a Single Indian – OK, a guy with a Shadow snuck in somehow

Most folks that saw the bike were clearly struck by its appearance and stopped to talk. I had a few business cards from the sales manager at Twigg’s and gave them to folks that seemed genuinely interested.

After a while, I restarted the bike, and took the scenic route home – following Maryland 17 through Burkettsville – and prepared for a big ride tomorrow. It was time to put on some miles, ride through a tank or two, and really see what we had.

 

***

 

When we got home that night Sweet D looked at the weather forecast for the next day and told me, “Well, you better be ready to go early tomorrow. You’ll have one gap in the weather early in the day and the later it gets, the worse the forecast looks.”

I am never ready to go early.

 

***

 

Early Sunday morning, I was out in the driveway, taking a towel to the saddle and controls, and looking at the low sliding clouds that were off to the North and the East. And though it might not work as A Look with Conchos, I had my trusty ‘Stich on, and knew I’d be just fine no matter what the weather threw at us.

Dried off and strapped on, I lit up the Indian’s big motor. I let it idle briefly – listening to the operation of the valve train and injectors on the top end of the engine that was sitting in my lap. Despite the presence of the sophisticated electronics, the motorcycle itself had a comforting massively mechanical quality to it — every time those valves closed and one of those pistons fired, there’d be no question as to what was going on.

By the time I hit the traffic light in town – about three quarters of a mile from home – there was enough heat in the engine and oil that all was clearly well. When the light turned I made the left up Holter Road, and headed up some of the best roads in The Valley.

Where I might have been originally, I was no longer tentative with the bike in corners. I’d completely come to grips with it, and was completely comfortable with the ‘steer with your butt’ motion the motorcycle seemed to prefer. On these few technical corners spinning the engine a little between 2000 and 4000 rpm I was smiling at the way the suspension was working – keeping all that bike in line – and the thrust coming off corner exits. Running up though the gears was like Cracker Jacks – there was a free prize inside every time.

Holter Road turns onto Maryland 17 in Middletown, which gets tighter and curvier, and then deposits one at the entrance to I-70 in Myersville. I banked left into the entrance ramp, thonked up into sixth, and headed west into the mist to find the Indian.

 

***

 

Over the course of a great many miles, I’ve become a firm believer in listening intently to what your motorcycle is telling you. On my K12, at 3900 rpm everything goes smooth, and will run at that indicated 83 miles an hour until your road turns to ocean. With two 900cc plus cylinders, the Roadmaster’s motor looms larger, and it’s presence dictates everything you do. Listening to the Thunder Stroke, it told me it was happiest around 2100 rpm, which in sixth gear was around 74. It still had tons of power — with its torque peak at 3000 — and would briskly walk away on throttle, but everything up higher seemed just a little more busy, a little more blustery — 74 seemed to be the Roadmaster’s comfortable walking shoes – the driveline harmonics’ smiley happy place. Might it smooth out a bit as it fully breaks in? Maybe. But where I’m used to attacking, the Roadmaster’s take was to be taking it easy, and looking good and feeling comfortable doing it.

The night before I’d looked for the bones of a route with a couple of alternate ideas if Mother Nature got mad. I’d sat down with my laptop running Google Maps – and figured I’d head west to just past Hancock Maryland, where I’d get off the interstate and turn towards Berkley Springs West Virgina. USS 522 runs from 70 south through Berkley Springs across Morgan County and further south to Omps.

“Omps?” I thought. I rubbed my eyes, squinted a little harder, and cranked the Zoom up on the laptop.

“Omps

Omps is an unincorporated community that lies along U.S. Route 522 in Morgan County, West Virginia, USA. Omps previously had a post office that operated between 1887 to 1973.

The community was named after one Mr. Omps, an original owner of the town site.”

What would we do without Wikipedia?

Ok, so I apologize to the inhabitants of Omps, West Virginia, but I noticed your town on the map because I thought it had a funny name. I used to live in Point of Rocks, Maryland, so you can have a turnabout is fair play laugh on me just for sport.

And whether Omps is a funny name or not, what I really noticed was the Great Big Green Thing right behind it on the map — The Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area. The more I zoomed in, the more tiny roads appeared. Eventually, those tiny roads popped over the mountains and came out somewhere between Inwood and Martinsburg, which was more or less back in my backyard.

Plan: Go west to 522, head south to Omps, and then make a left and then just wing it.

“Wing it? But Greg,” you say, “that Roadmaster has an LCD screen, built in GPS and nav, why would you not use it?”

Pretty simple. I was out for a ride. Not a get there.

***

 

I’ll admit that in the first few minutes after I hit cruise on 70, I did spend a little bit of time looking at the info screens to see what the system could do. I set the bike on its cruise control, which works perfectly, and diverted some attention to the onboard systems. The bike could present four different displays on the bright color LCD, that one could toggle though with either the preset buttons below the screen or with a toggle on the handlebars. My personal fave was strictly a riding information screen – real time tire pressures and fuel range. There were also screens for GPS, for navigation, for the radio and for interface with a smart phone and bluetooth music. There was also a button which dimmed the screen down to a series of dark grays with a barely discernible Indian head. I think that screen is called “Off”.

I liked that screen a lot too.

If you want to know how the radio sounded, you’ll need to ask someone else. While it looks like a nice one, I never turned it on. Between being extra attentive to someone else’s motorcycle and the bike’s built-in music, it never occurred to me to blast some tunes.

And I might have had more time to, if the aforementioned Mother Nature hadn’t shown up pissed.

Plenty pissed, too, if the intensity of the rain was any indication.

I’ve ridden in rain. I’ve ridden in lots of rain.  On my own motorcycle, with tires engineered specifically for rain traction – Thank you, Avon! – it doesn’t freak me out.

On an unfamilar motorcycle and tires, I wasn’t in a position to assume anything, I just needed to be vigilant and listen to what the motorcycle was telling me. I did cop a brief stop on the shoulder — 4 way flashers on — to close the vents and vanes on the fairing lowers and then gassed it back into traffic, and raised the power windscreen to its highest position. Even with the gas on in this strangling downpour the Roadmaster seemed planted, so I managed my lane position to keep away from other traffic and kept the bike running at about 65.

Fairing Vents Full Open

Lower Vent Closed

Deflectors Up, Captain

 

I passed a group of HD riders that were under an overpass, struggling with raingear.

“Who’s laughing at my Aerostich, now, mateys? Anybody want to buy one of these?”

Overall the protection offered by the bike’s fairing was quite good — my hands and my elbows were a little wetter than I was used to, but my torso and lap were dry, and my feet were also out of the blast. In the 11/10th test conditions Moms Nature provided, Roadmaster’s weather protection gets a solid two thumbs up.

After about 25 miles of this, the Roadmaster and I finally punched out the other side of the storm. It was still a little damp and steamy, but at least one didn’t drown if one opened one’s mouth. We continued to cruise– Thunder Stroke 111 just throbbing along — the few remaining miles up the interstate, until we got to the intersection of I-70, I-68, and US-522. I exited on 522 and headed south towards Berkeley Springs.

522 is a perfect two lane secondary road. If you are the type of rider that does all of your travelling off the Interstate, and seeks out roads like this, then the Roadmaster is a perfect travelling motorcycle. On 522’s winding curves, handling was almost zero effort and felt totally planted, the feet forward ergonomics made perfect sense, and one could lower the power shield to below one’s sightline and still run with visor open and minimal wind buffeting. Running at around 60 mph in 5th gear on the 6 speed box, any sluggish traffic could be instantly dispatched with zero drama — the Roadmaster’s power was like one giant slingshot.

Heading south on 522 one passes the sand mines of US Silica, and then encounters the small town of Ridersville, WV. As a committed motorcyclist, any town called Ridersville is OK by me, and this is one doubly so because of Ridersville Cycles, a large, modern multiline dealership that sits off the west side of the highway. I’d have stopped to say ‘Hi’ but they ride on Sundays, so I continued my relaxed roll to the South.

Coming into Berkeley Springs, I got a demonstration of how well the bike dealt with in-town trolling — at just above walking speeds — and found the bike to be stable and comfortable – not requiring any effort to keep on-line. Leaving town I saw a BP Station, and since I meant to get lost it was best to do it with a full tank.

I rolled into the station and standed the bike. I had a few awkward moments as I eyeballed the dual caps on the Roadmaster’s tank — remembering that only one of them is functional and not being able to remember which one. I guessed wrong, of course, and ended up with a cap in my hand with a safety sticker under it that said “Cap is decorative. Do not loosen or remove.”

Checking carefully to ensure I had not been observed in this serious transgression, I replaced the dummy cap, and tried the other one, which proved to be much more satisfactory. The tank took about 4 and a half gallons of Ultimate – capacity is 5 and a half – and I was much more careful not to drip fuel on this pretty paintjob — Indian calls it ‘Bronze over Thunder Black’ — than I would have been with one of my own motorcycles. I noticed that the trip computer had recalculated my range to empty based on my actual observed mileage – the sort of thing I could come to love out on the road. I got back on 522 South, riding the rolling hills and curves into Omps.

There isn’t much to Omps, really.

Cacapon State Park, with its Lake, Cabins and Golf Course. A Country Market with Gas Station, and the building that looked like it might have been the Post Office, back when Omps had one. But as soon as Omps had come it was gone, and my attention turned to finding a likely left turn that looked like it would cut up into the mountains to the east.

A few rolling miles south of Omps the sign appeared — it was all in international symbols — Fishing, Hunting, Camping, Left Turn — but to me it said ‘Pay dirt!’. I lit up my left signal, dropped a few gears to second, braked firmly and rolled left. By the time I had the Roadmaster straightened up and shifted back into third, I was sure I’d made the right move.

We’ve got lots of roads like this around where I live — little wandering country goat paths — but the ones that are left are in undeveloped farm land, and frankly, they don’t actually go anywhere. Three miles is about all one gets before getting dumped back out on a modern highway. But in Motorcyclist’s West Virginia, these roads can go on seemingly forever. This one rolled on though forest field and cabins as it slowly climbed the mountain — it would occasionally open up briefly where it hit pasture but mostly it was one turn after another, and the higher we climbed, the tighter it got.

From time to time, we’d hit an intersection, and I’d take which ever way looked good to me at the time. And while the road kept getting smaller, and the surroundings mistier, except for a few 270 degree switchbacks which tested the Roadmaster’s driveline and fuel injection’s ability to provide tractable, smooth steady power as really low rpms, I felt as comfortable on the bike as I could be, which is high praise indeed for a very large bike on a very small road. Coming out of these slow corners the bike smoothly launched from low road speeds – the frame’s rigidity and the suspension and steering geometry made what could have been a wrestling match very low effort and relaxing. In the whole time I had the bike, not a single bit touched down.

DSC_0078

Leather? Check. Conchos? Check. Chrome? Check and Check. Winding Road? Perfect.

A few corners in, I was presented with another sign — George Washington Heritage Trail. It pointed in a direction, so I went that way. The Father of Our Country has never steered me wrong, and he didn’t on this day, either. The Trail kept rolling up to the summit — rocky hillsides with sparse forestation — and then broke back down the other side to the valley below. Eventually, after miles and miles of winding country roads, we came in via WV51 into the back side of Charles Town, which was frankly too close to home.

US 340 goes home, so I didn’t take it, opting instead for WV9, a twisting local favorite that took me into Loudoun County Virginia, where I picked up Loudoun Heights Road, which since the last time I’ve ridden it, has become a driveway for wineries, which is a shame, because the road itself is a gem — threading vineyard and forests with challenging turns. The vineyard tourists introduce a new wrinkle to running The Heights. It’s a road I know well, and can be ridden with verve — I did spend some time with revs up and butterflies open — the Roadmaster’s sound was superb.

Too soon though we were back on 340 North, and on a divided highway running hard for home. For the few miles left of open road, I opened it up, and spent some time running the bike at a higher road speeds. And while it never ran out of motor, and was willing to pull, there was something that just seemed unnatural spinning that big motor at those speeds. It wanted to know what my hurry was, trying to vaporize the scenery when it was clearly worth dissolving into, embracing, and savoring for a while.

 

***

 

Everybody has a travelling style – no one is right or wrong.

When I was down at the Barber Vintage Festival, a couple of years back, I found myself in the pits of the Blue Moon Cycle Vintage Racing Team. And amongst the /5s, R90s and kneeler sidecars sat a Cherokee Red Indian Roadmaster. I’m pretty sure I was Dribble Puddleing — both that Engine and the Bike are chrome candy moto art — it’s the sort of thing that is kind of difficult to ignore.

Its owner — who was slightly older than I am — saw me looking, and wanted to know what I rode. I told him and he said he’d traded in the same bike I rode for this.

“No neck pain, no back pain, It’s amazing.” He said. “I’ve ridden every travelling BMW – R100RS, 1100 RTs, K Bikes, the works… this is the most comfortable travelling motorcycle I’ve ever owned.”

I thought a lot about what he told me, from that time to this.

Then I rode home from Alabama — 835 miles — in a single sitting, thinking about it most all the way.

And having ridden the Indian, I now understand what he meant.

Ride this motorcycle in its element as it wants to be ridden, and it is an illuminating experience.

Let that big motor do exactly what it was built to do.

The Roadmaster isn’t about getting there, it’s about being there, about being immersed in the ride for as long as it lasts.

It’s the kind of motorcycle that changes you, and can completely change your perspective.

 

 

***

 

Thanks to Indian Motorcycles and to Twigg Indian, in Hagerstown, Maryland, for providing a 2018 Indian Roadmaster motorcycle for this story.

A complete Road Test and Review appears in the July/August Edition of Motorcycle Times.

Motorcycle

I’d like you to play a little mind game with me.

Break out your mental ‘Etch-a-sketch’ and imagine a motorcycle.

First draw two circles, close to the same size, that describe the wheels. One rectangle towards the rear gives you a bench seat. A jellybean shape provides your fuel tank. A cylinder, maybe two. Give the rider some grips to grab onto, a headlight, and a pipe or two to get noise out of those cylinders, and there it is.

A motorcycle.

Unlike the ‘Famous Artist’s School’ Drawing lessons whose ads festooned a misspent youth’s worth of matchbooks and motorcycle magazines, 4 payments of $4.95 are not required – this drawing lesson is free.

What you’ve drawn looks just like a Honda CB360T. Or a Triumph Bonneville. Or a Norton International, Matchless G12 or a Royal Enfield Bullet.

Your mind’s eye has produced an iconic, simple, classic standard motorcycle.

And in your mind’s eye is likely where that classic motorcycle will stay, because almost no-one still manufactures a product that looks or functions like that.

Think about what motorcycles are out there in the marketplace, and which ones sell in substantial volumes. There are all manner of racetrack refugees – Yamaha YZF-R1s, Suzuki GSXR 1000s, BMW RR1000s, Kawasaki ZX-10s. Such motorcycles are extraordinary pieces of engineering, capable of blistering lap times and stunning top speeds that would have had them on the GP Podiums of 20 years ago.

Most of us, though, just want to get to work with our laptop and lunchbox, take a ride to the grocery store, or put our girlfriend (or boyfriend) on the back seat for a Sunday afternoon ride. Good luck transporting anything bigger than a granola bar, or any SO over 5 feet tall as a passenger on one of these machines.

Other specialized motorcycle designs abound. Heavy Tourers. Sport Tourers. Adventure Bikes. Cruisers. Baggers Bikes with more power, more mass, more suspension travel, more complexity, more function, but with more focus – being good at one thing at the expense of others. Good on the Interstate but a wrestling match in the city. Sweet on a single track but a tall mess on the pavement.

I’m as guilty as any rider of feeding the specialization beast. I have a vintage sport bike, racer boy bubble and all. I have a scrambler – which was riding dirt before anyone coined the term. I have a GT Bike – fairings, panniers and top case – complex adjustable fairings and artsy alternate suspension. It can carve twisty pavement with a week’s gear on board at 80 mph and can do it for weeks at a time. Its motor has a bigger displacement than half the cars in Italy.

My first street motorcycle was a 1973 CB750. It was bone stock – save for a universal chrome tube luggage rack, with a Green Spring Valley Dairy milkcrate bolted on.

Why does it feel like I’ve lost something?

My youngest son Finn is also a rider, and although he gets some, doesn’t really need any encouragement from me. As an Architect in Training, Finn has a developed design eye. When he first started looking at motorcycles, he was immediately drawn to one of those last few remaining classic motorcycles, the Royal Enfield. He intuitively understood the Bullet’s classic design language and intent. Had Finn had as much income as he had discerning taste, he’d have bought one, too.

His first few years in the saddle – using his bike for daily transportation – were spent aboard a Buell Blast single whose purchase was mostly based on the $900 it cost to buy. Being an Architect and not a mechanic, Finn found himself the recipient of increasingly frequent not quite social visits from me and from ever increasing percentages of my toolkit stuffed into the saddlebags of the aforementioned GT bike.

After the Blast’s engine fell out, it became clear, even to me, that some more material adjustments needed to be made to Finn’s riding life, and those adjustments were spelled H-O-N-D-A.

After about 639 phone calls to Baltimore’s Pete’s Cycle, my credit union and my Allstate agent, Finn had a brand new 2016 CB500F parked in my garage – at least until its permanent license plate showed up.

Two circles, one rectangle, one jellybean, some grips, two cylinders, a headlight and a pipe.

Motorcycle.

So it was with a light and expectant heart that I pulled on my leathers and my helmet, and rolled the CB out of my garage.

It’s not difficult to see the classic motorcycles of the past in the CB’s profile. Its parallel twin engine, sit up riding profile, and relaxed footpeg position carry obvious echos of the original CB450 Black Bomber, and the Triumph Bonneville that it was designed to vanquish. There are a few concessions to modernity – the bike’s 471 cc motor is liquid cooled, fuel injected, and has a double overhead cam, 4 valve cylinder head. Honda’s stylists did their best to pay homage to the tank shape and tailsection of Marc Marquez’ championship winning RC213V.

Fingering the starter yields immediate action – the bike’s exhaust note has a whistling quality which comes from the fuel injection pump and the operation of the injectors being the loudest sounds coming from the motor. The CB’s reaction to throttle is immediate – the engine’s square bore and stroke design has almost no flywheel.

On the road, the CB is a dream. The 6 speed transmission shifts positively – downshifts are a treat given the engine’s immediate response to a blips of the throttle. The quality of the engine’s power delivery is sneaky fast – there’s just enough communication to let you know that this is a twin, but the quality of the vibration is always pleasant – at higher RPMs and highway speeds the motor smooths out admirably. Above 6000 rpm that twin is ripping.

Cornering behavior is exemplary – the bike is narrow, weighs just over 400 lbs wet, cuts entries and changes direction like a scalpel and holds its cornering line securely even at extreme lean angles. Suspension is taut but comfortable. The bike’s 4 piston Nissin single rotor front brake is more than enough for the CB’s low mass.

I find myself seeking out tighter and more technical stretches of Frederick County pavement as the tires scrub in. I’m working the bike’s throttle, making full use of all 6 gears, and spending some quality time with the horizon anywhere but horizontal.

The CB500F has not been a sales leader for Honda. This bike was a leftover 2016 that was deeply discounted at the end of the 2017 sales year. On the West Coast, examples can be bought new for more than 35% off the current MSRP. Our American Riding Brothers and Sisters will tell you that its engine is “too small” and that it isn’t track ready, tour ready or adventure ready. All of that misses the point completely. Anywhere else in the world, where 2 wheeled transportation means a world of 125s, 350 Bullets, two strokers and motorscooters, the CB is an aspirational motorcycle – more attractive and better performing at a price that normal humans, and more importantly in the US, young riders, can afford.

Sitting in my driveway looking at the CB with Finn, it’s clear that we agree with those riders. Neither one of us ever gets tired of looking at the CB, and Finn’s opinion is “This is my new favorite thing in the entire world”.

Better still, is the CB is just grin-inducingly and totally fun to ride.

And isn’t that why we ride?

 

 

***

This story originally appeared in the January/February Issue of Motorcycle Times.

 

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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

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?

 

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The full test of the Zero Motorcycles DSR can be read here.