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Can you tour on an electric motorbike?

Electric_Tour_1

Electric vehicles often get a bad rap. Critics deride them for their price, range and recharge time, while others consider them soulless compared to their petrol powered competitors. And although electric cars are no longer a novelty, electric motorcycles are still a rare sight on British (or indeed any) roads, even though there are now several options out there for bikers keen to go electric. One common complaint is that ‘you can’t tour on an electric bike’ and without wading into the often spiky and ill-informed EV debate, we wanted to make our own mind up. When the opportunity came to pile over 700 miles on a Zero DSR/X last summer, with a trip up to the Scottish Highlands, we were right up for it.

Whatever your preconceptions of electric motorcycles are, there are some really great things about them. The instant torque, fixed gear transmission and lack of clutch make bikes like the Zero so easy, and so relaxing, to ride. Those same attributes give absolutely bonkers levels of acceleration too. Stick the DSR/X into Sport mode and you’ve got 225Nm of torque accessible instantly at a touch of the throttle. To put that into context, the 2.5 litre Triumph Rocket 3 makes 200Nm at 2500rpm. Whatever your prejudices, I defy anyone with a pulse not to have a smile on their face when they blast away from the lights on a big electric motorcycle.

 

Electric_Tour_2

 

Of course, everyone knows using all the performance of an electric vehicle drains the battery more quickly than gentle riding – and with a trip up to Scotland on the cards we’re going to have to take things easy.

The bike we’re riding is a Zero DSR/X, which is the American company’s adventure sport model. As standard it costs £20,950, although our test bike is fitted with the £2,579 Rapid Charger. This claims to take charging time down to around an hour, although more of that later.

Our journey starts in Lincolnshire, where we’ve charged up at home overnight using what is known in the EV world as a ‘granny charger’ basically a lead that plugs into a regular three-pin socket. Zero have a feature called ‘Extended Range Charging’ which weirdly charges the battery to 110%. You have to actively select it, otherwise the battery ‘only’ goes up to 100%. Good practice is not to fully charge an EV unless you need the range, so the 110% mode is best used only when you need it.

And need it we would. The first leg of our journey is a dull 78 mile trip up the A1, to Wetherby Services. Keeping our speed to a steady 65mph (using the cruise control), we arrive at the services with an indicated 18 miles range left. We take out our charging cable and plug into the Gridserve charging point. With a quick tap of a contactless card the bike is charging and showing a little more than an hour to 100%.

Charging is not as easy as filling with petrol, that’s for sure, but it’s also not as complicated as many think. Unlike rivals like the Energica Experia and Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire, the Zero only has access to AC (alternating current) charging posts. Despite having what Zero describe as a Rapid Charger, it doesn’t have the DC (direct charging) facilities used by most cars these days. The upside is that there are more AC charging points, they are cheaper to use and kinder to the battery – although DC are more readily found at service stations like this. Another upside is that both AC chargers are unoccupied when we rock up, meaning there’s no need to wait our turn. The electricity is costing us 49p per unit (kWh), which is around double what it does at home, while the AC chargers are 79p a unit. In total, the Zero holds just over 15 units of electricity.

 

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We head for a coffee as the bike charges. On a petrol bike, I’d probably have ridden a little faster and for a little longer but to be honest, 90 minutes in the saddle is getting on for my personal range these days anyway. I’ve planned the journey a bit more than I would have on petrol, using the Zap-Map app which shows the location and status of charging units across the country.

Tonight I’m staying at the biker friendly Buccleuch Arms Hotel in Moffat, some 150 miles away, but rather than charge the Zero up fully and have a slow (and anxious) non-stop ride there, I’m planning another break in Barnard Castle, just over 50 miles away.

The theorical charging speed of the Zero on this three-phase charging post is 13kw (meaning it will put 13kWh of energy in the bike in an hour’s charging). While the bike does charge at 12.6kw initially, it flattens off as it goes through 45%. This ‘charging curve’ is normal and as the bike gets to the 50% mark it’s more like 10kw. I have a coffee and leave after half an hour, with the battery indicating around an 80% state of charge (SoC) and 90 miles of range.

The range indictor is not to be taken as gospel. It’s based on how I’ve been riding, so if I speed up it will go down and if I ride more slowly it’ll go up. My experience is that there’s usually a bit left in reserve, but we’re not taking any chances. I really don’t want to be rolling up to a charging point on empty, and my planning always has a plan B in case I arrive at a faulty or occupied charger.

Another hour in the saddle and we are in Barnard Castle. The charging point is in a car park in the charming town, with plenty of places to eat and stuff to do to kill an hour.

The charging point needs an app to activate it, which I’ve downloaded in advance but not used before – so it takes me five minutes of faff to get it going. It’s a little more expensive than the last one, 56p a unit, and we’ve got 100 miles ahead of us to get to Moffat.

 

Electric_Tour_10

 

Forty minutes and a supermarket meal deal later and we’re back on the road. There was a temptation to wait and fully charge the bike, but by 85% the charge rate is down to 6.5kw and I know the last 5% will take 30 minutes anyway, as the bike slows down and balances the battery cells. Now we’re off the A1, the A66 promises to be a more engaging ride. I take a balanced approach, sticking to speed limits but riding enthusiastically enough to enjoy the road and the bike. Unlike the A1’s long straight stretches, the curves and gentle descents allow us to utilise the bike’s regenerative braking, putting a little energy back into the battery as we roll out and eking out a few extra miles’ range.

With the sun out and virtually no wind, these are optimal conditions for an EV. The 39 mile ride from Barnard Castle to Penrith is dispatched in around 45 minutes and consumes 34% of my battery. Thanks to my research at the last stop, I know where the charging points are in Penrith but I’m not ready to pull in, and take the extra 30 miles to Gretna Green services.

 

Electric_Tour_3

 

The M6 is dull. It’s uphill and I’m consuming more electrons than at any stage earlier in the day. I’m sticking to 60mph and bravely ride past Carlisle in a stubborn effort to make it to Scotland before charging. There are some chargers at Gretna Green train station which are listed as free to use but, tempting as free electricity is, they’re the slower 7kw single phase type. As it is, I get to Gretna services with 8% on the dash and pay 79p a unit to Gridserve.

With only 30 miles to my overnight stop, I’m planning to leave with around 35%, giving me a little contingency in case the ride up Beattock uses more electricity than expected. There’s also a point at Johnstonebridge, just in case…

We arrive at our overnight lodgings just under seven hours after we set off. We’ve spent around 100 minutes charging on our 220-mile journey, which has taken longer than on a petrol bike, but not actually that much longer. At the Buccleuch Arms, we meet our host Dave who allocates us a secure shed to park up in for the night. I select the ‘Extended Range Charging’ option to ensure we start day two with 110% battery and plug in the granny charger. So far, so good…

Day two: Heading to the Highlands

The ride from Moffat to Glasgow is 60 miles of motorway. Early on a wet Monday morning, it’s boring and snarled up.

We leave Moffat on 110% and arrive in Glasgow with 48%, so just over 1% per mile on an hour long journey. In Glasgow we’re meeting some other journalists and social media content creators who are flying in to join us for two days riding around the Highlands. Zero have brought three other bikes along, which are fully charged and ready to go. Their delayed flight means that our now looking dirty DSR/X has plenty time to fully recharge. We meet at Glasgow Airport and head out north just before midday.

The ride is planned from Glasgow Airport to Fort William, a 100-mile run around Loch Lomond and over Glen Coe, but a torrential downpour as we approach Glen Coe (70 miles in) leads to an impromptu change of plan.

We were making good progress. The slow twisting roads and 50mph zones mean the range of the bike is estimated at 130 miles, although interestingly the smaller and lighter female riders are showing even more, with one bike suggesting it’s capable of 150 miles between recharging.

 

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Electric_Tour_6

 

We dive into the Kingshouse Hotel, situated on the West Highland Way, where we find shelter and four vacant EV charging points. They’re the faster 22kw chargers too, so we plug in, tap the Chargeplace Scotland RFID card and head to the coffee shop, which is packed to the rafters.

Refreshments take a while, if only because the poor staff are rushed off their feet due to every walker in the area, not to mention four wet electric bikers, descending on them. The bikes answer the question as to whether or not they can be charged in the rain (they can) and we head out an hour later, our bike almost fully recharged.

At this stage we’re a bit off schedule. Our overnight accommodation is in the heart of the Cairngorms mountain range and almost 100 miles away, on roads where we don’t want to run out of juice.

We take the planned trip to Fort William as per the schedule, it’s raining again and there’s a car park with a dozen charging points at our disposal. There are some others on the route, but these are the fastest we’re likely to find, and Fort William is an interesting place to spend an hour.

What we noticed at Kingshouse, and here as well, is that charging is a bit slower when more vehicles are plugged into the same posts. On my own, the Zero would charge at over 10kw consistently, but there its closer to 6.5kw. We’re also a little handicapped by the fact that our Zero is the only bike fitted with the Rapid Charger, and although we can leave Fort William fully charged the other bikes have half the charging capability, meaning we’re stopped for just over an hour – to leave with around 90% on the dash.

This next stage also proves that inclines and temperature play a big part in determining the range of an electric motorcycle. Whereas we were seeing around 1.3 miles per 1% earlier in the trip, now it’s down to less than 1:1 on the fast and flowing A86. On another day this could be a perfect ride, but now it’s cold and we’re damp, hungry and starting to suffer range anxiety. There are a few places where we could stop, even as a group of four, but we just want to get to our destination. We stick to 50mph and arrive at our hotel, a mountain lodge, in darkness and with some of the bikes having been on 0% for the last five miles.

Our lodge promises two EV charging points in the car park but we just can’t get them to work. Scotland’s charging system is good, probably the best in the UK, with most chargers on a common, Government backed, network, but this one can’t communicate with HQ and even a call to the helpful people at Chargeplace Scotland doesn’t work. There’s not much mobile reception in these parts and they can’t seem to send a signal to the charger.

Luckily we’ve got our granny chargers with us, although the hotel receptionist seems unconvinced and won’t allow us to use their three-pin sockets. They’re a mountain resort, with golf buggies all around the place, so we know they can help if they want to. After some heated exchanges and a call to the manager and we’re shown around the back. Three bikes are plugged into some outdoor sockets and the other is parked by a bedroom, where we run a lead out through an open window. The supply is slow and the bikes are showing almost 10 hours to recharge, but we’re here all night and it’s free fuel. Time for a beer!

 

Electric_Tour_14

 

Day three: electric nirvana

After all the drama of the following day, we’re up early and happy to report that all bikes have charged to 110%.

The hotel manager turns up first thing to check all’s ok, and to apologise profusely for the charging issues the night before. She rides a Yamaha MT-07 and is genuinely curious about the Zeros. Riding an electric motorbike means you’re never short of people to talk to when you stop for a charge. Most are EV car drivers and they ask the usual questions. I think if I owned one I would get some cards made up with all the FAQs. What’s the range, how long to charge, how long does it last (which is apparently another way of asking the range)?

We meet over a hearty breakfast and decide to spend a few hours doing our own thing. The content creators go off to create some content and we enjoy a spirited ride on one of my favourite stretches of asphalt, the A939 Lecht Road.

 

Electric_Tour_12

 

We agree to meet at the Lecht Ski Centre because we know there’s a café there. Unfortunately it’s closed, I guess there’s not much demand for a ski resort in late September, but I’m surprised to find four shiny new charging posts in one of the most remote parts of the country. It’s a slow charger, off the Chargepoint Scotland network, and costs 65p a unit but we plug in two bikes while we wait for the other two to join us. We’re only really at 70% when we arrive, but it pays to take a charge whenever you can. Half an hour takes us up to 90% and we head off over the fantastic Old Military Road towards Balmoral and an early lunch in Braemar, where two charging posts are advertised in the village car park.

Braemar is a bustling tourist village and for the first time we arrive at a charging point to find a car using the facilities. We expected to find three chargers here, but the 43kw one, the one that would have charged our bike fastest, was inoperative but still staring annoyingly at us nonetheless. Had I been on my own it wouldn’t have been an issue, but with four of us all we could do was plug in the bike with the worst state of charge to the one available post, which in itself was struggling to deliver more than 4kw to our Zero’s battery.

 

Electric_Tour_13

 

The morning’s ride had been spectacular, riding some amazing roads which really flattered the Zero. Motorways and dual carriageways are not the DSR/X’s best friends, especially when trying to rack up big miles, but the instant torque and effortless acceleration made it an absolute pleasure to ride on mountain passes.

Our schedule for the day was over 200 miles, of which we’d completed over 60, but we knew the most direct route to Edinburgh, where we would stay the night, was just over 90 miles from Braemar. This was right at the edge of the DSR/X’s range but hopefully achievable non-stop if we took it easy. Considering it was warmer, and we were going down in altitude, we had a decent plan B.

The charging car moved on after 20 minutes, allowing us to put on a second bike, but with charge rates slow we decided to eat up and move on. The next stage, the A93 over the Spittal of Glenshee, was too good to ride slowly and the riding gods were with us as the rain held off until we got to Blairgowrie in Perthshire, when the heavens opened once again.

Around the Fife Coast

In a repeat of the previous day, we parked up, finding a Tesco with enough charging for all and escaped the rain. We took our bike, with the Rapid Charger fitted, to a nearby 43kw charger. These tend to deliver the best charge, as they don’t have to split the output between multiple AC outlets, and although the Zero can only charge at a theoretical 13kw maximum it was able to hold a strong 10kw charge all the way up to 75%.

But the rain had scuppered our plans. The group decided to abandon the idea of visiting St. Andrews and enjoying a gentle tour around the Fife coast. We made our coffee last as long as possible, donned our gear and ride the 60 miles down a sodding wet M90 to Edinburgh Airport, where the content creators headed off home.

Our journey had one last leg, an incident free 100 mile non-stop journey to drop the bike off at Zero’s UK HQ in Northumberland the following morning. It was an interesting journey to say the least, racking up almost 750 miles on an electric motorcycle.

  Electric_Tour_11

 

Conclusion

So can you tour on an electric motorcycle? Well, yes, we made it without the need for any outside assistance and with no major dramas.

Sure, it was more sedate and more planned than I would normally be on a petrol bike. The motorways were hard going but the bike was in its element in the Highlands, where charging was surprisingly plentiful and the lower speeds extended our range.

There were times when going electric meant I lacked some flexibility. When we were cold and wet we just wanted to open up and get to our final destination, only to be overcome with some genuine (but probably real) range anxiety, and there are times when we had to stop when we might otherwise have just kept going.

At steady speeds there was a genuine range of over 120 miles, meaning 250-300 mile days would not be unreasonable. This was more difficult when riding as part of a group of four riders, but a bit less difficult than expected. Twice we stopped because of the rain and were greeted with a bank of four charging points, and discovering them at the top of mountains really put a smile on my face.

 

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A lot has been made of Zero’s reluctance to fit faster DC charging systems to their bikes, but on the trip I was grateful that was the case. DC chargers, while found at every motorway service station, were very difficult to find in rural areas while AC chargers could be found in almost every village. The charge times of our Zero, with its Rapid Charger, probably fared quite favourably to those bikes with DC charging, although it all depends on your situation.

And ‘depends’ is still very much the stock answer when it comes to pretty much any question regarding EVs. Range, the most common question, depends on how you ride, weather conditions, temperature, rider stature and a number of other small factors. Range could be anything from 70 miles to 200 miles, from motorway to city, but over 100 miles should be achievable by most riders on the open road.

Charging time is another big variable. It depends on what hardware you have fitted to the bike, temperatures and what charging points you are using, and even then you’ll find variance from the advertised rates if lots of vehicles are tapping into the same power supply.

Electric isn’t for everyone, but the technology is at a place where it is viable for some. Zero recently won the ACU’s Maudes Trophy after riding around the UK on a pair of DSR/Xs in November. It needs a bit of planning, a bit of discipline and more patience than you would need with petrol power, but if nothing else we proved you can tour on an electric motorcycle!

 

 

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