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The road sign read eight miles to Astoria as I zipped past. The battery gauge on the Zero SR/S electric motorcycle I was riding said I had just six miles of range remaining, and the nearest charger was on the other end of those eight miles – including a very long, narrow bridge across a typically angry body of water. As Everett McGill might say, I was in a tight spot.
Over sixty miles earlier, I had opted for a quick side-trip to take some photos of the Zero SR/S, and my math at the time seemed to indicate I would still have range to spare to make it to the picturesque coastal town of Astoria, nestled at the northwest tip of Oregon where the mighty Columbia River meets the mightier Pacific Ocean.
Now, my faulty math and some other poor decisions had come back to bite me on the butt. And it wasn’t like I could just pull over and recharge the gleaming blue bike; not only were there no Level II chargers anywhere close by, I had also forgotten to bring the 120-volt Level I charger with me, which plugs into a regular outlet like a toaster. Slower, but still workable.
It didn’t really matter since there wasn’t much civilization around anyway, let alone random electrical outlets. But as I rolled past a turnout with bathrooms that might have had an outside outlet, I tried to remember that this was how memories of adventures were made, through trial and tribulation. Trips where everything goes as planned tend to fade from memory over time. It didn’t seem like that would be the case this time. Would I end up having to push the bike across a long, narrow bridge humming with truck traffic? I shuddered and dropped my speed to 50mph.
I was in the second leg of my tour, which I embarked upon earlier in the morning to answer a question: What was required, in terms of cost, time, planning and effort, to go long-distance riding on an electric motorcycle? The Zero SR/S is the California company’s latest and greatest machine, a sleek, fully-faired open-road sporting mount bristling with the latest tech and massive power, capable of 0-60 times that will scorch most supercars and a top speed well into lose-your-license numbers. Around town, it’s a full-blooded traffic-carving weapon. But what about distance riding? After a couple of weeks of zipping around the Portland area on the SR/S, I asked Zero to add some panniers to the SR/S for the experiment, which they did along with a top case (which I ended up removing). They also added a centerstand.
My experiment was simple: I would follow a route I have taken many times over the years on gas-powered bikes, a route I like to call the “Tillamook Loop,” which begins in Portland, Oregon. The route follows the Columbia River north and then west along scenic highways to Astoria, then meanders down the coast to Tillamook, that town made famous by its namesake cheese. It’s pronounced “Till-uh-muck,” and yes, the cheese is world-class. From there, Highway 6, a snaking two-laner, threads through the forested Coast Range back towards Portland. Total (Googled) distance: 283 miles. On a regular ICE motorcycle, the ride takes about six hours, or a bit longer if you stop along the way to play some Skee-Ball in Seaside, get some saltwater taffy at Cannon Beach, dip your toes in the surf at Hug Point, or take the factory tour at the cheese factory (totally worth it – free cheese! ). Those are just a tiny sampling of the many, many places worth stopping at along the route. But how long might it take on an electric bike, with its longer charging times?
I used the PlugShare app to plan my route and the first leg of the journey went by the numbers. I left Portland at 8 a.m. and traced Highway 30 to the massive 90-year-old Lewis and Clark Bridge which crosses the Columbia River and connects Oregon and Washington, and arrived at Lower Columbia College in Longview, Washington, 62 miles distant, where I located a pair of Class II 6kW charger in the parking lot. Normally, school would be in session, but the campus was quiet as students completed their studies at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Zero still had close to a 20% charge as I clicked the connector into place. I passed the time waking the neatly coiffed and quiet campus, eventually ending up at a Subway sandwich shop to lay in provisions for the rest of the trip. Time to charge to 100%? One hour, 10 minutes. Cost: Free. Sandwich? $6, plus tax (and root beer).
Fully charged, sandwiched and rootbeered, I pointed the SR/S up Highway 4, a glorious stretch of two-lane tarmac that winds along the Columbia River towards the Pacific Ocean, where it meets coastal Highway 101. This would be a 73-mile stretch for SR/S’ battery, and I put the bike in Eco mode and locked in the cruise control at 55 miles an hour, which didn’t last for long as the curves began to come quickly, reducing my average speed and demanding actual human throttle control. The highway is occasionally dotted with tiny towns like Skamokawa, where I turned off for a brief detour to an old haunt, Lucky Mud, where some friends and I used to visit for some mancation down time and some of the best disc golf in the region – maybe in the world. It would be a fateful decision.
I was doing my best hypermiling to make it to Astoria, but the Lucky Mud detour had cost me a precious 10 miles of range, far more than I realized at the time, and now I was in full-on range anxiety mode as I watched the battery level turn red as it dropped below ten percent, then nine, and then eight, with just six miles of range remaining. Astoria, and the next charger, lay eight miles – and one enormous bridge – distant. I curled around a corner into a slight downhill and the mouth of the Columbia River opened up before me, the entrance to the Astoria-Megler Bridge in the distance, a wind-whipped, narrow four-mile long crossing that rises 200 feet above the Columbia River at closest approach to Astoria – and it was still three miles away. The battery meter clicked down to five percent. I dropped my speed to 45mph.
The Zero SR/S is basically a faired and tweaked version of Zero’s SR/F model, and I knew from my time with the F that the motorcycle doesn’t come to a screeching halt when the battery hits zero. Much like an older gas-powered bike, it has somewhat of a “reserve” of power that will continue to propel the machine forward, albeit at a reduced speed. But for how long? My experiments with running the SR/F to zero (while very close to home) seemed to indicate it had at least a couple of miles left in the tank after hitting 0%. I dropped the SR/S to 30mph, activated the hazard lights and rode along the shoulder as I approached the bridge entrance, occasionally buffeted by a log truck, pickup or RV as they whizzed by at 55 or better. Sliding onto the bridge, the battery read zero with range also at zero. Still, the SR/S soldiered on at 30mph, but the climb to the 200-foot peak of the bridge loomed before me, and I had my doubts there were enough electrons banging around inside the battery pack to make the steep ascent, seeing how the bike weighed about 530 pounds with the panniers, I added another 230 or so and I had a lot of camera gear on board – plus that sandwich. That empty battery had to push close to 800 pounds up a very steep but short hill. I began to grit my teeth as the climb commenced.
The 54-year-old bridge is very long but also very narrow with essentially no shoulder for cars, and losing all power on the uphill leg would put me in a dangerous position of stalling in traffic, much of which was made up of semis, RVs and pickups. But up the SR/S went, the speedometer numbers slowly ticking down as the crest of the span came ever closer. With traffic piling up behind me and a large pickup angrily trying to pass, I crested the top of the span at 25mph, sweet relief flowing through my veins as the SR/S picked up speed – and power from regeneration – as I rolled down the short but steep descent into Astoria. With zeros still showing on the Zero’s gauges, I slowly crept down back streets to the charging station, thankfully located near the bridge. Fifty feet from the charger, the motor switched off and “battery pack depleted” appeared on the LCD display. I pushed the SR/S the last few feet to the charger and clicked the connector into place. I can say with a great amount of certainly that the 2020 Zero SR/S with a 14.4kWh battery, mostly full panniers and a big rider aboard will definitely go a total of 88.7 miles of mostly highway riding at 55mph (and some at 30mph) on a single charge. It was 2:45 p.m., and my adventure was essentially at the halfway point.
Taking the battery from as dead as the Zero’s internal systems would allow it to get (and it’s not good for the battery to do this, mind you) to clicking off at a 100 percent charge from the Level II 6kWh node took 2 hours and 16 minutes, time I passed walking around Astoria’s historic and charming downtown, where stores and restaurants were struggling to survive on takeout and donations during the coronavirus lockdown. Some did not make it through, as new For Lease signs hung in numerous windows. The city has some benches set up near the charger and I perused my smartphone for a bit while the charge completed. Cost? A flat fee of $4.
Leg Three, the shorter ride to Tillamook, lay ahead. It was just after 5pm when I turned the key. Back on the road, I switched the Zero from Eco mode to Sport R, a custom mode I created that was a copy of the built-in full-power Sport mode but with the regen turned up to 95 percent, which gave the SR/S a deceleration behavior on closed throttle similar to my personal motorcycle, a Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird. And while the SR/S doesn’t have the borderline insane top speed of the Blackbird, it more than matched it on brute acceleration, as the motor’s 140 pound feet of torque rocket it past 60 miles an hour in the span of a deep inhale.
Unleashed, the SR/S is a corner-carving delight, even with the SHAD rear cases adding some weight to the rear. But despite hauling my derrière, the pannies, camera gear, rain gear, dry socks and a supply of snacks, the SR/S railed through corner after corner with commendable stability, exquisite smoothness and searing speed as I blitzed my way down the very curvaceous and relatively vacant Highway 101 towards Tillamook, 65 miles away. With Oregon campgrounds, tourist destinations and most businesses closed due to the pandemic, the twisting highway was largely free of traffic, and I passed what little there was with ease as the SR/S’ deep well of torque slingshotted me around the few RVs, boat-hauling pickups and other motorcycles (save for a group of sport riders) making their way south. I stopped off in Lost Boys worthy Seaside for a quick take-out bite and then again in beautiful Cannon Beach, because, well, that’s pretty much mandatory and my supply of the city’s famous saltwater taffy at home was running dangerously low.
Restocked, I shot down the 101 into Tillamook, but the late hour (and the pandemic) meant the doors at the famous cheese factory were closed to the public and the parking lot was barricaded, which scratched one of four charging points off my list (yes, I could have gone around the barricade, but….). The next charger in town was occupied by a Chevy Bolt, but the third time truly was a charm and I found an unoccupied charger at the Blue Heron French Cheese Company, a quaint tourist-trapish spot right on Highway 101 redeemed by amazing dairy products, impressive sculptures, vintage tractors and several rather friendly peacocks that were wandering the neatly kept grounds. Looking for the tap-to-pay spot on the charger, a small sign revealed that we are still in the early days of electric motoring: Charging was free, including for Teslas at the neighboring node. Enjoy it while it lasts, EV-driving friends.
With the SR/S slowly drinking up electricity and daylight fading, I walked along Highway 101 for a stretch, taking photos as the sky turned colors. Traffic was almost nonexistent as the small city buttoned up on a cool Friday evening; no restaurants or nightclubs were open although, at long last, rumblings of a restart were in the air. Oregon had managed the outbreak well, with a sudden rush to close schools and businesses in March no doubt helping to contain the spread of illness. Still, as of this writing, over 160 people had perished from COVID-19 in the state with nearly 5,000 infected. Low numbers, perhaps, but the empty highways, closed stores and the nearly complete absence of people at tourist stops typically thronging with crowds in mid-June made for an eerie reminder of what kind of dire outcome is truly possible under a worst-case pathogen pandemic. The crowds will return, in time. It could have been – or it could be – much worse if we are not vigilant.
An hour and 38 minutes after arriving in Tillamook, the charger clicked off and I slipped the cold weather liner into my jacket, donned a neck warmer and dug my winter gloves out of the rear panniers. It was just over 60 degrees, but I knew that was only temporary. I had been enjoying music and comms most of the ride thanks to the excellent Cardo Packtalk Bold system I installed in my AGV Sportmodular Mono helmet, but now I slipped in earplugs to silence the wind noise for the final leg home and switched off the tunes. It was 9:15 p.m. when I pulled out of the Blue Heron lot and rolled onto Highway 6 towards Portland. The nearest charger was only about 60 miles away in Banks, but that’s not what had me chanting “stay frosty” to myself as I left Tillamook and the highway narrowed to two slim lanes as it began to ascend into the Coast Range.
As a journalist for a local TV station years ago, I wrote many stories about crashes on “the Six” as it is known locally, a snaking, twisting and sometimes uneven stretch of roadway that connects the coast to Oregon’s interior. During the day, it’s a scenic wonder and sport rider heaven. At night, it’s a writhing, pitch black roller coaster of a road where deer, elk, a drunk driver, a broken-down vehicle or rockfall could lurk around the next corner, and there are many, many corners. I set the SR/S’ cruise control to 50 (the speed limit is 55) as the ascent into the mountains began, and just as I was thinking the only way this part of the ride could be any more dangerous was if it started to rain, it started raining. I switched the Zero to Rain mode, which bumped up traction control and ABS sensitivity while slightly softening power output, although freeway speeds remained on tap. I was out of the rain shower minutes later and back on dry pavement, but it was a reminder that now, the curving roadway could also be wet at any point and more vision-reducing rain could be coming.
Into the darkness the SR/S carried me, the excellent twin LED headlights casting a bright and broad swath of light down the road, and the brights – also twin LEDs – lighting up the dense stands of towering fir trees that framed the highway and blotted out the sky. There’s no cell service on much of Highway 6 as it cuts through deep ravines and threads through towering forests, so a misstep or mishap can have fatal consequences because if no one knows you’ve crashed, help ain’t coming. Bending around one corner into a straightaway, a line of headlights – the first I’d seen – were coming the opposite direction. Suddenly, while still a ways away, the lead vehicle veered across my lane – and disappeared. A second and a third did the same as I rapidly slowed. The last one driver stopped, blinker on, and flashed their brights in recognition of my presence. I crept past at 20mph and saw that it was a quiver of Jeeps heading up a logging road; locals out for some fun on a Friday night. The driver of the last Jeep tooted his horn as I went by and then gunned it up the road to rejoin the group, and the highway was enveloped in inky darkness once again. I never saw a single vehicle behind me despite my slow speed.
Cresting the range above the 1,500-foot elevation mark, the temperature read 42 degrees on the Zero’s a bit too brightly lit cockpit display. The highway pitched downward, the pavement often pocked by inelegant repairs, dips and cracking left over from when numerous sections of it washed out during a period of epic rainfall in 1996 and subsequent years. But the SR/S’ capable Showa suspension soaked up the pavement irregularities with ease and I must say, it has one of best long-duration motorcycle seats I’ve had the pleasure to experience. I was never uncomfortable. Despite wearing winter gloves, my hands were getting cold, so now that I was on the downhill stretch of the pass, I activated the heated handgrips that came with the Premium version of the SR/S. Soon, my digits were bathed in warmth and as I kept going down in elevation, the ambient temperature began to rise. And it began to rain, again.
Back at the top of the pass, the battery level was reading in the mid-60s, and over the course of the trip, I had been averaging a bit less than one mile per battery charge percentage point. Rolling down the backside of Highway 6, the SR/S transitioned between coasting, regeneration, and slight power as gravity did most of the work. Miles later, as a full moon rose through parting clouds and the dim glow of Portland’s city lights began to brighten on the horizon, Highway 6 emptied out into the rolling farmlands of the broad Willamette Valley. The battery gauge remained in the low 60s. I had planned to stop at Banks for a final recharge, but now, that thankfully wasn’t needed.
The next charger was just down the road in Hillsboro in Oregon’s Silicon Forest, near where Highway 6 linked to Highway 26, the primary (but much more boring) link between Portland and the northern Oregon coast. Coming into the Hillsboro area, the battery was reading in the 40s and the range hung at 38 miles, which meant there was a possibility I could make it home without stopping. If my estimate fell short, that wasn’t such a big deal since by now, there were chargers seemingly on almost every other block, per the PlugShare app. So I pressed on, climbing Sylvan Hill at 60mph and then rolling down hot into Portland’s downtown region to pick up Interstate 405, then a blast across the double-decked Marquam Bridge which overlooks Portland, and finally up Interstate 84 into the Southeast sector of the city I call home.
Rolling onto an off ramp to exit I-84, the cruise control suddenly disengages on its own as the battery clicked down to four percent, with two miles of range remaining. It will be enough. I ride the short distance to home through the city as the range indicator slips to zero, and pull into the driveway with one tick showing on the battery gauge. It’s 11:11 p.m. and the tripmeter reads 87 miles exactly. Per the Zero app’s GPS-based ride tracking feature, the trip turned out to be 296 miles total.
What Is And What Will Be
It could be argued that electric motorcycles are not ready for long-distance touring duty. Certainly arguable, I agree, especially compared to the convenience of gas-powered bikes. But taken on its own, it’s obviously possible, completely doable, a challenge that can be met. You just have to realign your plans and expectations to the current limits of the key tech involved, namely battery performance. Everything else typical of a sport-touring motorcycle was present and accounted for on the Zero SR/S: comfy seat, cruise control, bug screen, heated grips, spacious bags, trip planning app, numerous “fueling” stations and so on. It can be done, right now, and the SR/S is gloriously fast and ethereally smooth – it’s a joy to ride it all day. The main difference is part of that day is spent refueling it. Slowly.
For now, that’s just how it is. In the future, likely sooner than we think, things will be very different. Modern battery technology is in its infancy right now, and big changes are on the horizon. In the years to come, that 87 miles of highway range is going to be 187 miles, then 287 then 500 miles and so on. At the same time, charging times will continue to drop as charging methods and battery formulations mature and develop. In time, recharging an electric bike (or car) will take minutes, not an hour or more. Have no doubt: it’s going to happen. Some of the biggest companies on Earth, in both the automotive and tech sectors, are dumping billions into battery R&D, and you can expect those efforts to bear fruit in the near term. Breakthroughs will happen, perhaps major ones, where capacities will triple or more for the same given storage space, a function of energy storage known as energy density.
The energy density of liquid fuels is pretty much set in stone (sorry); if you want to go farther, you have to carry more of it, which adds weight, which then fluctuates as it is used. With batteries, the weight never changes. Also, batteries can often do the seemingly impossible: weigh less yet hold more power. Want proof? Buy an eight pack of AA alkaline batteries and an eight pack of AA lithium batteries. The lithiums are far lighter but last far longer. Miracle? No, just battery science, the same science that allows the SR/S’s lithium-ion battery to ferry a 505-pound motorcycle, my prodigious carcass and a bunch of heavy gear for well over an hour at speed, and then recharge over and over again to repeat the process. When you think about it, the fact that the Zero SR/S works as well as it does right now is a modern technological miracle.
Time To Ride!
What is life without adventure? Pretty dull. In modern industrialized society, most of the things our not-so-distant forebears had to struggle for – food, water, shelter, medical care – are now on-demand staples of daily life. City folk aren’t out hunting to stave off hunger and keep warm with animal skins. We have puffy jackets, ZoomCare, 7-Eleven nachos and amazing digital devices for instant communication and entertainment, let alone amazing electric motorcycles (and cars). Life is an embarrassment of riches for most people, whether they realize it or not. It’s hard to be a pioneer in this day and age, and while my electric motorcycle touring escapade had some tense moments, they were nothing compared to the travails endured by real heroes like Ted Simon or Bessie Stringfield, who looked danger, deep-seated racism and other perils in the face and turned the throttle anyway.
But in some small way, I felt a bit of that pioneer spirit in my ride through the quiet back roads of Oregon and Washington on a motorcycle that is essentially from the future, from a time when doing my coastal loop in a day at speed on an electric bike will be a no-brainer, because it has a 500-mile range, makes 200hp, recharges in 5 minutes and is reliable as a hammer. Zero’s SR/S is most of the way to that future right now. It was a hoot to ride, carried me in comfort, went like the dickens and worked exactly as designed, even going above and beyond its apparent maximum abilities when things got ugly. It capably got me to where I wanted and needed to go in style and comfort, and then got me home with no problems other than the limitations of the battery. I can’t ask for more than that. Someday soon, sooner than we will likely realize, it will take five minutes to charge an electric motorcycle that gets 500 miles of range, and probably for a pittance compared to even today’s low gas prices. You could wait for that day, but you’d be missing out on a great riding experience on the Zero SR/S, the likes of which most riders rarely get to experience. All I can do is hope and root for battery design to catch up to the true abilities of the Zero SR/S, so that soon enough, my usual seven hour ride can be completed in a bit less than 15 hours.
Ride Kit: Shad SH36 panniers, Cardo Packtalk Bold comms, AGV SportModular helmet, Apple iPhone, Bilt Pro Tourer Air riding boots, Garmin XT GPS
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