Things I Learned Riding an Electric Motorcycle

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What’s it like to live with an electric motorcycle?

Zero Electric Motorcycles
Rows of Zero S motorcycles getting charged at the bike's press launch in Santa Cruz, California. Photo © Basem Wasef
Press launches are controlled environments where pre-determined road routes are followed, and journalists are able to experience a motorcycle through the course of several hours— and, if we’re lucky, several days of riding.

So when I tested the Zero S at the bike’s official launch and wrote up my review, I knew that quick rides through the backroads of Santa Cruz, California weren’t the typical circumstances under which most owners would experience the motorcycle.

Fast forward a couple months, and I was fortunate enough to borrow a Zero back home. What is it like to ride an electric motorcycle day-to-day? Here are a few things I learned from the experience.

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Loud Pipes (May or May Not) Save Lives, but No Pipes Require Caution

Zero Electric Motorcycles
Critters have an uncanny tendency to hop, crawl, and run into the path of electric bikes-- especially on roads like this. Photo © Zero

The debate about the safety of loud pipes rages on. But after a week on the Zero, I can confidently say that a complete lack of engine noise requires a specific type of awareness.

Whereas gas-powered motorcycles make their presence known by the hum of their engines, electric bikes glide along in acoustic anonymity. You’d be surprised how many random critters fearlessly try to cross your path when you’re riding an electric bike—squirrels, for instance, seem especially oblivious to battery-powered two-wheeled travelers. Likewise, cars don’t seem quite as aware of your presence when you’re whooshing by silently, especially when you’re in their blind spots or simply out of sight.

After a week on the Zero, I learned that making myself seen becomes even more important on an electric than it does on a gasoline-powered motorcycle since I wasn’t preceded by an exhaust note.

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Safety Gear Seems Superfluous, But Isn't

Zero Electric Motorcycles
As unnatural as it may feel, wearing full safety gear on an electric bike is always a good idea. Photo © Zero

I always recommend wearing proper safety gear: helmets, gloves, jackets, pants and boots— the whole nine yards. But every time I geared up to ride the Zero, I didn’t feel as compelled to go all-out like I usually do on a conventional motorcycle that makes vroom vroom (or even potato potato) noises... which is silly, because the seemingly harmless electric bike easily reaches speeds (67 mph, officially) that could cause some serious personal damage in the event of a wreck.

In the same way that scooters invite casual clothes and a “dolce vita” attitude, the battery-powered Zero has an unintimidating, almost toy-like personality that makes most motorcycle gear seem superfluous. But as anyone who’s suffered from road rash or broken bones will tell you, all it takes are a few miles per hour to inflict considerable injury.

I suggest electric bike riders do themselves a favor and gear up like they’re riding an exhaust-spewing internal combustion motorcycle; after all, accidents are never planned, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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Think Globally, Ride Locally

Zero Electric Motorcycles
Key to surviving the electric experience is keeping a keen eye on the power level bars, seen on the right. Photo © Zero

Most motorcycles can eke out at least 120 miles from a tank of gas. When they’re setup for more, they easily approach 200 miles, while touring bikes will get as many as 300 miles (or in the case of über-tourers like the BMW R1200GS Adventure, a staggering 443 clicks can be squeezed from a single tank on the highway, making bathroom breaks more urgent than refuels.)

Though some electric motorcycles like the upcoming Brammo Empulse promise triple-digit ranges (and triple digit speeds), the Zero S is officially rated at 43 miles—and that’s an optimistic estimate.

While riding the Zero, I noted how many of the dozen or so digital “fuel gauge” bars disappeared each time I rode. One errand to the grocery store, which is just a couple of miles away, depleted two bars. Another blast up the nearby Griffith Park hills depleted four bars. Granted, I was running full throttle most of the time and consistently breaking the posted speed limit (don’t try this at home, kids!), but by the time I had two bars remaining and the gauge flashed a low range warning, I had only completed 18.1 miles on the odometer.

Even though the Zero S can recharge its battery to 90 percent capacity in 2 hours, it bummed me out that I couldn’t run my longer errands on the Zero—those duties were effortlessly accomplished by the other bike I was borrowing at the time, the Suzuki GSX-R750. At least for the time being, shoppers for electric motorcycles must keep in mind that they won’t be able to ride these zero emissions machines with the same casual, long range patterns that they would an internal combustion bike.

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Damn the Stereotypes— Ride for Fun!

Zero Electric Motorcycles
Riding the Zero DS at the bike's press launch. Photo © Zero
We motorcyclists are an image-conscious bunch. We care deeply about virtually every visual aspect of our bikes: from fork rake to saddle shape to rear tire width, there’s not an inch of our motorcycles that isn't scrutinized. There’s also a functional divide: big touring rigs like the Honda Gold Wing are often considered “old guy bikes,” many cruiser folks can’t stand the sportbike set, and there are even strains of hearty adventure tourers who think that people who don’t ride 300 miles a day are wusses. Seriously.

Electric motorcycles, on the other hand, are such entirely different two-wheeled beasts that mainstream motorcycle enthusiasts have largely dismissed them; there’s a reason 65 percent of Zero customers are first time motorcycle owners, and until electric bikes become more widely accepted, they’ll likely be looked down upon by hardcore riders.

My time aboard the Zero S made me feel like a bit of an oddball, but not necessarily in a bad way. Sure, I was aware that I might be pegged as a granola crunching eco-weenie since I was buzzing along on nothing more than electrons and low rolling resistance tires. But I was also conscious that though I may be perceived as a sort of two-wheeled Prius driver, that didn’t mean I had to care how I was viewed by so-called “real” motorcyclists.

Judgmental types may bash battery-powered bikes, but riders of electric motorcycles that are wholeheartedly enjoying themselves can just as fairly call those naysayers “poseurs;” one man’s pleasure is another man’s pain, and that couldn’t more true than in the weird, wild microcosm of motorcycling.