Our Friends Electric

With apologies to Gary Numan…

I’ll make no bones about it. My dream garage would definitely include a Tesla Model S and a Zero SR. I think they’re brilliant. Electric motorcycles are back in the news cycle again, thanks to some YouTube and written reviews. Here’s Motorcyclist Magazine executive editor Zack Courts on the Zero SR. Do watch it, because the remarks on performance and handling are of their usual high standard. Courts is a bike commuter in SoCAL, so you know he’s not playing:

Electric vehicles (I’ll use ‘EV’ for short from here) generate (sorry) predictable levels of rhetoric. We’re humans: We do not adapt to change without resistance (I’m not sorry).

There is the elephant in the room, and its name is range. You cannot talk about EVs without mentioning range. Zero knows it, Elon Musk (of Tesla and SpaceX) knows it, and the public sure as shit knows it because they never shut up about it. There’s a comment on the video that I’ve seen rephrased a number of times around the subject of EVs:

i wonder how long it will take for electric bikes to reach a top range of 500 miles round trip, as well as a full charge time of 20-30 minutes, all for about $12-15k. that said, i dont think id consider buying one of these until there was at least a 300 mile range, with a charge time of 1 to 1 and a half hours max and preferably around $10k or less.

What’s amusing is that this theoretical bike’s range isn’t currently achievable from the internal combustion (IC) market, as far as I know. In fact, most bikes wont’ even manage 2/3rds of that. You see this a lot; this notion that electric will only be viable when it’s achieving utterly arbitrary performance numbers.

Taking the Zero SR as an example, here is the spec sheet concerning range:

Screenshot_2017-08-09_10-41-00
Source: http://www.zeromotorcycles.com/zero-s/specs.php?model=sr

For Commuting, The Range Problem Is Already Solved.

The average commute in the United States is 15 miles Consider that the worst scenario for EV endurance is highway running, the very opposite of an internal combustion engine, because there is no regenerative braking; no opportunity to convert the bike’s kinetic energy back into chemical (battery) energy. With that in mind, 81 miles isn’t bad at all. That’s London to Southampton, with change. Of course, that’s a one way trip.

What about a round trip?

Using the Zero SR’s two ’70mph’ stats (‘Highway’ and ‘Combined’) and a really handy web tool that draws range circles on Google Maps, I made this graphic:

Screenshot_2017-08-09_11-59-52
Range circles for ’70mph Highway’, and ’70mph Combined’

This represents round trip endurance, roughly centred on Monroeville, Pennsylvania. This is approximately (only accurate if the bike could fly, and I don’t think Zero have included that feature yet) what you could do without recharging. I picked Monroeville because it’s where I live; Ohio and West Virginia, and a tiny corner of Maryland are within reach, but that’s not really the point. That area has lots of riding on great, twisty roads, and you likely would not use the highway if you’re anything like me, so the range would probably be somewhere between the two circles. For reference, my average weekend ride is about 2-3hrs long, and about 50-150 miles; lets say 75 miles on average. My commute is a 30 mile round trip, so at present the Zero SR would work for all but my longest weekend rides. Without a charge, that is. As I’ll elaborate next, realistically you aren’t going to be charging mid-ride. Not yet, so the range can be considered as a bound on any trip.

Filthy Lucre, Charging Spots, and Kilowatts

The way I see it, two things stand in the way of EVs being widely adopted, and they are two areas where IC vehicles are king: sticker cost and getting fuel in the thing. There are no two ways about it; EVs are expensive. The Zero SR is the premium chocolate in the Zero cupboard, and it will set you back about $16,000 for the base model. You’re going to want the charger tank or power pack, so call it nearer $18,000. If you’re a true 24/7/365 biker, you would experience some bottom-clenching at that price, but you’d likely still do it if you could. If you’re a weekend warrior, forget it. Despite the cruiser crowd dropping well over $20,000 on their chromed sofas; they’re buying a lifestyle, not a spec sheet. It is similar with the sportbike casuals. They’re doing a hard-charging 2-300 miles on the occasional summer weekend. This isn’t their bike. Likewise the 55yr dentist with kids just in college that buys a 600lb ADV bike the size of a Humvee to go to Alaska (there’s an internet forum full of them, trust me) won’t see anything they like either. Unfortunately, those three examples cover the majority of riders in the United States outside of CA (in which the motorbike-as-an-appliance prospers). Most riders would be considered hobbyists, for whom the motorcycle is a recreational toy. Certainly here in Western PA very, very few riders commute, even in ideal weather. Zero Motorcycles have a tough job. They’d should kill it in England, or any territory where bikes are woven much deeper into the transportation system. So what’s stopping them? Well there’s the cost. IC bikes are way, way cheaper, and more practical right now, because…

When you think about it the distribution of petroleum products on the planet is an absolute marvel. An incredible achievement of engineering and logistics. It’s also completely insane. From pulling it out of the ground, to refining it, to shipping it about and building places to distribute it from…all of this for something that is running out.

If that is possible with gasoline, it’s definitely possible with electricity. It’s already everywhere, it’s relatively easy to transport (or more accurately, transmit), but the sticking point is the charger and battery tech. That’s what we need way more investment in, and it needs to work faster. A bike with a 122 mile range is one thing (very much the low end of a typical IC bike’s endurance), but the ability to recharge it quickly – say around one hour – is crucial, and will open up much longer daily rides for the time cost of sitting down to lunch. Right now the quickest you can officially recharge a Zero SR using supported infrastructure is 2.6hrs, but that’s with multiple chargers to increase the charging circuit’s KW throughput. Realistically you’re looking at leaving it for 3-9hrs. There is a third party ‘supercharger’ available ($1755!!) so it looks like progress is being made.

It’s apparent an old engineering problem has to be solved: packaging. You can shove all of this stuff into a car chassis, you’ve got the space and don’t need to worry that much about the weight: a Tesla Model S weighs around a pretty staggering 4500lbs; for comparison, that similar to a Chevrolet Silverado pickup. A motorcycle designer must concern themselves with both, so between batteries and charging equipment (the latter is quite large, about the size of a PC power supply) you do not have a lot of room to play with.

Glancing at an owner’s forum, it seems preferable to have faster charging versus lugging a bigger battery pack around, which takes even longer to charge.

In an ideal world chargers would be on every street corner, on every lamppost, and in every parking space. Until such time, it’s going to be a tough sell for the mass market, and there will be no mass adoption until the infrastructure is there, and without the numbers the vehicles will remain relatively expensive, but to paraphrase The Matrix’s Agent Smith the futuristic whirr of an EV feels an awful lot like “…The sound of Inevitability”, but we’re not quite there yet.

Summer Blues

August 8th, 2017

I’ve been riding a lot, but I haven’t been writing a lot. It’s definitely not been due to a lack of things to say; but time’s played a part. I’ve been spending a lot of quality time with my kid, and Summer’s been pretty fun outside of problems with my bête noir, the Pittsburgh weather.

I’ve ridden a lot of bikes; more Ducatis, some Yamahas, and a Suzuki, so that’s a target crossed off this year (I wanted to get a lot more demo rides in).

I’ve also made some more riding friends and been out on group rides a few times, and bike nights have been a blast.

I have also, truth be told, experienced a little fatigue towards riding, although everytime I hop on the Ninja I’m invigorated. I think it’s some irritation toward the lack of any real bike culture here, so riding becomes a little close to tedium at times, and tedium is a very efficient passion killer.

I’ll write some more about this, I need to think carefully about how I word it as I may come off as a little harsh.

We will see.

Be Paranoid

If you think they’re out to kill you, it’s because they behave as if they are.
Crane Truck McFuckface was hiding in this tunnel
The tunnel monster is real

Riding to work this morning on my dual sport, I negotiated this blind corner and came upon a stationary utility truck (the type with the dorsally-mounted crane) head-on smack in the middle of the road.

My guess is that the driver did this to allow the crane to clear the tunnel ceiling. Be that as it may, it was poor judgement as the this tunnel has a blind entry on both sides:

Blind entry to tunnel in both directions
Blind entrance, both ends

I’m assuming the driver had his window down, heard me, and stopped. There were no lights, no flag man, nothing. Had I been riding more aggressively than was prudent, had I been on my sport bike, this might have been a little hairy; you can see it is an appealing pair of corners; that’s why I ride this little road in the first place.

Ride safe, folks.

The Perfume Road

Spring riding.

April 28th, 2017.

Late Spring’s a glorious time to ride. The sun comes out, mornings are cool and bright, and the olefactory system gets bombarded with a range of pleasant distractions. It’s still cool enough that the asphalt doesn’t get heated to the extent your senses are overpowered by hot tar and exhaust fumes.Cut grass,petrol, and the pleasant cocktail of plants in bloom.

Most of all, there’s a short period when people’s windows come down, before they start surrending to the heat, closing their houses and cars up, and resorting to the air conditioner. You pass houses where breakfast is cooking, fresh laundry is carrying on the cool breeze, and nobody looks in a hurry.

Somewhere in front, perfume escapes through a car window, for miles and miles. It’s hypnotic.

A Place, A Time

Kiski Junction Railroad, Pennsylvania, June 26th 2016.

I’d taken my family to ride this little railroad just the week before. On the road down I’d noted the last few miles would make a good bike ride, and so one week later I took my Ninja 300 there.

It was a boiling hot day, but a curiosity is how it’s the details of the bike’s life that stay with me: That chain was on its last legs, and had a tight spot I just could not massage out. The rear sprocket would soon be gone too, but the greatest recollection of all was the valve adjustment. just a few days later over the July 4th weekend, I tackled the valves. The diminutive Ninja had about 8000 miles on it; the recommended check was 7600; conventional wisdom on the Kawasaki Ninja 300 forum was to leave it to 15000, I did not want to leave it to chance.

It actually turned out to be a long undertaking, and the exhaust valves were indeed out of spec. I got the job done, and the bike still runs today. It remains the most complex thing I’ve done mechanically.

The joy of bike ownership, learning to do things you never thought you could.

The CSC TT250: Smiles per Gallon

The CSC TT250 review. The background to my decision to get a TT250 is here.

I’d put on around one-thousand miles on the CSC TT250 as the first green spots started to emerge on the the Pennsylvania woodlands. The bike held up well over Winter, and between the endless rain and salt, winter is a harsh environment for machinery. I’d gambled on the TT250 being a dependable winter warrior, and thus far it has done well. It’s surely a sign that I often choose to ride the bike on my commute over my Ninja 300.

The Good

The TT250 is a well-made bike. The finish is excellent; the frame shows little aggravation from the ravages of winter, though I was decidely liberal with my application of anti-corrosion ACF-50 spray. Some fasteners inevitably dulled, but this is no different from my Kawasaki (which I rode through last winter) and generally speaking I am pleasantly surprised how durable this bike is.

Cold and wet: The TT250 in Winter commuting duty
Cold and wet, a typical morning commute for the TT250.
TT250 Engine after a typical winter commute
The warpaint of a typical winter commute

The engine, an air-cooled 229cc single, is absolutely superb. There’s only around sixteen horses, and about 18nm of torque at 5.5k rpm, but there’s more to it than the numbers. The power band is sweet, and considering it’s a relatively unsophisticated single, it’s very smooth. Western Pennsylvania is not short of hills, and the engine deals with everything with little complaint. I average about 55-60mpg, but this figure has increased over engine break-in, and includes my commute which is terrible for fuel economy.

Once I got my carburetor dialed in (I fitted an aftermarket Mikuni VM26 clone, commonly available on Ebay) the engine started with little hesitation in temperatures right down to 17F. The stock carb was satisfactory, if a little hard-starting when cold, propably due to lean jetting, and by ‘cold’ I mean less than 40F. I chose an aftermarket carb to allow more adjustment should I fit an exhaust system, and the carbs are as cheap as chips. Tuning them is a pain in the arse, but there’s plenty of help at Chinariders if you get stuck.

Stock gearing is 17/50, which isn’t too bad, but if you’re riding mainly on the street I would pick 17/47, which is less hectic at 55mph. Apropos of top speed, you could take this bike on the freeway, but I wouldn’t, unless traffic truly moved around 50-60mph. It’s superb as a back road basher, and absolutely devours city pavement. CSC offer a 49 tooth rear sprocket as an option, and I did actually purchase one, but after researching the forum and the ever useful Gearing Commander site, I went with fitting a 47.

The five-speed gearbox is smooth and precise, but you must ensure you allow the gear lever the full range of movement – that was new to me and before I got used to it I suffered the occasional missed shift.

The TT250's engine
229cc of fun

The tyres are seemingly generic dual-purpose ‘knobblies’. Conventional wisdom says you should get rid of them and fit some rubber from one of the big brands that you trust.

Don’t.

They are quite simply fantastic road tyres, within the performance envelope of the bike. I have ridden these on soaking wet roads, on gravel and salt, on roads with a film of mud on them, and they have been absolutely marvelous. I have taken them on mud and grass, and they’ve been wonderful, confidence-building tyres every step of the way. When the weather is crap, I will take the TT250 because I know I can trust those tyres. By comparison, my lightweight sportbike with Michelin Pilot Street 4 has excellent traction wet or dry, but as soon as the road surface has any artefacts like gravel or mud, it’s terrifying; see this gif as an example of what mud and a wet road can do:

Looking at the wear rate, I’m not sure I’ll get much more than 2000 miles out of the rear, but I think that is reasonable for a general-purpose tyre that will do asphalt and any off-road riding the bike is capable of.

tt250 after some off-roading 1
tt250 after some off-roading 2
The TT250 after some fun on a muddy forest trail.

The TT250 is exceedingly comfortable in stock form; I’m 6’3″ and around 210lbs, and the rider triangle is pretty much perfect for me. I didn’t realise how cramped I am on my Ninja until I started riding the TT250 frequently. The stock seat is very comfy. I haven’t ridden the bike that far, but on many weekends I’ll routinely spend a couple of hours riding pretty hard, with no discomfort.

Handling is superb; really very, very good. It feels at times like a giant mountain bike. It’s very easy to hold a line, and turn-in is sharp, perhaps not surprising on a bike so light. Off road (I am by no means experienced here) the light weight and easy manners translate into a stable, well-mannered platform. The bike encourages you to have fun, and this really is the strength of a dual sport. On some back roads and see an open trail, or a gravel road? What about that nasty looking back road? Go check it out. It’s great.

Here’s some video of me riding the TT250 on its second day in my possession around the wet roads near home:

The Bad.

I’ll say up front these are minor gripes, but it would be remiss not to mention them, lest people think I’m taking money from CSC (I wouldn’t do that of course. Though if they wanted to, I’d accept an RX3…:D )

The brakes are well put-together. You get steel-braided lines (I don’t even have those on my Ninja!) and lever feel is firm, but if you’re giving them a workout (for example: aggresive riding on downhill twisties) and it’s a hot day, they can fade pretty quickly. Not an issue if you’ve trained yourself to use both brakes, but if you’re heavy on the front brake only (like a prototypical supersport rider), they’ll fade. They do recover rapidly. Of course, all bikes will do this to a degree, but it’s more pronounced on my TT250 for sure. My front rotor has also had a little runout from day one, and I think I will be replacing it soon as I believe it’s getting worse.

TT250 rear brake assembly
The brake system is well made, but don’t expect to be able to push it like a sportbike without some fade

The clutch isn’t great. I have probably been a little spoilt by the Ninja 300’s clutch, which is just superb. The TT250’s clutch is durable enough, and I suspect it’s a consequence of uprating the clutch to cope with the 229cc’s higher torque (the original CG was 125cc) but once the engine is up to temp, it can be a grabby, snatchy affair until you get used to it. I struggled for a while to get the lever adjustment right and actually ordered a replacement clutch cable, as I wasn’t certain mine hadn’t prematurely stretched too much. In fact, the adjustment is very particular and in my case is better done with the engine warmed; setting it while cold will result in very slight drag once the engine is warm.

These issues won’t present themselves most rides, but if you’re in stop-go traffic on a warm day, the clutch pack’s tight packaging and air-cooled character of the motor will begin to make themselves known. Get used to fighting a little bit to get neutral, and I’d recommend 15w40 synthetic (once you’re past break-in) if you’re running the bike in a city during summer.

The Ugly.

Everything here is a function of where I live, and the fact that I ride my bikes whatever the weather. Except ice and snow. Sometimes even then. I’m British, after all, and we’re a bit daft like that.

The wheels look great, but the spokes aren’t stainless and it’s a fight to keep the weather off them. At some point I will probably replace them with stainless spokes (the rims seem fine), of course, this will cost, but it’s a function of the climate here, and I need something that will take the weather a little better. I don’t think this will be an issue for any owners that aren’t in the rust belt and ride all year round.

I did strip one of the sprocket carrier bolt holes when swapping the sprocket out; I suspect this was because they were very tight from the factory. It was a straightforward repair, but I’ve read of a couple of other instances of this on the Chinariders forum. The bolts are hard, M10x1.25 steel and the hub is pretty soft; I think studs might have been a better choice. Still, if you potter about with bikes, this isn’t unknown by any means.

Also – and this is by no means an uncommon problem on most OEM fitment using steel pipes – the stock exhaust header is looking worse for wear, and I will probably replace it soon with a stainless system, but this is a largely cosmetic concern.

Is it worth it?

Unreservedly. You really can’t go wrong, and I’m looking forward to many more adventures on the bike, especially now the good weather is here. Put it another way, I’m strongly considering an RX3 Cyclone as my next bike, possibly as a replacement for the Ninja. That’s my faith in the company’s product.