California Dreaming

…On such a winter’s fall day

Back in September I spent five days in Los Angeles at the 2017 Open Source Summit. I’d never been to California before. I wasn’t sure what I’d make of it. My wife thought I might hate the endless, dusty sprawl, but I had a certain fascination with the place through the same medium as most people: Entertainment. My perception of Los Angeles was formed through the lens of Michael Mann, James Cameron, and Kathryn Bigelow. Most of the metal bands I listened to in my youth were from California, and one – Megadeth – formed in Los Angeles. There is also something else that’s notable about LA, at least for the biker: California has the most sane motorcycle traffic laws in the United States. It remains the only state where ‘lane splitting’ – or filtering as it’s known at home – is not illegal. The wording is deliberately imprecise as it is not explicity forbidden, and the California Highway Patrol offered guidance but were obligated to withdraw it:

A petitioner complained to the Office of Administrative Law that there was no formal rulemaking process for the guidelines, and raised other objections. The CHP discussed the issue with the Office of Administrative Law and chose not to issue, use or enforce guidelines and thus removed them from the website.

Simply: No guidelines, because there’s no law.

Los Angeles, Sept 10 2017

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The sprawl of Los Angeles from my flight into LAX. Downtown is visible under the wingtip.

I arrived after a painless if long flight from St. Louis (nothing direct from Pittsburgh, natch) and slowly worked through a busy terminal 1 at LAX, waited what felt like an interminable time for my luggage and walked out into a perfect southern California evening.

I knew beforehand I wouldn’t be able to secure a bike; there’s plenty of rental opportunities in LA but given I had to pay my travel, car, and hotel expenses up-front I had nothing left in the tank for such an indulgence. I’d been in touch with a couple of SoCal internet people I knew, but this came to nothing. A pity, because as I’ll touch on later, I would realise a motorcycle is the best way to get around LA. No sooner had I walked to the shuttle stop at LAX I’d seen a Triumph Daytona whistle past and wished it had been me riding it. A car would have to do.

The shuttle bus took about ten minutes to get to an enormous Enterprise lot near the airport, and I ended up being allocated a metallic grey Kia Soul. kia-soul-funky-hamsters-do-it-again-38299_1 I placed my phone in the console cup holder and turned the GPS app up loud enough to hear, and started the 14 mile run to the hotel, which involved a simple route of two freeways and a single exit.

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Flickr Creative Commons via arbyreed

LA’s freeways are huge, and when they move, – which at 6pm on a Sunday they surely would – they move pretty fast. I didn’t get lost, which for anyone that knows me is a minor miracle.

Downtown LA is, perhaps, like downtown anywhere. People don’t really go there for fun; it’s a sterile showcase of glass and steel; work and function. There’s the occasional panhandler. In this sense it is barely distinguishable from London’s Square Mile, Manhattan’s financial district, or the relatively diminutive Pittsburgh Golden Triangle. Like NYC, there’s a strange familiarity with place names, because you’ve heard them before from books and film. South Figueroa, Sunset, Wilshire, South Union…

I was booked into the J.W. Marriott Live, which adjoins the much taller Ritz Carlton on the western edge of downtown LA. It also happened to be the conference venue.

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J.W. Marriot Live, LA.

I used the gym and swam 50 lengths in the pool I had a burger and a couple of pints for dinner ($50!!!) as part of my highly disciplined healthy lifestyle, took a couple of photos from my hotel window while tired and buzzed, and soaked in the atmosphere from the view below.

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The view from my hotel room

Feeling the effects of dinner and a long day’s travel, I rolled into bed and settled into a fitful sleep.

Out And About
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Daybreak from my hotel room

As it turned out, I would have two full afternoons to explore LA. I wanted to see the ocean; and I knew going west would take me through most of the urban sprawl, so I intentionally avoided the freeway. The city has a nearly total grid system (unlike Pittsburgh, which was designed by M.C. Esher) so you could pick up a half-dozen roads anywhere within a block of the hotel and follow them all the way to Santa Monica on the sea front. I chose Sunset Boulevard because I knew the name and thought it might be interesting. This route would take me through Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, and eventually Malibu, so I hoped to see a range of neighbourhoods, although this is still a small fraction of the total sprawl.

Most of what I visited outside of the moneyed areas is dusty and slightly shabby, which was as I expected. It reminded me of some mediterranean industrial towns: Shades of magnolia and grey, lots of low-lying concrete buildings and iron railings, mom & pop convenience stores, fast food outlets, automotive shops and wide, heavily-trafficked roads. None of it was particularly alien to my eyes, but entirely different to everywhere else that I had visited in the US. The heat and light gives it a distinct atmosphere from the East Coast. You’re in the entertainment capital of the world, but you wouldn’t know it in the midst of the sprawl. It feels like and industrial town.

Suddenly the sidewalks get cleaner, the grass is conspicuously lush and cultivated (remember that this area was only just in drought conditions) and you’re in Beverly Hills. In truth, from the road there’s not a lot to see. It’s all tidy sidewalks, gated entrances and whitewashed walls under the shade of palm trees. The cars get more expensive, but there’s little character to the place. Pacific Palisades is easier on the eye, and there’s some fantastic architecture at some of the properties (sadly I could not get pictures) and some elevation changes as it is at the foot of the mountains. This area reminded me a lot of the wealthier parts of Capetown, up in the hills. I kept thinking this would be a cool place to cruise about on a Harley.

I took a quick detour through Santa Monica. It is like any city pierside scene; chintzy, seedy stalls cheek by jowel with more moneyed joints. It didn’t feel a great deal different to Atlantic City in New Jersey. The colour palette gradually changes from industrial concrete to whitewashed apartment buildings and houses, and after a short run you pick up CA-1: The Pacific Coast Highway.

The PCH takes you through Topanga Beach, which feels a little run-down and shabby, but has a certain charm. In Malibu I stopped for lunch at a ‘Country Kitchen’ (a chain) and enjoyed my coke & fries and taking in the atmosphere, listening to the Spanish chatter from the larder compete with the radio. There was the road and some villas between me and the ocean, but I got a little sea air. It was terrific, and I could have stayed there all day.

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Topanga Beach fisherman

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Topanga Beach, Santa Monica in the background

I knew Mulholland Highway (‘The Snake’, of some notoriety to bikers) wasn’t too far up the road, and I really wanted to see some of the famous canyon twisties, but both days would see me pressed for time. I drove up one of the roads off the beach near Malibu and enjoyed the view:

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The pacific ocean from Big Rock Drive in the mighty Kia Soul

Malibu itself is obviously wealthy, I recall thinking of my Dad because it all reminded me of Marbella in Southern Spain; whitewashed villas, immaculate lawns set above a bright blue ocean, and that is a place I have only been with him.

Traffic

I decided to take the highway back. It was about 4pm. This would turn out to be very poor judgement. LA’s traffic has a reputation, and it is well deserved. It’s absolutely absurd, and the end result is that getting across town on highway 10 took me almost two hours.

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This was my view for a couple of hours.

This was the real evidence for me that bikes were of the utmost practicality. Time and again I would hear the rumble of a Harley, or the creamy, reedy vibe of an inline-four and watch helplessly as bike after bike whizzed past.

As for LA, I really enjoyed it, and developed a certain fondness for the place. I definitely want to see more of it, and as the last day rolled over I was determined that I would come back when I can. Would I live there? That’s a big if. Who knows what’s around the corner?

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The Ninja 400 is here

The king is dead. Long live the King!

It had to happen sooner rather than later. The Ninja 300 has had a five year run, and now Kawasaki has thrown another 100CC at the formula (in what is apparently a new engine, not the re-sleeved ER-6 650cc that has been around for a while.)

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Photo credit: Unknown. Found on This Ninja 300 forum

Some numbers:

  • 33.4KW/45ps @ 10,000rpm
  • 38nm/28 ft.lb @ 8000rpm
  • 17.6lbs lighter than the Ninja 300

So it’s got quite a bit more poke, and weighs less, that’s quite something. The H2-derived styling isn’t bad, it’s a very consistent family look now; the 2017 Ninja 650 has these cues too, along with the handlebar and dash style.

That’s as much as anyone really knows. I look forward to the reviews. No doubt the demo truck will be doing the rounds in summer, I’ll try and get a ride in if there’s one close by.

I have to say though, I really wonder where this leaves the 650.

All Engines Great and Small

You Always Want What You Don’t Have

I spend all of my riding time on small bore bikes, by US standards. My Ninja 300 at 296cc and the CSC TT250 weighing in at 229cc.

The Ninja will – realistically – pull to about 75mph easily, above which there’s a tardy roll-on to about a top speed of 105, with my 210lbs astride it, at least. The TT250 will achieve 55-60 with nearly linear acceleration. The gearing limits it, with the engine turning almost 7000 rpm. It is possible to gear down via losing a couple of teeth on the rear sprocket, but I do not want to lose any more pull as it is about perfect for the hilly terrain here.

Both are easily quick enough for the street and back roads, but the TT250 isn’t really suited for superslab, at least not allowing for a safety margin.

If you take a 300 on a group ride and you have a lot of seat time on it, you’ll have no problem keeping up, assuming you’re not blasting down an expressway. On a technical road it’s a giant killer. It’s light, stops fairly well thanks to docile brakes and strong engine-braking, and turns in sharply. At around 18ft.lbs peak torque, you can pull silly amounts of throttle and it won’t get out of shape. In short, it’s easy to ride quickly. Get used to people telling you they’re surprised how fast it runs in a pack. It’s a truism that few riders (here, at least) have experienced the limits of their bikes, so they’re surprised how quick a ‘learner bike’ can run in familiar hands. They’ve just not spent enough time on one.

Ninja 300 territory

The TT250 is an absolute blast on tight, nasty roads with a poor surface, thanks to generous suspension travel. A very driveable engine with modest torque, it delivers power a lot more evenly than the piquey 300, but obviously there’s less of it. The bike’s turn-in is very rapid (it’s light at 320 lbs.) and it feels glued to the road thanks to relatively soft tyres. You can easily imagine why Dual Sports are such popular street bikes, not to mention their street-tyred derivative, the SuperMoto.

The downsides? Going uphill. Street bikes in the >500cc class will climb a hill while maintaining good acceleration. My 300 is okay as long as you keep the revs high. The TT250 really doesn’t like it; again my weight doesn’t help and maintaining some kind of fitness would help matters a lot. Aerodynamic drag, which squares with speed, is another. I’m 6’3″, and make a nice sail while sitting on the bike. Tucking low on the Ninja, stomach on the tank, makes a huge difference and I can’t reach the bike’s top speed without it. Running tight roads uphill is often easier in the TT250 due to the engine’s much wider torque characteristics, and short gearing. On a group ride, riders on torquey bikes will typically eat your lunch when accelerating out of tight uphill corners.

My recreational riding on Western PA’s fantastic roads is at a speed regime that is squarely within the 300’s performance envelope. Interestingly, this also goes for everyone I ride with, and that includes someone with a Superduke 1290. I too want a bigger bike sometime soon, and I’ve spent this year riding a few. So why, if all of my needs are met?

Well, they’re not. More power is more fun, and it’s also another thing to master. It’s why we ride, right? There’s more. With larger bikes come bigger tyres, typically better suspension, and stronger brakes. These usually bring a step in performance too. There is a specific scenario any small-bore rider is familiar with – and that’s overtaking. This is a most fraught area when you’re new to riding, as you don’t have enough power exactly where you need it, that is around 50-60mph with a small time window to get around a car. Overtaking is a reality when you’re on an aggressive ride; it’s a necessity. You have to learn to do it and you must know exactly what your bike will do. When in a group you need to exercise highly-disciplined judgement as everyone else will typically have a lot more power available, and they will use it to pass where you cannot.

There is also the matter of work. There’s a fine line between rider engagement and simply being busy, and on a long country ride at spirited speeds, you can be regularly at full throttle while constantly, constanty rowing through the gears. It adds up over a day. Being able to use a fraction of a bike’s performance to run at a pace your comfortable with makes a difference to your fatigue level. The 1000cc class bikes I’ve ridden have been an interesting change in workload. They are by no means ‘easier’ to ride, but they can be less work due to simply having far more performance available in a given situation.

A friend of mine finally sold her pre-gen Ninja 250 last year, and bought a rather handsome Yamaha FZ6R. She’s an excellent rider, and one of the things she was emphatic about was how relaxed it was on the highway, in terms of comfort and smoothness, so she arrived at the twisties with no stress. These things start to matter to you, after a while.

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 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 the usual high standard. Courts is a bike commuter in SoCAL, so he knows of where he speaks:

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).

The elephant in the room 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 is prototypical of the criticism of current 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.

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:

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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:

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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; that’s 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 expensive, and 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.