Electric bikes suck. This in-depth analysis of the state of these supposedly “greener” versions of our favourite mode of transport is a sweeping, though accurate reflection of the average biker’s response to these new models. There are many reasons why this is the prevailing attitude among those of us in love with life on two wheels. Some of those concerns are common to our four-wheel driving brethren, namely: range anxiety, initial cost and the dread of being regarded as a louche, tofu-eating, hipster-loving denizen of the larney suburbs, rather than the real men us motorcyclists undoubtedly always are.
Excuse me? Er, yes, I do take my decaf-latte with a hint of cinnamon; and an aromatic chai tea for my editor, please. Aside from the gratuitous, pointless and invariably inaccurate stereotyping, some of those concerns are undoubtedly relevant — namely the fear of grinding to a halt many kilometres from your destination. No quick walk to the nearest garage with an empty two-litre bottle ready to be filled with petrol: you’re going to need an extremely long extension cable. And the time it takes to fill up isn’t exactly comparable either; not much more than a minute or two at a petrol pump compared with up to 10 hours for batteries to be fully recharged.
Motorbikes make exceedingly good commuters in so many ways, and given enough range that applies to electric bikes too. But, let’s be realistic here, bikes are also about performance, even a sensible, affordable, “boring” motorcycle is more than a match for most supposedly sporty cars. Wind your necks back into your cars, drivers: I’m not having a pointless dig at your beloved tin boxes. I’m just stating a fact, however unpalatable it might be. The fear for motorcyclists is that we’ll have to give up on the thrills in order to take advantage of the “green” aspects of electrically powered bikes.
But that is far from true, as a brief spin on the most readily available of the two-wheel electric fraternity so obviously demonstrates. Zero Motorcycles is the best-known name in the business of electric motorcycles, having made its first commercially available model back in 2009. Since then it has remained at the forefront of the market for practical two-wheelers, eschewing the more glamorous performance slice of the market, in which, coincidentally, fewer motorbikes are sold. That’s not to say its bikes are slow, because they’re not. I defy even the most jaded superbike owners not to be surprised the first time they twist the throttle of something like the Zero SR.
There may be no gears, and there may be next to no sound (apart from your own involuntary squeak as you vainly try to control your amazement), but the urgency of the torque’s delivery — maximum available immediately — will undoubtedly produce a sizeable grin. The SR may look almost ordinary, but with its lithium-ion batteries producing 11.4 kilowatt hours (kWh) — or another 2.8kWh with the optional Power Tank’s extra batteries — that equates to almost 70 horsepower. And 70 horsepower is 52kW — a different sort of kilowatt, the sort we use to measure power when we should really use good old horsepower, but this is an argument for another day. Acceleration is pretty impressive: 0-100km/h takes in the region of 3.5sec, and a standing quarter-mile (400m) can be dispatched in the low 13sec bracket. Handling is well up to scratch too, and the bike copes with the twisties well enough to have you scheming about taking in the occasional track-day.
So, overall, the SR is an impressive package, though it is let down by one obvious element: price. The SR with the optional Power Tank retails for a smidgen over R200 000 in the US, which means that if it arrives here with an official importer, you can probably expect to pay at least another 10% on top of that. Cheaper models are available, with less power, but they’re still going to be close to double the price of the equivalent petrol bike. Rumour has it that motorcycle retailer Cayenne World is in negotiations with both the manufacturer and a major South African financial institution to make the Zero range available here. Owners would have to make monthly payments of R2 000-R2 500, with some sort of buy-back option at the end of the finance period.
It’s an intriguing proposition and should offer maintenance-free commuting at an extremely affordable price — ultimately far cheaper than on a traditional motorbike. In much of the rest of the world, this makes perfect sense with rebates offered by governments on the initial purchase price, and the waiving of inner-city congestion charges for electrically powered vehicles. But not so in South Africa — and the electricity crisis means wannabe greens will face the very real possibility that power cuts will make it impossible to “refuel” your bike overnight. No power at home means no possibility of getting to work in the morning. This raises the interesting possibility, nay, probability, that you will have to buy a generator to provide the electricity for your super-efficient commuter.
The rest of the world might be offering financial incentives to use electric transport, but in this country, the ruling party should consider rewarding us for using petrol: the last thing we need is any extra strain on our already fragile electricity generating infrastructure. Will 2015 be an electric year for bikes? I think not.