Ongoing improvements in range, reduced charging time and falling price tags are making electric bikes more appealing to riders seeking convenient and efficient personal transportation. But while it’s one thing to swish along enjoying the sound of silence on your daily commute, it’s quite another to do any serious mileage. Like making a week’s tour of Northern California, going from the Pacific Coast to over 8,000 feet in elevation visiting Yosemite National Park, more than 200 miles inland. Yet that’s just what I did aboard a 2016 Zero DSR built by California-based Zero Motorcycles, which celebrated its tenth birthday last year.
I’ve been riding each new Zero model for the past six years, so I’ve tracked the significant improvements in range and performance the bikes have received over time. For 2016, Zero boosted energy density, allowing its models with the stock 13.0 kWh main battery pack and 2.9 kWh PowerTank supplemental battery to offer a claimed 179-mile range in urban use, or 86 miles at 70 mph on the highway, and a combined city/highway range of 134 miles—the first time this has exceeded 100 miles on any Zero model. Coupled with a more potent powertrain delivering a claimed 56 percent more torque at 106 lb-ft and 25 percent more horsepower at 67 (116 lb-ft and 70 horsepower for 2017), this is a zero-emissions motorcycle you can go traveling on.
For my tour, Zero supplied a 2016 Zero DSR retailing at $15,995, rising to $18,690 fitted with the optional PowerTank. Remember, the higher costs of acquisition vs. a conventional motorcycle are offset by the absence of gasoline costs, and that they are very low maintenance vehicles. Replacing brake pads and tires and the Gates drive belt that’s now good for 25,000 miles are the only regular service items.
With a total battery capacity of 15.9 kWh, at this level the bike would have the range I needed for touring, but not the charging speed for the week I had allotted. With the Power Tank installed, the Zero DSR would need 11 hours to recharge its batteries from a 110-volt outlet, severely limiting daily range to a much more leisurely pace than I required. So Zero added a custom-made topbox containing two pricey Elcon 2.5 kWh chargers coupled together to deliver six times the charging speed of Zero’s 1.3 kWh standard onboard charger. Moreover, the topbox was fitted with a J1772 outlet for plugging in at Level 2 charging stations that are plentiful in northern California (and becoming more so throughout the U.S.), allowing the Zero to be recharged from 5 percent to 95 percent in less than two hours. Zero’s Charge Tank accessory ($1,995) integrates a J1772 hookup into the tank area on the bike, but it’s not compatible with the Power Tank.
I’d need photos of my E-tour, so my photographer mate Phil Hawkins accompanied me on this trip riding his Triumph Tiger 800XC. This had the added benefit that he theoretically could push the Zero via a footpeg to the nearest charging station if I ever ran out of “gas”! But how to find these? That’s easy, just log on to plugshare.com. You tell it where you are, and it lists all available charging locations, from publicly available ChargePoints to outlets behind people’s houses they make available to EV travelers.
Phil and I had company to start our ride after picking up the sinister-looking all-black DSR at the Zero factory. Terry Hershner is famous for his record-breaking long distance trips on his Zero—he was the first electric motorcyclist to ride 300 miles on a single charge, carrying 27 kWh of battery aboard his Zero. Terry advised, “You must plan your trips more strategically on an EV, in staging between charging points—try to plan ahead so you have lunch while you’re topping up, or maybe take in some sightseeing. And never miss a chance to top up the charge, even for a few minutes—you may regret it later if you don’t.”
I took Terry’s advice and plugged in for a free top-up after the first 50 miles of snaking silently up through the redwood forest to Skyline Drive, the Bay Area’s racer road leading to Alice’s Restaurant. The only sound the Zero makes at lower speeds comes from muted tire roar and a subdued whine from the transmission. There are three different riding modes, and while limiting top speed to 70 mph, Eco mode provides gentle acceleration and quite heavy regenerative braking when you back off the “throttle.” Sport mode is what it promises, with vivid acceleration and zero regen. It lets you keep up turn speed to flow through a series of bends climbing a winding hillside road where you don’t want to lose momentum via what amounts to engine braking. The Custom mode can be tailored to suit your tastes via the Zero app on your smartphone, and the one on the DSR had maxed-out drive that would lift the front wheel slightly with the power wide open, coupled with full regen, so it was fine for descending winding roads. The Zero’s J.Juan brakes and standard Bosch ABS worked well in stopping the 463-pound (stock, claimed) motorcycle without locking the front wheel.
Bidding farewell to Terry, we dropped down to the scenic Pacific Coast with a full battery and headed north to San Francisco, where we stopped for lunch at the Presidio, a former Spanish military base established in 1776 as the northernmost outpost of the colony known as New Spain. Captured by the U.S. in 1846, it was the garrison defending San Francisco Bay until it was decommissioned in 1994. Today, there’s been some tasteful redevelopment of the old barracks, with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge. I hooked up the Zero at the EV Center for a one-time $1.50 charge while we ate.
We had a dinner reservation at a sought-after restaurant in Napa Valley, the wine-growing area across the Golden Gate Bridge whose Mediterranean climate first produced wine in 1858. Cindy Pawlcyn’s Mustards Grill is an ideal place to sample local produce at reasonable cost, as well as her Tour of Zinfandel, which lets you taste three different varieties of California’s best-known grape. After covering 182 miles that first day we felt we’d earned it. Just five minutes from Mustards was our first overnight stop, the Harvest Inn in St.
Helena—chosen because it had two free EV hook-ups to recharge the Zero’s batteries.
The next morning, it was time to head to Sacramento, a 70-mile ride along the hilly, twisting State Route 128, a wonderful riders’ road that had me appreciating the Zero DSR’s improbably good handling in spite of being weighed down by batteries and chargers—but also equipped with fully adjustable Showa suspension, as well as good grip from its stock semi-knobby Pirelli MT-01 tires. PlugShare led us to a parking garage a short walk from the California State Railroad Museum, and after plugging in for a free top-up, we spent an enthralling couple of hours in the museum, marvelling at the fabulous collection of monstrous steam engines.
Back in the garage to collect the bikes, we discovered that rush hour begins early in California. But lane splitting is a cinch on any electric bike, because you just twist, go or brake—no fiddling with the clutch lever and the gearshift to shift back and forth. Twenty miles east of Sacramento, we turned off to visit Folsom State Prison, California’s second-oldest after San Quentin. Opened back in 1880, it witnessed the execution of 93 condemned prisoners over a 42-year period. If you’re a Johnny Cash fan you’ll know about the concert The Man in Black performed there in 1968, featuring the memorable “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Before heading up the mountain pass to overnight at Lake Tahoe, we needed to top up the charge for the steep climb that’d quickly drain the batteries. Locating a ChargePoint in the town of Placerville, I stopped to hook up. But on one of my frequent checks on the recharge, I saw the station had cut the charge off—and the bike was only at 84 percent! The sun was going down, and we had to get going, so selecting Evo mode I set off behind Phil, who was now leading the way so that I could slipstream him. We were now on U.S. Route 50—the legendary transcontinental highway built in 1926, linking California with Maryland—and had to crest Echo Summit, U.S. 50’s highest point in California at 7,382 feet, before dropping down to Lake Tahoe.
By now it was dark, and the road was so steep I couldn’t always use Eco mode, because it reduced torque so much that the fully loaded bike just lost momentum. Hoping I’d at least reach the summit before running out of charge, and could then coast down to Tahoe, I selected Sport but backed off the throttle, and crouched down behind the DSR’s narrow screen and drafted Phil to try to minimize wind resistance. Even so, the charge needle plummeted as we climbed ever higher, and I was down to just 7 percent when we crested the summit to see the lights of Lake Tahoe beneath us—itself 6,225 feet in altitude where it straddles the border between California and Nevada. But we still had another 15 miles to go before we reached the lakeside hotel, which the instrument panel told me I wasn’t going to make. Better get your foot ready to push me, Phil!
But…regen to the rescue. The regenerative braking built into the Zero’s controller has two different modes—one comes into play when you simply back off the throttle, and you can indeed feel some residual “engine braking” and watch the dash recording it. But there’s also a sensor that monitors using either brake lever (foot or hand), which dials in additional regen, and this also helps the Zero stop very well. Coasting down U.S. 50’s steep, 1,100-foot descent, I watched the available charge on the DSR’s dash start to rise, and by the time I was down on the valley floor and had to start using the throttle again it had a 13 percent charge, sufficient to make the hotel. We rolled in there after a 191-mile day with just 7 percent of remaining charge.
We’d chosen a hotel that offered free recharging hookups in its basement garage, and though still in California it was a short five-minute walk across the state line to Nevada, home of the 24-hour Harrah’s Casino where we could eat late. I then set to work on the slot machines, aiming to earn back the $1.50 it had cost me in “fuel” getting this far. Five minutes later, I was $3.15 ahead and had more than earned the cost of recharging the Zero during our entire trip—the Presidio was the only time I paid to do so.
We sampled Lake Tahoe’s scenic southern end, then headed south toward California’s Gold Country. Stopping for lunch on the eastern edge of spectacular Hope Valley to recharge both bike and body at Sorensen’s Resort made a great break before descending into Calaveras County, where the California Gold Rush took root in 1848. After a 168-mile day we stopped for the night in Sonora, its main street lined with 120-year old shopfronts.
To recharge the Zero that night, I plugged it into the motel room socket, and ran the extension lead through the window to the bike outside. Next morning the 24 percent charge remaining had been transformed into a full “tank.” We covered the next 80 miles into the Sierra Nevada at a sporting pace along winding State Route 120—another great biking road that invited exploiting the Zero’s beautifully mapped digital throttle that delivers thrilling performance in a liquid-smooth manner. I was impressed how responsive the 2016 Zero was with the reduced inertia in its new motor, delivering great roll-on acceleration from 50 mph upward to licence-losing levels. On the downgrade into Yosemite, I saw the charge reading rise again, this time from 25 percent to 34 percent right in front of me. With 19 percent charge remaining as we rode into Half Dome Village after covering exactly 80 miles, I’d expect the dash’s claimed 33 miles of remaining range to be attainable—giving an overall range of 113 miles from a single charge at a good pace. Hooking up for a free recharge at one of Yosemite’s surprisingly few EV recharging points restored that to 100 percent in 90 minutes.
Yosemite National Park covers more than 1,000 square miles, though the majority of its four million visitors each year spend most of their time in the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley. It’s one of the world’s must-see places, rightly famed for the grandeur of its mountains with their steep granite cliffs, and the many waterfalls, giant sequoia groves and glaciers. Rising nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, the monolithic Half Dome is the iconic feature of Yosemite, and you’ll never forget it once you see it.
After a day spent taking in Yosemite’s majestic scenery, it was time to head back to the Pacific Coast, heading downhill through scenic Bear Valley, then on to the gradually descending road leading to Merced, 90 miles away in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s huge market garden. There I was invited to hook up by the large Merced Toyota dealership which had no Prius models needing recharging, and also refused to accept any money. Thanks, guys. We needed 90 minutes to return the batteries to 100 percent while we had lunch at a nearby diner, then set off again for our overnight stop in Hollister, 80 miles away, where after a 172-mile day I recharged the bike’s batteries at a free hook-up behind City Hall, just around the corner from my motel room.
We’d stopped for the night at this sleepy California farm town because in 1947, it was the scene of an alleged Fourth of July motorcycle gang riot, which helped give rise to a widespread negative opinion of bikers, an attitude which for many pertains even today. This was compounded by the making of the controversial 1953 movie “The Wild One” starring Marlon Brando, based on the events of that evening in Hollister. Today, you can visit Johnny’s Bar & Grill downtown, the actual café where the alleged riot started, which has numerous photos and memorabilia of the event and Brando’s movie, plus it serves an excellent steak.
Next day we headed over the hills to Monterey and nearby Carmel-By-The-Sea, before riding back up the coast to Santa Cruz and the Zero Motorcycles factory in Scotts Valley, where I arrived with 13 percent of charge remaining after a 98-mile ride. After covering a total of 891 miles in those six days with no electrical or other mishaps, no running out of charge (barely!), but the convenience of riding a twist-’n’-go machine with significant performance and much better handling than I was expecting, I needed no further convincing that—if you’re comfortable with the initial cost—Zero has succeeded in making electric motorcycles practical for the long haul as well as shorter trips. I also found riding 180-mile days on this DSR much less tiring than on a similar combustion-engined motorcycle. The lack of noise, vibration and heat really makes a difference over a long day in the saddle, especially with the convenience of not having to work the clutch and gear levers. And that’s before you think about the low, low cost of “tanking up.” You do have to plan your stops, but in a way that’s part of the fun of going touring with an E-bike, as well as the closest thing to free travel you’re ever going to get.