From London Roads to TV Studios: Riding the Zero S
By Paul Blezard
Or how to ride a motorcycle into a building without upsetting anyone and refuel for free. The true adventures of Paul Blezard, urban planner, global adventurer.
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My little adventure riding an electric motorcycle - including inside a television studio - all came about due to a request from Claudio Von Planta who is best known as the bike-riding Swiss cameraman who went The Long Way Round the world on a BMW R1150GSA alongside Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor in 2004. But Claudio is an award-winning film maker in his own right who's made documentaries about everything from Rwandan footballers in the Under 17 World Cup, to human organ trafficking in Kosovo and AIDS in Zambia and much else besides. I first met him back in 2005 when he attended a talk by Charley Boorman at Vines BMW of Guildford, but I only discovered that we both had an interest in electric vehicles when we met again in April 2011 through a mutual friend, Drew Lawson, who had opened an electric bike shop in London.
It turned out that Claudio had just shot a documentary about a group of engineering graduates from Imperial College who had driven an all-electric Radical SR-8 sports car the entire 26,000 kilometre length of the Pan American Highway from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego....The electrified SRZero (as it was re-named) was actually on display in the Science Museum that very week and I went to have a look at it. Claudio was good enough to give me a DVD of the documentary, Racing Green Endurance, which originally went out on the BBC World channel as an eight-part series. It's a fantastic film, and frankly it's a scandal that it hasn't been shown on one of the domestic BBC channels. I cannot recommend it too highly.
Motorcycles played a key role in the making of the film because Claudio shot most of the footage from the pillion seat of a BMW in North America and from a Suzuki in South America. He also spent a day in and around San Francisco on the back of a Zero electric motorcycle, when the Zero guys came up from their Headquarters in nearby Santa Cruz and gave the SRZero car an electric bike escort as they headed across the Golden Gate bridge and through 'the city by the bay'. Claudio (who's based in London) called me up because he'd been asked by Sony, who supplied his video cameras, to take part in an hour-long 'webinar' about the filming of Racing Green Endurance and he thought it would enhance his explanations if he had a bike on which he could demonstrate how he did the filming. An electric bike would be better than a petrol (gasoline) one in a TV studio and a Zero would be ideal, since it was a pair of Zeroes which actually featured in the film..... (A 'webinar' is a seminar 'narrowcast', rather than broadcast, over the internet; you could just call it a web-based TV programme).
Zero Europe didn't have any bikes available in the UK at the time but fortunately I knew where there just might be one......The previous year I'd taken part in an event called the Eco Car (!) Spectacular which was a public display of electric vehicles of all kinds, from skateboards and Segways to racebikes and sports cars. Half of The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace was fenced off so that all the hundred or so machines involved could do demonstration runs. Amongst the great variety of electric two wheelers there was a Zero 'S' (for 'street') model ridden by a chap called David Barry who ran a business called Electric Motorcycles in High Wycombe. I phoned David and he very kindly agreed not only to lend me the Zero S for the Sony webinar, but also to deliver it to my place in the suburbs of South West London. He even rigged up a brilliantly simple solution to the bike's lack of passenger footrests; the bike has a funky great hole in both sides of the swing arm and David had discovered that a standard bit of B&Q plastic drainpipe was a perfect snug fit!
It required a little bit of ingenuity to attach my Givi scooter bag to the bike, since there was no obvious way of fixing it to the dummy tank. In the end, as can be seen from the photos, I hooked a long bungee to the front and rear hoops on each side of the bag and looped them around the unusual strips of black lower fairing mounted just forward of each footrest. This arrangement also had the advantage of being very quick to release and the bag was ideal for carrying the Zero's charger.
And so it was that on the afternoon of the 8th June 2011 I set off across London for an obscure TV studio in the heart of the East End, in Brick Lane itself, no less. The fifteen mile ride up the A3 and on through Wandsworth, Vauxhall and Southwark was relaxing and slightly surreal. Although the Zero was learner legal, the bizarre European Union specifications for electric learner bikes mean that you're actually allowed 'peak power' of double the 11kw/15bhp permissible for 'continuous power' which is of course the maximum for a petrol bike. So with nearly 30bhp on tap from the Cedric Lynch-designed Agni motor and great gobs of torque from the very bottom of the rev range, the Zero accelerated more like a 250 than a 125. I sliced my way through the traffic like a hot knife through butter, and with little more noise!
The address in Brick Lane turned out to be the old Truman Brewery and the TV studio was actually in the converted loading bay which could only be accessed from the pedestrianised courtyard. I'm sure I would have had a lot more trouble riding a petrol-powered bike past the security men guarding the yard entrance, but when I got to the studio I was confronted by two stout steps up to the door, and a further step into the building. It looked ride-able, so with someone holding the doors open, I just rode straight into the foyer, feet up.
The next obstacle was more daunting: a full flight of seven steep steps up to a mezzanine level where the actual filming was going to take place, with the bottom step about twice as tall as the rest, a good foot high. It might have been possible to ride straight up the flight, but it would have been tricky, especially with the oversized bottom step and bearing in mind this was the 'supermoto' version of the big Zero, with smooth tyres, rather than the Dual Sport model that I'd previously ridden in Belgium, which had much more knobbly 'boots'. Still sitting astride the bike, I looked around and saw a trestle table that was being used as a 'check-in' desk. "Hmmm, that's handy" I thought, "those legs should just fold out of the way to make it into a nice wide ramp." And so it proved. I quickly commandeered the trestle table and a couple of helpers, and within seconds my impromptu ramp was ready. With the bike being so quiet, no-one up in the studio even knew I was coming until I rode the Zero up the table top and sprung silently into their midst, drawing gasps of surprise. I distinctly heard two different people say "Wow!".
Claudio and his second cameraman and business partner, Jonathan Richards, were already there, along with two of the main men from the Racing Green Endurance Team, Alex Schey and Toby Schulz. Claudio and I did a 'dummy run' of what we were going to do and say on the bike during the programme and then I plugged the bike into the mains right where it was parked, just off camera, awaiting its cue. In no time the presenter, Beth, was introducing the event to the select studio audience and the watching world on line, and the webinar was under way. She then introduced Claudio and a few minutes later he started talking about how motorcycles had been the ideal 'platform' from which to shoot the electric car, since it was so easy to jump back and forth, overtaking, then dropping back and so on. This was my cue to unplug the bike from its charger and to glide silently into the middle of the 'stage'. Claudio hopped on the back, complete with his sizable Sony video camera and tripod, and proceeded to demonstrate how he'd shot from either side of the bike, high and low and so on. After about five minutes, the bike and I had done our stuff and I 'reversed' back out of camera-shot and put the bike back on charge.
A few minutes later a two minute clip from the Racing Green Endurance DVD was shown with the SRZero driving over the Golden Gate bridge into San Francisco with the two Zeros acting as outriders, one of them with Claudio on the back. Claudio also had a go at the controls himself, in the film, and was very positive about the bike. This enabled me to get some still photographs of the Zero in the studio with the TV screen behind showing both the electric car and the Zeroes as they appeared in the film. The two team members, Alex and Toby, also both contributed to the webinar, and afterwards they both had a sit on the bike, as did several members of the production team and all were fascinated by it.
When the webinar was over and most of the audience had left I said to Claudio, "Get your video camera out, I want to show everyone how I got the bike into the studio!" Claudio did as I asked and I then had two decisions to make: with or without helmet? and with or without ramp? I weighed up the risks and the challenge and decided to go 'au naturel' on both counts. I'm no Dougie Lampkin but when you've ridden a quarter tonne of BMW R1150GS up and down a set of rock steps on a Surrey trail, a short flight of stairs on a comparatively light bike such as the Zero is a relative doddle. And so it proved. With Claudio's video camera rolling, and Jonathan snapping with my Canon EOS, I rode the bike down the stairs and straight out into the courtyard, to the surprise of the people milling about in the summer evening sunshine. I then turned around and re-enacted my entry, riding straight up the first three steps into the foyer, then up the trestle-table ramp to the mezzanine. I then turned around and finally rode back down the ramp-less stairs, but this time pulled up sharp, within the foyer. Claudio filmed it all and eventually edited it down to a really neat little 50 second video, but it took him nearly a year to get round to it! (He's a busy guy!). See: http://vimeo.com/36523673.
Alex Schey also video'd the first ride down the stairs on his mobile phone, as did another member of the production crew, and their vids can both be seen on YouTube
Afterwards we adjourned to one of the legendary Brick Lane curry houses and had a thoroughly convivial evening discussing all manner of electric vehicles.
I rode home by a completely different route from the way I'd come in, via the Marylebone Road and the A40(M). As I wafted silently along the Westway, high above the houses of Notting Hill I thought "This is like riding a two wheeled magic carpet!" and the sixteen miles back home to Ham certainly flew by. I sent everyone a few of the photos and Alex replied attaching the video he'd shot on his iPhone, along with the comment. "I'm glad to see that somebody like you, who has reported and been so heavily involved in petrol-powered bikes for so long, can appreciate what this electric technology can bring. It doesn't have to be about saving the world or even using less money at the pump...it can simply be that it's a new, different and very enjoyable driving experience!" Indeed it can.
The owner, David Barry, was good enough to let me keep the Zero till the weekend, and this gave me a chance to test the range of the machine a little more thoroughly. It had covered thirty three miles up to Brick Lane and back, but it had also had a top-up in the studio half way through. When the Zero S was launched, the company claimed a range of '45-60 miles' but previous experience with electric scooters had taught me to be sceptical of manufacturers' range claims. When I tested the Vectrix maxiscooter back in 2008 I'd been assured that it would do 35-45 miles and so the twenty seven miles to my girlfriend's place would be a doddle. In the event, I made it, but only just, with the gauge reading 'empty' for the last two miles. The true range of the early Vectrix turned out to be under thirty miles, even riding it with considerably more right wrist restraint than I habitually use with my Suzuki Burgman 650 and Yamaha Tmax 500 superscooters and despite making maximum use of the brilliant regenerative braking, which uses the scoot's hub-mounted electric motor to turn unwanted speed back into electrical energy when you turn the twistgrip away from you. The Zero had no regen, although it was lighter but also less aerodynamic, thanks to its 'sit up and beg' riding position and 33 inch seat height. (Looking at other people's road tests of the Zero S, it amused me to discover that about half of them quoted the 102kg (225lbs) 'dry' (sic.) weight, without the battery, rather than 135kgs (297lbs) 'curb' (sic.) weight. And of course, batteries don't get any lighter as they run out of 'juice'.....
If anything I rode the Zero with more restraint than I'd used with the Vectrix three years earlier, so it was disappointing when the red light came on with only 24 miles showing on the GPS, half way between Guildford and Godalming. It was a nasty shock when it conked out completely barely a quarter of a mile further up the road. When the Vectrix had got close to 'empty' with 27 miles covered, it had gone into 'emergency mode' with a maximum speed of about 20mph before finally coming to a halt a couple of miles further on. No such sweat-saving sophistication on the Zero. I just had to get off and push in the gathering gloom.
Fortunately there was a pub only five minutes' leg-work up the road and even more fortunately the good people at The Manor Inn had a long extension reel which they were happy to let me use to connect the Zero to their electricity supply. My long-suffering girlfriend Elspeth kindly came and picked me up in her car and by the time we'd finished dinner the Zero had taken on enough juice to complete the last three miles to her place.
The following afternoon, with the bike fully re-charged overnight, I re-enacted the recharge at the pub in daylight, both to get some photos and to make sure that I had enough juice to make it back to my place. (This time I bought a drink and a meal while I waited for the Zero to be topped back up to 'full'!). I took exactly the same route, with a little more restraint, and this time there was a small amount of juice remaining when I got the 24.5 miles home. I rode around the block to run it flat and this time it conked out with exactly 26.0 miles showing on the GPS. Still a mile short of the 27 needed to get to my girlfriend's place, and she lives at the top of a hill!
It was clear that I had found the limits of the 2009 Mk1 Zero's range. No problem at all if you wanted to do twenty miles across town, with no restraint required. Thirty miles there and back, if you could give it a little top-up half way. It could also do a twenty mile commute if you could put the bike on charge for most of the working day. But twenty five miles was pushing it, or rather, was likely to result in you pushing the bike, especially if it included any de-restricted roads or dual carriageways where you would want to keep up with the traffic. (It topped out at 63mph on the A3).
I'm pleased to report that the boffins at the Zero factory have addressed almost all the limitations of the 2009 machine described here. First they revamped all the models in 2011 (of which more anon), then last year, by some sorcery, they doubled the maximum range for the road models to over a hundred miles in the city and 63 miles on the highway, (measured according to an internationally recognised schedule). Now, for 2013, they've revamped all the models again! Back in January I had the great pleasure of having a short ride on a 2012 Zero, along with lots of other industry people, in the Electric Zone which I ran at the Motorcycle Trade Expo. Almost everyone who rode it was amazed by it. Then in March I had the even greater pleasure of riding the 2013 machines in Spain. But that's another story. Suffice it to say for now that Zero have raised the bar even higher, for both range and performance, in most impressive fashion. Believe me, this is a very important part of the future of motorcycling.
I dare you to try one!
Paul Blezard, London, England
Huge thanks to David Barry of Electric Motorcycles for the loan of the Zero:
Claudio Von Planta: www.vonplantaproductions.com
26,000kms in an electric sports car: www.racinggreenendurance.com"
Alex Schey's 30" iPhone video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtwpUr_VkZA
Photos: Paul Blezard and Jonathan Richards
A version of this story, with lots of photos, first appeared in March 2013 edition of The Rider's Digest. It can still be seen in the archive section at www.theridersdigest.co.uk
Originally published: 27 Jul 2013
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