Modern riding

1 Jan 2014

I’ve been looking for a new motorbike for a little while now. Whilst I love my Buell Ulyssess, it’s starting to show its age, and as a technologist I’m keen to see what’s new out there. The Ulysses was a shining example of different engineering thinking when I got it, so what’s the modern equivalent?

For a while I looked the latest Ducati Multistrada, which on at the face of it is a perfect replacement for the Ulysses: similar adventure tourer design, but with all the latest bells and whistles, such as active suspension, multiple engine maps, and so forth. Unfortunately, trying to get a test drive from the nearest dealer proved a bit of a labour (I still haven’t had one) and then on learning of a four month wait (during which I’d not have a bike due to part exchange), I gave up and resigned myself to another year on the Ulysses.

However, although the Multistrada has all the technology I could want, it’s still a fairly conventional bike, in that it burns petrol. In the first half of 2013 I test drove a Zero S, which is a small 125cc equivalent electric motorbike. For 80% of my riding, the Zero S is too underpowered (for reference, the Ulysses is a 1200cc bike), but it did make me see that the petrol engine is really quite a stupid solution to the problem compared to electric motors. After the test ride I was trying to make my way across Cambridge in the Ulysses, and got stuck in traffic. The Ulysses doesn’t like this – it’s noisy at the best of times, and then the fans come on loud as the engine’s getting too hot, it really isn’t happy. But the Zero S simply isn’t on when you’re not moving, so it doesn’t care about these conditions. And yet when you’re going it’s fine.

The only thing that let the Zero down was the capacity equivalence. Being a 125cc equivalent it’s only really useful to me as a commuter, yet it cost more than my Ulysses. Given I typically peddle bike to work most days, and want a bike for fun trips out into the countryside two up, this didn’t make much sense.

What I really want is for electric bikes to get better so I can have something that’s going to be fun on the B roads as well as on the commute. Such bikes exist, just not yet in the UK, and given I know that you don’t buy a bike without riding it first, this put a bit of a stop to the electric bike dream.

Given all this, I was very fortunate when a couple of weeks ago, I happened to find myself test driving one of these electric bikes around San Francisco, courtesy of Scuderia Motorbikes:

This is the Brammo Empulse R, which is somewhat of a 650cc equivalent sports naked bike. I’d only stopped by to look at one, but on hearing my story Paul at Scuderia immediately recommended I take the bike out on the streets of San Francisco for a ride to understand what the bike was like (Ducati dealers take note).

This made me very happy, for two reason. Firstly, I was going to get to test drive a bike I’d been interested in ever since it launched, yet had remained tantalisingly out of reach. Secondly, this would be my first chance to ride a motorbike in the US, and I got to do it in a city full of iconic streets (thanks Bullitt). To say xmas had arrived early is an understatement.

Let’s start with the externals: the Empulse is a nice looking bike. It’s made a design feature out of it not having a conventional engine, and thanks to batteries being more easy to shape than engines, it’s actually more slim that the petrol equivalent bike would be. The older Brammo Enertia and the Zero S both look slightly odd to the eye, as we’ve become accustomed to motorbikes having certain shapes, but the Empulse manages to be both at once and look lovely as a result.

To sit on it was much more comfortable than I expected. I’m used to adventure touring bikes, where you sit up quite straight, and sports bikes as a rule tend to have you lent forward; this is great for B roads, but a real pain for anything else. But to my surprise the Empulse actually has quite a nice upright seating posture, albeit slightly lower to the ground than you’d find on an adventure bike. But this is a bike you could happily put miles on without crippling your wrists. It was also well balanced – I’ve been spoiled by the Buell, which are exceptionally well balanced bikes, and although I didn’t attempt a slow speed manoeuvres, the Empulse seemed to carry the weight from the batteries well.

Externals aside though, how the bike moves is the real make or break for a bike. If you’ve not driven motorbikes, it’s probably not apparent how much difference the engine makes to the character of a bike, much more so than with a car, as you have a much more direct relationship with it. I’ve rejected bikes that otherwise seemed perfect on paper for this reason. For instance, I love V-Twin based bikes, which tend to have high torque at low revs, so pull away well, but are less refined than say an inline-four, which will be much smoother across the power band. My Dad loved his VFR-800, which was of the later type, but I really found it dull to ride. This is what makes bikes interesting; it’d be boring if we all liked the same thing.

But this was the main reason I wanted to test drive the bike – would it’s character suit me, or would I just be disappointed when I got on the bike? You can’t tell this from specs or youtube videos, you need to ride it yourself.

Thankfully, the Empulse R’s character was right up my street. Electric engines are known for having their torque available at all speeds, but this actually needs to be limited if the bike is to be usable at low speeds, thus why I was worried. But no, as I zipped up and down the Mission district of San Francisco, the bike put a big smile on my face. Pulling away at traffic lights it was prompt with a pull that made you think if this was the open road I’d be a mile away by now.

Unusually for an electric bike it has a gearbox. Theoretically you don’t need this on an electric vehicle, but I find it makes sense (even if it’s just simulated through software, though the Empulse has the real deal); the advantage of a gear box is that it rations how much power you get for a full turn of the accelerator. In first gear, because top speed is only, say, 30 mph, you can have much more more nuanced control of the bike than if you only had one gear. This leads to a vehicle that’s equally as usable in town as on the open road. The other advantage is the Empulse felt much more natural to ride than it might otherwise, making it easier to quickly acclimate to.

So when going, it felt great, and yet when stopped it just shutdown and awaited the next burst of speed silently, just what I wanted. Speaking of silence, the bike is not silent when moving – it sounds a little like a space ship from an 80s movie. It’s not loud like my V-Twin, but it did mean I didn’t need to worry about pedestrians missing me (any more than I would normally).

Downsides? It’s not perfect – the pillion seat is adequate but not awesome, the dial cluster a little archaic compared to the ones Ducati puts out these days, and if you misjudge pulling away you get a bit of a jerk as the engine kicks in. But these are the kinds of complaints I’d level at any bike. The main thing is that when riding the Empulse R you just think of it as a bike, not a special beast to be categorised differently, which is great.

It’s also not ideal for me, it suits about 80% of what I use the Ulysses for. Due to range, there’s no way I’d be able to ride this up to Scotland for the week. But for that 20% of riding I can easily hire an adventure bike; for the bulk of things I used a bike for, the Empulse R would be fine.

So, that’s the review, but there’s still the issue of how do I get my hands on one over in the UK? If Scuderia had been UK based they’d have had an impulse buy there and then, but unfortunately it’s not that easy – Brammo have no official UK dealership, and even if I could import one I need to work out if it’d be road legal here.

Thankfully, all the spamming I did of Brammo in the last two weeks (apologies to Brammo, but I really do want one :) has yielded positive news – they plan on announcing a UK distributer for Brammo bikes in the next few weeks, with bikes available once compliance testing has finished, which they hope will be end of Q1.

So, I still have to wait for my next bike it seems, but here I have the satisfaction of knowing I’m waiting for something truly innovative that’ll both satisfy the biker and the geek in me. Now I just need to pick a colour…