A full tank of gas, a twist of the wrist, the roar of the exhaust as you speed towards the horizon … These are the visceral touchstones of the motorcycling experience, and all are a direct product of petrol-fuelled power, as is much of the biker’s lexicon: “open it up”, “give it some gas”, “go full throttle”. For a motorcycle rider, as opposed to the modern car driver, the journey is a full-body communication game, constantly applying judgment, skill and nerve to control the thousands of explosions that are happening between your thighs in order to transport yourself, upright and in one piece, to your destination.
Yet the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered. By 2050 the European Commission aims to have cut transport emissions by 90%, and electric vehicle technology is striding ahead for cars, trucks, buses and even aircraft. But where does this leave the motorcycle? Can this romantic form of transport and its subcultures survive the end of the petrol age?
For some riders it is this intimate, sensory relationship with the engine that defines the pleasure of riding a motorcycle. But it’s not just about the suck, squeeze, bang, blow (hey, that’s the four-stroke cycle). The joys of motorcycling are many and varied, extending way beyond the lazy tropes of “petrol heads” and leather-clad biker gangs that have tainted its image since the 1970s. Motorcycling is also, and has always been, about exploration and adventure, autonomy and camaraderie – and, as Peter Fonda vividly described it, freedom and having a good time.
The good news is that none of the above relies on the burning of fossil fuels. The bad news is that electric motorcycle design is still in its infancy and the few models that do get close to rivalling the large-engined petrol bikes are prohibitively expensive. As a form of transport that, at least in the western world, has transitioned from being the everyman’s vehicle to an expensive hobby, this is a serious blow to the motorcycle industry and those who view motorbikes as a solution to our congested streets.
Zero Motorcycles, a US startup regarded as the two-wheeled Tesla, is the market leader, producing a range of street and off-road models, but its prices are around the £18,000-£20,000 mark. Small electric motorbikes and scooters designed for short, urban journeys and overnight charging at home already exist, but a motorcyclist’s heart is not quickened by the prospect of an efficient commute. It is the lure of the open road, the unfolding of a map and plotting a ride across an entire country, a continent, the world; setting off on a whim and going where the road takes you. For devoted touring and adventure riders, and the European motorcycle industry, there is a genuine fear that the phasing out of the internal combustion engine combined with the reality of limited range and sporadic charging points will sound the death knell for the long-distance ride.
According to Chris Scott, author of the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook, all is not lost. It’s simply a case of adapt or die. He sees a comparison with the early motorcycle trailblazers: “Fuel scarcity is an old story but riders have always adapted. It will be the same with infrastructure for electric bikes. Unleaded fuel only supposedly became globally universal this year, once Algeria joined the fold. That took some 40 years; about as long as it will take to see fast chargers or a bank of swappable batteries on the Trans-Sahara highway.”
In other words, desire is the mother of invention – and motorcyclists, especially those who use their bikes to travel to faraway places, are a resourceful breed. As soon as motorcycles were invented, adventurous souls began using them to explore the world, undaunted by the lack of fuel availability, or even roads. And as recently as 2003, when I rode my 225cc Yamaha trail bike from Alaska to Argentina, I was dumpster-diving for empty Coke bottles to fill up with petrol for the long, barren leg across Chile’s Atacama desert and the wilds of Patagonia. One thing that long-distance riding teaches you is that there is always a solution.
It is no surprise, then, that some forward-thinking riders have already been pushing the limits of electric motorcycle travel. In 2015 Belgian rider Trui Hanoulle, aka #elektrogirl, rode her Zero DS from Belgium to Istanbul and back. At the same time, on the other side of the planet, Polish-American biker Thomas Tomczyk was busy setting the world record for the longest journey on an electric motorcycle: 17,325 miles on a Zero S, from Philadelphia to Cape Froward in Chile, the southernmost point of mainland South America.
Both Hanoulle and Tomczyk made the point that adapting to the limitations of an electric bike became a positive feature of the journey. Hanoulle talked of being forced to ride at a moderate pace, describing the 7,000km ride as “a journey that offers, or maybe I should say, obliges one to unwind,” also pointing out, “isn’t that what we all look for on our journeys and holidays?”
Tomczyk’s difficulties were also due to dwindling batteries, notably in the desolate Atacama, where he planned his route to ensure minimal headwind in order to conserve power. But his ongoing quest for places to plug in led him to a fascinating array of locations and people. “Over one week, I charged up the bike at a mining company, a roadside police station, a hospital, a rest stop on a national highway, and at Paranal – one of the world’s biggest astronomical observatories.’
The best moments arise from what may seem like a disaster at the time; when you’re lost, or broken down
He concluded that the inevitable range-related headaches were also the source of his fondest memories. “The highlight of the journey was finding places that would offer to charge the bike, people that could offer a conversation, advice, and introduction to their town, city or home. After a few days of travelling, I realised that the journey was not to be about using energy, but about sharing energy and sharing experiences.”
His approach brings to mind the famous quote from veteran motorcycle traveller and author, Ted Simon, whose bestselling book Jupiter’s Travels describes his four-year ride around the world in the 1970s and has become a travel writing classic: “The interruptions are the journey.”
Any long-distance motorcyclist will tell you the same. It’s not about the sitting in the saddle for hours at a time, or tearing along a motorway at top speed, or even the triumph of arriving at your destination. The best moments arise from what may seem like a disaster at the time; when you’re lost, or broken down, or have run out of fuel. These are the occasions when you have to live on your wits and inevitably find yourself reaping the kindness of strangers.
There are many reasons why people are attracted to riding motorcycles, and for those who find the appeal in the throaty roar of an after-market pipe, or love nothing more than tuning their carburettor, the passing of the internal combustion engine may eventually curtail their beloved pastime. But for those who are drawn to motorcycles for the freedom of the open road and to explore new horizons – and if Simon’s maxim is correct – it would appear that the electric motorcycle could turn out to be the ultimate ride.
Memorable Motorcycle Movie Moments
The Great Escape (1963)
Although the jump over the barbed wire has entered folklore, bike nerds will point out that the chase leading up to it is far more impressive. Steve McQueen’s extreme skill meant that the production’s on-set stunt riders couldn’t keep up with him in the chase scenes. Never has a Triumph TR6 looked so thrilling.
Easy Rider (1969)
The ultimate biking film that put the Harley chopper on the map and captures the great American promise of two-wheeled freedom. If the sunset ride across the desert to the The Band’s ‘The Weight’ doesn’t make you want to hit the road, you must be a total square, man.
First Blood (1982)
John Rambo busts out of jail, swipes a Yamaha XT250 dirt bike from an unsuspecting citizen and launches into one of cinema’s greatest motorcycle chases. A helmetless and shirtless Sylvester Stallone proceeds to jump, skid and wheelie at top speed through the forest, pursued by the hapless local plod.
On Any Sunday (1971)
Possibly the greatest motorcycle film of all time, a dreamy documentary that captures the carefree Californian optimism of the late 1960s. Steve McQueen is our action-hero weekend-racer who every dirt-biker has aspired to emulate ever since. The closing scene of McQueen’s sunset beach-ride, wearing an open-face helmet and jeans and riding a Husqvarna 400 Cross, will never be topped for motorcycle cool.
Coogan’s Bluff (1968)
Clint Eastwood’s coming-of-age starring role and the genesis of his Dirty Harry genealogy. Playing a tough Arizona sheriff who is suddenly sent to Manhattan to bring in a runaway villain. The film’s climax is a fabulous helmetless chase around a New York park on a pair of gorgeous Triumphs. Eastwood on a 650 eventually catching up with the villain on a disadvantageous 500cc model!
Il Profeta (The Prophet) (1968)
Women on motorcycles don’t feature heavily in the movies but swingin’ screen icon, Ann Margret changed all that. A motorcycle fanatic in real life, she oozes sultry style in this 1968 Italian comedy where she plays a groovy hippie chick, razzing round in her go-go boots on a Moto Guzzi V7.