Executive summary: Two items.

#1 – Riding in lower temperatures has become routine. In the beginning it seemed unusual to be out on a motorcycle at fourteen above, or three below. I was self-conscious in traffic, looking paranoidly at drivers sitting inside their warm cars, and at others all bundled up on the sidewalks. Now it feels almost normal. Before we started this Zero ‘experiment’ riding anywhere was a big deal anytime it got near or a bit below freezing. Now it’s not…you just put on your gear and go. Part of this is due to some unique and unanticipated aspects of the electric Zero (see item #2) and part involves how my Aerostich gear works.

Having my gear logistics now fully worked out and being fluent with the required dressing and undressing rituals makes a huge difference. No hunting around for what to wear or awkwardly combining things that don’t quite work together. For me this partly involved having a second wardrobe: My boots are old insulated felt pacs from Sorel, and my Aerostich riding suit has been custom-alt modified (#203 $75-$190) to be a roomier version of the R-3 Light I normally wear, with just enough additional space for some medium-weight goose down and fleece layers inside. The rest of my gear is the same as usual.

#2 – For this kind of urban winter use our borrowed Zero is a huge improvement over my internal combustion motorcycle. And every other gasoline burner. There’s no starter to crank and nothing to warm up. It’s always ready to go -- No fiddling around. Just unplug and ride off. It’s as simple to use as a refrigerator. (You want cold food? Open the door and the light goes on. Select your food. Close the door.)

You just get on this bike, switch it on and go. All you have to remember is to unplug it before taking off. It is by far the easiest-to-use motorcycle I’ve ever experienced. Apparently the most maintenance-free, too. No tune-ups. No oil changes (EVER!) No warm-ups. No vibrations. No smells. Less pollution. It just goes wwwhhrrrrrrr…down the road, and you listen to the tire tread blocks softly thrumming against the road surface and hear the wind curling around the bottom of your helmet. Wheeeee!

Fairly soon it seems like drivers will want to have at their disposal two quite different vehicles. One 100% electric, to use for around town mobility, and another with some internal combustion component for longer distances, only because of the shorter refueling time. Two minutes for combustion vs. several hours for electric. Cost-and-environmental-differences-be-damned, this is mainly a refueling-time issue.

If (when…) electric cars come to prevail in cities, and you happen live on any busy street, much of the ambient noise you’ve become accustomed to will probably go away. If you happen to be young and are employed in the auto-parts or car repair field, things are likely to get a little tougher, employment-wise. Not so many refrigerator service technicians are needed out there.

Imagine the reassuring vibratory thrums of combustion vehicles standing out starkly in silent electric traffic streams as a nostalgic exception. Combustion vehicles universally provide a symphony of audio accompaniment to our motion and most will miss that, but not enough to put up with the rest of the BS that goes with it…Not anymore than people today miss having huge blocks of ice delivered weekly to provide food refrigeration. “Loud pipes” will become far more ostracizing and uncool.

A few notes about this Zero: It continues to ride really well, except for it’s too-stiff-at-low-low temp suspension…anything below about 25ºf. It’s amazingly peppy right off the line,…Last week on the way home one night it was fun to torque smartly away from some sleepy kid in a raspy Subaru WRX…who had no idea. From 0-30 mph the Zero jumps right out and then runs up to about 70 fairly quickly. There’s a lot less snap the rest of the way (to a top speed for this model somewhere north of 80), but it does get there.

When I was a Boy Scout with a Ray-o-Vac ‘Sportsman’, all flashlights were crappy. Even the very best of them. And it seems like only yesterday…My first camp out flashlight consisted of a corrugated chromed metal tube with a little sliding off/on thumb switch and a ‘flash’ button. Both ends unscrewed and inside were two carbon-zinc C (or D, if you had the bigger model) cells. Up front a dim tungsten filament projected a yellowish white beam for a little while. You used it sparingly. Sometimes this device would suddenly dim or even go out and you needed to bang it smartly against your palm to encourage a better electrical contact inside because those heavy batteries were free to move about a little bit. (Of course at the same time we also did our school lessons on the backside of a coal shovel by the light of a fireplace and walked ten miles though deep snow to school, uphill, both ways.) This Zero electric motorcycle takes me to and from work, or wherever else I want to go, at five above…No problem. Humpf.

Friday January 29, 2016

Out the door at 7:10 AM to a spectacular sunrise. The sun’s just coming over the lake-sky horizon. From the side of the hill where I live which is a few hundred feet above lake-level, the edge of the world is maybe twenty miles out. Now the eastern third of the sky is on fire, the air is crystal clear, windless and it's 17ºF. A perfect, gorgeous day for a ride.

When I rode the Zero home last night it was actually raining because of a ‘January thaw’. While the rain rinsed all the main streets and roads clean it was also left every driveway and sidewalk treacherously coated with slick sheets of window-clear hockey rink quality ice. Residual road salt had kept everything liquid on streets, but it was contact-freezing to all sub-zero frozen sidewalk and driveway surfaces. Not good if you live on a hillside. In these conditions people choose to walk the clear traffic lanes and risk being hit by a passing car rather than taking their chances on the icy-slick sidewalks. Everyone does this.

More StudsYesterday we added another 25 studs to the rear tire and about 30 more to the font, bringing the total for each wheel up to 125 (rear) and 135 (front). These added carbide tips were positioned slightly off-center, so we now have two rings of continuous studs on either side of a mostly rubber center tread with only a single stud about every three inches, thus when you ride in a straight line you hear one kind of soft wwwwwwrrrr-clicking sound, and when you slightly lean to turn either way that pitch changes as the more closely-spaced side studs come into contact with the road.

On my now ice covered slanted driveway the bike walked right into it’s parking spot without a slip or spin, so maybe this setup is closer to an optimal compromise for our situation. But overall traction limits are still far below those of an ‘all rubber’ summer tire or an off-road knobby-with-500-studs–per-wheel. I have yet to learn if this bike is flat-track slidable with this tire/stud setup but it sure feels like the answer will be ‘not very’. Before winter ends I’d like to find out (…hopefully without breaking my neck or the bike) on a frozen lake or parking lot.

My destination this early morning was the once-a-month 7:30AM meeting of Duluth’s parking commission. I’m one of eight commissioners. If you want to try something that can be good for motorcycling in your town, see if you can get appointed to your local parking commission…if there is one. Then see if you can do anything as a commissioner which might benefit your fellow bicycle and motorcycle riders. (Find information about motorcycles and parking at www.ridetowork.org ) The streets were already full of early commuters, and last night’s rain had left everything clean and dry, so riding was delightful. I’m getting used to the Zero’s bumpy-stiff frozen suspension and just relaxed and enjoyed the sunrise.

DPD_ParkedAtCityHallHalf of my fellow commissioners were already in city council chambers as I walked in wearing my gear and carrying my helmet. Most turned and looked at me and one said “Did you ride your motorcycle?” (…as if that wasn't obvious). “Yes, I did.” I replied, while placing my helmet on the shelf above the coat rack and unzipping the R 3. The fellow just said “Wow”. Here’s where I parked. Someone unknown actually took this photo and it was posted to the Duluth Police Department’s Facebook page. And yes, I did plug that meter.

An hour and a half later I was back in the saddle enjoying the freshly rinsed roads under a bright sunny sky with temps already a couple of degrees warmer. Then back at home I made a nice hot bowl of oatmeal (adding blueberries, maple syrup and some butter). There’s no substitute for hot oatmeal after a morning ride like this. Then it was time to ride the little Zero to Aerostich.

By evening it had started to rain/snow again, this time a little heavier. My fiancee Shirah was out driving slip-sliding around in her Jeep and had called to see if maybe I'd need a ride home (?). “Heck no.” I replied “With these studs I’ve got more control and traction than you do.”

“Well, I’m about five minutes away and if you are ready to go now, I could stop by and you could follow me home, just in case.”

Ice-glazed fenders“Ok, let me shut things down here and I’ll be outside in five minutes.”, which I was. The Zero was encased in a glaze of frozen rain which was pretty neat looking, but it was dark and I was in a hurry so I just jammed the key thru the ice-covered slot, flipped the power on and unplugged the cord. I also flipped the heated grips on, knowing they’d remove the ice skin there in a moment. No point in brushing anything off the saddle…I just threw a leg over and sat down on the glaze, which audibly went ‘crunch’ beneath me. Then moving forward toward the nearby idling Jeep I briefly stood on the pegs so whatever was left there could fall away. Those ice-glazed fenders sure looked neat.

The ride homeward through the falling snow and sleet was uneventful. My helmet face shield was warm enough so the moisture hitting it stayed liquid. The streets were all sloppy and icy, but not difficult to handle. At one stoplight some teenage kids were crossing on the sidewalk and I overheard one say to his companions: “Brave.”, which I assumed referred to me. Conditions looked that bad, risk-wise. Everyone in cars was just creeping along to avoid an unintentional slide, and those teens had to be walking pretty carefully, too. After I got home I could see reflected in the door storm window a cool-looking glaze of frozen raindrops all over the surface of my R 3 suit (link) and realized I’d just ridden home in conditions that would have been highly dangerous and extremely uncomfortable just a few years ago. Yet here I was dry, warm and comfortable.

One thing that stands out as a pain-in-the-ass: gear storage. Over the years I’d developed equipment storage procedures to support my riding which centered around a garage space. Things set up like some kind of personal Bat-cave: Helmet on a shelf here. Motorcycle leaned against a wall there. Riding suit hanging there. Gloves there. Garage door opener remote here, here…and another one here (one button on the wall, one button on a keychain remote hanging from the shelf where my helmet rests and another button on another keychain remote carabinered to the shoulder strap of my daily (…‘EDC’, hipsters) backpack.

With the Zero sleeping out in the driveway every night and the plan being to come and go only through the kitchen, where do I keep my gear? The bulky R3 drapes over one of the dining room chairs and my helmet and gloves are on the sideboard looking out-of-place next to a potted plant and candle holder. With my heavy boots are on the floor right beneath them. Nothing is where it belongs. It all looks wrong.

Everyone I know who uses their bike transportation has developed some sort of handy gear storage system. Our experimental keeping-the-Zero-outside-all-winter throws a wrench into my garage-based organizing but on the other hand now the garage space is cleaner, warmer and drier for other winter projects. We are learning unexpected things about everyday A to B riding, which was the whole point.

Other Saturday, Wednesday and Thursday random notes.

• Some stranger took my photo today in traffic. I was waiting at the stoplight on Third and 12th Ave E, and in my rearview mirror I watched a car pull to a stop a few feet behind me. The driver seemed to be holding their smartphone directly in front of them and against the steering wheel. For a moment I wondered if they were texting or reading or what (?) and then there was a flash and I knew I’d been photographed. A day or two later a coworker came up to me and said one of their friends had taken my photo riding the Zero a couple of days ago. Gotta love this small town life.

Later that same day when I was out on the freeway for the first time since we started riding the Zero everything was fine bike-wise, but the 70 mph wind-chill hitting my chin was a lot sharper than I’d been experiencing on the surface streets which are my normal route. If I was commuting via a high-speed I’d be wrapping a bandana, Wind Triangle (#511 $22) or Silk Scarf (#1549 $27) around my neck every day.

• Saturday was super warm and sunny here. Near-record warm. High in the lower thirties. Instead of motorcycle fun riding Shirah and I drove over to an annual dog sled race about forty miles away ( http://www.beargrease.com ). Several thousand people, lots of outdoor excitement, food vendors, excitedly yapping dogs, busy mushers and helpers, and even someone with a camera drone making aerial video. (About five minutes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2xhnROVU9w ) I made my own 15 second roadside iPhone video here.

• Before this year my previous experiences with winter-studded motorcycle tires date from about twenty years ago, first with a set of home-made tires using the sharp-edged heads of sheet metal screws for bite, then a few years later with some factory-studded knobbies made in Sweden by the Trellborg tire company. Both sets of tires were intended for off-road snow and ice use only.

My dry pavement riding on those tires was very limited, probably less than ten paved-road-miles altogether spread over several years, because they were so completely unacceptable for that. The carbide tipped studs and the mild-steel sheet metal screw head stud-to-road contact points both provided nearly zero grip. Pavement riding on those tires was scary. It always felt like tiptoeing or balancing on a slack line. Against pavement mild-steel sheet metal screw heads wore away very quickly, too.

But off-road both setups worked phenomenally well. The sheet-metal screw tires had 3 or 4 screw heads across each knob, and the Trellborg’s had a half-inch long carbide tipped spike projecting from each knob. There was tremendous bite…enough so it was easy to ride with a great deal of control and confidence on frozen lakes and snow packed trails.

With the sheet metal screw headed tires there was a footprint of about ten sharp edges cutting into the ice almost simultaneously. The Trellborg’s fewer carbide-tipped spikes penetrated deeply into both hard ice and packed snow so flat track-style slides were luridly long and fast enough to be called 'epic'. These generated charismatic rooster tails of shredded ice thrown high into the air and it was all tremendous fun long before it became easy to video-record such antics. You have my solemn word.

StudsThe Zero’s stubby little street-compatible studs are far less effective. In fact, they work like crap compared to those off-road studded tires. It’s difficult and scary to ride the Zero across ice and thru snowpack. You’ve got to be tender with control inputs. Each Zero tire only has about 125-130 studs (versus about 500 for the sheet metal screw tires), and the maximum penetration is roughly an eighth of an inch (compared to about half an inch with the Trellbogs) so in both number and depth-of-penetration our half-half-dry-road/half-snow-and-ice compromise tires provide lot less grip in EVERY situation. The Zero just doesn’t feel fantastically secure across any surface compared to normal summer or spiked off-road winter-prepared bikes.

Not that it is in any way unrideable. It’s fine. None of us has fallen yet and the tires are manageable on both dry and wet pavements as long as you are mindful of the lower frictional limits of the ice-cold rubber and the reduced tread contact area where each low-profile stud forces the surrounding rubber slightly upward and away from the pavement.

You worry that if the bike goes over very far you'll lose the whole thing. Flat-tracking riding heroics seem impossible, or at least beyond my ability, and this situation is further complicated since the icy surface you are putting your ‘inside’ foot down on to help gauge your lean angle is so slippery your boot sole finds no resistance. Which feels a like you have a miniature flying saucer strapped to the sole of your boot.

On the plus side, we've been discovering that winter roads here are clear and dry much more often than I realized (this year anyway), so year-around riding for transportation is doable, except on days when there is a lot of fresh ice and snow. Then, traction is nearly nonexistent and riding is riskier and lots of hard work.

IMG_6424 IMG_6428 IMG_6409

Despite all our climactic abuse, this Zero has been working perfectly amid ever present winter road filth. My extra dressing rigamarole feels absolutely normal and routine now.

Fancy word(s), not used in this blog post:
Cryophilic (Adjective) def: Preferring or thriving at low temperatures.
Cryotolerant, def: Species that can tolerate low temperatures.

Products mentioned in this post:

One thought on “Oatmeal”

  • Wm G

    2006? Anyway, these are always great reads. Thanks for sharing. Got back from DC last Tuesday and been riding in Mpls every day since although above freezing temps and only a couple of rainy commutes have made it pretty benign

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