Blog: Where have all the flies gone?

Steve Rose THUMBNAIL

 

Where have all the flies gone? Maybe it’s me, maybe the south of England doesn’t allow them (we moved house from the Midlands to Sussex just before the pandemic), maybe it’s some kind of Hollywood apocalypse, but this summer, every ride I’ve done has been noticeable – make that very noticeable – for a lack of flies on my visor when I get home?

And, yes, before you ask, I did check the back of my helmet too. Southern roads might be slow and congested, but it’s not that bad.

On the surface it’s a good thing. Seeing where I’m going is something I like. Not having to pick the back end of a wasp from my vents is even better. But as a possible visual representation of the impact of climate change and other impending environmental disasters, along with some unconventional weather patterns (a mate of mine went to Scotland last month and got sunburnt!), should we be concerned that the planet is trying to tell us something?

And what could we/should we be doing about it as ageing human beings, parents and hopefully soon-to-be grandparents?

Cue another sloppy, half-hearted piece about electric bikes (‘yeah, they’re really good…probably. £19k you say? lucky I didn’t pay for my test bike etc…’). Please don’t switch off just yet, I have given this some thought.

It’s all too easy to knock electric vehicles right now because, to put it bluntly, they aren’t good enough for what they cost. The cars are frighteningly expensive, do a lot less miles on a charge that they claim to and only make any sense if you have a driveway at home where you can charge them overnight. The network of independent charging stations across the country is unreliable, still not big enough and expensive. In Guy Martin’s recent TV programme about electric cars the most memorable fact by far was that it cost him twice as much to recharge his electric car on motorway chargers as it would have cost in diesel in a conventional car.

The other reason it’s so easy to knock electric bikes (in particular) is that so few of us have actually owned or lived with one for any length of time. It’s a lot easier to act ignorant if you are actually ignorant. Me included. I haven’t owned one or even ridden enough proper electric motorcycles for any length of time to qualify as an expert. And that’s mostly because there aren’t enough proper electric motorcycles yet to ride. No one makes a mainstream electric leisure motorcycle that comes close to its petrol competition for the cost. And most of what is out there is essentially (in power: weight and chassis performance) an electric equivalent of a Suzuki SV650 for three or four times the price.

You might argue that the bikes will get better and cheaper with time and you might be right. But only if enough of us jump in and buy one of the too-expensive first-generation ones, because otherwise, there’s no business in building electric motorcycles.

And that’s the problem. To justify the cost, the bikes are aimed firmly at the expensive end of the leisure market, but much of the reason leisure riders spend their evenings and weekends on bikes is the emotion of riding. The noise and the connection with the engineering that their four-wheeled petrol vehicles don’t provide, never mind an electric one. It’s the difference between playing a grand piano and making music on your laptop. The piano responds to your delicate touch, aggressive hammering and allows even a drummer like me to feel a direct connection between my whole body and this wonderful collection of wood, metal and wire.

A motorcycle is the same. Managing the ferocity of violent chemical reactions while both working-with and simultaneously defying physics is a hell of a way to wake up your happy glands in exactly the same way that being stuck in a queue in your autonomously-driven Tesla is not.

But… And this is where it gets interesting for me. I’m basing my opinions on what are still essentially prototype electric vehicles against the state-of-the-art of 120 years of petrol-power. The electric bikes on sale right now are all – every single one of them – less appealing than the best petrol ones. But, if you asked me to compare a Zero electric bike with a petrol-powered motorcycle from 1920 (the equivalent development time for petrol that E-bikes have had today), I might not be quite as excited. And I’d definitely have flies on the back of my helmet with that one.

They will get better and, at some point the E-bikes will overtake the petrol ones in every department, because, they’ll be different and the benefits will outweigh the emotions in the same way that new things always do if we give them time to grow.

Think of mobile technology 20 years ago. Think of a world without tiny-but-perfect HD cameras, face recognition, SIRI, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Amazon, Sky Q or BikeSocial? None of these things existed in 2001.

Our E-bike issue is that we are seeing a worse version of what we have and until they are demonstrably better for similar money, then why would I buy one?

In the world of push bikes and you can see exactly the opposite happening. Electrically-assisted bicycles are booming because they allow the freedom and health benefits of a push bike with some electrical assistance in the hills. E-bicycles are like pedal cycles, but better. They have made cycling easier, more enjoyable and a lot more popular. Likewise E-scooters (the ones that look like a Vespa, not the mini-wheeled man-bag movers on London pavements) are a great urban alternative to petrol. They have enough range for local commuting, removable batteries to be charged indoors, performance on a par with a petrol scooter and they cost about the same to buy. Not surprisingly, sales are booming.

Both the E-bicycles and E-scooters work because they are utility vehicles rather than leisure and lifestyle. No one needs a grand piano to write jingles for a deodorant advert or a Ducati V4S to deliver pizza.

For those of us who see motorcycles as utility; the quickest, most efficient and fuss-free way to get from here to there, I’m willing to bet that with another ten years of development, we’ll have a choice of electric bikes that are perfect for what we need.

The big question for me is whether this expands out to things like tourers and adventure bikes too. If your main requirement of a touring motorcycle is to be able to explore new areas in comfort, with luggage and gadgets, then it might be that electric power (once they get the range and the charging network is dependable and affordable) is much better than petrol. Likewise adventure bikes; imagine having solar panels on your GS top box and panniers that charge as you go? Clearly that’s mental right now, but give it ten years and who knows where technology will be.

Forgive me, I’m a naïve optimist. And right now, I agree with all the rest of you who’ve never ridden one (apart from you, Graham, who has), the bikes and tech are nowhere near good enough for the money. But they will be one day - even if the power for the motors comes via Hydrogen, not batteries. It’s just that the biggest opportunity right now is in commuting utility vehicles, not BMW GS replacements.

And then maybe we can have our flies back.

 

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