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No matter how much some people might yearn for carbs, induction roar and the sweet smell of Castrol R, motorcycles are only going to get greener.
The world is getting hotter, our air is becoming increasingly polluted and private vehicles are an easy way for governments to cut back.
London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, which costs £15 to enter on a non-compliant bike day or night, is likely the first of many, so people are looking to alternatives including electric bikes. So as the politicians try to hurry us along, we spent a few weeks living with a modest electric bike to see just what the reality is like.
Let’s get going
My machine of choice was the Sunra Robo S – a 125cc equivalent electric scooter. It has some nice features, is modestly priced at £3299 and reasonably practical. But chief amongst its attributes is that its two batteries can be removed for charging.
This is, in my opinion at least, key for the success of these sorts of electric bikes – in fact I’d say it’s key to the future of electric bikes for the time being.
As much as people like to pretend otherwise, electric bikes don’t quite compete with their petrol rivals on the open road. If you want to go touring, or even log a day-long ride in summer, internal combustion is still your best friend. Most of the big manufacturers know this.
Markus Schramm, the CEO of BMW Motorrad has already said they think “e-mobility will become more and more important” with “the focus first on urban mobility”. And if the future is people zipping around town, we must also accept that most of us in major cities don’t have garages.
Short of traipsing a giant cable across the street (no good for people who live in highrises) then the only option is buying something which allows you to take the batteries out and charge them indoors. Stick on charge overnight, like we all do with a phone now, and it doesn’t matter if it takes many hours because you’re in the land of nod.
And so it begins
I live in Blackheath, which is about a 30-minute or so ride from central London and the sort of place your typical commuter might live. After all, I am one.
The quickest way in is to nip onto the A2 for a couple of miles, through the Blackwall Tunnel, along the inventively named ‘The Highway’ and you’re at Tower Bridge before you know it. This little journey provides the first challenge for low powered electric machines: the A2 is a 50mph limit.
Similarly priced machines, such as the Piaggio 1, top out around 40mph, which would leave you a little vulnerable. My first journey on the Sunra was to my motorbike lock up in East London, a trip of about six miles. Upon arrival, I’d used 10% of the battery, and bunged the bike inside.
A little later I needed to head into Old Street, so I jumped back onto the Sunra and took myself on a six-mile round trip. More than anything, it reminded me of the simplicity of riding a scooter. With no clutch to worry about and a tiny footprint, I carved up traffic like a veteran dispatch rider.
Again, unlike some electric options out there, the Sunra stores the batteries under the footwell, so there’s a decent bit of space under the seat to store a lock, cover etc. Zipping home, I finished the day on 65% battery, so that’s loads left.
As day two dawned I once more made my six-mile trip down to my lockup and by now my battery was down to under 50%. For some reason, this instilled me with a ridiculous sense of terror.
What if I suddenly needed to get somewhere? In hindsight, I was being daft. The Sunra can be charged either by removing the batteries and doing them one at a time, or by plugging the bike itself in to a three-pin plug (the charger is the same).
It doesn’t take long, about four hours to fill it completely, so I’d got into a habit of just charging whenever I stopped and keeping it topped up.
As the first week progressed, I noticed a huge change in my riding. I was calming down. Not slowing down, but riding in a more sensible manner. Despite a few days of riding around proving there’s a lot more range to be had than I thought, I still had immense range anxiety. But what I had noticed was that I was riding in a very inefficient manner.
Having lived in London for many years, I’ve got into the habit of dashing for every gap available, then jumping on the brakes, squeezing in, waiting for the next gap to open and firing off.
Constantly asking for full power from the battery, then grabbing the brakes and turning all that power into heat is just a waste. So I started only accelerating when I knew I wasn’t going to have to slow down again right away.
I looked further ahead for any obstacles that might rob me of my precious momentum. It soon dawned on me that I need not worry about my range at all and topping the bike up at every available opportunity was little more than a nervous tick.
The lightbulb moment
The most important realisation came about halfway through my little experiment. I zipped into town to see a friend and, with a helmet stuffed under the seat, offered to give them a lift to their onward destination. This friend has no interest in motorcycles whatsoever. They don’t hate them but wouldn’t ordinarily have anything to do with them.
The first revelation was that within moments of pulling away, we were still chatting as fluidly as we were before we set off.
I didn’t have to twist my head to yell or wait until we were at a set of lights. There was no headset to stuff in helmet, pair, or remember to charge. It was brilliant.
As we rode around they asked more questions: “So there’s no clutch?” “It doesn’t need much looking after?” “I can just charge it at home?” “Is it really just over three grand?” “And I can just ride with L-plates – no test or anything?”
Less than half an hour later, the ease of the whole experience had just converted someone who has no interest in riding a bike, to genuinely considering this is how they’ll get to work in the future.
As for me, my own confidence in electric propulsion was only growing. Having topped it up before I collected them, made my way into Holborn, then two-up out to Greenwich (total journey of just under 13 miles) the bike still had 70% of charge remaining. What would have been an onerous and inefficient trundle made simple.
Plug in baby
Charging the Sunra was beyond simple. With a flick of the switch, the cover in the footwell pops up and reveals the batteries. It’s then just a case of unplugging it, pulling the first battery out, then the second. We’re talking less than a minute.
They were heavy to carry up the stairs in each hand no doubt about it and the fan on the charger makes a bit of a racket when it’s going, but it’s a damn sight less effort then queuing up at the local Texaco. It’s also loads cheaper.
In the entire time I rode the Robo S, I covered around 150 city miles and spent about £1 on topping it up. If you’re an average London commuter (or any city for that matter), an electric bike is likely to need charging once a week getting to work every day and cost you a few quid a month.
Thinking it all be too good to be true and there must be a huge downside, I rang a friend, Adam, who’d switched to commuting on a Zero a few years ago.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s simply brilliant around the city. People worry about the lack of noise but London is so loud no one hears you anyway. Plus it frees me up to hear other vehicles.
“I wouldn’t go back to riding a petrol bike around town again now. Like most people I know, I have two bikes, so it doesn’t bother me that it doesn’t have the range to go for a blast – I’ve got another bike for that.
“My son is 16 and has a little 50cc and as much as he loves it, he also hates it. All he tells me is that he’d prefer an electric bike. Once he’s 17 I think we’ll get a 125cc equivalent and it wouldn’t surprise me if he never rides an internal combustion powered bike ever again.”
Dawn of a new era
On my final trip across town, I had to take my biggest journey yet. A 10-mile excursion from east to west, along Euston Road and the Westway to Shepherds Bush.
Ordinarily I’d be putting a ride like this off. It would be hard work, the engine would get hot and my left wrist would ache from an hour of squeezing the clutch.
On the Sunra it was a cinch. The time simply flew by and before I knew it I was home. Plus I still had 60% battery left.
Looking at the vehicles around me and mulling over what Adam said, it occurred to me the answer to getting more people on to two wheels is staring us in the face.
Meet the Sunra Robo S
New to UK market but no strangers to electric propulsion, Sunra have recently launched this Robo S. It is powered by a 3kW (4bhp) motor mounted in the rear wheel, which means that there’s zero maintenance other than checks of the tyres, brakes etc.
The motor can propel the Robo S to a top speed of 50mph and has a theoretical maximum range of 84 miles, although 40-60 miles is more accurate, depending on use.
There are three riding modes, a built-in alarm, an app to check charge status, keyless ignition and even a motor lock to stop thieves wheeling it away.
Without an engine or petrol tank, there’s also room for 24 litres of storage under the seat – enough to fit a full-face lid. It’s comfortable, easy to use and more than quick enough off the line to toast most cars. Oh and we’ve not even talked about the best bit.
The Robo S is just £3299 and its backed by a two-year unlimited mileage warranty on the bike and a three-year 18,000-mile warranty on the batteries. I can honestly say if I was commuting into London with any regularity, a petrol bike wouldn’t even get a look in.