Zeros At 13,000 Feet

Silent running in the Colorado Rockies

By Joe Colombero, Photography by Joe Colombero

In some ways, riding motorcycles for a living is like being an adult-film star. You have a lot of fun doing your job, get to ride something new every couple of weeks and are envied by other men with regular jobs. But there is always a certain segment of society that dislikes you for no reason other than your way of life.

Such has been the case for me. I've had the chance to ride all over the world, and the "greenies" are the ones who usually despise me-even when I'm pushing my bike with the engine off just to be polite. They don't like my gear, my knobbies or the sound of my 450cc four-stroke. But for one long weekend last summer in the Rocky Mountains, an electric motorcycle changed all that. In fact, for those three days, my riding buddies and I were ecological heroes.

We had traveled to Colorado to film a TV segment for the Outdoor Network about riding over the tallest passes in North America. A regular internal-combustion engine loses power at high elevation, and it occurred to us that electric bikes wouldn't be subject to those losses. Zero Electric Motorcycles produces a street-legal dual-sport bike called the DS, and offered to bring a few out for us to ride. Who were we to say no?

We based ourselves out of Ouray, and began day one with an assault on Imogene Pass (elev. 13,114 ft.). This was my first time riding an electric bike, and once I got used to the notion of not having to shift and the "It's on, so as soon as you touch the throttle, it's gonna go" factor, I really started to enjoy the machine. Despite having ridden over these same passes on regular motorcycles before, riding the Zero made it a whole new experience.

Because the electric motor makes virtually no sound, the only mechanical noises come from the chain and the fork springs. That meant I could actually hear the sounds of the woods; it was like hiking at 30 miles per hour, listening to the wind in the trees, the babble of the brooks, the rush of the rivers and all that other nature-romance stuff that you can see but not hear on a normal motorcycle.

But the best part was the social aspect of riding a silent motorcycle. As I listened to the sounds of the wilderness, I suddenly realized that it was quiet enough to talk to my riding buddies. I rode up next to actor Perry King and asked, "What do you think?" That began a conversation that lasted 10 minutes as we rode along, neither of us having to raise our voices to be heard.

Several hours later, we conquered Imogene Pass. A Jeep followed us with our camera crew and spare batteries, just in case. The Zeroes handled the climb with ease and, as expected, never lost power due to altitude-plus we set a world record for altitude achieved by an electric motorcycle.

On day two we rode up and over Black Bear Pass (elev. 12,800 ft.), which is famous for its final drop into Telluride-a series of rocky, wet switchbacks that go back and forth for several miles as they drop 5000 feet. This section can be challenging for Jeep guys, but it's fun and easy on a motorcycle as long as you keep your speed in check. Riding the silent electric bikes let us give each other real-time advice through the tougher sections.

On our final day, we rode Zero's supermoto-style streetbike, the S, up U.S. Route 550, nicknamed the "Million Dollar Highway" (it would be a billion dollars nowadays). At 10,000 feet, I had the S up to 65 mph indicated, but the Zero guys said that was probably optimistic. I could hear waterfalls before I saw them on the side of the road and carried on a running conversation with Perry at 45 mph without yelling.

Battery life could be an issue for touring-not everyone will have a Jeep full of batteries following them around. When you run low on juice, simply park the bike near an electrical outlet and plug it in. It takes 4 hours to recharge, but "refueling" doesn't add weight like a traditional bike.

The best part about riding an electric motorcycle was the social aspect of "going green," and the universal admiration and acceptance. Even in the tree-hugging state of Colorado, as we came upon hikers, horseback riders and bicyclists, none of them gave us the finger or threw rocks like they sometimes do. Most waved, smiled and asked questions about the bikes. For the first time ever on a motorcycle, the "greenies" liked me! They still don't "get it," but on an electric bike they can finally hear you laughing.

Now I have to read a script for my other job. Oh good, I get to play a guy delivering pizza to a sorority house...

By Joe Colombero
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