Published on March 11th, 2015 | by Boris
HARLEY-DAVIDSON LIVEWIRE – WELCOME TO ELECTRIC HARLEY LAND
I have written this piece as a bit of a travelogue.
If my thoughts and views on my journey do not interest you, then you can scroll straight to the HARLEY-DAVIDSON LIVEWIRE IMPRESSION. I promise not to be remotely offended.
Man is not meant to know the mind of the marketing beast. For there is no knowing of such a thing.
Man is simply meant to absorb the emissions of the marketing beast as they wash the world, and thus enriched, move on.
And if, as a result of these emissions, I was to be flown to Malaysia to “experience” (note the specific word) the Livewire, Harley-Davidson’s new electrically-powered motorcycle, then so much the better.
Sepang is a racetrack of legend, and my understanding was that we would be transported to the track, whereupon we would “unleash a new kind of freedom upon the world”.
I was also given to understand that this unleashed freedom would be informed by me “discovering how heart-pounding and soul-satisfying” Harley had made this new electric motorcycle.
Visions of me screaming around Genting Curve as obscene G-forces melted my innards, or locking the back-end into the evil Berjaya Tioman Corner, filled me like warm custard as I made my peace with the eight-hour flight to Singapore.
This peace is not easy for me to find. I despise flying.
But for a chance to ride an electric motorcycle around Sepang International Circuit, while unleashing a new type of freedom on the world, with my heart pounding and my soul bathed in satisfaction, I’ll put up with a lot more than the hell of flying Economy Class anywhere.
Yes, I know Sepang is not in Singapore. But because no-one wants to fly Malaysian Airlines anymore, I was being flown to Singapore, then on to Kuala Lumpur with Singapore Airlines.
I have never been to those parts of Asia. My Asian experience has been 10 days in Hong Kong and its surrounds on my honeymoon. There have been no Balis, Thailands or Malaysias before or since. But I would go back to Hong Kong and the back alleys of Kowloon in a second. There is much more cobra blood I need to drink.
Regular Asian travellers will understand that airports like Changi (Singapore), KLIA (Kula Lumpur International Airport), and that impossibly huge man-made island upon which Hong Kong’s new airport now stands after having been dredged from the bottom of the China Sea by sheer Chinese willpower, redefine the term “vast”.
When, after having marched some two kilometres from your arrival gate, to an area that looks like a shopping mall, you then have to catch a train (or a bus) to your departure gate, shit is big. KLIA, currently transiting 25 million souls a year, is designed to take 100 million passengers annually through its cavernous guts. Changi and Hong Kong are similarly immense. And as a result of their size, don’t appear at all crowded.
I was astonished to bump into my old CEO, Phil Scott, on the shuttle bus in Singapore.
“How’d they let you out of the country?” he grinned.
“The question is how they’re gonna let me back in,” I grinned back.
As it turned out, Phil was also going to unleash some freedom in Sepang, and write about it for some technical New Age publication. As it also turned out, had it not been for him, I might still be wandering around Changi looking for my flight.
I was stood in front of the massive flight boards, scanning for my connecting flight number. It was not there. There was a flight to KLIA, but it had a different number and a different airline. I looked around for an information desk. I saw shops stocking Gucci bags and Ralph Lauren clothes. I saw armed guards and lots of people who probably spoke some English but were clearly in a hurry to be somewhere else.
I imagined what life would be like on the streets of Singapore if I managed to escape from this airport with only three bullet wounds.
“That’s our flight,” Phil’s calm voice said as he pointed to the Silk Air logo next to the words Kuala Lumpur on the board.
“How do you know?”
“Silk Air is part of Singapore Airlines and these connecting flights often have five different numbers from five different carriers. That’s ours.”
As we made our way to the gate, I asked him if he was a wizard.
It’s only forty minutes by air from Changi to KLIA, which is not nearly enough time to acclimatise to 99.9 per cent humidity and a temperature in the mid-thirties.
And a sky that is more pale grey than blue.
And the most strictly Muslim country in South-East Asia.
The Portuguese, Dutch and Poms all had their hands in this pot at some stage. Allah won out.
About ten of us had assembled at the baggage collection point at KLIA. We then simply walked out of the terminal. No customs. No immigration. We just walked out.
Certainly helps to have a Malaysian fixer leading the parade, huh?
We were then loaded onto a series of golf-karts and trundled along covered walkways to our hotel, the Sama Sama. Google it. It’s flash as.
But like everything I saw in Malaysia, which admittedly wasn’t all that much as you’ll see, it didn’t stand up well under close inspection. It was a Potemkin village. Phil Scott tells me Kuala Lumpur is exactly the same. The façade is grand, but there is nothing pleasant behind that façade.
What’s the issue?
Well, it’s like the builders didn’t bother finding a true level from wing to wing. There are toe-destroying mini-steps everywhere. Have one more Tiger beer than you should, and you’ll be limping for a week. The front-of-house staff could not be more pleasant. The cleaners and sweepers and back-room boys, not so much. I sensed resentment and opprobrium everywhere I went – and I probably went to places I really shouldn’t have. I am a curious and bold tourist. And I’ll be fucked if I’m just gonna sit by the pool or drink beer with people I don’t really like or know. Though as it turned out, that’s what I ended up doing. There were no other options.
And this bothered me in the food department more than anything else.
I’m a wog. I have a palate that is adventurous and curious. I have sucked snake blood in a Kowloon alley and feasted upon all manner of plants, sea urchins and insects. I was told the food in Malaysia is spectacular.
That may well be. But in the Sama Sama Hotel, it was crap.
It seems that in a bid to please tender western palates, the management has decided to serve dishes westerners would be familiar with. Burgers, ribs, fish and chips, and steaks. Except they have not got the vaguest idea how to cook any of this stuff so that it tastes like what it should.
Thank the Road Gods for Tiger beer, fellow travellers. Drink enough of that and a hungry man can consume the broiled cock-brisket of a Malaysian palm-monkey and deem it edible.
It was doubtlessly the Tiger beer that made me sing along with the house band that evening. But in all honesty, Christina Perri and Jars of Hearts, were pretty good. I had a most pleasant evening with Angela Kong from Singapore Harley-Davidson, and my old buddy from across the Tasman, Kev Kingham, the Editor of Bike Rider Magazine.
I was up at three am, local time. That is six am our time.
I wandered around outside the hotel, but there really wasn’t anywhere to go or anything to see. There was the giant airport tower, a really crappy park, some diabolically deep gutters and the relentless humidity and temperature. The Sama Sama is bounded by three-lane freeways and the airport carpark. Kuala Lumpur is an hour-and-a-half away by cab.
The whole fucken country seems to be made out of humidity and palm trees. I saw no jungle. The Malaysians have clear-felled everything and planted palm trees which they utilise to feed our addiction to palm oil. Where they’re not growing palms, they’re growing erosion, rubber and humidity. It’s not a pretty place.
I consumed breakfast like a starving man. The fruit was good, as was the omelette a smiling man made for me. I eschewed adding the pink pieces labelled ‘ham’ to the omelette. I knew it was not ham and so did the smiling man.
At nine am an air-conditioned bus took us to the Sepang circuit. On the way I saw a sign that said ‘Shah Alam’. I thought it was the even more legendary racetrack, but I worked out it was just the capital of Selangor, the Malaysian province I was in.
By any measure, Sepang International Circuit is an astonishing sight. It is enormous; its iconic serried-and-upturned-brolly grandstands as vast as fields overwhelm the senses. It is truly a world-class racing facility beside which racetracks-in-paddocks like Phillip Island pale in comparison.
There were bikes hammering around the circuit as we were ushered into a large, savagely air-conditioned room that overlooked the main straight. It was either the Moto3 blokes or the Asia Talent Cup fellows. No-one seemed to be sure.
Gee, I thought to myself, we must be out there after them, or during their lunch break. I couldn’t wait.
We were treated to a brief promo video, then told we’d be taken outside to familiarise ourselves with the bike in the carpark. There’s no clutch and there are no gears. And that paradigm, to men who are hardwired to normal motorcycle operation, does not, apparently, need to be confronted in one of the track’s mental hairpins.
The bikes were lined up under a marquee, just near an entrance onto pit-lane, and they were, hand on my heart, just lovely. This is the best-looking electric motorcycle on earth.
So I sat on a Livewire that had been wheeled out into one of the many carparks adjoin the pits, found it compact and comfortable and was shown the starting procedure.
Press the Kill Switch to on.
Press the starter button for two seconds.
The touch screen lights up and the numbers ‘179’ appear.
Ignore them and press the Road Mode button on the screen. Do not press the Power Mode button.
The bike is now ‘on’ and the screen shows the digit for zero.
All that you need to do now is twist the throttle and you’re off.
So I did that and I rolled to the end of the car-park, performed a U-turn and came back and stopped.
It rode like a normal bike. It just made a whirring noise as it did so.
Doubtlessly, I would note its other attributes as I flew around the circuit shortly.
The humidity was murderous, but I would have ridden through a tropical cyclone made out of lard for the chance of a lap or two of Sepang. I had been told not to bother bringing leathers, and I remember thinking how cool it was going to be to be able to do a track in normal riding gear. No way could you do that in Australia. Too many rules protecting us from ourselves here. There’d be none of that nanny-state bullshit in Malyasia.
And while Harley went to great pains to explain to us that we were not actually here to ‘test ride’ the Livewire, all of us were keen to get it onto the track and test ride it anyway.
But that was not to be.
We had not been brought to Sepang to ride Sepang.
We had been brought to Sepang to ‘experience’ the Livewire – which is on tour around the world so that Harley can garner feedback from selected riders and hopefully implement that feedback into a production model.
And for reasons, I cannot understand, for it is obvious I am not meant to understand such things, this experience would not occur on the track. It would occur on one of the service roads bordering the track. And it would only occur for about seven kilometres – escorted the whole way by a bloke on a Big Twin.
So that’s what happened. My ride impression and how I felt about it is below.
I was back in the Sama Sama by 2pm and in the pool by 2.05pm.
That evening I was treated to hamburger that tasted like linoleum. I had clearly screwed up my Tiger beer dosage and was paying the price. My beaut mate, Trevor Hedge, from MCN, is a seasoned Asian traveller. He was fortifying himself with Long Island Iced Teas and was consequently unafraid of the deep-fried seafood basket. He is even possessed of a fine singing voice.
We solved a few of the world’s problems that evening, and Trevor had had enough nuclear cocktails to lament the fact that him and I had not taken it upon ourselves to go to Kula Lumpur that evening.
I’d not had enough Tiger beers to join him in his lamentations, but I will wonder to this day what inhuman atrocities would have been committed that evening had we gone. Both of us would have had more than enough time to relive them all in a nice Malaysian jail.
The next morning I wandered aimlessly about KLIA for several hours while waiting for my flight, and was astonished to discover I had been upgraded to Business Class for the flight to Hong Kong.
I had never flown Business Class before, but I would very much like to again. The lovely ladies from Cathay Pacific were most attentive, the food was excellent, as was the wine list, and as I fully reclined in my roomy booth-chair to watch Keanu Reeves murder a million Russian bad guys, I did not spare a single thought for the cattle ensconced on the other side of the curtains behind me.
I would be rejoining them soon enough. I would think about them as we did the nine-hour stretch from Hong Kong to Sydney through the night. I would consider their smells, their sleeping noises and bodily arrangements, and long for the freshly cleaned bathrooms (they even had a fresh orchid in them) at the front of the plane, rather than the noisome latrine we cattle had to use.
And then I could see Sydney, under the wings of the plane, sparkling in the morning, and all was right again in my world.
HARLEY-DAVIDSON LIVEWIRE IMPRESSION
The Livewire is an important bike for Harley-Davidson. It is a complete departure from both its traditional market and its normal propulsion method.
And it is a strange and alien thing to ride.
The whole no clutch and no gears caper is cause for suspicion in my world. The clutch has always been my get-out-stupid-jail card. Gears have also been integral to my riding experience. Being able to blip the throttle and feel and hear the engine do its motorcycle thing is intrinsic to my whole motorcycle thing. I have always held quiet bikes to be in need of ‘repair’ – and quiet Harleys as some kind of poor smothered beast aching for me to shove some feral steel tubing into its guts so it can bellow its brutal song to the world.
The Livewire’s otherworldy silence at rest and unnatural howl at speed is certainly confronting. But that’s alright. Neck tattoos once appalled humanity as well. We’ve moved on.
Electric vehicles are coming. There’s no denying that. Best we accept that.
What’s happening under the ‘tank’ (which is stylistically very reminiscent of the now sadly defunct XR1200) is the latest in electrical sorcery. There is a three-phase AC electric induction motor instead of the traditional pushrod V-twin.
Harley states it produces 55kW at 8000rpm and 70.5Nm of torque from standstill. It’s said the bike will accelerate to 100km/h in four seconds and its maximum speed is 148km/h (this bit is true because I saw that number on the speedo).
This makes it faster off the line and more powerful than the Zero DS (another electric motorcycle), but with a little less torque and range. It’s also more powerful than the 883 Sportster and an order of magnitude more so than the LAMs 500cc Street model Harley is currently using as its entry-level bike.
So how does the Livewire differ from other electrical bikes? First and foremost, it looks better. And that is important. Crucially so.
Secondly, the motor is mounted longitudinally under the all-aluminium frame. No other electric bike has that going on. A bevel gear turns the rotation of the motor through 90 degrees and hooks it up to a belt-driven rear wheel. It’s the bevel gear that gives the bike its unique sound. There is no sound at standstill. But the faster you go, the keener and louder the strange whirring noise it begins to make when you start rolling, gets. Harley reckons it sounds like a jet. Others have observed it’s more akin to a vacuum cleaner. It’s actually neither. It’s certainly more aeroplane than Dyson, but it’s no F/A-18. Remember the movie Tron and those insane neon-lit motorcycles? That’s the kinda the noise it makes.
How does it go? That’s the real question, isn’t it? We’ve already established that it doesn’t sound like a traditional motorcycle. If it was not to behave on the move like a traditional motorcycle, then its future would certainly be questionable.
Thankfully, it does.
In fact, it’s got quite a bit of stomp when you twist the throttle. It surprised me. It weighs 212kg and it trundled along from 40-60 with no hunting or hesitancy, then when you nail the throttle, there’s an almost instant response of acceleration. No, it’s no litre-hyperbike, or even a supersport. But it certainly picks up its skirts and moves. I understand that Power Mode provides an even more…um, invigorating and aggressive throttle response, but we were not allowed to touch that button. But some of us are hamfisted and make unintentional errors when the humidity is so high.
I found the brakes almost redundant in my brief time with the Livewire. They work, but there’s a lot of regenerative (that means there’s charge going to the lithium-ion battery) engine braking when you throttle off, so you wouldn’t be using them much just piddling around.
And you will only be piddling around for 85 kilometres. Somewhat less if you’re in Powermode. Recharge time is three-and-a-half hours. I’m shit at maths, but if I assume the Livewire is running a 3.3 kilowatt charging system like other electric bikes, this means it has a 10 kilowatt-hour battery.
And that’s it. That’s all the tech stuff I could get or stand.
I did probably less than eight kilometres on a bike that is obviously not about to go into production in the next month. Harley-Davidson made it very clear it was after feedback and that the Livewire I rode so briefly was not to be considered a finished product.
To its credit, it did actually want feedback, so here’s mine:
The mirrors were useless. They look sexy, but they only show you the switchblocks and your knees. I reckon they won’t be there on the production model.
The bike seemed to handle alright, but more ground clearance (I touched down the right footpeg) and some in-depth consultations with Öhlins or Showa need to take place.
The current suspension is adjustable at the front, but the rear monoshock was unimpressive. If Harley wishes to make an impact with this bike, it really needs to address this area. Give the world a beautifully suspended electric motorcycle, and it will beat a path to your showroom. Give it one with a great range and a shorter re-charging time and there could be fistfights in the carpark.
At the moment, you’ve just given it an electric bike that looks great. It behoves you to give it the other stuff.
Carpe diem, Milwaukee.