Electric Powered Odyssey: From the United States to South America

May 31, 2016 View Comments by

Set against a backdrop of swaying Carolina pines, the motorcycle’s shiny red paint sticks out like a hitchhiker’s sore thumb.

Electric Powered Odyssey

Riding among the pineapple plantations on the north coast of Honduras.

Brightly painted bikes like this one might be a common sight on paved urban avenues, but here on a dusty driveway in rural North Carolina, the appearance of a street bike is not an everyday occurrence. Neither is the road-weary rider approaching a property owner to ask for the use of a power outlet.

When one is riding an electric motorcycle on a Pan-American journey of 12,000-plus miles, plenty of the traditional assumptions about endurance motorcycling are turned on their heads.

For one, rider Thomas Tomczyk, who in July beat the world record (still awaiting verification by Guinness World Records) for the longest-ever electric motorcycle ride—riding from the United States to the southern tip of South America—doesn’t make stops that are typical of other long-distance riders.

The People You Meet

Electric Powered Odyssey

The Native American powwow at the 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

People won’t often find Tomczyk sipping coffee in a roadside gas station or stopping for a super-quick break after fueling up the bike. With a gas-free vehicle, he’s more likely to make a pit stop at a house in a dusty backwater—places where local characters, loaded with bizarre life stories, seem to pop up out of nowhere.

During this particular stop in Supply, NC, Tomczyk approaches Joseph Wood, a man in his 70s who grows Venus flytraps and other carnivorous plants. After explaining what he’s doing on this road, Tomczyk gets Wood to allow him to charge the bike on the side of the house.

Wood then gives Tomczyk a lengthy tour of the property, filled with vintage cars, insect-eating plants, and those tall stands of Carolina pines.

The Man and His Motorcycle

Tomczyk, a U.S. citizen originally from Poland, is making the journey on a 2012 Zero S motorcycle outfitted with a ZF9 power pack—the beefier charging option among Zero’s 2012 models.

Tom Tomczyk

Taking shelter from a spring rain southeast of Savannah, GA.

According to tests conducted by Zero, that setup gives him a maximum range of about 114 city miles. Like other electric or hybrid vehicles, braking recharges the battery, meaning the mileage is typically greater when there are frequent stops and slow-downs.

In company promotional materials, Zero touts the bike as great for urban riding and the “occasional” ride on a country backroad. With an estimated 63-mile range on the highway, Tomczyk is putting that suggestion about the “occasional” distance ride to the test.

To get the highest mileage from each charge, he employs some basic techniques.

“The perfect speed is 40 to 45 mph … 45 if I minimize drag by lowering my body position,” Tomczyk says.

Little tricks like that help Tomczyk go beyond the manufacturer’s advertised highway range, averaging 85 to 90 miles on a full charge. Still, each leg of the journey involves time spent scouring local maps and scouting for signs of civilization, to ensure there will be somewhere to recharge.

The Charging Stations

Tomczyk started his journey in March 2015, setting out from one of the most iconic American landmarks: Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park. His aim was to hit the snowy peaks of Argentina’s Patagonia region by late 2015. On most days, he pushed the motorcycle to its full range in the morning, stopping for a two-to four-hour charging break before completing a second daily leg.

Electric Powered Odyssey

On the backroads of Belize, where silt and rain compounded around the tires to the point that they would not move.

Out of the box, the 2012 Zero S ZF9 requires an approximately eight-hour charging time, but with the addition of a QuiQ-dci 72 charger, that time is cut by half, Tomczyk explains. Charging only requires the use of a 110- or 220-volt plug.

“I charge one to two hours on average, sometime as much as four hours if the battery is completely run down,” Tomczyk says.

His “fuel stations” have included an outlet on the ferry boat to Alabama’s Dauphin Island, the exterior outlet of a Louisiana jail, and even the interior lobby of a Georgia bank, as well as libraries, casinos, convenience stores, and numerous residential garages. When in doubt, local fire stations are always willing to lend an outlet.

The Performance

While speed isn’t the name of the game on this journey, the Zero does have some measure of get-up-and-go. On a stretch of road in Georgia, Tomczyk achieved his top speed thus far: 80 mph.

According to Zero’s specs, the bike is capable of a top speed of 88 mph. Loaded down with the cameras, clothing, and added panniers necessary for a six-month journey, however, Tomczyk is comfortable with that “electric cruising” speed of around 45 mph. Plus, it keeps him out of (most) trouble.

Electric Powered Odyssey

Just south of Veracruz, Mexico.

Sometimes, this mammoth adventure—which he’s dubbed the “Electric Powered Odyssey”—even helps him stay in good graces with the law.

“I was pulled over by a sheriff in Fort Walton Beach, FL, for turning right on a red light,” Tomczyk said. “I avoided a $261 ticket by explaining the Electric Powered Odyssey project.”

The Destinations, Not Just the Journey

Electric Powered Odyssey

Hanging out with the Mustang Island firemen after a three-hour recharge and rest.

Like other long-distance riders, the time on the road offers endless inspiration—from buzzing by the nation’s most famous landmarks to touring the hidden byways that drivers in cars often miss by going the interstate-only route. But for Tomczyk, it’s the time spent on a charging break that make this ride so special. Some might say those lengthy breaks are a detriment, but Tomczyk sees them as an opportunity to experience the true soul of a place.

He’s learned the intricacies of brewing good craft beer from a brewer in Delaware, contemplated the flavors of crawfish versus quail gumbo in New Orleans, listened to the lengthy tales of wounded veterans—and fellow riders—and yes, even discovered his favorite variety of Venus flytrap.

His experiences with veterans have inspired him to raise funds for the Wounded Warrior Project along the way. In addition, he’s gathering stories of off-grid living and is exploring the structure of the power grid in each country, in hopes of creating a film that documents the destinations, the journey, and the power grid that fueled it.

Of course, this is only a small glimpse into the journey. It continues with a long, slow ride through Central and South America—through the deserts of Mexico, around the volcanoes of Nicaragua, and even over the water, on a sailboat that took him into Colombia—before the snowy peaks of Patagonia came into view. Luckily, Tomczyk is distilling his journey into a six-part documentary, a tale sure to inspire riders and non-riders alike.

Learn more at www.facebook.com/ElectricPoweredOdyssey.


Text: Nicole Vulcan
Photography: Thomas Tomczyk

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Tags: Categories: Chronicles, On The Road