The Life Electric: Stressless In Seattle

John Burns
by John Burns

Late to bed and early to adopt makes a man healthy, wealthy and four-motor propped. -not Ben Franklin

We met up with Arvid Elias at Microsoft HQ in Redmond, Washington, late on a Friday morning. The plan was to ride to lunch with a few of his petrol-powered pals, but only two showed up: The no-show claimed a dead battery as his excuse.

“Funny,” observed Arvid, “the gas guys have more trouble with batteries than we electric guys do.”

If you’re a computer enthusiast, you already know Redmond is famous for being the home of Microsoft, but you may not be aware that Microsoft pretty much is Redmond. Maybe not, but it seems that way. The fresh Washington air fairly crackles with the intelligence radiating from people’s brains and handheld devices as they wander around the leafy MS campus.

Paul Bourgeau shows up on his muddy V-Strom 650. He appears to be a rugged anti-nerd, but 10 years ago he was working on cloud-based computing in Quebec before anybody knew what it was. Microsoft bought his company nine years ago, and he and 12 other guys moved to Redmond. “Now everybody’s thinking about the cloud,” Paul grins.

Paul’s ’Strom.

Brian Rice shows up on his Zero. He was working at a software company called Tableau, across the bay in Seattle, when it was a start-up, and is about to start in on a new, ahh, start-up. When I ask, semi-jokingly, how long an electric bike’s battery will last if you accidentally leave the key on (since that’s what Arvid just did when he ran back inside to retrieve something), Brian tells me he’s done the calculations: About a week. Brian used to be a V-Strom guy too. Redmond really is a practical, V-Strom sort of a place. All function, not so much fashion. Microsoft HQ isn’t architecturally stunning, but it seems really comfortable and logically laid out. I got lost in the parking garage anyway, which is huge. Arvid says he’s had his Ariel Atom up to 100 mph down there (on a weekend when there were no other cars), when he was tuning his new brake-bias adjuster.

Contrary to stereotype, computer guys are not necessarily high-pantsed nerds. The best ones combine a lot of daring with their intelligence. Arvid’s current assignment – transferring apps to work on the Windows phone – is about the least interesting thing he’s working on. Before that, he was on the secret Microsoft Band project, which is pretty much a fitness instructor you wear on your wrist. In his spare time, he’s working on a new kind of refrigerator for boats and RVs, riding his Zero, and paragliding. He likes to do things like design and build an electric-powered paraglider controlled by a modified slot car remote control, complete with cruise control.

Another common personality trait seems to be that these guys don’t spend much time consulting conventional wisdom about much of anything. This is Arvid’s second stint at Microsoft: He and his also-Swedish wife, Annika, quit their jobs a couple of years ago to sail down to Mexico. Now they live on their 47-foot sloop, Inspirare, with a 110-pound Great Dane named Pluto.

There probably aren’t a lot of guys that have a 3D printer in the “workshop” of their sailboat.

It seems fitting that the ancient art-science of sailing led to the early adoption of the cutting-edge transpo represented by the Zero SR electric motorcycle. It literally is smooth sailing headed south along the west coast with the wind at your back. Coming back north is not (which is how we found Hawaii). Beating back northward toward Seattle on Inspirare was slow going and encouraged the Eliases to put up in many ports along the way. One of them was Santa Cruz. One day while he was there, Arvid went to visit the Zero factory. Impressed by the people and the operation and especially a test ride, he was hooked:

“After our tour of the factory, we went on a little test loop, out some curvy roads, through redwood forests,” says Arvid. “At one point, we came across a bunch of deer. Right, I thought, somebody must’ve said ‘cue the deer,’ it was too perfect. And it was so quiet, we could have a normal conversation with each other, the electric bike lets you really experience nature … I think that was when I knew I wanted one. I was sold…”

Matt Nuffort of BeeWorks dropped in from five boats down when he heard we had cameras, to show us his new gyro stabilizer.

He decided to put in an order for one of the first 2014 SR models, in November, 2013. He then bugged his dealer every day until the bike arrived in January.

The Zero’s not his first bike. The first was a moped with a rack he used to deliver papers in Sweden. When he moved to the US in 2006, he got an XT225 Yamaha, then bought a 2000 R1, because he could: “In Sweden, it would take years and thousands of dollars to get to ride one of those!” Anyway, the R1 and Annika’s CBR600RR both got sold prior to the year of sailing to Mexico.

Going back to work at Microsoft after their return (Annika is also an engineer, at Skype, which was also recently acquired by Microsoft) would’ve required another motorcycle or two for the commute from the marina to Redmond, but without the fortuitous stop in Santa Cruz, it might not have been an electric motorcycle.

A year later, Arvid couldn’t be happier with his decision. After its initial 600-mile service, he’s put about 4,000 miles on the Zero, which has required zero maintenance. For a family living on a boat in a marina, an electric bike makes even more sense. There’s no oil to change, no chain to lubricate. All that’s bugging him, really, is a squealy rear brake. Arvid does rent a storage unit where he keeps his Ariel Atom and other toys, but the Zero sleeps in the marina parking lot, plugged into free shore power and raring to go every morning with plenty of juice for the ride to Redmond, out to Carnation for lunch now and then, wherever.

Car rallies in Redmond are more fun than ones in Orange County; the owners seem more like big kids with amazing toys instead of captains of industry with status symbols. This brand-spanking LaFerrari hybrid is owned by the software genius at rear, cradling his own jaw in amazement. It’s fitting that the rally happens next to the building where Microsoft designs its racing games, like Forza.
And there goes Sir Mix-a-Lot in his McLaren. He likes big butts and cannot lie.

“For me,” says Arvid, “it’s nearly a perfect transportation tool. Being able to rely on the Zero allows me to focus on many other things that do require my attention, and if riding it’s not quite as relaxing as sailing, I think it might be as close as you can get in big-city traffic. Just like sportbikes, cruisers and custom bikes are all offering different kinds of motorcycle experiences, the electric bikes are adding new types of motorcycle experiences, and not replacing old ones. Buying a motorcycle is rarely a 100% rational decision, and it’s the same thing with buying an electric motorcycle. The specs and articles about electric bikes can make you want to try one, but it’s the test ride that will get you hooked! That’s how it worked for me, anyway.” Consider yourself warned.

John Burns
John Burns

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