It won’t win any awards at a beauty pageant, but for practical innovation, this machine is almost in a league of its own. We check out the future with UBCO’s 2018 road legal 2×2 electric bike.
Words: Broxy Pics: Alick Saunders
So much about this bike is extraordinary. Here I am connected through the Bluetooth of my iPhone, setting a bike into stealth mode. It is already mostly silent, and ready to take me most places that a dirt bike could and some places a dirt bike couldn’t.
Getting off for the tenth time to open a gate, the Ubco reminds me of a postie bike, and why they are still the number one seller of all motorcycles. The center of gravity is around axle height, with room to swing a leg through only just a little higher than that. The whole bike is only just over a meter high, and you can literally pick the back of it up with one finger, yet the 2018 model will take you 120km on a single charge.
My first introduction to this concept was in the innovations tent at the Fieldays in 2014, where I met Daryl Neal and his two-wheel-drive electric bike. He actually let me have a little ride – and I mean little, because the cubicle was only a few metres across – yet it was enough to see that he was on to something. Grunty little motors in both hubs were attached to a frame that looked like it had been modeled using rope and duct tape – yet the concept worked. There was a feeling of practicality at all costs, which meshes well with the Kiwi “number 8 wire” mentality.
A brand was formed around the bike in 2015 with the first real production units arriving a year later – now the biggest challenge is to keep up with demand.
Being a dirt bike rider at heart, my main question was less about safety and more about how capable it was, especially up hills. Reading the technical specs, the area Ubco calls “Performance” is perhaps a little misleading. To translate the numbers into something more meaningful, 2.4kWh is just over three horsepower. Yet if you compare the Ubco’s max torque of 90Nm to the CRF250R of yesteryear at 28Nm, you really comparing apples to oranges.
Within moments of twisting the throttle for the first time, you’ll find this bike can really move. It gets up to speed quickly and will cruise along a farm track faster than you really need to go. The brakes are classic mountain bike components and at 203mm, are plenty powerful with good feel, even on the tarmac.
The suspension is much firmer than I was expecting, but I assume this is partly to help when the bike has a little load on the front and rear carriers that come standard with the bike. Aside from changing the preload of the springs, only the rebound has adjusting knobs. The suspension’s saving grace is that low center of gravity, which helps the bike to handle just fine. That’s combined with a large and generously padded seat able to handle a couple of hours without hurting your rear. The extra-large foot-pegs are another plus, and probably came about as part of Daryl’s downhill mountain bike experience.
When it came time to head uphill, the bike did slow down as you would expect. Without giving you an exact slope angle, anything you could walk up without breaking into a big sweat is fine for the twin ‘lekky motors. You slow right down, but you keep moving.
In saying that though, extra body weight and loaded carry compartments would make a difference in what you could handle, and – as we discovered – you don’t want to load the motors for long when the going gets too steep. They overheat, and once that warning light is on, you either give it a good chance to cool off or resort to paddling Flintstone-style.
The idea of physically helping the bike up a steep hill is actually quite intriguing as it means you can get up hills that a normal dirt bike couldn’t.
After finding some hills the Ubco couldn’t handle, I got off and pushed, which actually worked well. I tried to see what kind of inclines I could walk it up. Basically, if I could walk it, then I could get the bike up it, provided I could handle the front wheel spinning.
Getting back to the bikes themselves, a surprise was seeing how clean they had remained. Unlike the first prototype with its small mudguard mounted up near the handlebars, the production model has a design that reminds me of my father’s 10-speed from back in the day. It might not look as cool, but it kept all the grass, mud and sheep poo off the bike in spite of my antics.
We shouldn’t overlook such Kiwi design elements. As Daryl mentions in one of his videos, if a bike can handle NZ farm conditions, then it should handle most anything. Cow muck is brutal, and if the extent of your battle with rust is limited to replacing the axle nuts, then that is a big win.
Apart from the axle nuts which had already gone off colour on the 2017 demo bike, all the white components are made of aluminium alloy, which keeps them from corrosion. Stainless steel spokes and copper spoke nipples are the only exceptions I noted.
Most impressive are the forks, custom built for this bike and improved with 40mm more travel for 2018.
There were just two tweaks that I would like to see. Farmland is not always flat, including when opening gates, which makes parking the Ubco on the side stand a little more complicated. On a petrol bike, you could turn it off and leave it in gear with the front wheel facing downhill, but with electric power, you either need to point the front wheel uphill or lay it on its side. Some kind of hand brake would be a nice option.
I also found the indicator switches to be potentially embarrassing. With no automatic indicator off function, there is no ticking sound either and the green arrow on the dash is small and hard to see.
Mechanical plusses include the option of a cigarette lighter style charger along with two parallel ports. The 2018 version is also equipped with regenerative braking to keep you running for longer, along with giving that “engine braking” feeling that we all like. Backing off the throttle or engaging the brakes is all it takes.
When it comes time for a charge, getting back up to 90% apparently takes 6 hours from dead low, with a total of 8 hours for 100% charge. Probably best of all, that charge will cost you less than $1 worth of electricity, which really is quite ridiculous.
Included in the catalogue of pannier racks and bags is one of the handiest accessories you will never see for a normal dirt bike: a tow-ball bike rack. Ubco recommends you travel with the bike’s battery removed, which must mean it is fairly easy to take out. Removing one wing mirror would also be advisable but this is well worth the effort when you don’t have to think about bringing a trailer.
Who’d buy an Ubco? Think of a DOC worker who needs to duck out and check the trails after a big storm. Tight tracks and sharp turns are no problem, with the worst-case scenario being you have to lift the machine over some windfall, but at just 63kg, even this is not impossible.
Another example is the market gardener, hopping on and off the bike all day to check on plants and staff. “No gears, no kick starting, if it falls over it doesn’t flood.” There are also plenty of legitimate safety features they mention as well, including being able to hear when a tractor is coming around the corner.
Versatility is definitely the by-word for this bike and the further illustrate the point – you only need a learner’s license to ride this bike from the farm and onto the road.
Your choice of Ubco is limited to two options. There is the 2017 model at 58kg with a top speed of 45kph which is for dirt only, or the 2018 road legal version at 63kg with its more grunty battery and top speed of 50kph.
You pay more for the 2018 model, but with added durability, versatility and the Bluetooth capability, it is an attractive option.
The Ubco guys – and girls –have been very busy indeed, with over 30 dealers around the country, making this bike easier to find than some mainstream motorcycle brands.