Earlier this year, Felix Stellmaszek took his Harley-Davidson LiveWire for a 3,500-mile ride from coast to coast. "Long Way Up," debuting on Apple TV later this month with returning stars Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor, will be the most high-profile LiveWire journey to date, but they had support vehicles, camera crews, charging stations installed just for their use and other resources to complete their ride across the Americas. I'm more interested in Felix's unsupported solo journey. If you've ever wondered what it's like to road-trip a LiveWire, this story's for you.
"The trip is now a few months in the past, yet still very vivid in memories," Felix told me in our virtual interview. "The actual trip was made back in early June, and I was on the road for 15 days. That's a pretty good run, I think!"
Here are some highlights from the interview.
Andy Greaser: What kind of motorcycle experience or touring experience did you have prior to taking this trip?
Felix Stellmaszek: This trip was by far my biggest.
So, little bit of background on me. I grew up in Europe. Born and raised in Germany, and around the time I entered the Air Force, I got my motorcycle license, and my first bike was a Yamaha XJ600 naked. I did a few tours here and there, nothing crazy. In my late 20s, I was actually in India for two and a half years. I got myself a Royal Enfield Bullet and visited the factory down in Chennai. It was one of those really classic bikes that you had to kickstart. It took me like five to 10 minutes in the morning to get that thing running. I mean, it was a full-body workout. I took it on several multi-day road trips, like up to Ladakh and the Kashmir Valley, all sorts of upper mountain roads including the Khardung La.
I came back to the states 10 years ago. Got married to my lovely wife, Martina, and we've welcomed our three kids, so I would occasionally rent motorcycles, but I'd never ended up owning one in that time. I did have an ongoing conversation with my wife… but I’m on the road for work most of the week, so I’m not always around. But when the LiveWire came up, it was something different. I will say the fact that the LiveWire is electric and has a limited range actually ended up being a "selling factor" at home as it allowed me to highlight to my wife, "I'm only going to be gone for like one or two hours. The range is simply not that far!"
AG: How did you end up buying the LiveWire?
FS: I saw it for the first time in the wake of the Formula E race in New York in mid-2019 and started thinking about buying it in March, right before the pandemic. I thought, "This is not going to pass over any time quickly, so I might as well have a motorcycle that I can enjoy because everything will be closed." That was the time to do it. So I went to the dealer and had a test ride. I loved the bike right from the get-go — had a huge grin on my face at the end of the test ride — and the dealer was smart to throw in some extras for my wife and kids.
AG: So you bought the bike in March and you were gearing up for 3,500 miles in June?
FS: When you put it that way, I really should have prepared more. Should have, for instance, mapped out my route in more detail beyond figuring out basic charge points. But I approached the trip as an evolving adventure. We were moving from Atlanta to either L.A. or San Francisco. I had to pick which one, and I had to get the LiveWire there somehow. So my plan became to ride all the way there, see what the bike could do, choose where I would live, and then have my family come.
I didn't plan on 15 days. I initially thought I could do the trip in 10 days, as being away for two weekends, almost three, puts a lot on my wife. We have three kids under the age of five at home so I give Martina a lot of kudos for holding down the fort. It’s important to get out a little and avoid cabin fever, though. And it was a good opportunity to explore the bike as everybody asks: How far can it go?
At the same time, it wasn't a trip to see if I could reach 3,500 miles or not. No world records or supporting vehicles. It was a trip to find out what the new bike could do, and also to reconnect with people, even if we have to maintain social distancing rules now.
My trip started in Atlanta, went north towards St. Louis, and then I started Route 66, going west past Flagstaff and then up via Prescott to L.A. and San Francisco. Once I got to Tulsa and Oklahoma City, there was really no more point of return. I think at that point it dawned on me that I'm really going to be in this for the long haul. If something happens now, I’ll just leave it at a Harley dealer. They’ll fix it. We'll figure it out. At the end of the day, you'll figure out a lot of things on a trip like this with a little flexibility.
AG: When you met people with your LiveWire, what were those interactions like? What did people say? What did they want to know about it?
FS: It’s unreal. Whenever you charge this bike, it’s usually 45 minutes, at least two or three people will walk up to me. Sometimes it charges much faster, sometimes it takes more time when I have single digits of battery left, but no matter how long I’m there, someone will approach me. Really, anywhere they could catch me. Motorcyclists would walk up to it because of the LiveWire's design, and they usually know that it’s an electric Harley. There were five main questions I got all the time.
- Is this an electric motorcycle? (Yes.)
- That’s a Harley? (Yes.)
- What’s the range on it? (140 to 150 miles. Less if you ride hard, more if you’re careful.)
- What do other Harley guys say about that? (Split. I think 70 to 80 percent really like it. 20 to 30 percent, not so much.)
- What surprised you about the bike? (Many aspects, like the lack of manual shifting. No more clutch, which is terrific. And of course, the instant torque, which is unreal. Besides that, there are unexpected differences that come from being electric, like the lack of heat emission from the engine. No more burning up of your legs. And it’s so quiet. At a stop sign, you can actually talk to people. You can actually talk to your passenger without having an intercom or headset while riding at moderate speed. And I don’t have to take it in for service all the time like my ICE bikes. I go to the dealership for charging and regular services, and that’s about it.)
People — including kids— are not afraid to walk up to me and the bike and start talking. I think this is probably true for the typical rider of a LiveWire. Quiet bike, missing the loud pipes, and the rider is usually not an intimidating, one-percenter type.
AG: A guy rolls into the parking lot and plugs in a motorcycle that looks like it's from the future… and he's willing to answer all the questions you’ve got. If I’d encountered that when I was a kid, I think that's a memory that would stick with me for a long time. Let’s hear about some of the memorable parts of the trip.
FS: There were so many, frankly. I have a few highlights that represent the trip well.
I thought I could plan most of the trip using PlugShare and some other maps, following Level 3 fast charging stations. However, I quickly realized some challenges with this approach. For example, just because there is a charging station, it does not always mean the chargers all work. So I started looking for stations with multiple chargers, or stations with backup stations nearby in case there was a problem. There also had to be some kind of accommodations along the way—a motel or hotel with regular wall outlets for overnight Level 1 charging — so I had to plan carefully. And that leads me to the first story.
Just like a classic ICE bike, everything matters, right? I mean, temperature matters, cross winds and headwinds matter, incline matters, and your speed makes a very big difference — plus the weight. In fact, I ended up traveling with only a backpack to keep the bike light. One time, though, I rolled up to the charger with one percent left. That was in Lebanon, Missouri, and I've got to admit, range anxiety is a thing.
AG: Oh, so you’re that kind of one-percenter!
FS: Yes, it's a whole different club... and I did have a run-in with the law when I was in Texas. I left Oklahoma City that morning and wanted to get to Amarillo. There was a little town north of Route 66 called Pampa, Texas, which had a Holiday Inn and a wall outlet to charge the bike overnight. It was already 8 p.m., with probably another hour of daylight and two hours to go. Speed limit’s 55. And I've got to tell you, the deserts of Texas, they get quite cold after dusk. I didn’t have many extra clothes, traveling light, but I put them all on to stay warm. I really got the chills in my legs, though, because… the LiveWire is electric. No heat from the engine to warm you!
So naturally, what do you do when you get really cold? You ride slower. So I’m going something like 40, 45. Two hours is now three and a half hours. I finally get to Pampa at around 11:30 p.m., OK, and the car that’s been following me for a few miles without passing me, well, hits the lights and siren, and I'm getting pulled over.
It turns out the sheriff actually pulled me over because he was concerned by my going so slow. “Can you show me a registration and license?” He looks at me, says, "You know what the speed limit is on this road?' I tell him I think it was 55. "Now that's right, and you were going 40."
He probably thought that maybe I was drunk or under the influence to be going so slow, so I had to explain to him that my electric motorcycle didn’t warm my legs and I was too cold to ride faster. He actually ended up escorting me to the hotel as his cousin operated the place.
Here’s the second story. One of the nice features which I really appreciate about the bike is the TFT screen, and getting directions there.
My bike was connected to my phone, and I had my directions and music coming into my helmet with a Bluetooth headset. Everything was going fine up to the Pacific Coast Highway, near Ventura. Out of the blue, the music stopped. So I thought by myself, maybe Bluetooth connection was lost. I didn't think much of it. Ten seconds later, though, I look at my display and… no more directions. Maybe the battery died? So reach for my back pocket to check and... no more phone.
And then, of course your heart rate goes up because I need the phone for the charging stations. Not only to find them, but then to activate them, which I usually do by tapping my phone. In fact, nowadays you need your phone for pretty much everything on a trip like this. Capturing impressions from the trip, finding my accommodations for the night, calling home, and, of course, for work. Oh no...
So I ended up turning around in the emergency lane and cruising back down PCH for about a mile. I had to actually go back and forth three times, and then I saw my phone like a little piece of a black shadow in the middle of this three-lane highway.
How to get it? So actually, I can show it to you here. (Felix holds up a backpack so I can see it.) That’s the Uncharted backpack that I used for the entire trip. So I took it off because it has this bright orange signaling color, and essentially I played Frogger. I waited for the right spot and then I grabbed my phone and ran back.
And guess what? (Felix holds up his durable iPhone.) It had some tire prints on the back. Tire prints on it! Some cars or trucks actually went over it. I don’t know, maybe this is Super Gorilla Glass but it's still the same phone! I was so happy. That's potentially one drawback of riding a LiveWire or a modern bike — you're still pretty much connected, but I believe it's a good thing. Honestly, I was never a big fan of writing down directions on a piece of paper and taping it to the tank.
One last story. I get to Flagstaff, and because of the route and availability of charging stations, I decided to depart from Route 66 and go via Prescott towards the Joshua Tree National Park. It’s getting dark and I pull over to book a hotel on my phone. Not many rooms available, but I found one at a hotel with Level 2 charging in Prescott and arrived there with an almost-depleted battery around 11 p.m. They tell me, yeah, we got your reservation and we confirmed it. Unfortunately, though, we don't have a room for you. There was a problem with the system. Well, that's not too good. Then they tell me no hotel has any vacancy in Prescott at all. There was apparently a softball tournament taking place that weekend — in the middle of the COVID pandemic!
My battery was actually down to four percent, so there was no way for me to actually go anywhere else, no fast chargers, nothing. I would have to Level 1 charge for the next eight to nine hours. That said, the receptionist and general manager were extremely friendly. To cut to the chase, I ended up sleeping on a sofa in the lobby. They even brought me a blanket and a little pillow. My bike was charging right next to me. LiveWire romance!
I was woken up by the breakfast folks trickling in for the softball tournaments at around 5 a.m. They were mostly 13 to 14-year-olds, staring at the guy on the couch with that motorcycle from the future in the background. The start to another day in paradise.
AG: I think you’re just going to have some unique interactions with other people while riding electric motorcycles, just based on what you're doing and your time waiting at chargers.
FS: You're absolutely right. At the end of the day, every motorcycle road trip is a unique combination of experiencing the beauty of our country, enjoying true freedom, and meeting interesting people and making new friends. And with the LiveWire, you're pretty much guaranteed meeting people — at a minimum when you charge it up at one of the Harley dealerships or some of the other charging stations. You're there for 20 to 30 minutes, at least, if not 45 to 50, so you better make the most out of it.
I always ended up talking to people. For example, I met some very friendly folks outside a dispensary in the middle of Oklahoma. I am pretty sure I would have never stopped in front of that dispensary, but they had a Level 3 charger right next to it. The store owner — also a motorcyclist — was very friendly and ended up asking a lot of questions about the bike. When I was in St. Louis and had my LiveWire serviced, I ended up grabbing dinner and catching some live music with a few fellow riders — and we’re now Facebook friends.
Reflecting on it, those 3,500 miles in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic were a lot more about getting in touch with regular Joes, so to speak, not just people who ride motorcycles.
In addition, you make tons of memories. Now, I didn't have a support group with drones and elaborate video footage to save all this. My pictures were all shot on an iPhone which was run over on the PCH, and the memories live on.
AG: It sounds to me like the LiveWire kind of changed your riding life.
FS: I think you’re spot on. To be honest, prior to my LiveWire, I was not all that interested in talking to people outside the sport about my motorcycle. When I was riding the Royal Enfield to the the Khardung La, I didn't want to talk to people. Remembering that trip, it might also have been the altitude.
However, I’m absolutely convinced that the LiveWire — and electric motorcycles overall — will expand the overall appeal of motorcycling.
If you look at it in totality, the sport has lost more and more fans over the past years — and in Europe you have talks about banning motorcycles altogether on Sundays and holidays due to noise pollution. That’s where I believe electric motorcycles will make a huge difference.
Also, reflecting on some of the episodes of my trip, I will say that the LiveWire is an absolute halo product. When I stopped, for instance, in Santa Barbara, there was a teenager — probably 14 or 15 years old – who spotted me, ran across the street and just said in awe, "Wow, is that the LiveWire? I saw it online and dream of getting one as soon as I have my license." Now, I’m not sure if he can afford it right away, but that’s the stuff of dreams.