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Riding the WAVE to 1.5 C; a review of WAVE Trophy 2016

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Can electric cars save the world? Probably not. But they are an essential piece of the jigsaw in our efforts to reduce carbon emissions and pollution. Earlier this month WAVE Trophy took that message all the way to the United Nations in Geneva, after an eight-day journey of over 1400km starting in Bremerhaven on the north German coast.

In its 6th year, WAVE Trophy is the brain-child of Louis Palmer (a UN ‘Champion of the Earth’), and aims to demonstrate the viability of electric vehicles for every day usage, to bring about a cleaner, more sustainable world.  These are the same aims of Eco Vehicle Exchange (EVE), and we share the same values. I was keen to support the event, and wanted to get involved.

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I was fortunate to be sponsored by Kumpan Electric. They supplied me (along with a proper journalist from a proper magazine) with electric scooters, food and accommodation, and waterproofs – thank heavens, as the heavens certainly opened. I rode their 1954 electric scooter through Germany and Switzerland, through towns, cities, and industrial centres, farmland and mountain ranges. It was a huge challenge, and an experience I will never forget. For good reasons and bad.  Here is my story.

Day Zero; Bremerhaven

This was day that teams and their vehicles came together in Bremerhaven. 70 vehicles and 140 participants congregated in the old port area. Kumpan had delivered our beautifully designed scooters the night before. My team mate Spiros and I were proud to show them off to intrigued locals, national and international press. My scooter came with a trailer, which gave me the edge on the style stakes, I reckon. Spiros was certainly a little jealous.

With the maximum number of batteries loaded, the scooter was a little heavier than it would normally be, and it could be difficult to manoeuvre by hand.  The trailer also made reversing a little awkward, with two axes and a counterintuitive ‘Z-effect’. But it was immediately easy to ride, I was very comfortable in the seat, and on the flat roads of Bremerhaven it felt nippy, with a beautifully smooth acceleration, even if our top speed was limited to 45kmh.

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However, let’s be clear; electric scooters are designed for urban living and short commutes. Why on earth are we taking it over 1400km into the Swiss Alps? Simply put, I wanted to do it because it’s a exciting challenge, as well as an enormously symbolic achievement. Clearly Kumpan wanted to demonstrate the range and versatility of the vehicle, and gain some useful publicity. We certainly made it to the finish line, and I think we achieved all our stated aims. But it wasn’t easy. I never anticipated the physical endurance, determination and resourcefulness that would be required in the days to come.

Day One: Bremerhaven to Steyerberger to Dörentrop

After the glamour of our Bremerhaven display, the reality of the open road was quite a shock to me. Its always windy at 45kmh, and the windchill means its quite chilly, even on a warm day. Cars and lorries whiz past at 50, 60, 70kmh and I feel a little intimated. Navigation isn’t easy on unfamiliar roads. We are relying on the phones in our pockets for GPS navigation. In practice, this means we have to stop every time we want to check progress on our route.  Its a sunny day, and the glare of the sun makes the dashboard difficult to see. I kept on leaving the indicator on. My confidence took a blow that first day, as progress was slower than we hoped. We were on the back foot; behind schedule and struggling at just about every junction. I envied the drivers in their cars, driving faster, and more directly, using motorways whenever necessary. Scooters of limited power are rightly excluded from motorways. We’d be terrified and in real danger in the tailwinds of big lorries passing at 100kmh. But avoiding the motorways means following much more complicated routes. And that meant stopping to check the phones more and more.

One of the great features of the WAVE Trophy are scheduled stops at relevant points of interest along the way. We eventually arrived very late for lunch at a local permaculture community in the beautiful countryside around Steyerberger. They fed us with a lovely veggie meal, and showered us with wholesome gifts before we left.

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Fortunately, we find a support vehicle and its driver still recharging batteries. We persuade the very accommodating and patient Thomas that we need to follow him – at our limited speed – so there is no need need to navigate, which is a huge relief.

However, the route to our resting place for the night involves some serious gradients up some serious hills.  Laden with eight days of luggage in the trailer, spare batteries and me, the scooter can’t quite cope.  My speed drops to below 10kmh, and then the engine cuts out. Suddenly I’m rolling backwards down the hill. But the breaks work well, and I can move to the side of the road safely enough. Thomas takes spare batteries and other heavy luggage from my trailer and I can restart the motor. It’s a beautiful evening, and the rolling countryside is bathed in a warm rusty glow. Our battery levels are low, but we really benefit from the energy recovery feature whenever we are cruising down hill. So we reach our destination with power to spare, and enjoy a drink in the sunset.

Day Two: Dörentrup to Tönnishäuschen to Hilden

After the ups and downs of Day One, Day Two is all about a change in the weather, as clouds gather, rain begins to fall, and storms approach. We make it to Tönnishäuschen not too far behind schedule, and enjoy a very German lunch of baked ham, gravy and potatoes, courtesy of Stapel, an eco-vehicle dealership. Its great to see the local kids playing on little solar cars, but there isn’t much sun about and the rain starts to fall. Navigating with phones is even more challenging in the rain, not least with the extra layer of waterproofs. Soon we realise that its not only challenging but also potentially dangerous, as a simple mistake on an unfamiliar ring road can force you onto a motorway. We need a fully waterproof sat nav device fixed to the handle bars. Fortunately we will be visiting Kumpan the following day, and we signal in advance that some assistance will be required

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Day Three: Hilden to Koln, then Remagen and Mannheim

The stormy weather persists, and it’s another hilly, winding route. The highlight of the day visiting is of course arriving at the Kumpan Electric factory and show room. Naturally we are late, but its a pleasure to meet the extended Kumpan team face to face for the first time. They are delighted to meet us too. We appreciate the TLC. They service the bikes, and fix the all important sat nav. And they give us a sneaky lift to Mannheim. Which feels like cheating, but it’s the only feasible option, considering the distance and timings. We arrive at 9.30pm, and treat ourselves to a pizza and glass or two of red wine.

Day Four: Mannheim to Basel

I awake early, wondering where is our luggage? Is it still in the support vehicle? How far do we have to go today? Over 300km? No! Really? What’s the weather forecast? More storms? Worse than yesterday?

It soon becomes clear today’s journey is simply a stretch too far. The support vehicle has been delayed, and its a while before we see our luggage. Its simply to late to depart with a top sped of 45kmh. Our team leader hires a van instead, and we load up the bikes. Which isn’t quite as straightforward as we hoped. They don’t quite fit. But eventually we squeeze them in, removing the top box from Spiros’ bike (and crunching a few corners).

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The rain on the journey is truly biblical, and it’s with some relief we cover 300km in just three hours. We get back on the bikes before the Swiss boarder, and ride to Basel in the rush hour traffic. The road signs use a different colour scheme, and I end up on a busy motorway (green! not blue!) by mistake. It’s terrifying few kilometres, not least with the displeased motorists hooting their horns, but it is a pleasure to reach the end point at a reasonable time.

Day Five: Basel to Biel

Today we make our first visits to schools in the area. Louis was a teacher before he was a Champion of the Earth, and he takes great pride in involving young people in WAVE Trophy as much as possible. We hope the vehicles will inspire the kids to take an interest in the environment and cleaner technologies. Unfortuantely the rain is still pouring. But the kids came out and gave us a big cheer anyway.

The route means crossing the beautiful Jura mountains, which was a little intimidating in the circumstances. But the bike handled all the hills no problem, even with a full trailer. And the sun popped out for a little while.

Day Six: Biel, Bern, Fribourg, Lausanne

Biel to Bern is again wet and hilly. The scooter copes, but speed can drop to 20km/h, which feels very sluggish with traffic over taking. The downhills are much faster of course, and help recharge the battery. Overall we make good progress, and arrive in Bern early. Our welcome is a little subdued in such persistent rain.  The road to Fribourg and on to Lausanne is pretty straightforward. The countryside is beautiful, but the ski remains stubbornly grey. And my gloves have been wet for four solid days now. How I envy the car drivers all warm and dry whatever the weather.

Day Seven: Lausanne to Geneva and back to Lausanne

Today’s itinerary is the highlight – and raison d’etre – of the WAVE Trophy. It involves a gentle ride from Lausanne to Geneva, in warm, dry, sunny weather along the lakeside. It’s huge – and welcome – contrast with the previous few days. We visit another two schools. And France, nearly, after a sat nav glitch. But we make it to Geneva in good time. Our 70 electric vehicles congregate on the Place de Nations, spelling out 1.5C – after some to-ing and fro-ing and a little rearrangement – to support the Paris agreement of 2015.

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The key message of the day is that we must change our behaviour urgently. 2016 is already looking like the hottest year since records began, with record breaking temperatures in January, February, March, April and May. If we are to avert disaster and stick to #1.5C, we need to reduce carbon emissions urgently, most likely with a #priceoncarbon. We sincerely hope our efforts and the attendant publicity can help achieve that aim. And Kumpan Electric, with its cleantech electric vehicles, can be a part of that story too.

Day Eight: The last leg, from Lausanne back to Basel, well, Liestal to be precise

With all the pressure off, and the good weather staying with us, its a beautiful final ride to the finish line. Wonderful rolling countryside bathed in sunshine, quaint villages and medieval castles on craggy outcrops, are sights to behold. The stresses and strains of the first half of the journey have melted away, and riding the scooters is a genuine pleasure. It almost seems a shame to cross the finish line. But not quite.

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