Do you like a challenge? Plenty of riders do, but it takes a special kind of rider to plot a cross-country trip on an electric bike at the beginning of April. That was the plan behind the Charging Across America Challenge in April, 2022, though.
The premise seems simple enough on paper: Two Energica riders would crisscross the U.S., riding the traditional Cannonball route between the Red Ball Garage in NYC and the Portofino Hotel in Redondo Beach, California. One would start on the East Coast, and one on the West Coast. As a cherry on top, they’d complete their ride on Earth Day. What could go wrong?
This plan was the brain child of Rob Swartz, a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast and current owner of Energica of New England. He was the East to West rider, and Steven Day was the West to East rider. Where Day’s ride went relatively smoothly, and he even ended up setting a new cross-country electric motorcycle record, Swartz had some of the worst luck possible. He was kind enough to sit down with us and share his story in detail.
I'd like to know how the Charging Across America Challenge came about. What gave you the idea? How did the entire thing come together?
Well, I don't know. It was around December or so, I was watching Cannonball Run with Burt Reynolds, one of my favorite actors. Very entertaining in his early years.
I don't know. I just thought about it, and then also, [Jackie Chan], I don't know. He was in a bunch of movies. He did a Cannonball Run, but it was not the Cannonball, it was something else. But anyways, I thought about it and said, "Ha." And then a buddy of mine, Steven Day, had his bike in California, and that needed to get back to Washington DC, so I said to him, "Hey, why don't we do a Cannonball Run different than everybody else? You start in California, I'll start in New York, and we'll high-five in the middle, and see who can get there the fastest?" And he's like, "Sure." That's how it started.
We knew the record was 178 hours and 17 minutes done by Diego on a LiveWire, and we did that math, and figured we could do it under 100 hours. We started brainstorming, "Okay, let's figure out the charging stations. Let's figure out a budget." I like to do things big or go home, so I says, "Well, let's get videographers with us. Let's have a safety team with us. Let's make sure that we have spare parts, tires, and whatever else that we need, in case there's ever a problem." He's like, "Really? I've never done something this big" I was just like, "Go big or go home." So, I found a safety team out of Pagoda, California, and a videographer out of California.
I put together a safety team here in New England, and got some sponsorships, threw it out to the major corporations. The corporations I work with were all psyched about it, because they need to bring to light charging stations, and that you can go across the country in a reasonable amount of time, and that it can be done on a motorcycle. I mean, it's been done a few times, Steven Day has done different parts of the country three other times, and holds the record for them. So, we did it.
So, Steven started at 3:00 AM at the Portofino Hotel in California, at 3:00 in the morning, and I started at 3:00 in the morning in New York. And actually, it was 3:30, because we got lost, and dealing with traffic and construction, and Manhattan's a nightmare. It was only 25 degrees when I left, and I said, "Oh, this is going to be brutal." Because I really didn't have any heated gear that was working, and we can't connect it to the bike, because that takes away power, which then would take away from range, and never mind the battery being cold, we lose a percentage of the battery to that. So off we went. I threw all the gear that... We had some leathers made for us, and put on another sweatshirt, and off we went.
Our first charging station was in Pennsylvania, and it was still, I think, 26 or 27 degrees by that point, and we kept going. It's individual races within each charging station. So as soon as you get done, you race to the next one and get done there, and race to the next one. You've got to look at what your distance is, you've got to look at where your altitude changes are, what your speed is.
I'd never really rode an electric bike until that event. I don't think I had 100 miles on an electric bike until that event. And everybody talked about range anxiety, and I'm like, "What the hell's range anxiety, and why would that be a problem?" I now understand. It is a real problem, and it is anxiety. Because when you looking at that screen and say, "I got 75 miles more to go," and the battery says I got 50 more miles to go, you go like, "Ha. Okay."
We slow down, and then you see the battery creep up to 55 miles, and then 60 miles, and it ain't going anywhere, and it's staying at 60, and like, "Okay, I got to slow down a little bit more." And then by the time you get to the 70 miles, you've got three or four miles left to go or you're at zero, and you're like, "Ah, I just made it," and you cross your fingers, and cross your toes, and hope that the charging station you go to is working. You check it on PlugShare and the website if it's Electrify America, or EVgo, or Voltrek, or ChargePoint and hope that it works.
Then you click in your bike and go, "Okay, are you going to like my bike today, or are you not going to like my bike?" And when it does like your bike, and it says, "Initiating fast charge," and you do a little happy dance, "It's going to work." And a half hour and 45 minutes later you're all done, and off to the next one. We had on my end, we still ran into snow and sleet and rain and hail, and that took two days.
That second day it got really bad, where I had to call it. It wasn't safe anymore to ride, where the clouds were out, and it was sticking to the ground. And the faster charger we had failed when we got there. It said it was working, but it failed.
And the next charger was a level 2, that's in the range that we had enough power to go to. So, yes, we had a truck, yes, we could have pushed it back, but that's not the goal. The goal is to drive to everything.
So, we found it in a state park, and then it was snowing pretty good at that point, and I says, "Well, let's still see if we can get some electric gloves, so at least I can keep my hands warm." And I was using some jump pack batteries. Are you familiar with the little lithium ion jump pack that you can jump start your car with? I had two of them connected to electric gear that I had, and to my un-knowledge, I had two left-handed gloves.
So, we're at this charging station, and it said it was going to take six hours to recharge the battery, so I hopped in the truck with my safety guy, and we proceeded to drive an hour to a Harley dealer that we called and said, "Yeah, we got some electric gloves. Extra-large. They're in our clearance rack to get rid of them."
"Sweet." And I says, "We're on the way," because needless to say we can't do anything for five or six hours, so it was an hour there, an hour back. That's two hours, and it's snowing.
So, the Harley shop we got to, and they were selling the place, so they were clearing out everything that they had there, and I bought a pair of gloves for 180 bucks, and said, "Yep, these look great." Got back to the bike, and we had a few inches of snow, and I'm like, "You know what? This isn't going to work." So, when the battery was charged enough to get us, the next morning, to a charging station, I says, "Well, let's pack the bike up, because it's not safe to drive."
Because it was a few inches of snow, and it wasn't stopping, and I says, "Let's get a hotel and look at this in the morning." So, in the morning we had a fast charger we made it to, and continued on, and then it started snowing again, and then the sun came out, and then it started snowing again, and then it started hailing and raining and like, "Yeah, this is not fun."
So, we made the rest of that whole day on the road, and it had dropped down, the temperature was about 27 degrees again, and I says, "You know what? It's 9:00 at night. I'm frozen. The batteries are all dead. And my heating gear..." And to top it off, the gloves that I bought for $180 had the wrong connectors to connect to my bike. Not the bike, but to the rest of my gear.
They were reversed. So, $180 was wasted, and I still had cold hands, so needless to say, at this point I'm just about shivering beyond control. I can't control me anymore. So, I says, "You know what? We're going to get a hotel for the night. I've had it." And we had a hotel, and that was Wednesday night.
So, Thursday they said that the weather was going to be nice, and we were going to go. So, we woke up to 37 degrees, it was raining, and I said, "Let's go." So, we made it to Olive, Ohio, or maybe we were in Ohio at that point. I don't know. It was now Thursday morning, the warmest day that we ever had, and we're going to the next charging station. So, I had to only make 1,000 miles in four days, and Steven Day already did over 2,000 in four days.
So, he was rocking it. Every charger he hit, fast charger, worked with no problems. He didn't have the snow, the rain. He had beautiful weather, 70, 80 degrees. I think his coldest day was 55. I mean, for the whole trip.
So, I mean, he couldn't have gotten a better trip. But the thing is, is that he'd now seen all the charging stations from west going east. I'd already found all the bad charging stations going east to west. So, he already knew what not to go to in our list of charging stations. A lot of it's by the seat of your pants.
When you find these charging stations and they don't work, you got to go, "Okay, now where's the next one, and can we make it?" There was one of the times that Steven was doing it, and he literally was at zero, and he had a mile more to go, and the bike continued to go for one more mile, and when he got in, the bike chucked out.
Altitude, like I said, plays a big factor in it. And the higher you go, the more strain on the battery it is. The faster you go, the more strain on the battery. Headwinds, I had nothing but 10 to 25 mile-an-hour headwinds the whole trip.
So, I had pretty much everything against me the whole time. I don't know. It was fun. I mean, I really got to learn about electric bikes and how they work and, I don't know, how it all goes. And it was enjoyable. I mean, I really like electric bikes. I like the quietness. I mean, I got a beautiful set of stuff from Cardo Communications. They're one of our sponsors, and they put the nice JVC or JBL headsets in it. So it was really nice to have. I could talk to people with my headset.
And the customers would call in, and the sponsors would call in. They would call in to say, "Hi," and, "How's the trip going?" And it was nice to be in constant communication. People didn't even know I was on my motorcycle and riding. We have headsets in the truck with the safety team and the videographer, so we could coordinate doing some shots. "Hey, speed up. Slow down. Go to the right. Left." Something like that. I mean, it was great. It made the trip more enjoyable, because you're hours talking to yourself. So, it was nice to stream my satellite radio through my phone, through the app. I don't know. The GPS all worked through it. I mean, it was great. It was really cool. We're going to try and do it again.
From Bad to Worse
[If you read our interview with new electric motorcycle cannonball record-setter Steven Day, then you probably remember him talking about the crash that Rob’s chase vehicle was unfortunately involved in. Here, Rob tells the story.]
But anyways, back in Illinois we were headed to the last charging station to meet at our halfway point... Well, not really halfway, but we were both going to high five each other and that. It was 9:00 in the morning. Beautiful. Probably 40 degrees, 45 degrees, about a 10- or 15-mile headwind, and I was talking to the guys, and all I heard was a click. And I'm like, "That was the system shutting down. What's up?" So I go, "Hey guys, what's up?" And nothing, and I'm like, "All right, there must be somebody talking."
And I look in my mirror, and there's nobody behind me. And I’m like, what do you mean, they were right behind me. So, a few miles went by and I pulled over, got out of my helmet. No, I still had my helmet on. I called them on my phone, and no answer. I called both the phones. No answer. And I'm like, "Oh, shit. This isn't good." So, I just parked the bike, took my gear off, and headed to walk back, because there's no cars coming. I mean, the highway, the I-80's empty.
And the closer I get, the worse it gets. I could see a tractor-trailer on it's side. I could see people everywhere. There's nobody going west, I mean, eastbound, because the traffic's stopped on both sides of the highway. It's like, "Oh, this isn't going to be pretty." Needless to say, when I got up there, I'm devastated seeing the carnage everywhere. The tractor-trailer went over, rolled over twice, and it was on its side, and oil... The hood was off, the driver's door was off, the windshield was out of it.
It was just a mess. So, I saw my guys, and I said, "Hey, what's up?" And they're like, "We're okay. We didn't roll the truck over, and we cut the guy out of the driver seat of the tractor-trailer, because he was on his side and his seatbelt was holding him."
Anyway, the driver of the tractor-trailer got taken by ambulance with the state police, and they went to the hospital. They had the DOT coming out. I-80 was shut down both ways for a while and just newscasts and cameras and, "Oh, my God. This is not what I need."
And then I could see... Because we were there waiting for the state police, and the woman in charge, Jennifer, she was really an awesome, awesome officer. She was just, "Guys, you're fine. Nobody's hurt. It's a great day. Screw everybody else that's with the traffic and you know what? You just concentrate on you and being okay."
I'm like, "Okay." No, she was just awesome.
And she says, "You guys go hang out until we get the wreckers here, and get everything cleaned up." And we did, and she gave us our paperwork and told us to go, and she sees my "Jesus above everybody..." The Broken Chains Motorcycle Church sponsors me, and on my jacket, it says, "Above all, Jesus Christ." And she says, "I had an idea you were a good Christian man," and I turn the jacket around and I showed her, "This is Broken Chains Motorcycle Church." And she says, "I want you to know, God is here today, and God was here helping you. And he always works in very mysterious ways, and you'll never know, but I can tell you today, he is here, and he is with you." I would never in a million years think I would get that out of a state officer.
Now it gets even more interesting. Needless to say, the trucks get taken to the body shop. The rental company only has one vehicle in the entire yard, and that's a half-ton pickup truck. Just what I needed. So, we loaded everything up from my truck into that truck, loaded the bike up, and I said, "You know what? Maybe we should still do the run. We may not break the record, but..." And the whole team... I mean, not Steven Day, but Day's safety team and videographer, and my safety guy and my videographer, they all look at me and go, "Really, Rob? You haven't had enough of this yet? You want to do some more?" And I'm like, "Well, go big or go home." And they're like, "Rob..."
My safety guy, his name's Kevin Nixon, he said, "I got to be home. I got to be on Block Island, okay?" And then my videographer said, "I got to be at work on Monday." And then the videographer for California says, "I got a shoot on Sunday."
"Okay, we're not going to do it. So, everyone's going to go home." And Kevin and I redid his plans, and Kevin and I drove home. And I sent my East Coast guy with Steven and Chip Steward to go back to Boston and break the record. And I said, "Guys, do it. Break the record and make me proud, and everybody else and all our sponsors happy that at least one of us did it."
And Kevin and I drove home in the half-ton truck, and I drove home. And I went home looking for my cat. I couldn't find my cat. And needless to say, my fiancé is in California at the Portofino Hotel in Redondo Beach waiting for me to get there. And needless to say, she had to fly home. I mean, I took five years of points to pay for that hotel, so we did have a beautiful romantic weekend before we had to head home, and it got cut short. She sent me picture. We had a waterfront room, I mean, postcard stuff, where it's like, "Okay, that's gone."
But anyways, I couldn't find my cat, and I called my mother and said, "Mom, where's Dino?" "Oh, we didn't have the heart to tell you." And I says, "What do you mean the heart to tell me?"
"Dino died on Thursday."
I'm like, "What time?" And she said, "At 9:00 AM." I says, "Mom, that's the same time the accident is."
She said, "I know, that's why I couldn't tell you."
Now it gets even... There's a whole other spin on this. Anyway, my cat was dying anyways. I already knew that. That was going to happen. It was just a matter of when. But I just didn't think it was going to happen on Thursday at the same time I had the truck accident.
No, course not.
So, the question is, did my cat give up his life to save me, or is this all coincidence? Is it coincidence that the state officer wanted to talk about God at the same time? You know what I mean? I even talked to my pastor about it, and he says, "Rob, you just know God's with you all the time, and think how it happened for a reason." You know what I mean? Just all kinds of odd things, and it all happened. But to top it all off, on Wednesday, to add to all the stress, when I was driving through Ohio, I get a phone call from my alarm company telling me my house was on fire, and what should they do?
And I'm like, "What do you mean, what should you do? I'm on the I-80 going west. I'm at 70 miles an hour. I am just under 1,000 miles from home..." Well, over 1,000 miles at that point. No, just under 1,000 miles at that point. "And you're asking me what you should do? Call the fire department?"
So, I hang up. They said they were going to call the fire department. My employee calls me, Sandy, and says, "Rob, your house alarm's going off, and I can't turn it off, and I don't why it's going off." I says, "Because the house is on fire."
"What?" I says, "Would you go in and find out what's going on?" I'm like, "Okay." So, she's on the phone while she walks up the stairs, and she doesn't see any smoke or anything. Walks into the kitchen, and my mother's cooking, and didn't turn the fan on.
So I says, "By the way, tell my mother the fire department's coming, and turn the fan on, open the doors." Because we got to get it to a certain level before the alarm will go off and reset. So needless to say, the fire department comes on Wednesday, the whole team, because they all know me, because I work on all their bikes. They got guns blaring, or I should say hoses are blaring, that my house was on fire, and it was my mother cooking.
Oh, wow. You can't make that up.
No, you can't make this stuff up. I mean, it was just one thing after another. That's when the whole team really said, "Rob, you didn't have enough stuff go on? No, we're done, all right?"
"So go home, lick your wounds." I'm dealing with the insurance company about everything. Oh, and then to find out that I didn't have tow insurance anymore, nor did I have rental insurance anymore, because my insurance company dropped it all.
I mean, I couldn't get mad, because I was beyond even mad anymore. Because I called my insurance agent while I was walking from my bike, seeing the tractor-trailer turned over, said, "Hey, we have an accident. What do we do, because I may not have a truck to get home, and I've got a crew. I've got all this other stuff." And you would think that my insurance agent, not his first words were, "Oh, I looked at your policy, and you're not covered anymore." And trying not to come unglued in front of everybody.
Right. And then the good news was, when the state police were with the gentleman that was driving the tractor-trailer, he's like, "Oh, my God. I've now lost my job. This is all my fault. I did an illegal lane change. I tailgated. I'm screwed." Oh, and then to top it off, when we were working with Jennifer, the state officer, picking up... There was hundreds of pieces of papers all over the ground everywhere at this accident scene. We found the driver's Bible. I mean, it's just so... We found his cell phone, we found his pictures. We found notes, bills of lading everywhere, and that's what the state police wanted, was all the bills of lading.
We must have found over 100 bills of lading. This guy must have been a pack rat in this truck, and never threw anything out, because it was literally littered all over two lanes of highway. But again, how many people you know carry a full Bible? I mean, I'm talking a big thick Bible, that's two, three inches thick.
I mean, I don't carry a Bible with me all the time. I don't usually carry one unless I go to church, or even then I don't even carry one. I have it on my phone. Again, all these different things came out.
I don't know. You can put it together how you want. But I mean, I'm still just amazed. And you know what? I do believe in God, and I believe God does watch out for us and helps us when we need help and stuff like that. You know what I mean? There were just so many things. I mean, it was like somebody beat me with a bat all day but, You know what? Yes. God is here.
So, Steven Day made it to the Red Ball Garage, in 111 and a half hours. He broke the record my 66 and a half hours.
And he got a hotel room, and then... Oh, no. He didn't. I thought he was going to get a hotel. He didn't. He was supposed to, but him and Chip loaded his bike up, and Chip delivered it to Washington DC, and then Chip went on home to Florida.
Sometimes you get to the end of something and you just want to keep going. You just want to be done.
Right. That's pretty much our whole adventure. And the funny part is that our videographers were wondering... Because they kept saying, "You know how boring it is going cross-country? What are we going to do for drama?" Well, we didn't have a problem with that. Because there was more than enough drama, and we didn't have to make any of it up.
No, you didn't have to do any of those clever reality TV type edits, where you make it look a lot worse than it is. It sounds like you had enough that actually happened.
You said you were going to try and do it again. Do you have any idea when, or how, or are you going to do it, or are you going to have someone else do it?
If I can't do it, I don't do it.
That's totally fair.
So, we're going to do it again, probably next year.
Oh, okay. Cool. Earth Day again?
No, we won't do it on Earth Week. It was too cold. We're not going to do the freezing thing again.
We're going to do it. I don't know when. I've still got to work with my sponsors. The nice thing is, all my sponsors, not one of them said... They could have said, "Well, you didn't do what you were supposed to, so give me back our money," or anything bad. Not one negative thing at all. Every one of them was awesome.
Every one of them said, "You know what, Rob? We followed you. You couldn't have tried any harder. You went more than what we would even expect anyone to go, and we want to do it again next year." And I'm like, "Really, guys? I haven't even got home and digested what I've done, and you guys want to do it again?" And I'm like, "Okay." So, I talked to Steven about it, and he was like, "Yeah, let's try to do it." So maybe next year I'll try to do both of us riding side-by-side cross-country?
I don't know. We'll figure it out by then, but we're probably going to do it on another Energica. I don't know what model we'll do it on. Hopefully we'll have more sponsors, so I can do things... What was really cool, is when I was in Illinois, on the freeway at one of the charging stations, a couple was walking across and they said, "Hey, you guys wouldn't happen to know Long Haul Paul?" And I'm like, "Yeah." And they said, "Oh, you must be the guys that Paul's talking about. You're the one going cross-country, can we have a photo shoot with you, or can we have our pictures taken with you?"
And I'm like, "Really? Okay. This is out of the ordinary here, but all right." So, we did a little photo shoot with the bike and them, and Kevin and I, and off we went. They went on their way. They were a retired couple and they'd pick up and deliver trailers from Elkhart, Indiana. So, that was cool. And one of the next ones, when we were just... It was probably one or two charging stations before the accident. We were still in Illinois. I see a group of people with Illinois... What do you call it? Turnpike Authority.
So, I walked over, and I says, "I want to thank you." And they said, "For what?" I says, "I want to thank you for having the charging stations out here, because I'm on a run across country." "Oh, you're the guy going cross-country on the Charging Across America Challenge?" And I'm like, "Yep, I'm the guy." And they're like, "Oh, we got to meet you, and we got to do pictures."
"This is so exciting. We want to talk to you. We want to work with you about the charging stations, on how we can make them better for you."
"And we want to sponsor you next year if you do this." And I was like, "Huh? How did you guys hear about me?" They said, "Oh, we've seen you on Facebook and on the internet and blah, blah, blah. We can't believe that you're here." And I hooked up with Steven Day, because they wanted their photographer to come out and says, "Well, Steven's coming through. When he comes through, why don't you guys meet with him and do a photo shoot?" And that's what they did the next following day.
So, they were all excited, and I talked to the ones in Ohio, and they were excited, and they wanted to meet with us and talk with me again about their charging stations as well. I mean, everyone I talked to, it was always a positive experience, it was always really great people.
I'm really glad. Even though you had all that bad luck, it still sounds like it was overall a good thing.
No, I mean, my pretty truck ain't pretty anymore. It's still in Illinois. There's just under $20,000 of damage to it. I'm hoping to get it in a month or two. I'm driving around in a brand-new 2022 Dodge 2500 now, the right-sized truck I need, so I can pick up and deliver bikes.
I'm hoping that guy's insurance will cover all my expenses. I lost this challenge. I had to pay out of my pocket to pay for everybody to get home. I'm paying for everything to keep my business going... because I don't have my truck... out of my pocket. My insurance company says that it's going to happen, but again, what happens in real life isn't always the same.
But I mean, you keep a positive outlook, you roll with the punches, and you do the best you can. That's all you can do. And that's how I look at everything.