TRAIL, STREET, OR GRAND TOURING
I’d been wanting to ride the BMW R1200GS for a long time. They are a bike with a big reputation; and of course Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor rode them around the world (“Long Way Round”) and down the world (“Long Way Down”). (Well okay, it was actually the R1150GS that they rode around the world). But it wasn’t just that. When I was looking for a new bike a few years ago I found that some of the sportier bikes I considered had been traded in by middle-aged blokes on one of these big Dual-Purpose Beemers. And according to the dealers, they were very pleased with their change in type of steed. So I was keen to have a go on one. I’d had the chance to ride the Adventure model, but didn’t bother. Although it has more equipment, it's more expensive and significantly heavier. And it’s not the one everyone was talking about (and riding around the world!). I finally got the chance to take one for a gallop when the BMW test-fleet came to town and I teed up a test-ride with the local dealer. Ah, but how revealing would this be? A mechanic I go to, who owns a BMW R1150GS and was formerly the head mechanic at a BMW dealer, had warned me that a short test-ride would not impress. “They need to be taken on a long ride to really appreciate them.” Well, having now ridden one over a reasonably short, but varied, test-route, I have to disagree. Perhaps if you hadn’t ridden a BMW boxer-twin before that would be the case, but as I had already experienced the unique characteristics of the flat-twin, as well as a lot of other different bikes, I found I still got a good feel for what the bike was like, even from this fairly short ride. A lot of it has to do with the test-route. Around-the-block tells you nothing; but this was a good mix of narrow winding mountain road, open back-roads and highway, with everything from smooth multi-lane to patched and lumpy bitumen along the way. Okay, so no trails and dirt-roads, but truly, how many of these bikes actually see that sort of running? If you want to know what they’re like in those conditions you’ll need to look further than this article. But before we get to the riding, let’s take a look it what it is. To say that BMW invented the dual-purpose bike might be stretching the truth, but they were certainly the first manufacturer to really develop and popularise the big-capacity all-roads type tourer. Remember the R80G/S of the 1980s? To look at one now it’s not much more than a normal road-bike with a high-mounted exhaust. They’ve come a long way since then! And they’ve been very popular. Since that first one appeared in 1980, more than half a million “GS” machines have rolled out of the factory. That first GS might’ve confused people a bit (Ron Griewe, test-editor of American mag “Cycle-World” at the time, is quoted as saying, “I don’t know what this bike is supposed to do”), but the GS range has certainly carved out its own niche since then. And what it is supposed to do is summed up by the name: “GS” stands for “Gelande Strasse”, German for “Trail and Street”. And you can now add “Touring” to that job-description.
IN THE DRIVEWAY
None of these dual-purpose bikes are particularly glamorous, but BMW, from some angles anyway, is less glamorous than most. As I’ve said in other comments about BMWs, I don’t like the punch-drunk, smacked-in-one-eye look of the front. But at least this latest version has some coloured stripes on the tank, as well as that red frame, to improve the side-on view. From the side I think it actually looks pretty good. I like the white paintwork too. It’s a tall bike, of course, and it’s a bit of a stretch to get on – even for a lanky old bloke like me. The pillion seat being even higher makes the getting-on part more difficult, so you’ve got to swing your leg way up high. You feel a bit like a gymnast as you grip the bars and swing your leg way up in the air! (Even more so on the test-bike with its top-box). Once up there though, it’s a comfortable riding-position. It’s upright, of course, but feels very natural. The bars are wide, which helps make the bike easy to handle. The hand-guards not only protect your mits from stray branches, but they’re good wind-protection too. As you can see in the photo, the seat narrows at the front; so while it is high, it’s not as great a stretch to the ground as you might expect. The seat is comfortable too. BMW seem to have two different design teams with seats – one produces seats that are actually quite hard, while the other lot produce seats that are nicely padded and comfy. This comes from the latter team and feels good. The only negative is that it slopes down towards the front, before then curving up onto the tank, which can become a bit uncomfortable; it squashes the .. er, .. manly bits up front. Although this is really only noticeable at town speeds or when stopped. At normal road speeds it isn’t a problem and you really don’t notice it. At 223kg (dry) it’s a fairly heavy bike (remember Ewan and Charlie struggling to push their bikes up that washed-out hill?) but it really doesn’t feel like it. (Unless you’re pushing it up-hill, I suppose!). Sitting on it and wobbling it from side to side it feels quite light. The wide bars help with this, no doubt. On the road that feeling of being lighter than it actually is increases, and it seems to shed a few more kilos. The blinkers are the usual BMW affair of a button on each end of the handlebar. I’m still not a fan of this system (much preferred by Harley Davidson, and some others), but these at least have the advantage of being self-canceling. They are very clever too! They must be controlled by engine or road-speed, because when you are sitting at a set of lights waiting to turn, they stay on; when moving they cancel in the normal time. Clever! The mirrors are round things, typical of the breed, but not something I like. I reckon they look old-fashioned and also restrict vision, compared to the usual rectangular shape. The instrument panel is made up of an analogue speedo and tacho, and a digital display panel with a lot of info available on it. I could see a clock, fuel-level, engine-temperature, odometer and gear-indicator. There’s more info if you push a button or two. Also, above this there is a bar of warning lights. (By the way, do you like the way that two of its main competitors are reflected in the dials?). The bounce-up-and-down test that I usually perform in the driveway (to get some idea whether it’s going to be comfortable or a bone-shaker) produced a weird result. The back felt very soft and bouncy, while the front felt quite stiff and hard. It has electronic suspension adjustment, which was set on “Normal”. I checked with the sales rep if this worked on both ends (even though it would be crazy if it didn’t!), and was assured that it did. I guess we’d see how it worked out when I took it out on the road.
OUT ON THE ROAD
Like other BMWs, the start button is a red button mounted on top of the right switch-block. (So that’s another button that’s not where you expect it to be!). Once started, the engine is a bit lumpy and, being a flat-twin, it rocks the bike from side to side when you blip the throttle. Unlike the R1200R though, I never felt this effect on the road. The engine is very tractable, pulling easily from 2,000rpm in the lower gears. In the higher gears it likes to have a few more revs up, preferring to be around 3,000rpm or above before it feels happy. It’s still good though, and twisting the throttle at any engine-speed produces an instant response. Acceleration is good, although a sports-bike it ain’t! It’s quicker at higher revs, of course, although the engine starts to get a bit vibey if you really get it spinning. The gear ratios are evenly spread. It feels reasonably high-geared, and around town you find yourself riding it in 2nd and 3rd a lot. 1st gear is ideal for road work, but would be a bit high for rough-going off the beaten track. The change gets a bit clunky sometimes, and it doesn’t like changing without the clutch. On the positive side, there is absolutely no back-lash from the shaft-drive. With most Beemers being shaft-driven you’d expect them to know how to make a good one, and they obviously do! Top gear runs at just over 27kph per 1,000rpm. At 110kph it’s pulling an easy 4,000rpm, making for an effortless cruising ability. At 120kph it’s quiet, smooth and effortless. And at higher speeds than that … well, I didn’t go higher than that because at 120kph it (ahem!) might’ve been just over the posted speed-limit already. But the bike would’ve been happy to cruise at higher than that. It’s perfectly stable too, and the screen does a reasonable job of keeping the wind off. It feels like it could just sit on whatever speed you chose (legal or not!) and ride off into the next state. Actually, going faster than you should is easy to do. Even around town it’s easy to find the speedo sitting on 80 when it should be on 60. Now, how did that bouncy / stiff suspension turn out? Very well, actually! The ride is excellent! What seemed to be a mis-matched front and rear suspension in the driveway actually works very well out on the road. Only on a couple of sharper bumps did the front feel slightly stiffer than the rear. And, as I said, ride quality is excellent. A lot of bumps aren’t felt at all, and even the bigger one that you do feel are absorbed very well. At no time on the ride – which has some choppy sections as well as big uneven humps along the way – did I feel any discomfort from the bumps. And there are very few bikes I could say that about! Despite the comfy compliant ride, the big bike handles very well. From around town to open road sweepers it turns easily, with no “big-front-wheel” type resistance. The steering actually feels quite light. Having turned in, it goes exactly where you point it, in that “Your wish is my command” way, and holds its line beautifully. And it always feels stable – from turning out of the driveway to mountain twisties, or just cruising the highway. It is tall of course, and so the lean-angles for any given cornering-speed are probably greater than on a “normal” bike. But then you’d be leaning it over at ridiculous angles before anything began to scrape! Of course, when I talk about handling, I’m talking about this ease-of-riding, stability and accuracy type thing; if you try to make it “handle” in the way a sportsbike handles then it might feel big and clumsy. But you’re not supposed to ride it like a sportsbike on a qualifying lap! I don’t ride like that anyway, and this is the sort of handling that The Old Bloke likes! Stopping the whole show is no problem either, as the brakes are good. They feel powerful and stop the bike as quickly as you need them to. Only at very slow speeds did the front seem to bite just a little harder than I expected. You know, I think the boffins at Beemer were on to something when they released that first GS back in 1980; and the bike has just got better and better ever since! SNAPSHOT It’s easy to see why these bikes are so popular and so much admired. They are easy to ride and work very well, in everything from suburban commuting to high speed cruising. I’m not totally happy with the seat – that sloping forward thing – but in all other respects it is comfortable to sit on and comfortable to ride. The big GS is no sportsbike, but there’s enough performance there to clear the traffic and have fun with. It’s a great bike, it really is!
As indicated in those reflections in the dials, the bike now has some very serious competition. I’d reckon the Yamaha Super Tenere might be a bit too dirt-orientated to really be a match for the Beemer as an all-rounder, but the new Triumph Explorer is getting rave reviews, so it might give the GS a run for its money. (I haven’t ridden either). Then there are others from Ducati and Aprilia too; so there is some competition for the big Beemer!
Engine: 2-cylinder, 1170cc. Power: 81kW at 7,750rpm. Torque: 120Nm at 6,000rpm.
Suspension: Front: Telelever, 210mm travel. Rear: Swing-arm with Paralever. 220mm travel.
Fuel capacity: 33 litres.
Weight: 223kg (Dry).
Seat height: 850mm.
Wheels / Tyres: Front: 110 X 19”, Rear: 150 X 17”
Brakes: Front: Twin 305mm discs. Rear: Single 265mm disc. ABS.
Well, I finally get to ride the much-admired big dual-purpose Beemer and they go and change it! One of the big changes has been to the engine, which is now liquid-cooled instead of air-cooled. That, and a couple of other tweaks, see power go up to 92kW and torque increase to 125Nm. The ride-by-wire electronic throttle has a wider choice of engine modes to suit prevailing conditions. Weight has increased by 4kg. The frame has been changed and the electronically adjustable suspension improved. Wheel sizes have changed too: there’s still a 19” up front and 17” at the rear, but they’re wider now – 120 and 170 respectively. Other detail changes to brakes (larger discs), headlights (LED) and other bits and pieces are all part of the new package. All this can only make a very good thing better, I reckon. The extra power would be welcome (not that the old one was lacking!), and the other improvements just further refine what was a refined package anyway. And all this comes at a cheaper price than before! ($21,250 was the figure quoted as I write this).
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