The descent down to the creek runs through dense woods. A lonely road wending its way through a series of esses. The trees brown, having lost their color, now holding hard to their last few leaves before giving up the ghost on yet another season.
Lifting my eyes, I scan for deer. First, quickly, the edges. Then deeper.
The first, quick right-hander emerges suddenly, like a jab from a boxer.
I smile. I haven’t been here in awhile. But it’s all the same.
The bike, now a few months old and with some thousands of miles on the clock, is no longer a stranger. At my nudge, it responds instantly, eagerly. Into the corner, it hews a perfect, clean line, slicing a razor-thin slice off the thing I hold in my head.
The remembrance of the road washing over me, trailing throttle as I think about the turn two curves ahead, I press down on the shift lever. Third gear. There’s the slightest judder as the engine’s computer matches the speed.
Past the one-lane bridge, the road opens up. A quarter-mile, lifting ascent. Dangerous because of the deer. But I can never help myself.
When I roll out a few seconds later I’m at the top, fifth gear, and into triple digits.
That’s when I see them. Just a flash, distant through the trees. But enough.
My eyes narrow, my heart ratchets. The old thing. How long has it been? How many months? But today, once again, I can’t help myself. Like a drunk falling off the wagon.
I already know, but like a pilot on approach I glance down anyway. Dyna. Solo rider. Hard. I downshift one gear, using the clutch this time. Just for old time’s sake.
It doesn’t take long. They’re running a good pace, but short of a Panigale… nah.
There are two of them and within a mile I’ve pulled up behind them. Then it’s the three of us, two sportbikes and a big behemoth of something bringing up the rear, full of prejudice. The lead rider bumps his pace, gapping his friend.
You can feel it, the indignation. You can always feel it.
I don’t need much room. Coming out of a corner and there’s the tiniest little piece of straight. Both of us lifting out of the lean and accelerating hard. I get him when he shifts, the tiny, little pause enough. I have to shift too, of course. But I stay hard into the throttle and just toe my boot up into the lever as I come around him. As I duck back in front of him I can imagine him talking to his buddy later. “You won’t believe how fast that fucker shifted!” The thought of it makes me laugh.
It takes another half mile for the other guy. On the tight, narrow, downhill slalom. Probably the place he least expected it because it’s bumpy and narrow and you’ve got to use some brake and the suspension on most bikes gets packed through there.
The two bikes quickly slow and drop back. As I come down off the high I shake my head, a sudden feeling of guilt washing over me.
Looking down the road, framed by that view I’ve loved for so long – the dash and handlebar of a fine motorcycle – I abide a moment of self beratement. Then a grin slowly breaks out under my helmet.
The saddlebags. They always hate the saddlebags.
On more than one occasion I have observed that the BMW GS-series of bikes are the ugliest on the planet. The boys in Berlin definitely bought into form follows function when wrestling with that model.
But then you walk around the new liquid-cooled BMW R1200GS Adventure and you kind of shake your head. It’s a handsome bike.
Now maybe that’s just my long familiarity taking hold. Or a newly found appreciation for what has now become a very, very polished product. Whatever. I like it.
The visual perception differs, depending upon your angle. From the front, walking slowly towards the back, the lines of the bike first are svelte, sure of themselves. The curves and angles and lines melt into each other. They integrate well.
But then you get back towards the seat and that huge tank emerges. You can’t not see it. And the sense of svelteness quickly begins to disappear.
Once that’s in your consciousness you can’t dismiss it. And once you begin wheeling it around by hand, that only gets underlined further: this is a big, heavy bike. Beast is the word that comes to mind.
No question the GS Adventure can be an intimidating motorcycle. It’s dense. It’s bulky. And it’s top heavy. Even those of us who come from the world of 800-pound Harley’s can appreciate its gargantuan nature.
Out of the Fog…
Seated, your knees press upon the metal sides of that tank. Yeah, it’s big. But it feels good.
As your eyes drop further, you see that those engine jugs are not so apparent as they are on the Oilhead. Not so naked. Like a girl, seeing you look at her, who has self-consciously fastened another button on her blouse.
Dash layout is about as clean as one could expect, given the numerous control and information-rich elements that all beg for attention.
Notably, the left handlebar now sports a Japanese-style turn-signal switch. Press left for left. Press right for right. And press in the center to cancel. After literally decades of being panned by every magazine road test that ever got published, BMW has finally thrown in the towel. That said, I kind of miss the old paddle switches. I never quite saw the problem with ‘em that all those other journalists did. But the new one works great. Simple as it gets.
The lockable, factory-integrated GPS mount is very nice. It attaches to a bar above the dash proper, affording a perfect sight line and easy access to the touch screen of your Sat Nav. Along with the Wonder Wheel and the integrated communications between the bike and Sat Nav, it’s about as ideal a GPS solution as you could wish for. More anon.
The analog speedometer looks nice, but isn’t very functional. The lines and the numbers printed on the face are too numerous, too close together, and too small to make determining speed anything other than a several second, stare-hard-at-the-speedo-clock-face proposition.
Not that it much matters. Both the information display LCD and the GPS can be configured to digitally display speed. Easy peasy.
Climbing on doesn’t do anything to diminish the beastly gargantuan-ness of the bike. It’s heavy. It’s bulky. And it’s tall. You’re reminded every time you mount or dismount. And you’ll laugh the first time you pull up next to a gas pump, hoist it up onto its center stand, and prepare to fill the tank. I’m 6’ 2” and, standing next to it, the top of the tank comes to the middle of my chest. This, for sure, ain’t your down-low Harley! You have to reverse the gas pump handle in your hand – thumb pointing backwards up the hose, little finger pointing at the nozzle – and it’s all just a tiny bit techy.
But Lordy, Lordy, that tank! It holds just a hair under eight gallons. After a lifetime of riding bikes with a practical range upwards of two hundred miles – those of us who have stood there on the side of the road with an empty tank can attest to what practical means – suddenly having another hundred miles in the can is huge. The first few tankful’s feel positively surreal. It’s like a car… you just keep going. And going. And going. And the pleasure of stopping, to pee or buy a bottle of water or take off some clothes, or whatever… is sharpened immeasurably by riding right on past the gas pumps. I honestly didn’t think the fuel capacity would be that big a deal. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Thumbing the starter brings another surprise. The engine sounds different than the boxers of old. A little bit raspier, with a tiny bit less bass. Not quite as macho. Blip the throttle and the engine responds instantly. It has very little flywheel effect. And sitting there, stopped, there’s only a hint of that old sideways rocking couple that’s always been iconic to the boxer-twin.
Honestly, sitting out there in the parking lot preparing for my demo ride, I was disappointed. Your first impression is that the engine isn’t a twin at all. It feels more like a triple or an inline-four. WTF? And, crikey, the size of the bike!
But then you pull in the clutch and press down into first and you give it some gas and feel for the engagement point – all while the hangers-on there at the dealership are standing around watching you – and, as the bike begins to move, the first of several epiphanies begin to unfold.
The first, and probably most important, is that instantly – as soon as the wheels begin to turn – all that weight, all that bulk, all that tallness, all that intimidating gargantuan-ness… simply disappears. Like flicking a switch, the bike becomes light as a feather.
I’ve experienced this phenomenon before, on other bikes. How well-suspended rolling mass, carried by a good frame, can attenuate many of its sensory failings. But nothing remotely like this. The GSA performs a mystical sleight-of-hand that is akin to Clark Kent ducking into a phone booth. The transformation is magical.
The clutch pull is very light. The throttle pull is both very light and very short. Extending two fingers to the front brake lever – just a caress, like gently wiping the tear from a woman’s cheek – and you can feel it down through the Telelever, bleeding off however much speed you want, however quickly you want it gone. Amazing, great brakes.
The rear brake is the best I’ve ever felt. You can feel the bite, in contrast to the wooden numbness most rear brakes exhibit.
Everything feels light. All the controls. The whole bike feels crisp, responsive, and alive. After two miles, my first impression is one of ease. That sensory conclusion is a profound irony, given how you start out thinking about this bike. But it’s true. There’s an elegant effortlessness to riding this motorcycle.
It’s when I turn off the big road and head into the first set of twisties that I know that I’m done.
I bought my ’05 GS on something of a hunch. I had fallen in love with how a nice, torquey twin could comport itself when the road begins to dance. And long after I had totaled that SV650 in a hard crash at VIR, I still remembered. It occurred to me that a bigger, heavier twin – something with longer legs and good luggage – might make the perfect all-around bike.
What I didn’t expect is that it would make such a terrific sport bike. After riding it for some time I wrote, “up to the last few percentiles of what could be considered reasonable on the street, this is the easiest-to-ride-fast bike I’ve ever been on.” I ride with guys that are very good, very fast, and who show up on a wide variety of compelling, very serious machinery. I never once, in all the years since, ever felt outgunned when I showed up with that GS.
The question in front of me, then – really, the urgent question at the heart of all this – is how much of that sporting prowess would I give up on this big, hulking GSA?
And having framed the question that way, I’m stunned when I have to flip it.
Steve has left the bike in Road mode and so that’s what I’m in when I lean gently into the first turn. The bike follows my lead with what seems to be a casual little smile. And as I feel that rush in my chest and hear the old swimming in my ears, my right hand reflexively brings up the throttle. The bike goes faster and faster, but that early sense of ease and lightness never leaves it. It paints the road with precise, clean lines. Deft, narrow, and always meticulously correct. Whatever I think, it does.
Like perfect sex.
My mind flashes back to the invoice. How this is just an “I’m kinda curious” demo ride.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. “How can I possibly do this?”
You sell three motorcycles, is how. And thank God you got ‘em to sell.
There’s more, of course. It’s not long before I’m in Dynamic mode. And the perfect sex just gets perfecter.
Into the Mountains…
Turns out the new Wasserboxer motor isn’t worse than the old one – quite the contrary. But while retaining traces of the old character, it is different. Its free-revving nature lends to the bike’s overall precision, its ability to execute quickly. It lays down a thick, unending layer of torque everywhere, just like its forbears. Only more of it. And that otherworldly quality of the old Oilhead – the one where when things get serious and the road is demanding and you feel for that perfect place in the motor where the berm is, you know, that place where the well of power lies but a hairbreadth’s away, so that when you call upon it it’s already there, already left on the road – that’s there, too.
The motor has perhaps the best fueling I’ve ever experienced in a fuel-injected bike. Not all that far away from those nicely carbureted engines of yore. It isn’t perfect – trailing throttle still flails around a bit, trying to find itself – but all things considered this is an exceptional motor. The Oilhead, in all its variants, was and is a remarkable design. This water-cooled version is just the next improvement on an already proven concept.
The ride modes are a revelation. Road, Rain, Enduro, Enduro Pro, Dynamic… I’m not going to reprise what they do – that’s recounted in lots of places. But they each transform the bike, softening this, sharpening that, in ways unique to its mission.
It’s no little irony that the quest that led me to the GSA started out with my looking for a lighter, more capable off-road bike. After a particularly epic 19-mile off-road excursion last spring – a wet, sloppy down-the-old-creek-bed adventure that I wasn’t sure we were all going to come back from unscathed… I came looking for new answers. Lighter, more agile answers.
One might ask how you get from there to a 78-pound wet weight heavier behemoth. You get there with software, is how.
The electronic suspension is amazing. Remember the days when you had to stop, pop the seat, pull out your tool kit, find the special tool, and then heave this way or that on the shoulder of your rear shock to change the preload? And that that’s all there was – there being no compression damping or rebound damping or inverted cartridge forks or any other such exotica? And how we thought we had left those primitive times behind when our bikes finally got better. And how we were really in high cotton when we upgraded to Fox or Penske or Ohlin’s bits?
‘Tweren’t nothing. ESA has stolen a march on everything.
The biggest problem with motorcycle suspension is that it’s arcane. Even on those bikes that have decent shocks and forks – and simple dials to tweak them – most riders don’t understand the physics and the componentry well enough to set them. So, mostly, motorcycle suspension has been a set-it-and-forget-it proposition. Usually set badly, to boot.
A button on your dash, a few seconds, a simple user interface – rider, passenger, luggage (add ‘em up); soft, medium, hard – and, voila, all that changes. Stupid simple. And it works.
The quick shifter – Shift Assist Pro in BMW-speak – is another little option I thought would be a cute, nice-to-have. What it does… is make you feel like Valentino Rossi. You go balling the jack through a set of esses and as the road opens up those clutchless upshifts are just so… cool! You want an instant grin? Just dial up some throttle and toe up that lever. The boys in the MotoGP paddock should thank their lucky stars you don’t have a ride.
Now, then, comes the guilt. A bike that goes this well surely must make you pay, right? My GSX-R1000, a straight razor if there ever was one, could dice up a curvy road with the best of ‘em. But it never let you forget the price you were going to pay. Ibuprofen was a standard part of the riding kit. And after a little bit, even that wasn’t enough.
I’ve said for years that my Harley Road King is the most comfortable bike I’ve ever ridden. Well, the GSA is very, very close.
I ended up fitting my ’05 GS with a nice Sargent seat. On the GSA the stock seat works just fine. Very comfortable.
The general ergonomics will vary from rider to rider, of course. For me, this very big, very tall BMW is just about perfect. The wide-set handlebar gives you lots of leverage. It requires much less pressure and much less effort to steer than the clip-ons on a sportbike. The upright seating position gives you great visibility. And the tallness that might seem less than ideal when fueling or mounting and dismounting… becomes a great asset when big miles are in the mix. You can drop your boot off the peg to stretch out your knee without having to spend the muscle energy keeping your foot off the pavement. You just drop your leg down straight and rest for a few moments. And the foot pegs make standing up very easy and comfortable, either to stretch during long pavement runs, or for serious off-road work.
Wind protection is well nigh perfect. With the screen in its down, retracted position you get just enough spill around your shoulders and head to remind you you’re on a bike. Come cold or rain and you just reach forward and twist the little knob. The screen ratchets up and just as quick as that you’re in a mostly quiet cocoon of air.
The big tank and the cylinder heads sticking out form a seamless shield in front of your lower body. For a bike that’s supposed to be more naked than not, you’d be forgiven for wondering why its protection is more akin to that of a full-boat tourer.
I promised more about the GPS. Actually, it’s about information.
After bringing that demo bike back, after I knew I was done, I started looking into all the details. One of them was that I had dropped a cool grand on a new Garmin 590LM little more than a year earlier. I wasn’t exactly keen on paying the stiff premium for the BMW-branded Nav V. Could I use the 590? Alas, no, it didn’t take long to find that my 590LM was not compatible with the GSA.
What I didn’t know then, but would find out shortly, is that GPS navigation is the least of it.
The deal is this… the GSA is an information-dense motorcycle. An incredible amount of data is being transmitted continuously, in real time, along its system bus. The rider can access part of this information through the dual-screen Multi-function display on the dash. The upper and lower sections of that display, toggled via a button on the left handlebar, display such things as fuel level, clock, regular odometer, several trip odometers, fuel range remaining, ambient temperature, engine temperature, oil level (only works when the bike is stopped), individual readouts for front and rear tire pressure (corrected for temperature), several fuel consumption readouts, current speed, average speed, alternator voltage, overall time, and driving time.
The Nav V functions exactly as you’d expect as far as GPS functions. It seems to have the same (up to date) processing engine and interface as my 590LM. It works great.
But it doesn’t stop there. It also reads from the bike’s system bus and is able to display a whole host of other kinds of bike data. Some of it – things like speed, tire pressures, etc., – are redundant to the Multi-function display just beneath it. You can configure where you want that information to appear. But it also contains lots of information unique to itself.
To make accessing all this information easy while underway, there’s a round wheel just inboard of the left handgrip. This wheel – the wonder wheel – is rotated up or down, or is pressed, or is pulled. Those four simple actions are sufficient to control most of the complexity of the Nav V. It’s hard to describe. And it’s brilliant.
That’s why, even if you already have another GPS, you’ll want the Nav V. It was designed as an integral part of the bike. It’s as much an information display, a portal into what’s going on within the bike, as it is a GPS.
The electronic cruise control is amazing. Just like in your car. And just that easy to use.
The heated grips are great. It’s the feature I most miss on the Harley when out on a cool, crisp fall day.
The LED lighting is fabulous. It looks uber cool. But it also flat works. You’ll want to search out dark roads at night just to be able to use it.
That includes the fog lamps, which are likewise LED. When you’re up on the Blue Ridge Parkway heading towards Cherokee on a rainy, dense-with-fog day – your shoulders all tense because you can’t see shit – you’ll be glad you’ve got them.
Getting my ’05 GS on its center stand was awful. Despite the extra weight it carries, this GSA’s center stand is world’s better. It has a much better balance point.
The side stand holds the bike much closer to vertical. I don’t know if that was a conscious design decision to ease the weight a rider has to deal with. But it works well.
ABS Pro and ASC – Automatic Stability Control, BMW’s version of traction control – are your safety nets. They both get tweaked depending upon which mode you’re in. And they both, hopefully, will never be needed. But it’s nice to know they’re there. Having ABS that works while you’re leaned over seems especially crazy. I don’t plan on testing it!
The OEM aluminum panniers are stunningly good. They’re robust and have what appears to be a very solid mounting system. They’re larger than the Vario boxes that were on my ’05 GS. And the top-load design makes them so much handier. The problem with side-load panniers is that stuff falls out. With a top-load box, everything is an easy, one-handed operation. And these are huge. They hold an amazing amount of gear.
Aluminum does have a downside, beyond its extra weight… oxidation. Depending upon how long you leave stuff in your bags, and how much it moves around, you’ll end up with grayish-black soot marks on everything. BMW could have solved that by clear-coating the insides. But they didn’t.
I ordered the BMW bag liners. When they came in I was surprised to find they weren’t the zippered, cordura-type liners that came with my old Vario panniers. Instead, they were expedition-style, canoe-type dry bags. You know, those real tall urethane bags that you fold down a bunch of turns, and then buckle with straps? They’re an obvious choice for a white water adventure. Or maybe a weeks or months-long motorcycle journey into some remote place, where you want a second-level of moisture protection. But for the more civilized adventures most of us do, most the time, they’re way too much hassle.
I ended up ordering a set of Kathy’s Liners. Problem solved.
I’ve used tank bags on nearly every bike I’ve ever owned. Decades ago, on my Japanese bikes, they were the only luggage I had. I quickly learned to love them for their yeoman utility.
Long ago, BMW did tank bags better than anyone. The OEM bag I had on my ’93 K1100RS seemed to have been designed in conjunction with the bike itself, just like its panniers.
Later, BMW lost its way, utilizing glued-on Velcro attachments and all sorts of other nonsense in its tank bags. They clearly had become afterthoughts. The OEM bag on my ’05 GS was abysmal. I quickly replaced it.
After looking hard at the aftermarket, I took a flyer on the new GSA item and bought the OEM bag. My first surprise was how diminutive it is. For such a big bike, it’s positively tiny. And its internal shape – following the steeply sloped angle of the tank – is slightly odd. But it’s got a clean mounting system. I tossed in a set of dividers and some padding on the bottom and it does its job of keeping my cameras (35mm rangefinders; big DSLRs or medium format need not apply), wallet, smartphone, and handgun all easily accessible. I like it.
As good – no, as great – as this bike is, it’s not all peaches and cream.
The elephant that will always be in the room is its weight. The 78-pound wet weight difference between it and my ’05 model actually understates the challenge, as I’m sure those measures were taken sans luggage. When you consider the extra weight of the three aluminum boxes vs. their plastic counterparts, and you consider that many of us will be carrying somewhat more weight in them – in my case, I’m carrying a nicer, rather heavier, set of tools than I did with my ’05 model – you’re really looking at a 100+ pound weight difference. And the old model wasn’t all that light to begin with.
The big GSA may do a Superman transformation once underway, but that doesn’t help when walking the bike around by hand. You’re always conscious of it. You always know how quickly it could get away from you.
The tool kit is a total joke. A complete embarrassment. One wonders why they even bothered.
The single, OEM Powerlet-style outlet is located in the dash. Convenient for powering phones or whatnot. Or for charging up something inside the tank bag. But it still has the 5-amp Canbus limit. Nowhere near enough juice to power electric clothing or an air compressor or anything else serious. It’s just stupid.
My dealer, as a standard part of their bike prep, installs the optional “secondary” power outlet on the left side of the bike, just beneath the seat. It’s wired directly to the battery and hence doesn’t suffer from the Canbus limit. Pay for it if you have to.
And, finally, there’s the power output of the bike itself. I’ve always been surprised that for a bike intended to travel across the great beyond – and thus had designed-in reserves to get a rider through whatever challenges might come his way – had such a marginal electrical system. My ’05 GS came with a little 12Ah, 240-CCA battery and a 600-watt alternator. I replaced batteries more frequently on that bike than any I have ever owned.
The big GSA is not any better… an 11Ah, 230-CCA battery and a 510-watt alternator. Sure, the LED lighting requires less juice. And all of the modern electric components are certainly more efficient. But… and that’s really the deal… this bike has more electronic wizardry than a starship. Alas, all that hocus-pocus goes south in a hurry once voltage drops beyond a certain, not-that-low threshold. This bike needs its electric system.
Take good care of your battery.
I’m torn. An hour before dawn, and it’s still pitch black up here on the Parkway. I have the whole day in front of me and that always impels an anxious push to get going. But I promised myself last night. And as I debate the question the part of me that wants the pictures points out to the part of me that wants to get moving that this little trip of mine is open-ended. I can take as many days as I want.
Even with my fog lights lit I almost miss the overlook. But I’m not moving that fast and when the break in the pavement appears I get on the brakes in time.
Off the bike, my eyes peer east while I break out the tripod. There’s a tiny, little bit of pink starting to bleed into the sky. Pressing the Leica into place, the Arca-Swiss mount tight, it won’t be long.
How long’s it been? My mind goes back to that trip, fourteen years ago, the year that I was unemployed and everything was awful. I was shooting film then. I remember how I headed into Boone afterwards, for breakfast at the Hardees, and was there when the rain came. My camp down at Price was a soaking disaster by the time I got back.
I smile. I’m reminded that the trips we remember most are those where there’s some drama. Those where everything doesn’t go exactly according to plan. The trips that we always hope for – perfect weather and perfect roads and perfect everything – just kind of merge into a pleasant nothingness after awhile.
While I wait for the light, I look at the bike, its features vague in the still-mostly-darkness. I’ve been blessed with some great bikes in my time. But nothing like this. This one is special in ways I don’t have words for. A month and a week in I still don’t know how I got so lucky.
What I do know is that being on the road, deep in the mountains, in that special darkness… and then to watch as the first tendrils of light leak towards you from the horizon, is maybe my favorite thing in the whole world.
A fast bike – the very best you’ve ever been on – a fine road, the whole day stretching in front of you.
And God’s grace in your pocket.