Photography by Kevin Wing and Jon Beck
I have to give it to BMW: It really knows how to pull out all the stops and do a bike launch. I’m not talking about the fancy hotel (in-room Jacuzzi!) on the doorstep of Yosemite National Park. No, BMW actually gets the riding part of the equation, too. And unlike some manufacturers who hire guides (lead riders) to keep us idiots in check, BMW hires guides to try and get usintotrouble. How else can you explain the angry farmer who literally stopped us in the middle ofhisroad to yell at our guide to slow down, delivered in the form of a scolding in the principal’s office? We politely nodded and succumbed to his demands, only to have our guide crash in the next corner and piss him off even more. Then we cleared off like naughty schoolboys and the mayhem started all over again. That’s what riding in the dirt is all about, my friends.
If you haven’t spent time on a BMW GS, you could be forgiven for not understanding what all the fuss is about. There is a reason theR1200GSnot only is BMW’s best-selling model, it’s one of the best-selling single models from any brand worldwide. It fulfills the roles of many different motorcycles and does much more than most of them could ever dream of doing. This bike’s do-anything, go-anywhere capability attracts riders from every corner of motorcycling, not just old guys over 50. Riders sick of watching their billet-festooned cruisers gather dust or sportbike riders in need of back therapy are the GS’s primary conquest buyers, according to BMW.
Specifics about the bike’s new dohc Boxer engine are detailed inBruno dePrato’sFirst Ride(see link below), but our focus here is to talk about the true capabilities of this impressive pairing. Our planned riding route included a significant amount of off-highway riding, primarily in the form of Jeep and fire roads, blasted at speeds that defy the size and heft of this giant dirtbike on steroids. Dirt roads may not sound challenging to some, but significant rain and snow in the area had left them in conditions varying from perfect dust-free gravel-top sliding to bottomless bike-eating mud bogs that were not left unfed by the 40 journalists who tested their fate in them.
I started the morning on theAdventure model($17,000 to $20,245 fully loaded), which, despite being powered by an identical engine, is quite different in nature than the standard version. The Adventure definitely discriminates against the vertically challenged. Its 35.8-in. seat height (1.5 in. taller than the standard model’s) is in part the product of almost an additional inch of suspension travel at each end (8.2 in. front and 8.6 rear). Another noticeable difference is that the Adventure is 60 lb. heavier, tipping the scales at a claimed ready-to-ride weight of 564 lb. with its 8.7-gal. fuel tanker (I mean tank) topped off (3.4 gal. more than the standard GS tank). Some of the added weight also comes from items like the crash protection bars and beefier engine guards, off-road footpegs and such. To be fair, it carries the extra burden far better than you might imagine.
Our bikes were all fitted with Metzeler or Continental knobby tires to cope with the ample amount of off-highway riding planned for the day. As I pulled out of the hotel onto the highway, the big GS felt squirrelly, like both tires were about to go flat. With the Adventure’s considerable mass riding atop the knobs, the tires felt kind of scary on asphalt. Once we hit the first dirt section a few miles later, all those worries disappeared.
The GS never ceases to amaze me. I can’t quite wrap my head around how such a large motorcycle can feel so nimble and confident on loose surfaces. The only things that really made the Adventure a bit nervous that day were multiple sections of slick-as-ice muddy red clay.
Big bikes usually don’t like to finish corners on dirt, but that is what a handful of 110 hp (up 5 hp from the previous model) and 88 ft.-lb. of torque (up 3 ft.-lb.) is for. You just gas it up and get the rear tire stepped out in perfectly balanced broadslides. Once you get into a groove, you’ll be shocked at how easily one of these machines can be hustled along.
When attacking obstacles like tree roots, rocks and washouts, I had to remember that the front wheel was taking a near-600-lb. jolt every time I slammed into something. So, I tried to be sympathetic and think about the approach angle and back off just a bit more than I would on a lighter, enduro-type machine. That isn’t always possible when you are trying to keep the other boys in your dust, but I was impressed that the tubeless spoked rims showed no signs of my abuse. I crossed mud holes with care after watching first-hand what an over-exuberant approach resulted in for another rider. The thought of drowning under more than a quarter of a ton worth of motorcycle will do that to you.
My Adventure was fitted with the optional Enduro ESA electronic suspension, which offers 15 settings for on- and off-road conditions. The on-road options include Comfort, Normal and Sport, with spring preload settings for a single rider, single rider with luggage, and rider with passenger. Off-road settings are Soft, Normal and Hard, with preload optimized for Moderate Bumps and Strong Bumps. It’s a great system that allows you to almost instantly adjust the suspension to suit a wide range of terrain and surfaces. I mostly rode with the optional ABS switched off so I wouldn’t have to stop and deactivate it every time we hit the dirt. Besides, after experiencing the awesome ABS on BMW’snew S1000RR, the GS system seems crude by comparison.
After lunch, we swapped bikes and I ended up on a standard GS ($14,950 to $17,695) for the best road of the day. Barely a lane wide, Bull Creek Road is a dirt trail that dumps out onto Highway 140 west of Yosemite’s El Portal entrance. The last five miles or so provide beautiful views—if you’re daring enough to take your eyes off the rock-strewn, washed-out Jeep trail that is lined with daunting cliffs. A mistake like “whiskey throttle” here could truly spell disaster. Despite having a bit less suspension travel, the standard GS actually did a great job descending Bull Creek, and its lesser weight made the bike a bit easier to manhandle when necessary.
The highlight of the day was supposed to be a ride into Yosemite National Park with very few tourists blocking its stunning views in early May. But just as we entered the park, our day took an interesting and, umm, “adventurous” turn. Pouring rain quickly turned into driving snow as temperatures dropped down into the low 30s, instantly glazing the roads with slush and ice. With visibility through my fogged visor virtually nonexistent, I had to resort to a sixth sense to know where I was going (actually, I had no idea where I was going). I did, however, repeatedly yell “thank you” into my helmet, intended for whomever had invented heated grips. A genius if ever there was one.
When we stopped to regroup and determine if a ride over a snowy, 6000-foot pass was possible, quite a few members of our group panicked and scattered in every direction, and someone rode away on my motorcycle. So, I had to wait and find another bike before I could try to bug out myself. A few made it over the Wawona Road pass before some cars and a bus slid off the road, convincing the Park Ranger in attendance that the remainder of the group should be sent back down into Yosemite Valley. Thus, we were forced to take refuge in Yosemite’s famous Ahwahnee Lodge… or should I say the bar at the famous Ahwahnee Lodge ($9 Irish coffees never tasted so good!).
So, instead of us riding the bike of the same name, our adventure instead ended with us drinking Yosemite Pale Ale in the back of a chartered bus. We had been defeated, not by Mother Nature but by a Ranger who clearly didn’t have as much faith in our knobby tires as we did. Those of us wearing heated clothing were disappointed not to tackle our final icy obstacle of the day.
But in the end, I was able to experience once again the magic that is GS. This bike never ceases to amaze me with its all-terrain capability, comfort (I rode it the 300 miles back to Orange County the next morning) and sporty handling. If you are looking for one bike that can do it all, the GS has to be at the top of your list.