California's Central Coast On The 2019 BMW R 1250 RT

Peter Egan rides to the Quail in style and comfort

Pacific coast
New bike, new century.Jeff Allen

For approximately the past decade, Editor Mark Hoyer has been telling me, “We’ve got to get you to the Quail.”

His tone of voice always reminds me of one of those worldly college guys telling his naive and innocent freshman roommate, “We’ve just gotta get you out to a bar!” It’s a mixture of sympathetic concern and genuine mission.

And that metaphor is not entirely strained, because a ride up the Coast Highway from the CW office to the Monterey Peninsula is nothing if not intoxicating. Once you escape rush hour in Los Angeles, the seacoast, vineyards, and sprawling hills have an almost Tolkien-quality grandeur and scale—especially if you take the right roads. And there are many right roads to choose from. I've made the trip many times in my life, but have never managed to make it to the Quail Motorcycle Gathering.

And why not?

Well, this is the 11th year for the Quail, and that event did not exist before my wife Barb and I moved back to Wisconsin in 1990. And California is a fur piece, as the Joad family would say, particularly if you hate commercial flying and it’s too cold to ride a motorcycle over the Rockies in May.

But this year the excuses finally ran out. I had a book launch and dinner to attend at the Quail Lodge & Golf Club, and Hoyer called to say Barb and I could fly into Orange County, borrow a bike and ride up the coast with him and photographer Jeff Allen. This on the heels of one of the most dismal Wisconsin winters in the dark annals of Midwestern dismalism. We were ready for California.

California’s central coast
There are few places on earth as fine for riding motorcycles as California’s central coast. And there are few traveling motorcycles as good for exploring them as the BMW R 1250 RT.Jeff Allen

“Would you like to ride my Norton Commando?” Mark asked.

“Funny you should ask,” I replied. “No.”

Actually, I would have loved to ride his flawless Commando up there, but I’d suffered a stroke while kickstarting my own ’74 Commando three years earlier, and I was afraid the VA Hospital would throw me out on the street if I showed up with another Norton-induced stroke. They’d spent half the cost of an F-16 on my miracle clot-busting drugs. Also, the last time Mark rode his Commando to the Quail, the alternator exploded on the way home.

"How about our BMW testbike, a 2019 R 1250 RT?" he offered. "You could do an update on that travel story you wrote 38 years ago, called 'Shooting the Coast,' where you took a Harley FLH from L.A. to Seattle and back."

R 1250 RT
Think of the R 1250 RT as the smaller of the big—in the sense that it is light and not overly large in the touring class.Jeff Allen

Update, indeed. That 1981 FLH Heritage model had been the last of the 80-cube Shovelheads, right before the Evolution engine arrived. A wonderfully charismatic bike, but its throbbing vibration had cracked the crash bar welds and shaken the floorboards apart. It also burned a bit of oil. Now we’d be traveling on the latest and largest iteration of the water-cooled Boxer Twin. With GPS, ABS, traction control, and half a dozen electronic suspension settings, not to mention saddlebags with no conchos or fringe. And we’d really be shooting only about half the coast.

Sounded interesting, though. I’d gotten nothing but good reports on the new RT’s comfort, handling and killer engine, and it would be ideal for taking Barb and our luggage on that mixture of freeways, forested lanes, and cliff-hugging roads.

So we packed our riding gear into my battered orange KTM roller bag—always easy to spot on the baggage carrousel—and off we went in a big jet airplane, where we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of two biscuits and a small water with several ice cubes. A cab delivered us to the CW office in Irvine, California, to pick up the BMW, then we rode to a nearby hotel to gird ourselves for a chilly early morning departure: 49 degrees at 5:30 a.m. Mark pulled into the parking lot on a 2011 Harley XR1200X borrowed from his wife Jen, and we rode off into the gathering apocalyptic roar of greater L.A. commuter traffic in the near-darkness.

“Would you like to ride my Norton Commando?” Mark asked. “Funny you should ask,” I replied. “No.”

Even at this ungodly time of the morning, all five lanes of the northbound freeways were either stopped or moving at the sluggish pace of a well-fed python, so we largely split lanes for two hours before breaking free somewhere north of Mulholland Drive on Highway 101.

But ah, the smells of the early morning freeway! I’d almost forgotten. Oil refineries, welding shops, jet fuel from LAX, mysterious and possibly carcinogenic solvents, grease-fire smells from fast-food joints—all mingled yet distinct. The great city wakens and stirs. It’s actually rather exciting, because several million people have just had their coffee and are now on the move, making things and doing stuff.

And then there are the cars. Teslas! A somewhat rare sight in our home state, these cars filter through the currents of L.A. commuter traffic like salmon on the Columbia. Porsches, Lamborghinis, and older classics that rusted away 40 years ago in harsher climates.

All very stimulating, but chilly. At least for Mark on his unfaired Harley. He had that slightly hunched riding position of one whose neck is growing shorter with each passing mile. Not so for Barb and me. We’d discovered minutes after leaving the hotel the damp morning chill would not be a problem.

Bixby Creek Bridge
It’s impossible to ride across Bixby Creek Bridge without getting a few photos.Jeff Allen

The R 1250 RT has heated grips that can be adjusted from pleasantly warm to “My gloves are on fire!” It also has an electrically adjustable windscreen that goes up from full-flow ventilation to an almost noiseless cocoon of warmth and still air. The lower bodywork directs most of the wind blast away from your legs.

And a first for both of us was the heated seat. How wonderful on a cold morning to have heat emanating from the netherworld into the very fundaments of your being! Like the grips, this is adjustable with an easy-to-access menu screen and a wobble-ring adjuster on the left grip. The ring is also used for suspension settings and zooming in and out on the GPS. This all sounds complicated, but even a Luddite like yours truly was able to figure out most of these controls intuitively while on the move.

At the predictable Santa Barbara traffic slowdown, we stopped for breakfast and fuel. And at our gas station, the RT revealed that it can be a bit of an unwieldly lump at waddling speeds. While maneuvering around gas pumps or crawling up to a stop sign in traffic, it sometimes feels like a wheelbarrow full of bricks, especially if you have a passenger and luggage and have just filled the generous 6.6-gallon fuel tank.

I should mention that Barb also likes to travel with quite a bit of gold bullion in her saddlebag, along with a 5-gallon bottle of Costco creme rinse, so we were well loaded. Mark hefted her luggage when we left the hotel, raised one eyebrow, turned to me and said, “Slate shingles?”

I just shrugged. I don’t really know what’s in there, but it’s dense enough to bend light.

Taking a break from the ride
“Was it 24-karat or 18-karat gold bullion you packed?” The best part of a rapid and capable sport-tourer is that you can still arrive on time even with frequent necessary stops at scenic overlooks.Jeff Allen

Despite that load and the bike’s 642-pound curb weight—as measured on the CW scale—the BMW immediately gains composure when you start rolling and lift speed is achieved. Wheels up, the RT transforms itself into a proper fighter jet. The suspension—which can be set to self-adjustment for load—smooths out road undulations beautifully and handles curves like a sportbike. And, of course, that 1,254cc engine, with its two-stage cam-and-rocker arrangement, makes big power (128 hp on our dyno) and torque (nearly 96 pound-feet) coming off corners. And everywhere else. Need to pass a motorhome and six timid cars in a short passing zone? Just do it, right now. It’s one of the great motors.

Which is good, because Jeff led us on some wonderfully curvy roads though the forests and hills of central California after we left Santa Barbara. We took the lovely two-lane of Highway 154 up along Lake Cachuma and had coffee in Los Olivos—made famous in the movie “Sideways”—then hooked through the Zaca and Alisos canyons back to the busier Highway 101. At Paso Robles we suddenly veered northwest onto the narrow and curving pavement of State Road G4, across Fort Hunter Liggett—usually open to civilian traffic—and over the coastal mountains on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to the Coast Highway.

Now, I thought I’d been on every back road in California about six times, thanks to many years of magazine photo shoots, but I’d entirely missed Nacimiento Road, whose miles of tight turns, sheer drop-offs and steep coastal vistas have to be seen to be believed. Mark and Jeff were amazed I’d never been there, while Barb was amazed I didn’t kill us by plunging off a cliff. And I was amazed by what a handful the RT was in highly cambered uphill 10-mph hairpin turns. I want to come back as soon as possible with something very light and agile, like Mark’s Yamaha WR250R dual-sport bike. Pure bliss.

Wheels up, the RT transforms itself into a proper fighter jet.

After the workout of Nacimiento, the sweeping curves of Coast Highway through Big Sur seemed almost effortless and gave us a chance to soak in the beauty of this world-famous stretch of road, which in the misty afternoon light looked like a mystical landscape painting from either the Ming Dynasty or our favorite Chinese restaurant. Traffic was moderate, seemingly composed of about 50 percent rental Mustang convertibles. Lots of white-haired retired couples, young honeymooners and visitors from Asia and Europe parked at a scenic overlook where we stopped to rest.

I was about to take a shortcut path to the restroom, when Jeff pointed out a small sign that said, “POISON OAK,” and I froze in my tracks. In California, this sign has exactly the same effect on people as the sudden rattle of a large diamondback. Based on bitter experience, I was reminded that Big Sur is just one shrub away from being Paradise on earth. And one reptile, I might add.

We swooped north in the late afternoon, which was cooling off rapidly. Visitors to California who expect balmy spring and summer weather along the Pacific are often disappointed, because the climate near the ocean probably has more in common with coastal Scotland than with the sunny surf movies of the imagination. You’ll never see “Gidget Wears Fleece”—because it was suppressed by the California Tourist Bureau.

RT adjustable windscreen
The RT’s adjustable windscreen helped keep rider and passenger cool on the inland parts of the route.Jeff Allen

On our Harley trip, Barb and I had to swing inland about 25 miles every few hours, just to get out of the coastal fog and warm up. But this time we were perfectly comfortable, swaddled in Gore-Tex behind our sleek windscreen. Mark, however, was well chilled and assumed the posture of one battling hypothermia…or possibly rigor mortis. Barb and I felt terrible about this, but somehow completely forgot to ask if he wanted to trade bikes.

We finally turned inland at Carmel Valley Road and pulled into the Quail Lodge at the end of what had been a 14-hour, 400-mile day, what with lunch and our back-road photos sessions. We were all a bit weary, but Barb and I noted we’d hardly given the well-shaped BMW saddle a second thought. I’d have to rate it a very close second to my 2009 Buell Ulysses touring seat, which remains the gold standard for me.

I won’t go into detail on the Quail Gathering now, except to mention that I rode the RT solo on the 120-mile group ride on Friday, which included three laps around the circuit at Laguna Seca.

As we hit the track, I let the really hardcore sportbike riders—including Mark—blast off into the distance (as if I had any other choice), then held back to stay clear of a cluster of banzai riders who had probably never been there before so I could swoop around the circuit in relative solitude. I’d raced there several times in cars late in a recent century, but never on a bike, and had to reacquaint myself with the correct line.

2011 Harley-Davidson XR1200X
The 2011 Harley-Davidson XR1200X was a more visceral traveling companion.Jeff Allen

Once I figured out where I was going again, I found the big Beemer to be one of the easiest and most serene bikes I’ve ridden on a racetrack. Composed, stable and predictable, it accelerates down the front straight as if you’ve dropped a bomb that obliterates well-ridden bikes that have smaller or lesser engines—and does it with almost embarrassing ease. You want to shout, “Sorry! I can’t help it!” as you streak by. Or, “Somebody stop me!”

I wasn’t exactly dragging my knee pucks, of course—as I was still recovering from a pretty good dirt bike crash about a month earlier in Big Bend Park in Texas—but at a brisk older gentleman’s pace, this was a bike that made you want to stay out on the track until dark. It’s the great white shark of sport-touring bikes.

The ride home Sunday was pleasantly relaxing because we took two days to get back to Orange County, with an overnight stay at the charming old Paso Robles Inn. A visit to the Asuncion Ridge Vineyards tasting room helped us get our electrolytes back in balance, and the next morning we blitzed straight home through L.A. traffic in the HOV lane before evening commuter traffic had time to thicken and gel.

It’s the great white shark of sport-touring bikes.

Perhaps the best part of the ride home was the Coast Highway, back down through Big Sur again, past Nepenthe, a famous restaurant built upon the remains of a small cabin that was once a romantic weekend retreat for Orson Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth. “Nepenthe,” incidentally, is an ancient Greek word for a fictional potion that banishes worry and sorrow from the mind. Just like the road and the coastline. We cruised over the road repairs from many recent landslides, onward past the Hearst Estate at San Simeon, then all the way to Highway 46.

On many previous trips, Barb and I would hustle down this road at a crazy pace to get home in one day. But this time we cruised along at a relaxed-tourist speed, savoring the scenery. And I was reminded—for the first time since our laid-back Harley trip—why this has always been a favorite landscape of Beat and Zen poets, and other searchers with a meditative bent. To include motorcyclists.

When you take the time to look out at its mists, rocky crags and crashing surf, the effect is so absorbing that there’s not much time for the mind to wander off course and think about anything except where you are at the exact moment. Combined with the flow of motorcycle motion along the mountainside curves, there’s almost no chance you’ll wonder if you left the coffee pot plugged in or paid the Visa bill. Nepenthe, indeed.

That elixir worked for us with the Harley FLH almost four decades ago, and it works for us with the BMW now. The bikes have changed, but not this magical place or the reasons we ride. If this were a comparison test, both bikes would win, dead equal in the pleasure they bring.

2019 BMW R 1250 RT

Type Air-/liquid-cooled, four-stroke flat twin w/BMW ShiftCam
Displacement 1,254cc
Bore X Stroke 102.5 X 76.0 mm
Compression Ratio 12.5:1
Valvetrain DOHC, 4 valves/cylinder
Induction Electronic fuel injection w/ ride-by-wire
Final Drive 6-speed/shaft drive
Front Suspension BMW 37mm Telelever fork, central spring strut; 4.7-in.
Rear Suspension BMW Paralever, WAD strut w/ adjustable preload and rebound; 5.4-in.
Front Tire Metzeler Roadtec Z8 Interact 120/70-17
Rear Tire Metzeler Roadtec Z8 Interact 180/55-17
Rake / Trail 25.9°/4.6 in
Wheelbase 58.5 in.
Seat Height 32.3 in.
Fuel Capacity 6.6 gal.
Dry Weight 600 lb.
Horsepower 128.1 hp @ 7,500 rpm
Torque 95.7 lb.-ft. @ 6,200 rpm
Fuel Consumption 43.4 mpg avg.
Quarter Mile 11.13 sec. @ 120.5 mph
0-30 1.32 sec.
0-60 2.96 sec.
0-100 6.8 sec.
Top-Gear Roll on 40-60 2.94 sec.
Top-Gear Roll on 60-80 3.08 sec.
Braking 30-0 30.38 ft.
Braking 60-0 121.14 ft.
Price $26,794 (as tested)