When BMW offers the press a chance to ride their bikes, it’s best to take care not to get trampled in the rush. That’s not because the bikes are cool – well, they are but hey, everyone has cool bikes – but because nobody does things up quite as lavishly as the blue-and-white propeller company. The hospitality is of the luxurious persuasion, to say the least. Riding the machines is always fun, but being treated like a foreign potentate at the end of the ride is something else again.
So when Bay-Emm-Vay sweetened the pot by offering a chance to ride no fewer than ALL of the firm’s current models on a two-day excursion into Ontario’s Muskoka lakes country, the elbows were out in earnest. Fortunately, there were more than enough bikes to go around for everyone, except for the unfortunate hard-working Norm, who had to drive the cube van luggage/chase truck, and Margaret, poor girl, who had to make do with a shrieking red four-wheeler M3 thingie to dash ahead and make hospitality arrangements. I know she hated it. Norm, on the other hand, proved as fast in the cube van as some of the (automotive) journalists on the bikes on the rougher back roads…
Actually, about six inches more to my right on one occasion and he would have caught me up, too, not to mention picked me up, but that’s another story and that’s all I have to say about it.
BMw has completed an extensive revision of its lineup in just the past four years, and the Canadian and U.S. branches of the company are making a renewed corporate commitment to the two-wheeled side of the biz, so it’s worth a quick recap on the lineup here before providing some riding impressions and the Big Secret – which BMW is really the best one (normal caveats about this place, these roads, this month, etc. But you know what I mean).
There are three basic engine/frame combinations available. New this year and at what you might call the entry’ level, are the two seriously multi-national F650 models, which use Austrian Rotax 650 cc single-cylinder engines in a frame built by Aprilia in Italy, both to BMW specs. The Funduro model is modelled on the pseudo off-road look so big in Europe, while the Strada version has street-oriented suspension and bodywork. These are pretty cool bikes, actually; light enough for new riders to get by on, yet capable enough to be far from boring for the hot-shoes in the crowd. Both are available with lowering kits which drop the seats a whopping two inches according to BMW literature; the fork tubes are raised way up in the clamps and a new linkage is fitted to the rear shock, plus a few other minor changes such as to the sidestand and so forth. It’s a terrific idea for those a bit challenged of inseam.
Next up are the flat-twin boxer models, new from the ground up in the last four years. Engine, frame, and radical Telelever/Paralever suspension are all very high-tech, yet carry on BMW’s three-quarter of a century love affair with the opposed twin engine. Variations include the R1100R standard (the basically identical 850 is gone as of this year), the hot RS sportster, the delectable RT tourer, and the two Weird Harolds’ of the title, the not-really off-road GS and the brand-new cruiser (they’re Weird Harold because the GS looks a bit like a creature that ate its way out of your buddy’s chest, while the cruiser strongly resembles something that fell out of the spare parts bin in a Romulan warbird’s engine room).
And finally, we have the bricks’, the two models using BMW’s unusual flat-four engine. The K1100LT luxo-barge has the older somewhat buzzy 1,100 cc version
(my bet is this thing disappears in the very near future to be replaced by an effectively brand-new bike with the new 1200 lump), while the white-hot new K-RSmatches a completely reworked 1,200 cc engine with a new frame and suspension to create the fastest road bike BMW has ever built. It uses the Telelever front and Paralever rear concepts as fitted to the twins, but has its own unique honeycomb aluminum frame and mounting systems. And with a believable claimed 130 hp, it’s fast enough to make your eyeballs bleed, no lie (check the Archives for a complete test on this mother).
So there we were at BMW headquarters in Whitby, and after the usual abjurations about riding legally, obeying posted limits, yadayadayada, the starting gun went off and the scrum of journalists charged for the mounts of their choice for leg one of the journey north to cottage country (as if there are any cottages’ around Lake Joe, I mean six-and-seven figure dollar numbers don’t buy cottages’ in my books, but I digress once again). I grabbed the GS, partly because the mostly automotive crowd weren’t quite sure what to make of its insectoidal appearance and partly because I hadn’t ridden one for a couple of years.
The first leg north we were BORINGLY respectable, keeping in
mind the relatively crowded and policed areas being traversed. The GS, which deliberately looks a bit like something ready for a Paris-Dakar raid and is initially a bit off-putting if you’re on the short side of normal height, is actually surprisingly good in such situations. Even with the wide tiller-like bars, the little fairing does a remarkable job of, ahem, breaking the wind, while the softish long-travel suspension insulates you quite comfortably from the horrors of the pavement currently available on southern Ontario highways. Just before the first interesting road came up on our route sheets, I stopped with C*cl* C*n*d* guy John Cooper for a stretch, and he innocently suggested we switch (he was on a drop-dead gorgeous black R-RS) until lunch. The bugger knew, it turned out, that the next section of highway combined twists, turns, drops, hidden intersections, blind crests, and the like with pavement’ quality seldom seen outside of war zones. Not to mention the road crews were apparently out sanding the corners, practising for winter, no doubt. Which is to say, it was GS country.
The RS was still great fun, mind you; the torquey engine and responsive suspension both work well on twisting roads. But it would clearly have been happier on a more open highway with fewer potholes and recently-sanded corners. Or at least I would have been. Haven’t had so many close calls since, well, never mind.
After lunch (at the Sherwood Inn near Bala, very nice indeed, and Welcome to The Good Life, sir) I grabbed one of the new R1200C cruisers. Finished in a beautiful ivory colour, the bike was also fitted with a small windscreen and trick hard leather saddlebags. I won’t even try to describe the appearance; either you love it, or hate it, or are puzzled by it. But as a cruiser-style bike, it suffers a serious failing in that it actually goes and stops like a real’ bike, and is reasonably comfortable to boot. A cute little touch is that the rear pillion pad (don’t plan on long-distance two-up touring with this baby in place) folds up into a backrest. Oh, a real pillion seat is available as an option, of course. As ever, BMW has gone its own way.
The bored-out twin makes massive amounts of torque, the most in the range, and with a slick gearbox based on the new Getrag unit in the R1200RS sports machine, the drivetrain is more than adequate for any road situation. And despite lacking the Paralever rear that controls the driveshaft action on the other models, the handling is quite good, too, in the steady as she goes’ realm of thinking. Stable is the word. The length of the swingarm, say the tech boys, make the Paralever unnecessary. Squinting at the thing from side-on, it’s not hard to believe. It’s an interesting way to build a cruiser, if nothing else.
Nearing the end of the day, I caught up with Cooper again at Dorset, only because he’d stopped for a yoghurt or something and was watching the girls watching the boats traversing the channel into Lake of Bays. It was here I discovered that both saddlebag covers on the cruiser had unlatched and were waving in the breeze; fortunately they were hinged and still attached. Fortunately also, the previous rider’s gear seemed to be still there, including his plane ticket home to Vancouver. So that’s what the guy on the 1200 RS had been trying to tell me before I left him behind (car wanker…). We swapped again, and this time I came out ahead, getting the Funduro version of the F650 single.
This proved much like the GS, only with less mass and torque. On the roughish twisting roads east of Huntsville, the bike was enough fun to get me giggling into my helmet until I cleared a crest and came up behind the first OPP cruiser I’d seen all day. Oops, how good ARE these brakes, anyway? Time to stop for a coffee and maybe park around behind the garage just in case, but no grief. The bike feels super light and nimble compared to the bigger twins, yet is perfectly comfortable and has more than enough power to blast past slower vehicles without much need to worry about dotted road lines.
Overnight accommodation at the Grandview in Huntsville…ah yes, the Great Gatsby part of the story. My room’ had four phones, one each in bedroom, bathroom, eating area, and living room, a fireplace, a complete kitchen, and a private deck opening over the golf course and the lake. And as for the Julia Roberts lookalike who was serving canapés on the private lawn where we had an al fresco, barbecued to your personal taste supper served…!
Morning came and having studied the route sheets carefully (partly foresighted planning, partly avoiding looking at everyone else’s eggs – it had been a late night) I headed for the street-only F650ST Strada, only to find my attack forestalled by – who else? – Cooper, who was there ahead of me (of course, he hadn’t closed the bar, which I thought gave him an unfair advantage).
So I immediately glommed back onto the GS instead, and was rewarded with one of the very best rides of my life. The tight and hilly roads heading west of south of Huntsville down past Lakes Rosseau and Muskoka without exaggeration compare with anywhere in North America, and the GS proved itself the perfect bike for them. Comfortable up to 140 km/h or so, great leverage on the front end from the wide bars, a plush ride over the frost heaves, potholes (and again, the occasional road sanding), plus terrific grunt out of corners – you can’t say enough about how well this bike matches Ontario road conditions. No wonder Cooper got so far ahead of me yesterday.
Certainly couldn’t just be that he’s a better rider. Wonder where he got to on the Strada…?
Lunch (more delectable munchies at the Muskoka Sands resort,
yawn, as we watched the steamship Segwun sail majestically by from our covered deck high above the plebes) and it was time to change bikes again. By this time I had recovered well, and was fast enough to be able to grab the Strada, so I took off on my own, leaving the group behind to explore a little before heading back to Whitby.
The Strada proved a treat, much like the Funduro version in feeling light and flickable, but with tauter suspension, less travel, and a less upright seating position. The smaller fairing doesn’t do a bad job of keeping the wind off, either; it maybe doesn’t protect you as well as the higher one on the Funduro, but there’s less buffeting as well. It gets excellent gas mileage; I eventually caught up to Norm and blew by the chase truck just before the planned gas stop only to discover that everyone else had fuelled up elsewhere hours ago, worrying about low tanks. Norm had seen me going the wrong way about that time,
he said, but figured it wasn’t really a serious problem. After all, from there it’s all pretty much downhill to Lake Ontario, so how lost can you get? Thanks, Norm. You guys sent Margaret in the M3 out looking for Laturnus when HE went the wrong way.
This bike had the lowering kit fitted. Cooper said he’d had clearance problems once or twice, but I’m both smaller and (yes, let’s admit it) slower than him and never noticed any grinding (did miss having ABS once or twice, though…ah well, all’s well that ends well).
End of the day, back in Whitby, and oh my, I only managed to ride five of the nine models.
What a busy two days it’s been! Still, I did spend my time on the newest and most unfamiliar to me. The cruiser actually impressed me; I sort of tend to the Romulan engine parts appearance theory, but believe me, it’s by far the most functionally useful bike of the genre I’ve yet to try. The RS is as ever, a marvellous choice for the long-distance rider who prefers touring with more than a dash of sport. It and the touring RT machine are also both beautiful to die for, and whenever you stop attract crowds like roadkill draws flies. The singles are terrific. Light, narrow, and flickable, they’d make fabulous urban weapons and still are more than sufficient for any sort of general duty use.
And like them in spirit, if much bigger and heavier, is the R1100GS, which if you hadn’t already figured it out, has replaced the touring RT model in my heart as my favourite BMW. The styling, um, could be lived with or fixed (Cooper had some interesting ideas about sort of café-racerizing it, but then he races a mouldering BSA single anyway), but with a set of bags (clip right on, no problem) it would be hard to think of another machine more suited to the real-life world of today’s North American highways. The combination of plushness, handling, and torquemeister engine is hard to beat. Just don’t kid yourself that it really is a dirt bike…