BMW R1200GS Wrap-Up – Part 1

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Photo: www.ms-tours.ch

Words, photos: Rob Harris

Life with the GS started with a loaner in England back in April 2004. Here I was able to put it through a mix of highway cruising, twisty A and B roads and some of England’s (soon-to-be-closed to motor vehicles) green-lanes. The GS proved to be a blast and with the exception of losing a bag (more on that in part 2), finished the initial test with flying colours.

Once I got back to Canada (and was able to pry the actual long-termer out of the hands of Mr. Seck) it was soon enlisted to do dirt-duty and was put through its paces on the dual-sport ride series put on by Rally-Connex. The results were mixed (details to follow in this article), the GS excelling in some areas where we didn’t expect it to, but coming to grief in others where we’d thought it would be okay.

It got its fair share of paved-road usage as well, notably during our end-of-year tour into the northern Appalachians where we compared it to KTM’s 950 Adventure, Triumph’s Tiger and Aprilia’s Caponord. On pavement, the GS did not disappoint, proving itself capable of munching up the highway miles as well as feeling sporty when the pavement got all twisty.

Over the year, this newest incarnation of the Boxer became a firm favourite at the CMG offices. After a season of about 10,000 km, with much regret and dragging of feet ,we finally had to give it back to BMW.

What follows is a summary of how the GS faired throughout the previous season, but since we’ve got a lot to say, we’re going to break the report into two parts. I should mention that as we’ve already covered the updates to the new GS in the 2004 New Model Buyers Guide, so I’m not going to go into all those details again. However, if you’d like a refresher (and why not?), click on the NMBG link for all the details.

Okay, so in the first part of the wrap-up (which you’re reading now) we’ll take an in-depth look at how the GS faired in the dirt After all, one of the initial ideas when we decided to get the GS for a long-term project, was to put it through progressively nastier off-road scenarios and see at which point it starts to get tied up in knots.

And that’s what we did. It’s just that the knots weren’t exactly where we expected them to be ….

THE DIRT FACTOR

Before the 1200GS came out, my previous all-time favourite bike was the 1150GS Adventurer. Although physically huge and excessively lardy, it just seemed to work. I had the good fortune to ride it through a goodly amount of dirt trails and once you’d overcome your fear of wadding the beast (helped by not owning it), it rewarded the rider with a prowess seemingly incompatible with its stature.

With a lighter and more powerful 1200GS being introduced in 2004, it seemed that the equation could only get better.

Where the 1150 would ‘rail’ through the dirt, the 1200 can be steered through somewhat, and when needed, a quick application of throttle can be used to help you get out of an impending problem, where the 1150 would just dig itself a deeper hole. The power delivery is a welcome improvement too – coming in with a goodly amount of torque low-down and maintaining the grunt throughout the rev range. First gear is on the tall side for dirt usage, but once you learn to give up caring for the clutch’s well-being (again, it helps when it ain’t yours) it became less of an issue.

Less mass also helps the suspension do its job and the Telelever/Paralever combo are super compliant, enabling the GS to be bounced off rocks and launched over rough terrain with minimal fuss. It only gets into knots when the route ahead required some super-quick slalom work (like in rock fields), at which point its mass would become too much. It also gave a well-planted feel, and proved generally more confidence inspiring than the 1150.

Protection is good too, with the bash plate taking most of the abuse and little to no damage to other components … despite it being dropped on a regular basis. One of the heads got a bit of a gouge when I glanced a particularly large rock, so I’d recommend fitting some guards if you plan on going the dirt route.

But enough of the dirt summary, time for specifics …

GETTING A GRIP

With the standard Tourances fitted …Photo: Rob Harris

An initial exploration into Quebec’s Laurentians quickly showed the scope of the standard Metzeler Tourance tires. Super happy on gravel and hard-packed dirt, but any mud whatsoever would instantly fill the grooves in the rear and the back wheel would either spin (not good for hills or bumpy terrain), or kick out (hmhh, muddy corners).

I have a whole stack of photos of the GS lying on its side after such corners, the only warning of such an event being a sharp kick out of the rear of the bike and a moment later finding yourself sitting on your arse next to a GS on its side. I eventually learned to keep it straight and drag my feet in subsequent corner encounters, but beyond gravel roads and hard-packed dirt, the standard tires were not dirt-happy.

This ultimately led to another incident when Larry Tate managed to repeat the same mud corner experience at similar low speeds. However, this time, once the bike had been righted, the brake’s self-diagnostic system refused to complete its cycle and the ominous flashing of red lights on the dash signified that neither the servo-assist nor the ABS would function.

No matter how many times we turned the ignition on and off and peered thoughtfully at the front brake calipers, the lights persisted. It wasn’t until 100 slow kilometres later that we noticed that the hand-guard had twisted around and was applying enough pressure on the brake lever to prevent the self-diagnostics from doing their job.

The problem was traced to a slight break in the guard’s supporting bracket that allowed it to rotate around and apply the brake. Needless to say it was fixed in a matter of seconds and the rest of the trip was completed at the usual spirited pace.

Sans screen & with knobbies, the GS looks effing cool!Photo: Rob Harris

Fitting a pair of the more dirt-friendly Metzeler Karoos solved the muddy grip problem, and allowed the GS to rip through dirt trails with surprising ease.

As with any kind of specialization, although the Karoos were excellent off-road, on-road they had a rather interesting character trait. When coming into a corner, the big knobs would flex just a bit, giving the sensation that the rear was slipping out. Once the flexing was over, they gripped great, but initially it was a tad disconcerting.

However, there’s always a price to pay for grip, and the Karoos would wear down incredibly fast, especially with highway use. Although I didn’t get as much time on them as I’d hoped, I reckon that I’d probably get as little as 2,000 Km from the rear, maybe less if there is a chunk of highway riding involved. Oh, and those knobs generate a lot of noise on paved surfaces – which can be somewhat cool around town.

THE SINKING OF THE BISMARK

Unfortunately my fun-time would come to an all too quick end on one of the Rally-Connex rides when I came to a rather large puddle in the road ahead. A beaver dam downstream had caused muddy water to back up over the track and I was apprehensive about crossing. So I hung back and let some of the other dualies present go first.

No doubt about it, it was deep – I reckoned about a foot to a foot and half at the worst. But other bikes had crossed without trauma (save for a KLR that stalled-out thanks to blocked breather tubes), so I stood up on the pegs and went through as slowly as I could. About half way through – with water lapping over the top of the boxer’s heads – the motor cut. Down went my foot, and cold muddy water filled my boot. Eurgh.

I figured that some breather had gotten blocked momentarily (as per that KLR), so I thumbed the starter – Oh, that didn’t sound good. Time to dismount and proceed to push it out to the other side. Once on dry land there was nothing for it but to pull the plugs and see if it had swallowed water.

There must have been about 1000ccs in there, but with plugs refitted, a cranking of the starter only resulted in some ominous grinding noises. Feck. Although the action of getting the bike out of the middle of nowhere and back to civilization is a story unto itself, the net result was a bent con-rod (thanks to hydraulic lock), a knackered starter motor (thanks to trying to crank it with hydraulic lock) and ruined clutch (it’s not called a dry clutch for nothing).

To this day the incident is a sore point with BMW, but I still feel that the GS should have been able to cope with that situation. Granted, in hindsight, I screwed up by hitting the starter motor when it quit, but ideally I’d like to see either a raised inlet scoop (it’s located slightly above the cylinders) on future models or a warning in the owners manual that anything over a foot of water should be approached with caution.

Once the bike was back in my (un)safe hands I did do a few more adventures in the dirt, with any water crossing done with one eye on the cylinders and a finger on the kill switch. That way if I saw any water lap over a cylinder, I could hit the kill switch immediately and push it out from there

LIMITATIONS FOUND

Brake fluid on tire and discs.Photo: Rob Harris

On one of the final runs in the dirt I found myself totally in tune with the GS and threw it mercilessly through just about anything that I could. It was the hardest that I’d ridden it and it was glorious.

However, the party came to another premature end when the familiar brake warning lights started flashing frantically on the dash. After another period spent staring at the calipers and discs, I decided it was a false alarm and proceeded with caution.

It wasn’t until five hours later that I felt the pressure drain away from the front brake lever and pulled off to the side of the trail. The front wheel was covered in brake fluid – the culprit being a loosened banjo bolt on the LHS caliper. Ever tried to bleed a servo-assisted, ABS fitted braking system? Can’t do it, at least not at the side of the road. Luckily I was close to home base at this point and able to baby it back to the safety of the motel and Jim’s van.

The conclusion I came to after a summer in the dirt was that the GS is a fine bike for a very rough gravel road, but anything beyond that was pushing it. Basically, if a 4 x 4 could get through it, then likely the GS could too (water being the exception). The frustrating thing is it can almost do it, but with the water incident and front brake leak – both coming as a result of pushing it into territory beyond that rough gravel road – then it would seem like a safe conclusion. After all, being in the backwoods with 200 kgs of dead motorcycle is not a happy place.

In my opinion, this does not make it a faulty bike, as within known limitations (rough gravel road) nothing went wrong. However, there is a certain portrayal of the GS as a “do anything, go anywhere” machine, and I simply do not believe this is the case. R1200GS owners and BMW may take issue with this conclusion, but every bike has its limits and I don’t think the GS’s are too narrow.

It does more than a bike of this size and sophistication should be able to do, and if we accept that, then we should be able to avoid a painful trip home in the back of a van with a 200 Kg dead-weight.

In part 2 we’ll discuss the component parts of the GS as well as the usual wrap-up summary. Click on the link to go there!


THANKS TO…

Open Road BMW for the prep and first service work.

Moto Internationale (and especially that Bradley Levandier) for the rest of the work.

BMW Canada for giving us the bike in the first place and letting us do what we do.

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