2009 GS Challenge

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Costa takes the F800GS tester for a weekend in the woods in the Quebec Laurentians, otherwise known as the GS Challenge.

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Words: Costa Mouzouris. Pics: Joe Stather, Nancy Hamel, Costa Mouzouris

Group rides, especially those that are brand- or model-specific, have never appealed to me. I might share an affinity for a certain bike but I don’t feel the need to gather with my riding brethren just because we have common tastes in two wheelers.

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A rider puts his R1200GS through the motions during a special test.

I had to make an exception to this self-imposed principle by participating in the 2009 edition of the GS Challenge. After all, we had a BMW F800GS test bike that needed a good flogging in the dirt.

Originating in South Africa in 2004, the GS Challenge off-road rally migrated to Canada in 2007, hosted by Montreal BMW dealer Moto Internationale.

The weekend-long event was specifically catered for owners of BMW GS models and designed to test riding skills; it’s not a race but rather includes hundreds of kilometres of off-road riding as well as several special tests.

This year’s annual event took place in mid-September and was based, as it has been in the past, at Pourvoirie du lac Beauregard, an outfitter located about three hours north of Montreal.

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Organizers didn’t make the GS Challenge easy.

Participants were split into teams of three; I was teamed with motorcycle journalists Bertrand Gahel and Marc Paradis. As a team, we had to choose one of three routes of varying difficulty to ride to the base camp.

The Panoramic route was designed for novice off-roaders and adhered mostly to dirt roads. The Challenge was the main route and was more difficult, following a combination of dirt roads and ATV trails. Finally, the Double Diamond followed mostly the Challenge route, but occasionally branched off into loops that went through very difficult muddy sections.

As my teammates had more enthusiasm than off-road experience (Bertrand: “I don’t ride in the dirt often; I want to suffer”), we pondered riding the Double Diamond but settled on the Challenge route as none of us would volunteer to retrieve a submerged GS, and since Bertand and Marc were riding the more street-oriented F650GS models, submersion was imminent.

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Argentinian BMW instructor Andrés Memi (on one wheel) and former Canadian trials champ Charles Gref rode like men possessed all weekend.

The route to Pourvoirie Beauregard was a splendid mix of winding pavement, unpaved roads and moderately challenging trails that included hard-packed, rocky and sandy bits, hydro trails, as well as several water crossings.

The F800GS was a better match for the rougher off-road sections, as its increased ground clearance kept its undercarriage from bottoming, something my teammates had to be wary of as their machines were lower and had no skidplates.

Saturday’s schedule included a morning of special tests followed by an afternoon loop through the trail network that crisscrossed the outfitter’s land.

The tests consisted of nine trials-type challenges with obstacles like deep mud crossings, steep descents and even steeper ascents, deep sand, wheel-wide marked tracks, half-buried steel barrels — or a combination of all.

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Saturday’s trail ride was no walk through the park. Gahel keeps his F650GS afloat.

Points were added if you put your feet down or stopped your bike along the course (the winner collecting the least amount of points), and if your wheels left the course or you dropped your bike during a test you were disqualified from that test.

Only riders who completed the special tests aboard 1,000 cc machines or larger were eligible for the grand prize, which was a chance to compete in the world GS Challenge. I must say that watching some of the riders manhandle R1200GSs through courses that would be difficult to negotiate on a 450 cc dirt bike was impressive.

The top three contestants would repeat the tests, as well as a couple more, on Sunday morning aboard F800GSs to crown the overall winner.

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If you’re worried about marring the paint on your beloved GS, stay home.

Saturday’s trail ride was rough, and on the limit of what I’d attempt on an F800GS. The bike handled everything rather well, but was too heavy and occasionally took a beating through the rougher rocky sections. I cringed thinking what my teammates’ F650GSs were going though.

Of course, we all paid the price as our bikes ended up with bent front rims, as well as a couple of other dinged up parts. Some retribution was had once we looked over the bikes parked at base camp at the end of the day; about half of them had bent rims.

We returned home on Sunday, but not before watching Saturday’s top three finishers battle it out in the special tests. Dominique Lemaire scored high on Saturday aboard his R1200GS and dominated on the F800GS on Sunday to emerge the overall winner.

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Saturday night’s dinner: pig bits on a spit. Mmm…

Although I initially participated in the GS Challenge with some apprehension, it turned out to be the best riding weekend of my summer. Scenic trails were just challenging enough to make the ride entertaining without overwhelming the machine I was riding, riders were in high spirits and camaraderie ruled.

Also contributing to the overall positive experience was the event’s seamless organization and the superb atmosphere of the hosting outfitter. Pourvoirie du lac Beauregard, as other Quebec-based outfitters, caters mostly to outdoorsmen — hunters and fishermen — as well as ATV riders and snowmobilers.

This place is unique because the owner, Jean-Luc Duquette, is a rider who owns a BMW R1200GS and a Yamaha WR250F, and extends an open invitation to off-road riders looking for a weekend excursion. He maintains the 225 km of trails that surround his land, and although he’s too busy to guide, he has an intimate knowledge of the area and can suggest routes.

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Pourvoirie Beauregard is very motorcycle-friendly; truly merits a visit.

The place has accommodating cottages, a restaurant, as well as a bar for day’s end benchracing, and it has fuel. It’s a dirt-rider’s paradise and I highly recommend you get a few riding buddies together and plan a weekend in the woods north of Montreal; you won’t regret your stay.

As for the GS Challenge, it has swung my opinion about group rides, even if it’s only for those that remain mostly off road. It’s a tough ride, and if you plan on taking your beloved GS to next year’s event (visit gschallenge.ca for a schedule) be prepared to return home with more than just rock chips in the paint — at least if you’re looking to have some fun.

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