How cool is it to be riding along at a GPS-certified 80 mph and have a Highway Patrol cruiser breeze on by without even glancing over? How about a sign advising traffic to slow to 70 mph for an upcoming curve?
Arizona is an amazingly diverse area where, if you tire of twisty pavement with no cops and very few other vehicles, just turn onto one of the thousands of dirt roads and tracks that criss-cross the landscape. And nary a “No Trespassing” sign can be found.
It’s a place where residents don’t associate rivers or bridges with water; they buy salsa by the gallon and think six tons of crushed rock makes for a beautiful front yard.
The first thing to know about Arizona is the speed limit on interstate highways is a civilized 75 miles per hour (120 kph in Canuck-speak) and most two-lane roads are posted as 65 mph (around 105kph). The second thing to know is that everything in the desert either bites, chews, stings, pokes, jabs, ventilates, pierces, punctures or perforates you.
By The Time I Get to Phoenix…..
Why is Bondo in Arizona, you ask? Another fully paid press jaunt at somebody else’s expenses perhaps? Five star hotels with hot and cold running chambermaids featuring exotic, endangered species tidbits on the menu? Nope. Cherie and I were here on our own dime, spending a full month away from an Ontario winter to see if we liked it. And we do. A lot.
Tony Vinent (a good friend of mine from Oshawa), and his lady bought a house just south of Tucson and invited us to visit. I’ve known Tony for over 20 years; we ride together a lot and were vintage endurance racing partners, collecting several podium finishes along the way. Tony rides a 650 V-Strom in Canada but keeps a tricked-out ’09 KLR650 down south.
I started laying out feelers to see if I could borrow a motorcycle and a Herculean effort by BMW Canada had me astride a new G650GS Sertao two days after we arrived at our wintering spot.
When BMW introduced the 800GS a few years ago, the 650cc, single-cylinder Dakar was dropped from the lineup. Even though the larger GS models are wonderful, competent motorcycles, angry torch-bearing mobs stormed the company parapets, demanding that BMW bring back the simple, lightweight and low-priced 650 Dakar.
So last year, BMW reintroduced the single-cylinder G650GS. Now we have a more dirt-oriented version called the Sertao, which is Portuguese for “wilderness” and almost a dead ringer for the old 650 Dakar. The only visible differences are the updated headlight, the front beak, a taller screen and a revised (but not for the better) instrument package.
To get the chassis up to full potato-farming specs, the Sertao’s suspension checks in with 211 mm of suspension travel front and rear – 40 mm more than the 650GS. The GS’ cast wheels are gonzo, replaced by dirt-friendly spoked units – a 21-incher up front and a narrower, 3.00×17 in the back. Serious cultivators will say the Metzeler Tourance rubber is too street-oriented, but anyone into hard core off-roading will replace the rubber anyway.
With taller suspension comes more ground clearance and a lofty seat. My 37-inch inseams easily summited the 861 mm peak, but anyone less than six feet tall may have difficulty and, unlike the Dakar, the Sertao has no lower seat option at present.
One thing Dakar owners griped about was the short sidestand and the taller Sertao seems to have the same unit. This causes excessive lean when parked and it takes a good heave-ho to get it vertical, even on pavement. On crumbly or cambered surfaces, this could be cause for difficulty when trying to re-mount the bike. You’ll note that in most of the static shots, I propped a rock under the Sertao’s sidestand and it’s still leaning way over.
Once aboard, the upright riding position gives an excellent view of your surroundings, with the added bonus of looking over most cars when in traffic. At 193 kg (425 lbs) gassed up and ready to go, the Sertao isn’t exactly a lightweight, but the wide bars and narrow chassis make it very easy to throw around.
Acceleration is decent and, a 75 mph cruising speed puts you around 4,300 rpm. An Ontario-legal 100 kph is 3,800 rpm but surprisingly, it’s smoother at Arizona velocities.
The Sertao’s windscreen is higher than the standard GS and provided significantly more wind protection, although I noticed some buffeting at speed. When offroad, it also deflected much of the debris kicked up by other riders.
The large analog speedometer is flanked by an LCD display with time, twin tripmeters, total mileage and a tiny LCD bar-type tachometer that’s virtually unreadable in sunlight.
There are some really good twisties not far from Tucson and, once I cranked up the rear preload (easily done by hand, courtesy of a remote adjuster on the right side) to raise the rear end a bit, it steered a lot better. It was still a bit reluctant to turn in the faster stuff so I raised the fork tubes 5mm in the triple clamps and it was spot-on. It’s amazing how you can hustle these dual purpose bikes around on pavement.
Right, Let’s Get It Dirty Then
I’ve never really done that much dirt riding because when I was younger, pursuing a pro roadracing license was so all-consuming that I had no time or interest for riding on anything that wasn’t black and sticky. So I told Tony that if it looked like we were getting into stuff where the only way I was coming out was with a toe tag, I was taking a pass.
We started off with dirt roads in the desert and then some wide trails through the Santa Rita Mountains that smaller four wheel drive pickups and Jeeps could navigate. The Sertao proved to be so confidence-inspiring, I soon got comfortable and realized skills learned on the racetrack are valid on the dirt too. Just have a loose grip on the bars and keep your eyes up.
Originally I was tense, holding the bars with a death grip and looking directly in front of my front tire but as soon as I relaxed and started looking up, both my speed and comfort level increased and I felt more in control of the motorcycle. When we hit some open fireroads, I was soon blasting along some stretches at an indicated 50 mph.
See an approaching soft sand wash? No problem. Slide back on the seat and give it gas. The narrow 21-inch front tire skims along the surface (rather than digging in and plowing) and away you go. Once I got used to the bike moving around under me and realized it wasn’t going to pitch me off, I started to quite enjoy it.
The handling was steady and consistent with no surprises. And, as I got more relaxed and comfortable with the Sertao, I was able to pick cleaner and less bumpy lines, which lowered the stress level even more.
Damping in the Sertao’s plush, long travel suspension was an excellent compromise both on and off-road; surprising considering the only adjustment is rear preload. Over rutted washboard surfaces, I stood up on the pegs and the bike just floated over all the debris with nary a jolt getting through the bars.
At the end of the day’s riding, we’d put down 275 miles (460km), of which better than half was dirt. The Sertao’s low fuel light consistently came on when the tripmeter showed between 170 and 180 miles (283 to 300 kilometers), which is a decent range for the smallish 14-liter tank. Fuel consumption ranged from 55 to 62 miles per US gallon or 3.8 to 4.2L/100km. Fairly impressive.
The built-in luggage rack is small but nice to have, as is ABS you can deactivate for serious off-roading. BMW’s optional heated grips were welcome in the morning as winter temps dip to just above freezing at night in the desert. By 10am it’s in the teens C and by noon, you’re into mesh jacket with no liner mode. If desired, the rubber footpeg inserts are removable, leaving grippy, grooved metal surfaces that keep boots from slipping off. And, the Sertao comes with BMW’s 36-month, unlimited mileage warranty.
So you want to go south for the winter? Here are a couple of things if anyone is thinking about heading to Arizona. There is no humidity and without frequent applications of Chapstick, your lips will look like two innertubes exploded.
Border Patrol checkpoints are everywhere south of Tucson, even on the Interstate highways. It’s not a big deal. Stop, be polite and make sure you have your passport with you.
We probably went through 20 of these checkpoints and only once was I asked to produce my passport. I asked one officer what would happen if I didn’t have it with me. He smiled and said, “We could tie you up for a few hours, filling out forms and answering questions.” Just carry the damn thing. Overall, I found them all to be friendly and courteous and most times, they just waved the bikes through.
Now Cherie and I have most of this coming year to figure out how we can spend two or three months in Arizona next winter. Even though the winter of 2012 has been relatively mild in Canada, plus 25 is much better than plus 4. I think the plan would be to buy a bike and keep it down there. Insurance on Tony’s KLR is $150 per year for complete coverage except collision.
I’d definitely consider having a Sertao as an Arizona vehicle. It’s great for pavement and most off-road conditions, economical to operate and comfortable. It’s definitely worthy of BMW’s heralded GS monicker and if it can handle Arizona’s amazing diversity of riding conditions, anywhere else will be a piece of cake.
|Engine Type:||1-cylinder, 4-stroke, 4 valve, liquid cooled|
|Output:||48 hp at 6,500 rpm|
|Dry Weight:||177 kg (390 lbs)|
|Fuel Tank Capacity:||14.0 l|
|Consumption – claimed (l/100km at 120km/h):||3.2 l|
|Warranty Coverage:||36 months, unlimited kilometres|
|Roadside Assistance:||36 months|