Is it really October already? As any red-blooded motorcyclist will relate, I fear winter. Although I’ve learnt to accommodate by adopting winter activities such as snow shoeing and skiing, I’ve never come to look forward to its cold white domination.
One thing I have found that helps with the prospect of a long, looming winter is a lot of riding time the summer before, and two things have helped me get that this summer:
1) Organizing the Fundy Adventure rally – which meant that I had to spend a goodly amount of time in my local trails mapping out routes.
2) The BMW F800GSA long-termer – which gave me the wheels I needed to do such ‘work’ (and I use that term very loosely).
We’ve already covered how the GSA performed on the road in our Nova Scotia spring tour article (not bad as far as I was concerned though my colleagues thought the motor was a bit too vibey at speed, considering the asking price), so now let’s discuss how it did in the world of dirt.
The A is for Adventure
Okay, let me start by addressing the “there’s no such thing as a 500 lbs dirt bike” crowd (I know I do this often, so please bear with me). Correct, there isn’t. But anyone who’s ridden a capable adventure bike will appreciate that despite the bulk and weight, as long as you have a large front wheel (21-inch on the GSA), competent long-travel suspension (230 mm /215 mm F/R and beefy 43 mm USD forks) and decent ground clearance then you have a bike that will go a lot further into dirt territory than any other road-orientated bike.
Road mode is designed to prevent any wheel lock (ABS) and any rear wheel slippage (traction control), whereas Enduro mode turns down both the traction control and the ABS. You can also turn both systems off completely if you prefer.
If you make the mistake of keeping it in Road mode in the gravel then the traction control keeps cutting the power to the rear wheel and the bike sputters along very painfully and slowly as the electronics try to prevent any wheel spin.
Enduro mode lets the rear spin up and the GSA will give a satisfying fish tail under power as it bites into the loose dirt and propels itself forward. It also relaxes the ABS to allow you to lock up the back, but only momentarily. Since I like to be able to fully lockup the rear to add to steering in the dirt, this setup doesn’t quite do it for me. Ideally the Enduro mode would disengage the ABS in the rear completely, but keep it on the front – as you can do with the latest R1200GSs (I see no gain from being able to lock the front wheel, aside for lurid stoppies of course).
My long-termer also came with the Electronic Suspension Assistance (ESA), which stiffens up the suspension at the press of a button: Sport – stiff for higher speed road work, Comfort – good for the highway, and Normal – in between the two, and what I tended to use for the dirt. Although some complain of the suspension being soft —it is — but I didm’t find it too soft.
And what perhaps defines the A model over the standard is its larger 24-litre gas tank – that’s up from a paltry 16 litres on the standard model. As the tank is mounted at the back, its larger size now sticks out around the sides and requires the luggage racks to come fitted as standard for added protection.
Add to this a set of crash bars and added protection around the rad and you have decent crash protection (tested!). Having said that I can’t fathom why an aluminum bash plate isn’t included as standard – it comes optional at $365.65 – the standard plastic one, although thick, leaves the oil filter and pipes horribly exposed.
There’s also the taller screen – the frame of which serves as a perfect mount for a GPS as it is now at eye height, meaning you don’t have to look down and take your eyes off the trail to look at it. Add to that a more padded seat that’s pretty comfy for a day in the saddle and is narrow enough that you can stand without it getting in the way. The GSA is a very tall bike with standard seat height coming in at 890 mm, though there is a 860 mm low seat option available.
All these gubbins add a significant 15 kgs (33 lbs) to the GSA’s 229 kgs (505 lbs) wet weight – although about 8 kgs of that is down to the extra fuel capacity. I rode the standard 800GS too this year and that extra 15 Kgs is noticeable, the standard GS feeling quite a bit more nimble.
Our long-termer came with the optional aluminum bags from Touratech. Decent capacity and the ability to open up at either end – handy to access maps mid trail – had me quite liking them, but my spill bent up one bag and by the end of the summer the other was full of water after rain and left me feeling that they were somewhat lacking. The leakage after time and use/abuse results from the fact that they’re riveted together and quite thin material, which is not what I would have expected from Touratech. A better construction is needed here for real life off-road use.
So enough information about what the GSA has to deserve the A, let’s get to my dirty experiences.
My first Fundy Adventure Rally scouting trip was a little over-adventurous, as I foolishly decided to keep going down a track that was starting to give off the tell-tale symptoms that something rougher was about to come. That came in the way of a muddy hole the GSA’s front wheel slipped into before I realized what was going down. You can read all about that here, suffice to say the “500 lbs does not a dirt bike make” rule came into full effect.
My next foray was to be just as action-packed and saw me blasting happily along an easy dirt road, only to see a two-foot-by-two-foot washout right in front of me while clipping along at a fair old rate.
With no time to stop, I opted to try and loft the front, but the 798 cc motor isn’t exactly peaky and the front wheel caught the edge with a whack. Otherwise it seemed to have cleared fine and it was only a few days later on the spring tour that I noticed a distinct thumping vibe in the bars. My subsequent investigation found a rather large bend in the rim.
This was eventually ‘fixed’ thanks to my neighbour’s hydraulic press but this was to be a semi-regular experience over the duration of the summer. By the end, the rim was so far from round that I took the plunge and found a replacement – more of that in the next update.
There was no doubting it, this arranged marriage was not flowing as well as I had hoped and when I tried to push the GSA in the trails to force the partnership, I managed to glance a half-buried rock that then rolled with the wheel. This whipped the bars sharply from one lock to the other and had me on my arse before I could say “no no, no, don’t you go down on me now,” which is the first time I have said such a thing (read about it here). And it was still only June …
Although I was quite enjoying the GSA, it appeared to be a one-way affection. Things were not going as planned.
Then I remembered a bit of advice from a previous life, while on an adventure tour of British Columbia with Mr. Seck. We had a big 1150 GSA (now that was a big bike) and I was having trouble negotiating the ruts and bumps of the dirt road we found ourselves on. “Just give’r” said Mr. Seck, like he actually knew what he was doing.
So I did, and sure enough the big GSA lightened up, riding over instead of into irregularities and things started looking up.
The same principle worked for the 800. Over the next few weeks I fine-tuned our relationship, found the perfect off-road tire pressure, messed with the suspension and stopped over-thinking it and started to ride it like I actually owned it (though this strategy is not to be used in my personal life).
This seemed to be the key, and although I had originally intended to use my more damageable KLR650 for the more extreme scouting, I soon stopped turning around mid-trail and started venturing forth instead. However, I had learned some valuable insights into the F800GSA from this rocky start. Firstly it’s a big bike so beware where you take it. Secondly the front rim is too soft so beware what you hit, and finally if things start to go sideways, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do much to save it.
The additional fuel capacity is a welcome change too as I never found myself cutting a scout short to find more fuel though the extra weight of a full tank was certainly noticeable.
The gear box is slick and can be used sans clutch but I did find the first gear a little tall for slow trails work and the sixth a little short for highway work.
The optional TKC80 tires are great for this kind of duty though they do rather shockingly disappear with any amount of time at highway speed. By the end of the summer I was getting air, bouncing off rocks and splashing through mud holes in much the same way I do with my KLR.
Granted although my project KLR’s lighter mass and more svelte profile could go further into the dirt spectrum, the GSA wasn’t far off. Some off-road ability sacrificed due to extra weight and frankly the cost of replacement parts, but a huge boost in overall plushness and its ability to go all day in relative comfort.
Having tried last year to make Suzuki’s DL650 into more of an adventure bike than it comes in stock trim, I can really appreciate the difference between that and a bike like the F800GSA that comes out of the factory ready to go.
After bolting on everything that could be found to protect the Strom from the world of off-road, we still ended up with a very marginal gain in off-road ability thanks to lack of suspension travel, ground clearance and too small a front wheel – the GSA’s 21-inch front wheel is so much more capable than the Strom’s 19-inch.
The F800GSA has all the bits we added to the Strom and some additional bits too. Granted, it comes at a hefty price, but it’s turn-key capable, pretty much delivers what it purports to be able to do and offers a real world spectrum of usage that most other so-called adventure machines come no-where close to.
Having said that, there are a few weak points given the price. As we found during the spring tour and to a lesser extent in the trails, the 798 cc twin motor needs an update. It’s capable but it’s buzzy at higher revs (an issue on the highway) and could do with a bit more zing in the trails.
Further, the front rim is much too soft and too easily bent in what I would consider terrain that should not present problems for this bike. And finally, obviously, the aluminum bashplate must come as standard fitment; it’s a bit of a gaping hole in what otherwise is very good armour.
As I see it, BMW is offering a turn-key adventure touring machine which the GSA very nearly is, it just needs a few last tweaks. If you know that before your purchase, you should be a happy adventure buyer.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
Soft bags are always the best bet for true off road adventures. But my out of shape body doesn’t let me venture way off the logging roads anymore (yes they are the best)
And Mr. Editor, you’ve been on the east coast long enough now buddy, time to pony up and get yourself a sled for the winter.
i was thinking more one of those snow track conversions for my KLR …
I think plastic is a more suitable material for saddlebags than aluminum, unless you’re going to make the aluminum VERY heavy duty. Plastic can bend and spring back to its original shape, while aluminum just bends. Kind of like the difference between a Samsung Note 3 and an Apple iPhone 6 Plus. A Givi saddlebag kept the side of my bike off the road after I lowsided it, and was still completely usable and watertight afterwards, with just some scuffing to be cleaned up.
Sure, if you hit it hard enough, the plastic will break and be unusable. And the aluminum saddlebag with be pancaked and unusable.
You want tought? Ammo can saddlebags. They’re not terrible big though, and rather heavy.