Every two years since 2008, BMW has been putting on an event called the BMW GS Trophy at various exotic locations around the world (yes, even in western Canada!). This year’s GS Trophy was held in Thailand, and our intrepid globetrotter, Costa Mouzouris, rode with Team Canada, as Canada’s media representative.
Join us for another installment of the 2016 Summer Adventure.
The path below is just barely wider than my tires. To my left is a steep drop, down which I dare not look to see just how far I’d fall if I were to put a wheel wrong. To the right is an equally steep ascent that I could probably touch if I stretched out my right arm. But my right hand is firmly grasped around the throttle, gently feeding just enough power to keep me moving forward.
The track follows the contours of a hillside so steep that the right footpeg sometimes scrapes along the wall-like ascent to my right. The right crash bar of the big GS bunts an odd tree trunk, thrusting the bike to the left. Occasionally an overgrown tree root nudges at the front wheel, trying to coax it over the edge.
“There are trees to stop me if I fall,” I think as I duck to avoid being bopped on the helmet by a low-hanging branch. Nature is telling me motorcycles don’t belong here.
But I carry on, sweat pouring over my eyebrows and burning into my eyes. The temperature reads 34 degrees C, but the high humidity makes it feel like a sweltering sauna. Days of this heat and humidity have made the inside of my helmet smell like a bag of fermented socks. “It’s going to be fun!” we were told.
Day Six was to be the toughest day in a week of extremely challenging riding during the 2016 edition of the BMW GS Trophy, and the day’s 10-km stretch of single-track took about an hour and a half to negotiate. Tomm Wolf wasn’t kidding when he said five days ago that we’d probably hate him by now.
Preparing for survival
Wolf has been mapping routes for BMW’s biennial GS Trophy since the first one in Tunisia in 2008. It has since travelled to South Africa, Chile, western Canada, and this year to northern Thailand.
The GS Trophy is a big event for BMW and the costs must be substantial. Never mind the cost of flying out and hosting all the competitors, medics and media from around the globe, or even the hundred-plus R1200GSs equipped with spoke wheels, large skid plates, crash bars and other protective covers, and all shod with Metzeler Karoo II tires. BMW also provided all riders with riding gear, and partnered with Marmot for tents, sleeping bags, various other camping trinkets, and an equipment bag to carry it all. There were no shmancy 5-star resorts to be enjoyed along this trek. And that was just dandy by me.
Each year the event gets larger and the routes get tougher. Adding to the challenge two years ago, the bigger, heavier R1200GS replaced the F800GS as the rally bike of choice. I had participated in the 2010 GS Trophy in South Africa, so I knew it was a challenging prospect, but this year’s pre-rally communications declared the 2016 edition in Thailand would be the toughest yet, with a slower pace, much more technical riding, and high heat. The event would include seven days of riding with daily routes varying in length from 140 to 280 km.
I began training as soon as I got the call, a mere two months before the start, to attend as Team Canada’s media guy. My daily regimen included cardio exercises, spinning on my bike, and a revised diet that cut out a bunch of fat, gluten, sugars, and other tasty stuff. It worked — I lost 12 pounds. I felt great.
My team mates included Danick Cyr, a 40-year-old paramedic (a reassuring profession, I found) from St-Calixte, QC, Scott McDonald, 40, who works as an auto technician in Regina, and Cory Villeneuve, 44, from Ottawa, who’s in insurance. All of them are highly skilled riders, having proven their abilities by winning the GS Challenge qualifying events held as qualifiers for the big Trophy.
In all there were 57 competitors from 25 countries making up 19 teams, plus 19 journalists (one per team), as well as some VIPs, BMW media, medics and other staff. And for the first time in GS Trophy history, there was a team solely of women.
The weakest links in this travelling circus of off-roaders were the members of the media, who didn’t actually qualify for the event, but were rather selected for their storytelling abilities. Because of this, BMW scheduled two “media training days” ahead of the GS Trophy to both limber up rusty journos (like me), and to see if we could, you know, actually ride.
It was during the second media day, in unseasonally heavy rain, that I met Kurt Yaeger, an actor by trade, and one of BMW’s hired video hosts. If you’ve watched Sons of Anarchy on TV you might be familiar with the name.
I decided to follow Yaeger as we rode part of the first leg of the Trophy route, while rally marshals assessed our riding skills. Yaeger obviously knew how to ride and was choosing the smoothest lines through a rutted, ice-slick wet clay trail as I struggled to keep up. It was only later in the day when I saw him wearing shorts that I discovered he’s missing a leg (I’ve not watched SOA, so I didn’t know his character’s name is Greg the Peg).
It was on this wet, slippery day, however, that rally organisers determined that a few of the less skilled journalists would have to bypass the most difficult sections of the route (like Day Six’s single-track trail of torture). I wasn’t so lucky…
Thailand: Adventure bike paradise
Each day, different teams would pair up for the ride, led by a marshal. From the first day, our team’s natural running order was established: Cyr would ride first, followed by Villeneuve, McDonald, and I’d ride tail. This took the pressure off me but it also gave me a chance to see my teammates’ different riding styles: Cyr rode with brute force, handling the big GS like a motocrosser; McDonald was calculating and cautious but fast, while Villeneuve — the insurance guy — gassed first and asked questions later. Despite these different riding styles the team gelled instantly and rode like they’d been riding together for years.
As promised, the riding was very challenging from day one. California has nothing on twisty roads compared to Thailand! We learned quickly that Thai road engineers, whether they’re building highways or unpaved backcountry trails, don’t care much for taking the easy route through mountains, rather preferring the shortest route over the top — in other words: switchbacks galore, and steep. Oh, so very steep. So steep, in fact, that if you don’t stop parallel to the road you’re almost sure to fall over.
Main roads in northern Thailand are pristinely paved and smooth, with fast, flowing sweepers, while all other roads are either dirt, or concrete, or were once paved with only spotty patches of asphalt remaining. Or they are simply cow trails. And if you think the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina is twisty — all roads here are dragon’s tails.
Of course, on the worst of these roads and trails, where we’d be standing up, focused, and doing our best Cyril Despres imitations, we’d inevitably come upon locals riding 150 cc step-throughs, sometimes three-up — on bald tires — staring at the sweaty foreigners riding their gargantuan rocket ships.
Confounding my difficulty was a bike that struggled to find grip on steep, rocky uphills, wagging its tail wildly while other machines just climbed effortlessly and without drama. It took me three days and a severely worn rear tire to realise that maybe something was amiss. It turned out that the rear tire was inflated to 42 psi, twice what the other bikes were running. A new tire was spooned on by Day Four, and the resulting improvement in handling felt like I’d jumped onto an entirely new bike.
The 2016 BMW GS Trophy was a week-long rollercoaster ride, with incredibly challenging off-road riding on the R1200GS that was much more suited to 250 cc enduro bikes.
Teams encountered daily points-scoring special stages along the route. Some were physically demanding, like carrying the bikes across a broken concrete bridge or over a four-foot-tall tree stump; some tested riding skills, like a timed race that zigzagged along a river, or actually riding in a river while trying to spot messages left on trees; some tests included skill-testing questions; and one GPS challenge tested navigational skills. The special stages culminated in a final test, a trials-type challenge on a motocross course that included several sharp hairpin turns, obstacles, and steep climbs and descents.
This event was a gruelling test of rider and machine, neither of which suffered any casualties, well, except for one unfortunate GS that tumbled end-over-end at speed during the final test. Despite being bent like a banana and missing most of its switchgear, its Chinese rider nonetheless picked it up and rode it to finish the course.
Team South Africa came out on top with Team UK and Team Germany tied for second. Team Canada rode hard and gave it their best shot, ultimately placing 14th. The Canadians might not be taking home a trophy this time, but the memories and friendships they formed will last a lifetime.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next.