A few years ago, I rode my old dirt bike from Toronto to San Francisco and home again, and there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t wish I was on a big BMW GS.
My buddy Tim had joined me for the first few days of the ride, out to Minneapolis, and he rode an R1150GS. He seemed so comfortable, so relaxed, that I never forgot the image of him not even getting off the bike at rest stops. The fact that my own bike was so entirely unsuited to the task just rubbed in everything all the more.
In fact, I also held a bit of a candle for the Suzuki V-Strom 1000. I knew I’d be buying a new bike at the end of the journey and it was only a question of which it would be. On the way home, though, I saw a couple of V-Stroms and decided I didn’t like the look of them after all. Too much plastic cladding in the fairing. So the GS it was.
But then, once home, I rode a new R1200GS and was surprised that I really didn’t like it. It was powerful and comfortable and capable, but I couldn’t move around much on the pegs or the saddle. The engineers had designed the ideal ergonomic position for the rider and that’s where the rider had to be. I wanted to ride across the country again, but not with such a heavy bike and not if I couldn’t shift around in the seat.
Then Ewan and Charley went around the world on their GSs and everybody started buying one – even my friend Richard, who was new to riding but wanted to look macho, and who never rode far from his apartment in Toronto’s Distillery District. The GS lost its shine for me, and I ended up buying a Harley, which is a different story entirely.
Now there’s a new GS, bored out by an extra 84cc to call it a 1250, and with fancy “shift-cam technology” for better lower-end grunt. Most of the improvements and updates are in the engine; if you want to know more, read Costa’s insightful preview of the bike here. If you want to know what it’s like to live with one for a week, stick with me here.
RIDING THE BIKE
I took the R1250GS on the first annual Rob Harris Memorial Ride last week, a mixed day of smooth asphalt, bumpy secondary roads and some pretty gnarly dirt. The bike was exemplary on all three. I know from taking Clinton Smout’s GS training course that it’s possible to ride the big bike safely off-road, but it’s a handful – there’s a reason Charley Boorman asked for sponsorship first from KTM.
Its major change this year is that there’s more power available at lower revs, and in fact, the usable grunt starts around 3,500 rpm. In sixth gear on the highway, in Road driving mode, that translates to around 100 km/h. It’s happier at 4,000 rpm (or 115 km/h in 6th), and then you’ll be stunt riding in Ontario at 5,000 rpm with a way still to go before the 9,000 rpm redline.
There are four different riding modes for the regular bike, with a choice of Road, Rain, Enduro and Dynamic, which mostly adjust the severity of the throttle response. You can also (optionally) adjust the front and rear suspension on the fly and – a nice feature – the height of the small windshield. This has a single knob on the right side, which discourages you from removing your hand from the throttle to make the adjustment.
When the windshield was set at maximum height, it was remarkably effective at directing wind over my helmet, although I’m almost six feet tall and I get to sit comfortably upright in the seat. Taller riders can manually flip an adjuster that’s under the seat to set the seat at 870 mm, while more vertically challenged riders can flip it the other way to set it at 850 mm.
However you set it, you’d better be fairly limber when it comes time to swinging a leg over the saddle to climb onboard. “Climb” is still the most accurate word. Fortunately, there are several less lofty seats available as options, dropping the height to as low as 800 mm.
When the windshield was at any other height, it was very effective at blasting the wind directly into my face. This was okay on slow or slippery roads, when you want to almost forget you’re actually on a machine, or when you’re standing up on the pegs so it doesn’t matter anyway. I almost always left it at its full height.
This time around, I didn’t feel at all constricted in movement, as I had before, which makes no sense because the frame and chassis of the 1250GS is pretty much unchanged from the 1200GS. Maybe my butt was bigger back then. [You wish – Ed.] In fact, the optional saddlebags that were fitted to my test bike had been taken from a 1200GS test bike used last season. Those saddlebags are remarkably good: they open with the push of a button, and they remove easily from the bike with the push of another button. They must be locked individually, though, and there’s not a lot of space left in the right-side bag once it’s curved around the high exhaust.
The optional keyless lock and ignition is one of the nicest things about the GS. Just leave the key fob in your pocket and the bike will start with the push of a central ignition button. Push the button again at the end of the ride and everything switches off; press the button on the fob and the bike will be locked. This is a great feature, and one that’s been common in cars for the last decade. Why are bikes only just getting this?
Thinking of electronics, the TFT display screen on the GS is a thing of colourful beauty: clear, concise and very informative through several scrollable layers of information. You can access Bluetooth connectivity through the bike if you want though I never bothered – there was no GPS Navigation screen fitted to the plastic bracket on my test unit for needing such a use.
My test bike came with the Premium Package, which will set you back another $4,120 over the initial $21,400 cost. It includes traction control (and to its credit, the bike never slipped away from me in any scary way, even on sandy roads), the suspension control, cruise control and the keyless operation. There are even a couple of additional ride modes in the Enduro setting, which are activated with a dongle that fits under the seat. I didn’t try them out. That was Costa’s job in California.
IS IT WORTH IT?
We all know the GS is a remarkably competent machine – it wouldn’t be BMW’s best-selling motorcycle if it wasn’t. For this year, the power is more tractable down low, and even up high, there was never any annoying buzz at the bars. It’s comfortable at speed on most any road, it’s connected and up-to-date, and it’s reassuring to ride with both ABS and Dynamic Traction Control. Not leaning ABS though, which makes the TC a more valuable option.
On the down side, I was surprised at the lack of range in the tank: it’s a 20-litre tank, but despite my average indicated consumption of 5.5 L/100 km, that was somehow only good for an indicated 300 km or so. Worse than that, the GS requires Premium fuel. WTF? How did Ewan and Charley get across Mongolia if they needed to seek out Premium every 300 km? Can you imagine pulling over in the Atacama Desert at the only gas station for the next 200 km, and having to ask in Spanish if the fuel is at least 91 octane?
Maybe this fuel thing is indicative of the main fault with the GS – that it’s gotten away from its roots as a do-anything-go-anywhere motorcycle and become too fussy and costly. If Ted Simon could ride through the Atacama in the 1970s on his 500 cc Triumph Tiger, and if Robert Fulton could make it around the world in the 1930s on a 6hp Douglas, then the new R1250GS is massive overkill. And of course, it’s a crime for it to be ridden only from Richard’s apartment in the Distillery District to the Moto Social on Yonge Street.
The test bike I rode this week comes in around $30,000 after options and taxes. That’s a lot of moolah for a motorcycle, and far more than most people are willing to pay.
But who am I kidding? Ted Simon and Robert Fulton would have junked their bikes over a cliff in a heartbeat if they’d had the option of riding an R1250GS. And I’d have pushed my old dirt bike into the Pacific for the option to ride home on one. I’d have felt bad about it, but done it all the same, even if I couldn’t move around much on the seat.