Personally, BMW’s iconic adventure bike isn’t exactly an unknown quantity. There were the road tests for a now-defunct BBC magazine, including the upgrade in 2010 and the subsequent Adventure model. There was the trip around the Pyrenees in 2012, complete with Not Safe For Social Media footage. In 2013, a journey from southern England to Portpatrick in Scotland, including riding a boulder-strewn track to a hill loch, concluded that the then-new air/water cooled version significantly upped the game.
But the game moves on, and the pace has quickened again after a GFC-induced lull. BMW’s response has been to tweak the details and add more technology to the GS, at the same time hedging its bets with the launch of the S 1000 XR. So it was time for a re-evaluation.
Different but the same
Although almost everything about the GS changed in 2013, it was really a new execution of a classic concept. The sticky-out cylinders stayed in place, even if the gas flowed in a different direction and the unit was partially liquid-cooled. The Telelever and Paralever suspension with a trellis subframe remained but every detail was changed. Also retained was the single-side swing arm incorporating shaft drive. But it was thoughtfully switched to the left, allowing the exhaust to go right-side so you wouldn’t burn your leg on it if you were pushing through mud or sand on a ‘proper’ adventure.
The engine changes alone made a huge difference to the GS. Power went from 110 to 125 horsepower, with little extra mass. The R 1200 GS had always been a deceptively and discreetly fast bike across country. Now it was just plain fast.
The chassis changes made it better in every way: even more agile and responsive; more composed over bumps, and with better braking. The electronics added an ‘Enduro Pro’ mode that worked impeccably off road. And so it went straight to the top of the class again. But, two years on, can it still strut like a champ?
We got hold of a brand new Touring Edition (TE) of the BMW in the UK, riding it back and forth each day to the Goodwood Festival of Speed and then to the Biker’s Classics at Spa in Belgium, among more everyday jaunts.
The TE is the bells-and-whistles version: chrome exhaust, heated ‘bars, tyre pressure control, cruise control, Dynamic Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA), Sat Nav mount and riding modes (Rain, Road, Dynamic and Enduro, with Enduro Pro available via a plug in). It’ll set you back £14,550 in Blighty. For good measure, the bike was keyless (£250) and fitted with Gearshift Assist Pro, offering clutchless up and down changes for another £375. That’s £15,175 all up, or NZ$36,400 at current exchange rates, making a similarly equipped bike’s $32,990 RRP in New Zealand a bargain.
There are only two things to say about this gamut of technology on the GS. The first is that it all works flawlessly and intuitively to make coping with anything that comes your way unutterably easy. The second is that it does not in any way change the fundamental character and ability of the ‘bike. You could buy a bare-bones R 1200 GS and it would still offer the same overall capability. It would just be a bit more ‘manual’ in the way it delivered it and in the effort required to adjust things.
The first week with the GS was spent prowling the backroads of southern England, including attendance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. As we covered at the time, Goodwood is a simply amazing event. And the cross-country trip there provides some of the best riding the often-overcrowded south-east has to offer, from twisting tree-lined lanes over the South Downs to sweeping ‘A’ roads inland from the coast.
As expected, BMW’s giant trailie proved itself King of every condition encountered. On potholed, gravel-strewn, patch-repaired ‘B’ roads, the GS wafted serenely over all of it, with barely an intervention from the Traction Control or ABS. At the same time, avoiding holes and hazards with rapid changes of direction was unbelievably easy for such a big bike.
Riding to and from Goodwood FoS is a bit like taking part in one of the parade runs up Lord March’s drive, but longer. The traffic you encounter seems to consist almost entirely of supercars and exotic motorcycles. On the narrow, hilly woodland bits, multiple Lamborghinis were laughably out of their depth and a real hold-up in the corners. This made overtaking highly desirable but, with short straights and a 600hp supercar to pass, a challenge. One the GS was more than up to. Any gear, any revs, that boxer engine just delivers. And, with the visibility afforded by a high riding position, a twist of the throttle was all it took to pick off Paganis in complete safety.
Coming off the Downs, the roads widen, the trees give way to open fields and cornering is less about low speed agility than stability. Once again, the chameleon-like GS bends to the task, tracking through turns with rock-solid composure while remaining sensitive to a touch of correction here or a tightening there. The new engine impresses, too. Unlike the old unit, it doesn’t run out of puff and wheeze its way to the redline, instead revving crisply and eagerly to 8,000 rpm and beyond.
Coming out of Goodwood can be a nightmare. Mile after mile of solid cars line the narrow approach roads, on their way to the main highways and their inevitable temporary traffic lights. But almost nothing comes the other way, meaning a cheeky bit of overtaking-cum-filtering by bike can despatch the one hour jam in less than five minutes. Of course, this means ducking into the gaps between cars before bends or whenever something does approach. And, in these situations, the GS changes again, doing a perfect impression of a GS500 in the hands of a London despatch rider: nip ‘n’ tuck.
So far, so very R 1200 GS: a blend of capability, versatility and all-round excellence that has made it the default choice for so many motorcyclists.
A curious kind of adventure
Next, things didn’t turn out as expected at all.
The plan was to meet up with some old biker buddies at Circuit de Spa Francorchamps, for The Biker’s Classics. I hadn’t heard of this event before but if, like me, you look it up you’ll see what an impressive annual jamboree it is. In reality, it is less like the famous-old-geezers-doing-parade-laps the website might have you believe. Some serious racing goes on, attracting teams from right across Europe. The Saturday night 4hr endurance is like a re-run of the 80s/90s heyday of the European Endurance Championships, complete with the same bikes and riders.
But back to the plan. I had never ridden through Belgium before. (In fact, I’d barely been there apart from the odd day in picturesque but overcrowded Bruges.) Best advice? Don’t. Most of Belgium is as built up and populated as the South-east of England, and as flat as the Hauraki Plain. Its motorways are in good order, well lit and by far the country’s best feature. And there are lots of them.
I don’t know what I was expecting: the twisting roads and pine forest surrounding Spa circuit, probably, but that’s not the rest of Belgium. Much as we riders like to avoid motorways and search out the twisty route, alternatives to the E40 motorway east were few. And, for reasons that will become clear, not an option.
I’ve done long motorway slogs on a GS before and this, it would seem, is the bike’s Achilles heel. It’s not bad at it but it would be far from your first choice. The adjustable blade windshield that does such a good job elsewhere is simply not up to the job of running all day at European motorway speeds. The limit on most Belgian motorways is 130km/h, with a fair bit of traffic exceeding that. Holding that kind of speed for an entire riding day leaves you feeling like you’ve been exposed to the weather, unlike the cosseting you enjoy on a ‘real’ tourer.
And what weather. Folkestone was a rare, balmy 29º at lunchtime. Riding off the Euro Tunnel train at Calais, it was 33º. Heading east, the temperature did nothing but climb. It was the hottest heatwave norther Europe had seen in three decades. By the time I reached my digs near the German border that evening, it was 37.5º and I was cooked in my own fat.
It was late in the evening, too. It’s longer than it looks from Calais to Spa, and it’s not helped when the Sat Nav randomly dumps you off the motorway and into some of Brussels’ more stabby outskirts. So the idea of doing it off-motorway wouldn’t have worked, resulting in an arrival time long after the hotelier had gone to bed: a horrible and possibly dangerously-long day in the saddle.
Even getting to Folkestone had been a nightmare because the French ferry workers’ strike saw the M20 closed and turned into a lorry park. All the resultant traffic was on my route to the channel coast. It was this strike that sparked the first round of migrant problems, jumping on board queued vehicles at Calais.
Arriving hot, bothered, buffeted, bored by the riding and tired, it really wasn’t the sort of adventure I anticipated.
Easy does it
Maybe it was the long ride there or the continuing heat, but after meeting up at Spa none of us were inclined to do much except chill out, take in the machinery and atmosphere, and watch the racing over a cold Belgian beer. This meant bimbling backwards and forwards between our respective dorms each day, and early nights. Once again, the BMW slotted straight in. It would happily flick-flack through the forested back lanes to the circuit each morning, and trundle like a scooter into Malmedy town square in the evening.
Quiet times like this let you appreciate a bike’s finer qualities. Like the fact a full-face lid fits in the expandable pannier without having to expand it. And shaft drive that doesn’t require cleaning, lubing or adjusting. The comfy seat; the heated grips that saw use on a cold, wet English morning; the intuitive adjustment of ESA and riding modes; the reassuring ability to check tyre pressures on the dashboard. These are the sort of things that grow on you about a bike and make it hard to consider doing without them. There’s something else, too. There’s a sense of quality about a GS, about any BMW come to that (though it might not always be born out in reliability - some owners have their tales). Above all, there’s a character that is simply unique. One that, to their credit, BMW have managed to carry over into the brand new bike.
The trip back was an uneventful contrast to the ride over. The strike was (temporarily) called off, the parked lorries removed from the motorways and the temperature was under 30º. Only the Euro Tunnel’s delayed departure spoiled the picture, meaning the ride on the UK side was a little more urgent in order to make a decent evening meal-time. Once again, the BMW impressed with its blend of effortless pace and serene comfort. As it ticked itself cool outside my final destination I realised it was due back at BMW the next day and I would sorely miss it.
There’s a reason the big GS is the world’s best-selling large-capacity motorcycle: it is uniquely brilliant. It’s not without competitors, indeed pretty much every manufacturer has tried to emulate it and steal a slice of the adventure bike pie. Some efforts are very good. The new KTM 1290 Adventure might even be a better bike (when we get hold of one we’ll let you know), but only the GS is a GS. It’s that character thing, and it surely has something to do with the composition of the bike. The GS brings together several fundamental technologies, every one of which is rare (or unique) in the motorcycling world: a boxer twin engine with its roots in 1923, acting as a stressed member of the frame; Telelever front suspension; Paralever rear; shaft drive. Add in the optional electronically adjustable, semi-active suspension, and the mixture is mind-boggling. But it works, and to a degree that never fails to amaze.
Is the GS the perfect bike for New Zealand? It’s hard to think of a better combination of virtues: the suspension’s imperious ability on any road surface, a long tank range; instant overtaking ability thanks to the high riding position and always-available torque, and a combination of agility and poise that makes it the perfect partner on hilly, twisty roads. Any deficiencies at covering 700kms by motorway are irrelevant.
Its popularity means you won’t stand out from the crowd, but every time you close the garage door on the GS you’ll know that buying one was a smart decision. It’s still The Boss.
Model: BMW R 1200 GS + Comfort, Touring and Dynamic Packages
Cost: From $28,490 + on-road costs
Engine: 4-stroke, air/liquid-cooled, DOHC, flat twin
Fuel System: EFI
Transmission: 6-speed, shaft drive, quickshifter
Seat Height: Adjustable, 790/810 or 850/870mm options
Kerb weight: 238kg
Fuel capacity: 20.0 L
Not the best motorway mile-muncher