The ‘right’ stuff
There’s a general rule of thumb in engineering (and much of life), that if something looks right – then it will work right. From the Avro Vulcan bomber, to the Supermarine Spitfire, the Ferrari Dino to the Ducati 916, some of the most stylish, ‘right-looking’ designs have also been the most fabulous performers.
But there’s also a long list of beasts which have topped these beauties. Designs which just don’t look right at all. The Focke-Wulf Fw190 was a bit of a minger, but had massive fighting abilities. No-one would award the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack plane any prizes for elegance, but is there another jet you’d want watching your back on the deck in a hot war? And while we’d all love a Porsche 911 parked in our drive nowadays, who’d have put money on an air-cooled, rear-engined roadster, that borrowed its tech from the VW Beetle, being the ultimate choice of wheels for a generation of car lovers?
And here we are, in Portugal, to check out another one of these non-intuitive success stories. BMW’s R1200 GS is a genuine hero vehicle for the firm. In the same way as the aforementioned 911, this unlikely-looking moto-design has become the face of BMW Motorrad for most folk. On paper, a 250kg, 1200cc, air-cooled boxer engine, with a shaft drive, shouldn’t suggest ‘offroad bike’ to anyone with any sense. But, like the 911, a continual process of refinement, tech advances, and sheer bloody-mindedness from the parent firm, has earned the big GS its spurs as an offroad machine.
Part of that is also down to endeavours like the BMW Motorrad Offroad Skills outfit. Run by Dakar hero Simon Pavey and his family, this dirt-training school is based in Wales, and runs adventures all over the world, introducing a whole generation of riders to the two-wheeled muddy stuff. And they’re here in Portugal, near Faro, to help us – a motley crew of Brit journos – get to grips with the new 2017 GS.
There’s not been a massive change to the GS for this year – much of the engineering efforts for BMW (like a few firms) has been centred on getting existing models through Euro 4 approval. So while there’s not been much change on the surface, most of the firm’s range has had a moderate technical revamp to cut noxious emisions. So the new bike has a Euro 4 motor, of course, there’s been revisions to the bodywork, plus suspension and equipment updates.
And the various model editions have been revamped too, with this new ‘Rallye’ offroad-biased version together with a more road-friendly Touring Edition, and a base model as the main splits. There’s a bewildering variety of customisation possible of course – BMW builds the bike you order, to your spec, rather than making containerloads of standard builds and sending them out, like the Japanese factories do. Get to a dealer, or login to the firm’s configurator website, spec up your ultimate GS, and it’ll be with you inside a month or two.
So – the Rallye is the ‘offroady’ version of the new bike, meaning you get a special seat, offroad pegs, a smaller screen, spoked wheels and radiator guards. Then there’s the Rallye Sport, which adds a stack of electronic aids, LED headlights, tyre pressure monitor, and much more. And it’s the Rallye Sport (plus a couple of low-chassis versions) that we’re riding here today.
I’m always a teeny bit cautious when riding offroad. Partly because I don’t do it a lot so I’m not great at it, partly because the worst crashes I’ve had have been off road. Including a hilarious lung-puncturing low-flying incident on the BMW R1150GS launch in 1999… So as we line up outside the hotel, I’m curious as to what level of dirt riding we’ll be taking on. My fears are assuaged by the calm assurance of the lovely Pavey clan though, and we set off down the road on the new GS.
I’ve chosen one of the special low-chassis versions they have on offer, thanks to my stumpy pins. And it’s impressively easy to get on with straight away. I’ve not ridden a GS in a wee while, so it takes me a few miles to get into the distinctive steering from a 19-inch front wheel and wide bars. We head out of Vilamoura near Faro, and into the hills, and the GS feels good – refined, slick, with a better gearchange and smoother engine than I remember from my last ride on one. It feels smaller too, the new bodywork, and the low screen on the offroad-biased Rallyes makes it feel like there’s a lot less ‘stuff’ in front of you as you ride along. All the good stuff remains though: a clear dash with lots of info, easy navigation, and the cool buttons for ESA electronic suspension, ABS/TC, and info on the trip computer and tyre pressure monitor. It’s pleasingly familiar stuff to anyone who’s spent time on recent BMs.
We’re not on the road for long before we hit the first trail, but I’ve already settled into the GS quite nicely thanks. I’ve worked out the electronics for the riding modes, and the traction control/ABS functions, and it’s a lot less fussy than some other systems out there. The new up- and down- quickshifter works okay, but I’m struggling a little with gear changes full stop, thanks to my nearly-new Alpinestars Tech 8 MX boots. When I can get my massive reinforced toes under the lever though, the quickshifter works like a charm.
I’ll be needing them boots though, because we’ve turned off the Tarmac and onto a bit of a dirt track. It’s a fairly gentle introduction to the dirt thankfully, and I’m soon scooting along, stood up like a proper off-roader, and bouncing off rocks and potholes. My bike has the Dynamic ESA semi-active suspension, and I’ve selected the Enduro Pro riding mode, so the transformation from fast-riding road trim to mudbusting attack form is seamless. The engine power is tweaked, the rear wheel ABS turned off, and the suspension gets ready for long-travel, high-impact movements straight away.
It’s taking me a wee bit longer to get ready, mind, but the Pavey instruction technique is excellent. Your mind is put at rest by the quiet confidence of the instructors, they make sure you know what’s coming next, and offer plenty of tips, advice and encouragement as you go along. The first exercise is easy enough – just braking hard on the dirt, a gravelly emergency stop if you will. The last time I did one of these was a long time ago, before ABS was so prevalent, so it seemed a lot easier with the BM’s fancy anti-lock system.
My first go went swimmingly – until I stopped, tried to put my foot down, and somehow caught my gigantic Tech 8 in the engine bars. The bike had a wee bit of a lie-down, and I stepped off sharpish – but no harm done, and it was impressive that the GS had no damage from the topple (albeit a zero mph thing). The big problem with the weight of a bike like this was quickly apparent of course – I have help to pick it up, and I use the clever handlebar lifting tactics, but it’s still a bugger to get upright again. You’d be advised to hit the gym, and develop some muscles, if you fancy getting serious about taking one of these off road…
A few more emergency stops, and I’m properly at home with the brakes. They’re brilliant on the road of course – twin radial Brembo calipers and a leaning ABS setup on our bike. But the dirt performance is just as impressive – the linking between front and rear gives great balance, just using the front lever. Yet you can lock up the rear with your foot should you want to. Over the entire day, I only had one small moment from the front while braking on the dirt, and that was down to careless use on a wet, muddy patch, at speed. For 99 per cent of the time, they were amazing for offroad use.
Of course, the brakes need decent rubber to work as well as they do – and the Metzeler Karoo3s on the GS are mighty impressive. For an offroad dullard like me, they seemed great on the dirt tracks, but even the more experienced dirt riders on the launch seemed well happy with them. The Off Road Skills instructors themselves waxed lyrical about the Metzelers, suggesting that they had moved the tech up a level compared with some older adventure tyres, particularly when working on- and off-road. You can stick with largely the same pressures for the road and the dirt, and they still work a treat – indeed, they work less well if you drop the pressures down to 20psi or the like, as you might do with older designs, apparently.
Out on the road, I feel better placed to rate the Karoo3 rubber, and here they’re really strong. Chasing down instructors who’ve been here for the best part of a month is always tough, and you end up harder on the throttle and brakes trying to keep up without road knowledge. But the Metzelers were immense, particularly on the front end, with grip and feel to rival a ‘proper’ road tyre. The traction control light flickered a fair bit when you pushed it over a rise in the road or whatever. But it was fairly ‘under the radar’ intervention – if the light hadn’t been there, I’d not have noticed anything most of the time.
A stop for lunch, but we’re soon back on the dirt. And the stakes are raised a little, with some sloping sections to ride up and down, through the trees, then more faster, twistier dirt tracks. It’s not massively harder though, and I’ve remembered some skillz from the last time I rode offroad, a good few years ago now. The big GS feels good, far more manageable than it has any right to, while the ESA suspension soaks up whatever the Portuguese trails throw at it. I’m still grateful for the friendly terrain though – I was dreading having to manhandle the GS through deep sand, or seriously rutted, rooted areas, where my lack of skill would be shown up even more cruelly.
The final part of the ride sees us split into two groups – one ‘easy’, one ‘hard’. I’m pretty tired now, and happy to stick my hand up for an easy ride. We head back to the hotel via some more straightforward dirt tracks, and a final road blast before hitting the urban sprawl of the Faro coast. All sorts of unusual muscles are aching as I park up the big blue GS, and head in for a much-needed cold Sagres…
I’m impressed by the day out though. Part of that is down to the hosts: the Off Road Skills folks have been great, and looked after me and my meagre dirt ability perfectly. But much of it is down to the big, ungainly, wrong-looking BMW that’s sitting in the car park, pinging and ticking as the brake discs and header pipes cool down. I’m reminded of what a great tech writer once said to me about telescopic forks – how they were a daft, crazy design, which no engineer would ever sign off. But that the continual improvement in fork operation and design has put them far above any other front suspension system, from MotoGP to commuting mopeds. A flawed concept – with the front wheel supported through a pair of lanky springs, hung out at the end of two long, spindly tubes – has been finessed into the incredible USD performance units of today.
And that, I think is how the GS has got to where it is now. Ironically, of course, it doesn’t use forks, rather BMW’s monoshocked Telelever front end. But the point remains: a non-optimal basic architecture has been honed, trimmed, tweaked and prodded. It’s had a stack of tech thrown at it, and some of the finest moto-engineers in the business have worked all sorts of magic on it. And in 2017, with this latest Rallye Sport version, BMW’s big adventure beast really does feel more ‘right’ than ever.
Price: £12,730 (base GS Rallye), £14, 625 (Rallye Sport)
*There’s a truly mind-bending list of optional equipment, factory build options, dealer bolt-ons, accessory packs and self-fit bells and whistles. Get on the BMW Motorrad configurator page for all the details… www.bmw-motorrad.co.uk
Engine: 8v flat-twin, DOHC, air/liquid cooled, 1,170cc
Bore x stroke: 101x73mm
Compression ratio: 12.5:1
Max power (claimed) 125bhp@7,750rpm
Max Torque (claimed) 92.2ft lb@6,500rpm
Transmission: six speed, slipper clutch, final shaft drive
Frame: steel tube
Front suspension: Telelever, optional electronic suspension system
Rear suspension: Sachs monoshock, optional electronic suspension system
Brakes: Dual 305mm discs, Brembo four-piston radial calipers (front), 276mm disc, twin-piston caliper (rear)
Wheels/tyres: Tubeless spoked rims/Metzeler Karoo3, 120/70 19 front, 170/60 17 rear
Kerb weight (claimed, full fuel tank): 244kg
Fuel capacity: 20 litres
Rider aids: ‘Rain’ and ‘Road’ power modes, optional ‘Pro’ riding modes with ‘Enduro’ and ‘Dynamic’ plus ‘Pro’ modes, up- and down-quickshifter, optional electronic suspension, trip computer, ASC, optional leaning ABS/traction, optional cruise control, tyre pressure monitor,