2017 BMW RnineT Racer launch test

A classic beauty, with real substance underneath. The bike's alright too.
A classic beauty, with real substance underneath. The bike's alright too. Picture: James Wright/Double Red

More launch pics in gallery here

What do you make of all those modern custom bikes then? If, like me, you’re a bit of an old-school Brit biker, who grew up lusting after Gixxers and Ninjas, and prefer performance to pose, you probably think it’s all a bit crap really. Stuff like Honda CB500Ts and BMW R80s were pretty slow and dull when they were new, forty years ago. What are they going to feel like now? And all the exhaust wrap, ironing board seats and brown paint in the world won’t make them go any better.

Of course, there’s good stuff on that scene too. Californian bike design guru Roland Sands is just as happy working on a radical custom based round a MotoGP bike as he is gussying up some pimp-nonsense bagger Harley. And when the ex-250GP racer signed up to do some work for BMW a few years back, the results were pretty impressive. I have no desire to ride an original 1970s Boxer ‘R’ bike – but his homage to the R90 was sweet. A modern 1200 Boxer motor, in a roadster chassis with top-end chassis kit sounds much more up my street thank you very much.

That original concept bike ended up coming out as the RnineT roadster – and was an immediate hit. It looked good, had very decent performance and tech levels, and BM also provided plenty of customising options to go with it. A little like Ducati’s Scrambler and Triumph’s modern classic range, it tapped into a certain classic Euro-design zeitgeist, and the Bavarian folks have shipped plenty of them out in the past couple of years.

But for 2017, they’ve gone even further, with this more extreme version of the RnineT, the Racer. It’s got clip-on bars, rearset pegs, a sweet round-headlamp bikini fairing right out of 1970s central casting, and it grabbed plenty of attention at last season’s bike shows. And here we are, in Murcia, Spain, to have a spin on it.

The Racer grabbed my attention at the shows too – and not just because of the statuesque Teutonic lovelies that populated the BMW show stands in Cologne and Milan. No, this bike is a definite looker – although I’d have maybe preferred a big old early 1980s square headlamp rather than the late 1970s round one. No doubt that will appear in a couple of years, as the retro wagon rolls on… But with the tried-and-true Boxer engine and a solid chassis underpinning the gorgeous styling, how could it be anything other than a hit?

So I’m looking forward to slinging a leg over and giving it an ‘andful, as it were. But as I surface in an off-season Mojacar hotel bedroom, things are not looking good. The weather forecast is genuinely apocalyptic, and what would turn out to be the wettest Spanish day for 20 years was barreling down the Med towards us. And, of course, I’d rashly packed for style rather than comfort. I’m frantically rooting through my kit bag to find more waterproof gear, as the PR man calls me down to the foyer, and we set off.

We’re riding a few bikes over the next day or so – the Racer, a basic RnineT Pure, and the updated S1000R hypernaked, both of which you can read about elsewhere on these pages… I kick off on the Racer though, and we start out through the drizzle and wind. Crap.

The Racer still looks great though, its ice-white paint and BM corporate-colour stripes standing out in the gloom. Once on board, the twin clocks are a nice mix of classic and modern, with clean dials, and LCD panel inserts. They’re a little busy though, and it takes a close eye to spot when you’re exactly on 30mph, say.

Switchgear and ignition is pleasingly conventional, and when you press the starter, the familiarity continues. We’ve been riding this big oil/air cooled Boxer twin for nearly two decades now, and while it gets a wee bit better with each generation, there’s no mistaking the sound, the presence, or the physical impact when you twist the throttle. It’s a proper legendary motor still, rammed with character, like a Pratt and Whitney radial, an air-cooled VW Beetle, or a big old Yank V-8. Compared with the new watercooled lump in the 1200GS I rode a few days before, it’s much rawer, harder-edged, but still very amiable.

Clunk-click into the old-school gearbox, and we set off through town, hoping to get some miles in and some pics taken before the promised torrents of rain appear. The Racer feels long and low, and the riding position is pretty extreme. It’s an interesting lesson actually, in how a bike with largely conventional chassis geometry can be made to feel very radical, purely from the riding position. Despite having virtually the same chassis as the RnineT Pure I ride later on, it feels completely different to ride. The high, rear-set pegs, and low, stretched-forward bars put you right into an attack position, and it feels just like a race rep from twenty years ago.

It’s pretty ungainly round town though, and negotiating the mini-roundabouts, speed humps and puddles of this seaside resort has me yearning for an R1200 GS. But when we get out of the urban sprawl, it gets much better. The little fairing gives a smidge of wind protection, but there’s still enough pressure to lift a bit of weight off my (slightly aching already) wrists. On fast sweeping bends, the chassis is stable and assured – but when we hit some tighter, twistier sections, it’s not quite as fluid.

The brakes work well enough for a basic roadster setup, but they’re thrown into sharp relief when I jump off the Racer and onto an S1000R later in the day. Compared with the superbike-spec brakes on the S1000, the Racer’s stoppers lack power and feel. Not a huge surprise you might think – but then a base S1000R is actually a wee bit cheaper than the base Racer, so in theory at least, better brakes for the Racer should be within budget. Ditto the suspension: it’s fairly basic kit on the RnineT Racer, with minimal adjustment: just preload and rebound out back.

Then, when we start taking pics, and you have to do a load of U-turns backwards and forwards along a bumpy, narrow mountain road, the Racer quickly becomes a lot less fun. There’s a lot of paddling back and forth, and a lack of a ‘planted’ feel in low-speed maneouvres. Feet-up 180° turns are simple on the Pure and the S1000R, much less so on the Racer. The sidestand is also a bit short, so if you park up on a cambered road, or on an incline, you panic that the stand’s flicked up somehow, and the bike is going to keep going down, smashing your tibia into dust.

Pics done in the couple of hours of sunshine, we set off for the lunch stop, and do a quick 30-odd miles on fast, slightly dirty back roads. I’m wrapped up in overjacket, winter gloves, neck warmer and overtrousers, so I’m not totally in the right place for hot café racer fun, but I’m getting the idea. I’m also getting an almighty pain in my neck, and wrists. I’m contorted into the Racer’s riding setup, but it just doesn’t work for my body shape. I have to crane my neck up to see where I’m going, and with a neck warmer and waterproof jacket, the pressure builds up between my collar and helmet. I’ve got an old wrist injury which doesn’t help, but even my ‘good’ wrist is playing up now, and I’m grateful for the break when we stop.

Finally, the rain properly arrives, and the journey back to the hotel is pure, horrible, attritional riding. The basic-level waterproofing in my kit bag, designed for an odd shower in a hot country, is doing its best, but my boots are full of water, gloves are sodden through, and I’m sat in a crotch-chilling puddle inside my leathers. Yuk. It’s not the ideal environment for the Racer, and those PR images of beautiful chiselled people parking up outside a Bike Shed couldn’t be further away from this motley-dressed string of drenched journos, shivering in a Spanish petrol station… Dynamically though, there’s no problems on the move: the Metzeler Z8 Interact tyres are coping well with the torrents of standing water, and the softish brakes are actually a boon in the conditions, backed up of course by BMW’s excellent ABS and traction control combo.

Back to the hotel, and after a hot bath, and a cold beer, I’m feeling much better about the world. But what about the Racer? There’s one in the hotel reception, and it still looks utterly marvellous. And having spent a few miles on it, I’m pleased that it works far better than any of the ancient custom retro bikes built on 1970s dinosaurs could ever be. The big problem for me is the riding position though: I couldn’t get comfortable on it, plus, it actually got in the way of riding the bike at times. If you’ve got a compatible body shape though, and like the style (who doesn’t?), the new RnineT Racer could be a great Sunday blast tool. Just make sure you get a test ride before buying…

Specs

Price: £10,775 otr (base model), £11,360 otr (S model, comes with spoked wheels, hot grips, chrome exhaust, LED indicators)
*BMW wants the RnineT range to be used as the base for your own customised bike. So there are shedloads of options: traction control (£310), aluminium tank £920-£1,020), heated grips, spoked wheels, alarm, chrome manifolds, pillion seat and subframe, and lots more…
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: 12:1
Max power (claimed) 110bhp@7,750rpm
Max Torque (claimed) 85.5ft lb@6,000rpm
Transmission: six speed, final shaft drive
Frame: steel tube trellis
Front suspension: 43mm forks
Rear suspension: Paralever monoshock
Brakes: Dual 320mm discs, Brembo four-piston calipers (front), 265mm disc, twin-piston caliper (rear), ABS
Wheels/tyres: Cast aluminium or tubeless spoked rims, 120/70 17 front, 180/55 17 rear
Rake/trail: 26.4°/103.9mm
Wheelbase: 1,491mm
Kerb weight (claimed, full fuel tank): 220kg
Fuel capacity: 17 litres

Committed riding position helps ground clearance
Committed riding position helps ground clearance Picture: James Wright/Double Red
Stock can is surprisingly fruity
Stock can is surprisingly fruity Picture: James Wright/Double Red
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