It’s 11am on a cloudy day in Sydney, Leigh and I are arriving at Procycles in St Peters to collect our steeds, a BMW R1200GSA & BMW F800GS. To be honest these machines are a long way off our normal preferred rides. Leigh likes to cruise around the western suburbs on his Enfield Bullit and my last 4000 mile European road trip was taken on a 33 year old R100S. My other bikes are ’81 Laverda Jota and a ’98 Triumph Daytona T595 (which I consider ‘modern’). For a 31 year old its fair to say I have a pretty misty eyed nostalgic view on what makes a great bike and have mostly written off whats coming out of the showrooms today. I like my bikes simple, raw and full of character…and nothing beats the late 70’s/early 80’s machines. Being an 2-valve airhead owner I was very interested to see how I’d fare on the ultra high tech GSA and if I could warm to it.
On first sight of the GSA first impression is what a huge beast it is, with the long range tank and metal panniers it appears to be the size of a small car! Would I really be taking this thing off-road? I’d just come back from two weeks trailing riding in Vietnam on a 125cc scrambler which weighed half as much and forgave me if I leant it over too far or lost a bit of traction cornering on loose surfaces. If this thing starts to go down I know I’m going down with it!
Tell you what though, it sure is great to look look at, especially in Red. Not in a sleek Ducati sports bike way, instead it looks utilitarian, rugged & built for purpose…at least if I do drop it it’ll surely not break.
The assistant at procycles proceed to take me through the features of the bike…something about cruise control, quick shifters, riding modes, traction control….to be honest I zone out, what do I need all this stuff for? Accelerator, brake, clutch, gears, job done! Anyway, enough details, its time to swing my leg over and go ride.
Sitting behind the gargantuan petrol tank its surprisingly easy to navigate in the busy Sydney traffic. The lower centre of gravity of the boxer engine makes the bike feel very stable during lower speed manoeuvres. Its clear the new horizontally opposed liquid cooled twin has come a long way since the 2 valve airhead I’m used to. The familiar side to side thrum is still there, but its much more refined and the familiar ticking of valves has all but disappeared. If I read that sentence written by someone else I’d assume it had lost its character but actually I’m surprised to find it a very satisfying engine with a character of its own. It feels meaty, powerful and the exhaust note from the standard silencer is deep and throaty, loud enough to hear but never intrusively as to make it a nuisance to passers by. As we reach the outer borders of the city speeds increase and its finally time to let the big boxer bark a little. First proper twist of the throttle and immediately the huge wall of torque propels this huge machine forward from low revs…it pulls like a train! As the revs rise so does the power, it’s a predictable steady increase which makes overtaking a breeze, although never rushes in a way that sets the adrenaline pulsing.
Heading out of Sydney is a mundane process – constant traffic lights and queues of traffic, and with the big metal boxes sticking out of the side of the BMW I don’t feel confident filtering unless the gaps are pretty big. Even as we reach the outskirts of the national park there isn’t much improvement, slow moving roads littered with busy towns and not much to see.
Finally we reach our first destination, the Bells Line of Road, and we are treated to what we came looking for. The towns become less frequent, the traffic seems to have dissipated and the road becomes a twisting scenic stretch of ribbon with long sweepers and tight hairpin bends. The GSA feels solid and stable at cornering at higher speeds and its easy to be confident braking hard into the slower corners thanks to powerful front brakes, unobtrusive ABS and anti dive front forks. There’s was very slight feeling of movement and detachment from the tarmac which I’m sure was due to the nobbly offroad tyres and their tread. If road use is your only intention then stick some touring tyres on it and it’d feel glued to the road.
Little detours following tourist signs down unsealed roads lead to some absolute scenic treats at the well marked viewpoints.
We get to the end of Bells Line of Road and its time to make our way towards Jenolan Caves and meet Australian enduro legend Geoff Ballard. To those involved in the offroad scene this man needs no introduction, 12 gold medals in International Six Day Enduro events, 35 Australian titles & 3 in the USA. As if that wasn’t enough he also ran the hugely successful Ballards Yamaha off road team, often picking up new young talent and guiding them through to be champions. Last year Geoff retired from running the team, but its clear he hasn’t left racing or riding for good.Geoff has given us a few waypoints to hit on the way to his place and soon we’re on unsealed roads. At first I feel nervy on the big GSA, and the big unit doesn’t seem to respond how I’d expect when changing direction and speed. Then I vaguely remember the instructions I was given when picking up the bike – something to do with riding modes. Well the bike is currently set to ROAD, so that can’t be right, so I fiddle with the switch…RAIN, nope, ENDURO…yeah, Enduro, that sounds like what I need. There is also an ENDURO PRO, but being fairly inexperienced off road I decide “pro” doesn’t apply to me.
The bike now feels more comfortable coming out of the corners, the once intrusive traction control now only lends a hand when I really get the wheels spinning, and powering out of the corners feels natural with the back wheel kicking up the loose surface.
With my new found confidence I pick up my pace, and with increased speed the GSA feels like it sheds some weight. I find myself riding the bike a lot looser, sliding the rear on entry and kicking the back end out on exit. The traction control & ABS flatter my riding, it lets me misbehave but keeps me in check when my lack of riding talent catches up with me. 10 miles down the twisting path I look back to find Leigh is long gone. A minute or so later he arrives, like me he didn’t really pay too much attention to the riding modes and has been riding the 800 in road mode and struggling all the way. His complaints are much like mine were, somehow the bike wasn’t feeling natural on the loose stuff, all down to having the bike in the wrong mode. Give us a break…we’re classic bike riders and for us there’s only two modes – running or not running!
After 250km in the Australian summer heat we’re glad to make it to Geoff’s place and garage the bikes for the evening. Geoff welcomes us into his amazing workshop/”man den” where its clear motorcycles and racing are life! Along with all the motorcycles and bits, supercross is playing on the huge TV and posters are on the walls. We are also introduced to his friend Gary, and Miles Davis, marketing manager at BMW. Miles is naturally keen to hear our opinions of the bikes, and is quick to teach us of what we’ve been missing in terms of rider aids and bike functions. Learning about the various features would come to help out greatly during the next few days of riding and I’ll be mentioning them as the article goes on. We’re also introduced to possibly the most brutal massage chair in the world. After 10 minutes in this thing I feel like I’ve been assaulted! Clearly a gentle back rub won’t do for your hardened Enduro rider.
After a night of wine, cheese & binge watching supercross racing with the crew, me & Miles head out early to shoot some photos and he shows off the agility and ruggedness of the GSA. After this early taste of seeing the GSA in the hands of an experienced rider, I can’t wait to see what the legendary Geoff Ballard can do with one of these machines.
Me & Leigh at this point swap machines, Leigh sets off on the GSA and I’m riding the smaller capacity F800gs. Without the large tank and boxer engine of the GSA, the F800 is lighter and less bulbous, but I’m surprised to find the riding position taller, and even at my height I often find myself maneuvering on tip toes. Also, having the pistons higher up means it feels a little top heavy in comparison. Like the GSA, these issues disappear once your moving, but being a photographer who has to stop a lot to take pictures, I found mounting and maneuvering in some of the awkward places I have to park quite frustrating.
The vertical twin is predictable in the way it revs and delivers power, it feels very functional for its purpose of propelling an off-road bike. Opening the throttle isn’t quite such a theatrical event as it is on the GSA, but its still got a bit of character to it. The rider mode settings are the same as the other BMW, and we set off on a damp, ultra tight, downhill descent towards Jenolan caves so it’s set to RAIN. Geoff is leading the group and keeping us to a modest pace, he knows Leigh & I are less experienced riding these bikes and is keen to keep us rubber down. Even at this careful pace the ABS felt the need to kick in a few times on the slippery roads, I barely noticed it working but its a reassuring feeling when handling such large machinery.
(The next day I would make the same descent alone using the 1200GSA without realising the last rider had turned the ABS off. I locked the rear trying stop the bike for one of the tight hairpin bends and found me & 1/4 ton machinery heading into a bend too fast without both wheels inline. Only sheer luck, every last bit of tarmac and a dangling leg managed to convince the bike to turn just enough to make the bend. With my heart pounding I was relieved to be be upright and able to pull over to reengage every last rider aid available to me!)
Climbing the otherside of the valley the traction control works hard to keep the torque in check as we accelerate out of steep slippery hairpin bends. Again, its a reassuring feeling that doesn’t intrude into a normal riding style.
After an hour or so riding on asphalt Geoff leads us onto loose surfaces and I get my first feel of riding the F800 off road. Most my off road riding experience is riding small/medium sized singles, yet despite being a twin, I find the F800 feels very familiar. It feels lighter and slightly more chuckable when cornering than the 1200GSA. With its slimmer profile it feels like more like a traditional out and out off-roader I could just hop on and ride, whereas the big boxer was a little more alien.
Its now set to ENDURO PRO mode, which as Miles has explained to me the night before, removes any rear wheel intervention from electronics, but keeps ABS on at the front. This is actually a great way to ride once your comfortable with the bike, it allows freedom to move the rear as you please while all the time ensuring you don’t lock the front.
Leigh is getting to grips with the big GSA, and with the correct rider mode selected, is not struggling at all to control it on the loose stuff, despite very little off-road experience.He’s also appreciating the 1200GSA’s slightly lower seat height which allows for much easier mounting and dismounting of the bike if your not 6ft+.
Bathurst is home to the world famous race track, Mount Panorama. The lower section of Mount Panorama is similar to any other modern race track, but the hill section which gives the track its name, is anything but. After a long straight the track twists round to begin its climb up the hill. The barriers close in leaving almost zero run off, and almost every corner is blind. The accent is treacherous, but the decent is even more dangerous. Steep corkscrew sections have to be navigated on the brakes and crests play havoc in tight bends.The Nurburgring definitely comes to mind, although Mount Panorama has a significantly better road surface. Mount Panorama once held all kinds of races from open wheelers to motorcycling but, due to the dangerous nature of the circuit and tougher safety standards, now only holds a few closed bodied car races a year.Like the Nurburgring, anyone can drive round Mount Panorama, but unlike the Nurburgring you are required to adhere to a painfully slow speed limit of 60kmh. It’s a nice bit of sightseeing for the race fan, but ultimately very frustrating not to be able to navigate the corners at a decent pace.
At this point the route starts heading back to base, and I’ve really enjoyed riding along with Geoff and the gang, but can’t help feel slightly disappointed having not seen Geoff really doing his thing. He’s led the group at just about the perfect pace, which lets be honest is about half of what he can really do. Nearing the end of the ride we pull over for some photos and finally we’re treated to seeing Geoff unleash hell on the 1200GSA.
The section we’re shooting is a 500 metre stretch in tall grass, dodging trees and fallen branches. We’ve just covered the section ourselves at a modest 30kph and I’ve noticed a road runs parallel, perfect for shooting chase shots. I hop onto the back of Gary’s 1150GS and we’re going to ride on the road while Geoff navigates the offroad. Geoff immediatedly roars off at an unbelievable pace. The chase bike is left behind as he dances between the trees, hustling the huge 1200 like its a little trail bike. We hit 100kph keeping up with him, the big metal panniers clattering on every big hit the suspension has to absorb. After the first run I’ve barely managed a single decent frame, we were just miles behind! Second time round Geoff’s even faster, but fortunately we’ve had a chance to get a running start and from the smooth road I get a clear view of Geoff at full tilt. It was a clear demonstration of what a 1200GSA is really capable of, as long as it’s put in the hands of one of the best Enduro riders off all time. It’s fair to see, even in his 50’s, Geoff has no plans to slow down on two wheels!
By the end of the day me & Leigh are shattered, I’m used to long days on the road, but in Australian heat and on this terrain it’s such tough going. Through lack of concentration I have a huge tank slapper in mud and Leigh drops the huge GSA while turning. Fortunately the big crash bars do their job and the bike is relatively unscathed, and the only damage on my side is my confidence. Geoff is looking like he’s barely got started, it takes a lot of fitness to race off road for 6 straight hours so today was a walk in the park in comparison.
The next day its time for me to leave Leigh, Geoff, Gary & Miles and head South to meet a friend in Canberra. I’m back on my own with the 1200, heading through beautiful hilly and twisty roads for a good 200km before its time to join the main highway. Its at this point I get to try out a few more of the bikes hi tech features. Through the twisting sections I try to get to grips with the quick shifter. This allows changing of gears without using the clutch or adjusting throttle position. When braking towards corners you can simply push the lever down and the bike automatically matches the revs (usually while making a satisfying pop from the exhaust) to create a smooth change. Similarly on the way up you can keep the bike pinned while shifting through the gears. Its a fun gizmo to play with, but ultimately I prefer the connection changing gears manually gives you with the bike and the engine. Also I found the gear lever to somewhat stiffer when quick shifting, and that detracted from the enjoyment of using it.
When I reach the highway I start using the cruise control which I do really like. In the past while riding long stretches of motorway I’ve often found my right arm really aching and its relentless as there’s no way you can take your right arm off the throttle. With cruise control suddenly you can free it, and its possible to have a nice little stretch as your going down the road. This and the very comfortable riding position makes the GSA perfect for covering long distances. The next day I then had ride 300km on the Hume Highway while being chased by a huge thunderstorm. Despite not stopping for a break to avoid getting a soaking, I found the journey pleasant and comfortable, although I would recommend some earplugs to deal with the turbulence coming off the screen. My ride ends in back in Sydney where I have to return the bike and I’m left with mixed feelings about my introduction to the latest in motorcycle technology. I have to admit I was very impressed with the machinery. Both bikes were incredibly capable, and had no problem with any of the terrain that was thrown at them. For me the R1200GSA just pipped the F800 with its more characterful boxer engine, sheer torque and more accessible seat height. The F800 is still a cracking tool through and would easily be the most usable if it wasn’t for its seat height. There was a certain satisfaction in having the right tool for the job, and a whole week of trouble free riding was certainly a novelty for someone who rides classics.
Would I buy one? Well, right now no. My day to day riding just doesn’t warrant such gargantuan machines. I’m usually doing shortish journeys for which the fun and character of a classic machine gives me the quick thrills I’m looking for, and my longer runs are never time or safety critical enough to worry about stopping for a few road side repairs. The sheer size of the GSA would annoy me in day to day use, not to mention give me storage issues as my garage space is limited! However, if ever I’m planning an epic journey through difficult and remote terrain, I have no doubt these will be the first machines I’ll consider for the job and I’ll thoroughly enjoy riding them in their natural habitat.