AUSTRALIA is a vast land with the bulk of its small population, and roads, jammed up against the East Coast.
Most of us live within a couple of hours of the beach, somewhere between Geelong and the Sunshine Coast, and that’s where many of the best winding roads, scenic hills and green forests lie.
But there is so much more to Australia, so much more which isn’t along a bitumen road. From the endless plains West of the Great Divide to the spectacular sunsets of the deserts to the sun sinking over the Western Coast, Australia is unique in the world in what it has to offer the touring motorcyclist.
And the BMW R 1200 GS Adventure is possibly the bike best suited to take you to those places.
The Adventure advantages
BMW offers many bikes which can take on the gravel roads which criss-cross the Australian outback, but the R 1200 GSA is the One Bike to Rule Them All. It’s the biggest, toughest and most capable (and possibly most expensive, but we’ll get to that later).
If there’s one feature which gives the 1200 GSA an edge over its lighter siblings, it’s the fuel tank. At 30 litres, this is a machine which can go 500km between fuel stops, if ridden gently. Maybe the F 800 GSA comes close, but the 1200 can also carry more gear, too, which is essential in the outback.
The GSA is also better equipped for the long haul and off-road touring. Things like standard wire wheels, the wide triple-row footpegs which are so much better to stand up on than the skinny units on the standard 1200. There’s better fall-over protection and engine protection, too.
On any road
We all bring our preconceptions to a new bike, and I find it really interesting to hear the reactions of other riders when they are asked what they think of large-capacity adventure bikes and the GSA in particular.
“I’m not into dirt bikes,” one rider told me.
“But it’s not a dirt bike, it’s an adventure bike,” I replied.
“Same thing”, he responded.
Nope, wrong. A dirt bike is something designed to live in the dirt, only emerging for storage… like when you ride it home.
An Adventure bike is just as comfortable on a bitumen surface as it is on gravel.
Many dirt bike riders don’t ‘get’ the GSA either, seeing it as too big, too heavy, too expensive and too much. If attacking single-track trails is your go, you’d be right, but if you think adding a long range tank to an enduro bike for the trip across the country is a good idea, you probably haven’t spent enough time in the saddle of a GS.
Put simply, it’s amazing what a confident, capable rider can do on a GS.
Let’s get this out of the way: Anyone who thinks the GSA is a stylish machine has got rocks in their head. Rocks they probably like riding over on their imaginary trials’ bike.
The GSA is aggressive, intimidating and futuristic, but it’s not stylish.
I’m old enough to remember when the R 1100 GS was launched, and there was much debate about the styling, with the argument no-one would buy such an ugly motorcycle probably gaining a consensus – until we rode one. You don’t really have to look at a bike when you ride it (probably shouldn’t be, actually).
All the roads
BMW’s GS 1200s are great fun on the asphalt. Seriously good fun, even with the standard Continentals on the GS Adventure, which look like knobbies, but only feel like motocross tyres under extreme braking and if the track temperature really starts to skyrocket – chasing Pickett, who was riding a 1200cc road bike along the twisty roads along the banks of the Murray River wasn’t a problem until speeds got out of hand and the air temperature started hitting 40.
On a good bitumen road you can ride one of these quick, on a bad bitumen road you can still ride pretty quick – and a lot faster than a stiffly-sprung sportsbike, which might well be shaking its head across the potholes and bouncing you into oncoming traffic across rough surfaces.
One thing though – the Continental TKC80 is a great tyre, but they are neither cheap nor long lasting. In fact, if I bought a GSA I’d switch the tyres out for something less aggressive until I was heading off on the Big Adventure.
Own a GS and you’ll start to seek out gravel roads. Some of my favourites are roads which are primarily bitumen, but there are still sections of gravel – be it the cost of sealing the road or a desire by the locals not to attract more traffic, nothing reduces traffic load on a road like a bit of gravel.
So take the road less travelled, it’ll be more fun, and remember, fuel range isn’t such an issue.
On the gravel the GS is great fun. You can slide around corners, feet up with the back-end hanging out like a speedway star, you can pull monos which last for kilometres and take the machine sailing into the air off sand dunes for some Frequent Flyer points.
Well, some people can, like the freaks in the BMW ads. Most of us are more content with getting the bike back under control after it breaks traction, popping the front wheel up to show off and getting enough airtime for a mate to catch the shot, but no matter, as long as you’re having fun…
BMW has built in a heap of electronic wizardry so you can have more fun. Yeah yeah, I know it’s supposed to make the bike safer to ride and give you lots of excuses to trade up, but at the end of the day we ride these things because it’s fun, and when you get to know the GSA you come to realise life is better when you’re a little dirty.
But older GS models could be a handful in the dirt, so BMW started introducing ABS, traction control, dynamic suspension and riding modes so you can tailor your GS to the conditions, your ability and your mood. I especially like the optional accessory which lets you choose between espresso and cappuccino.
But getting back to the real choices you can make to the GS, off-road traction control mode is awesome. If you leave a GS in road traction control setting and hit some gravel, you’ll soon feel the engine cutting out as the rear wheel starts spinning faster than the front and the electronics cut in. The off-road setting won’t cut in so abruptly, so you can slide the rear wheel a little and feel like an off-road legend, but if it starts going to far the system will cut power to try to prevent the whole thing ending in tears.
As your skill level rises you’ve move through the Enduro mode, onto Enduro Pro and maybe you’ll get good enough to switch it all off, which is entirely up to you.
The modes also affect ABS, with the Enduro Pro mode turning off the ABS to the rear wheel, allowing those good enough to slide a locked-up wheel deliberately, something our motocross tester Todd Reed was recently teaching my 14 year old son – on a 250cc trail bike. Doing the same on a 260kg Adventure bike is a whole different game of mud wrestling.
The big updates for this model include cornering ABS Pro and Quickshift Pro. The latest ABS works while cornering, moderating braking pressure if you squeeze to hard while cranked over. The Quickshift Pro means you can ignore the clutch lever once you’re moving, for both up and downshifts.
BMW’s added a keyless ignition and electronic fuel cap since the last time I rode a GS, both convenience features on the road. Zip the key into your jacket and you’ll never find yourself fumbling for the key. I did learn one trick though: if the fuel cap won’t pop open, it might be dirt jamming the electronic release – give it a sharp tap with a closed fist and try the latch again. Worked for me.
Load me up
How far, how many, how much? Three questions to ask at the start of preparations for any extended ride. How far could be distance, it could be time – days, weeks, months.
How many relates to both carrying a passenger or riding with a group, which often affects what you can or can’t take with you.
How much is the question which relates to so much else – money, mud, gear, heat, rain… what are you taking, what conditions are you going to experience, what memories will you bring back.
The GSA can cover an awful lot of those bases. You can carry a passenger comfortably long distances. There are numerous optional pannier and top box combinations available from BMW and others, including the cool-looking aluminium boxes.
The solo adventurous rider might be better off with soft luggage, which doesn’t tend to become unusable with slow-speed off-road tip overs – again, BMW and many other companies offer different options.
BMW sent the bike to Cycle Torque with one of its expandable tankbags, which are great and don’t get in the way, standing up or sitting down. The pannier frames were there, too, but no panniers – I used a set of Motodry soft throwovers we had in the office and they worked well, the pannier frames keeping the bags away from the hot exhaust.
This is one of the joys of the GSA – it’s versatility. During the time I had with the bike this time around, I didn’t get to go as much off road as usual for this type of bike, but we did some really big days, the last being nearly 1000km. The GSA never missed a beat and I was sitting comfortably the whole time (well… I had a sore arse and some aching muscles, but I was as a damn sight more comfortable than I would have been on anything other than a luxurious tourer).
In the saddle
The GSA is a big bike and for big people it’s one of the most comfortable around. Yep, the seat is high, even in the lowest of the adjustable positions, the handlebars are high and wide… so those of smaller stature will often find the GSA intimidating. What am I saying? Every sane person finds the GSA intimidating when they first encounter one – it requires a definite heft to get a dirt bike boot up over the seat, getting it up off the sidestand can be a challenge at times and pushing it backwards… well, I’d use reverse if it had one.
But solo without much load, being ridden by a capable rider, the GSA can do those things I joked about earlier – be slid around like Vermeulen heading toward a win, pulling wheelies like Troy Corser after another Superbike victory and getting airborne like Geoff Ballard playing in the dirt… but this time I’m serious, because I’ve seen those riders doing amazing things on BMW GSs…
Me, I like riding far and fast on the BMW R 1200 GS Adventure. I don’t care if the road surface is bitumen or gravel, I don’t care of the weather’s hot or cold, but I do care if it’s raining, for all adventure bikes are a handful in the mud. That’s one place you really start to notice the weight, because catching a sliding front end on a GSA is tough.
Indeed, a BMW staffer once told me in reference to riding the Australian outback on big Adventure bikes, “If it rains, change your plans”.
Notice the low front guard over the front wheel? See the wrap-around guard at the rear? The GSA isn’t designed for mud, and that’s what the Australian outback turns into after rain. That’s where big single cylinder trail/Adventure bikes come into their own, something where you can stick your legs out to become outrigger and slide ’n’ slide your way through. Don’t try that on a GS.
The price of all this fun
Although you can pay under $25,000 for an R 1200 GS Adventure, that only gets you the base model, which is a special order because the vast majority of GSs sold in Australia have the touring package (electronic suspension, cruise control, on board computer pro and more) and the Dynamic Package (LED headlights and the full suite of riding modes). Then there is a list of accessories as long as your arm.
BMW has built a quality machine and if it’s too expensive for you there are lots of cheaper GS models, and many of them are almost as capable. But if you can afford it, there’s nothing quite like a 1200 GS or GS Adventure.
For the ride of your life
So who is the GS for? It’s for the person ready to have the ride of their life. Big distances, long days, expeditions to places afar, with or without a passenger.
Keep reading – for a more conventional bike test
You’ll struggle to find many facts, figures or specifications (except for the spex he cares about, like the size of the tank) in Nigel’s ‘test’ of the GS Adventure here – he’s ridden too many GS models too many times to care.
However, it hasn’t always been this way, and Chris Pickett wrote a conventional test of the R 1200 GS Adventure when it was launched – just check out the May 2014 issue. It’s available as a digital download for the iPad, iPhone or a PDF you can read on any tablet or computer. You can also read it online.