Combining the best of off-road and street, the R1200GS Adventure is the Adventure-Touring culmination of BMW’s rich history in bike development.
BMW Motorrad has provided the adventurous motorcyclists among us with the ultimate dual-purpose riding experience for more than a quarter century. The bike we are referring to is, of course, the GS. Although it’s scarcely as old as your favorite intern, the story of the GS is rich within BMW history.
The R80GS, grandfather of the modern R1200GS Adventure, was introduced to the public as a production model in 1980 after BMW entered the first Paris-Dakar rally in 1979. Then in 1981, Hubert Auriol took the victory at Dakar, the first of four in the inaugural half-decade history of the endurance event. Definitive success for BMW had been established at the legendary rally, and ever since that time, the Dakar label has been associated with BMW off-road machines.
Over the next two decades the GS continued to grow in both size and popularity. First the motor was increased to a full liter of displacement, then again to an 1150, and most recently to the modern-day 1200 version. The air/oil-cooled Boxer Twin and innovative suspension has become the trademark of the GS, arguably the most popular adventure-touring machine of all time.
The Adventure looks the part of a purpose-built off road machine. You’d better believe it is ready to take on anything you care to throw at it, too. As long as you’re not trying to hit any single-track, this bike is the ticket.
These days the GS is more reserved for riders with a sense of adventure than a thirst for competition. If you plan to race a BMW off-road now, you have the competition-ready Boxer-powered HP2 at your disposal, which leaves the R1200GS and now the new R1200GS Adventure as the bikes of choice for serious explorers.
Since its inception, the GS was intended to be a fusion of an off-road and touring motorcycle, able to travel over any terrain with relative ease. BMW’s goal: Create a bike that can be ridden anywhere, eliminating boundaries set by either natural terrain or general infrastructure, so that those with the true spirit of adventure coursing through their veins can go where they want to go and do what they want to do. With the GS at their disposal, riders have the means to willingly succumb to that mysterious force which draws them away from the comforts of home and feeds the insatiable desire to unearth the source of the drumbeat only a few of us hear, and even fewer march to.
In 2004 the latest incarnation of the GS was unleashed on the press in the desert outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. It was there that our own Duke Danger discovered that although the new GS is a remarkable motorcycle, it has a couple weaknesses when it comes time to traverse the road less traveled. The reduced fuel capacity and lack of crash protection exposed the hidden chink in the armor. That was the small price to be paid in order to satisfy the requests from consumers who were calling for a lighter, more-svelte GS.
The Adventure’s off-road credentials benefit from upgrades like higher ground clearance, bigger fuel capacity, heavy-duty luggage, and tubular steel crash bars. Ken got to test them all on a ride through the Southwest, from Sedona up through the Grand Canyon.
In all aspects, the standard R1200GS is an improvement over the previous model, but it could be made tougher and better-suited to the unique challenges of adventure-touring when the emphasis is on off-road riding. And that is exactly what BMW did with the version of the GS it calls Adventure. The key changes are an increased fuel capacity, up 2.6 gallons from 5.2 on the GS to a voluminous 7.8 gallons for the Adventure (which extends the range to the neighborhood of 400 miles), higher ground clearance with 20mm extra travel on the front and rear, a subsequently taller seat height. And, on the downside, more poundage associated with the additional fuel, tubular steel crash bars, heavy-duty luggage, additional lighting and increased wind protection. A generator that produces a massive 720 watts is designed to accommodate multiple powered accessories.
Our first experience with the super-sized adventure-tourer would materialize during the North American introduction held in Sedona, Arizona. This beautiful desert is believed by many as a place to experience spiritual healing. According to the legend of the Hopi, the Twin Hero of the South Pole, Palonghoya, went into a dream state and searched the universe with his mind for the heartbeat of the Great Spirit. When he finally found it, he began to beat his own drum to its cadence, drawing from the power that gives life to all things. It was there at the heart of the earth where the beat began. That heartbeat pulses to the surface of the earth, gave birth to life and continues to this day. The places on the earth where the drum beats strongest are the vortices. People travel to Sedona from around the world to feel the beat of the drum for themselves.
We were here for a similar reason. The drumbeat we as motorcyclists follow compels us to seek out the unknown, to brave the dangers of the road, because that is what brings us happiness. A twisted lot we are, craving dirt, dust and rocks, high temperatures and a grueling environment all in the interest of riding the latest BMW in the desert of Arizona.
Smooth, rut-free dirt and gravel surfaces would be the first test of the Adventure’s non-paved abilities, which the Beemer handled without incident.
A 250-mile ride led us from our base at Enchantment Resort to the bottom of the Grand Canyon at Hualpai Indian Reservation before reaching our final destination at GuanoPoint on the western rim of the Grand Canyon. To say it was a spiritual endeavor would be simultaneously cliched and curiously honest.
The first thing that grabs your attention when approaching the GS Adventure is the sheer size of the motorcycle. It is 88.6 inches tall, has wide handlebars, a motor wrapped in crash bars and an enormous fuel tank perched right in the middle. It resembles a high-tech motorcycle from the classic Road Warrior films.
The test unit we rode was not equipped with saddlebags, but the one that was so prepared looked even more intimidating. The Touratech-designed luggage is larger and more-sturdy than the GS gear. The aluminum side cases have nearly a 21-gallon capacity while the topcase provides an additional 8.75 gallons of storage space.
Swing a leg over the bike and you’re met with a lofty seat height and an array of instrumentation, nomenclature, protruding cylinders and exposed electronics. This bike is not for the faint of heart, so if you are easily intimidated by imposing figures such as these then you’re probably not the adventure-touring type anyway. If you are not concerned, then you are about to embark on a riding experience worth every bit of the $16,600 base price tag.
The larger dimensions of the Adventure and its 35.2 inch seat height made touching the ground a tippy-toe endeavor for Hutch while riding, but the sturdy base made for a relaxing perch to take a breather.
I stand 5’8″ with stubby little legs and a 30-31″ inseam, so I have to tippy-toe on one foot to hold the bike in place, even with the seat at its lower 35.0-inch height, nearly two inches higher than the standard GS. There’s no way I can touch the ground with both feet, let alone at the higher 35.8-inch seat setting. Once underway, inseam measurements makes no difference because the GS cockpit is very comfortable and feels like a near perfect fit, with the peg-to-bar ratio leaving plenty of arm and leg room in the seated position. The bike does feel top heavy, since the fuel is carried high in the design. The clawed footpegs are metal, like true off-road machines pegs should be, so they offer plenty of grip in the water and mud.
As soon as we left the posh setting of the Enchantment Resort we went about a half mile to the point where the off-road riding would begin. A short ride on improved dirt roads through the northeastern portion of the Prescott National Forest would get us familiar with the GS before we attempted the more arduous terrain past Jerome, AZ. The majestic red rock of Boynton Canyon, which encircles the resort we originated at, remained an element of our horizon while I was gathering my first impression of this massive mobile. The roads were fun roller-coaster-style, smooth, rut-free and predictable and that made them an absolute blast. The GS is surprisingly well balanced, considering the amount of petrol it carries, and it feels well suited on dirt or gravel roads alike. From there we hit the highway, heading west to the historic town of Jerome for a look at the Gold King Mine and Ghost Town.
Our journey back in time got off to an inauspicious beginning when the first dozen of the 30-plus opposed Twins made their way to the parking lot at Gold King Mine. Uncle Don, a grizzled miner who would later be our tour guide, had his burro, Pedro Martinez, tied to a hitching post. For whatever reason the sound of the herd of Beemers upset Pedro’s chi, and without warning the poor, old ass went plumb crazy. He pulled over the hitch (a truck wheel with a four-foot long steel pipe welded to it) and bolted down the driveway with the hitch dragging and scraping behind it, creating quite a ruckus. The journalists riding up the steep driveway behind us got quite a surprise when that distraught donkey came dashing down the narrow driveway in a cloud of dust wielding a 50-lb steel morning star in his wake. By the grace of god, no one was hurt, and each time the beast crossed paths with an oncoming GS, the hitch managed to miss them – barely. With an exciting beginning to our tour, how could it get any better?
Ken pilots the GS Adventure on Route 66 through quirky Seligman, Arizona. You can’t really tell from the picture, but in front of the Beemer’s front wheel is a mannequin of Elvis chillin’ on a bumper of an old Caddy.
We spent the next hour with tour host Uncle Don showing us the best his ghost town has to offer. Many of us were impressed with the assortment of vintage motorcycles stuffed in the corners of the dilapidated shacks encrusted with decades of mining dust, and he managed to keep our attention by firing up a few vintage motors and rattling off a brief history lesson for us to boot. The smoky old Whitte sawmill and an original Hemi-powered pick-up merely whetted our antique whistle, but Big Bertha was truly a sight and sound to behold.
This four-cylinder behemoth previously served as the Gold King Mine’s sole energy source, but these days it is reserved for special occasions like the arrival of the latest GS. Bertha is big, too. With 10,000 cubic inches of displacement and a trio of four foot-long straight pipes pointing out of the head, it looks like a cannon off the USS Missouri. It takes a tractor to pump up enough compression to get Bertha to fire, but when she does, hang on to yer britches cause she’s a boisterous beauty. Gold King was great while it lasted, but we have a date with the Grand Canyon, and in my mind the prospect of riding a motorcycle into the canyon was cooler than any vintage motor, so we got out of Dodge faster than a frightened donkey with a Red Bull buzz.
Ol’ Uncle Don strikes a pose while he’s perched next to the backside of Big Bertha after he had her fired up. The massive 10,000 cubic-inch engine was once the sole source of energy for the Gold King Mine.
Just outside of Gold King was the start of a 25-mile dirt road that was in poor shape. It had 500-ft drop-offs waiting to claim anyone who made a mistake, but the good news is the GS is easy to ride in this terrain, as long as you keep it in your comfort zone. Even the less experienced riders had a fun time here where it is easy to have visions of a career as a flat-tracker while sliding the 600-lb animal on the dirt. Fortunately the Metzler off-road tires were up to task – no one crashed, no one got a flat, and they took care of business by offering a very predictable amount of traction over the decomposed granite and loose rock. It was pretty dusty so it was important to stay alongside the BMW guides, who, by the way, were all riding HP2s, so you can imagine the pace was pretty brisk.
My test mule was not equipped with ABS, and when you’re riding in the dirt, this is a good thing. Even if you choose to go with the option, make sure to turn it off when you plan to blast off-road because the ability to slide the rear is important when maneuvering this much mass at speed. As it is, the brakes were very user-friendly and offer decent feel at the levers, all things considered.
Ken’s test machine did not come with the optional ABS, but he wasn’t complaining as the binders did an excellent job on both dirt and street.
Once we made it through this dirt section, we had a paved but deteriorating 24-mile backroad to conquer. I was happy to be on a GS for this stretch, since the surface was slathered with tar snakes. The road was way dirty off the tire lines and it was full of chuck-holes too. The GS-Adventure may be meant to get the job done off road, but it does just fine in the twisty stuff, especially on a less than perfect highway like this one. However, its off-road tires will hold it back if you try to keep the local sportbike riders in sight. On the street, the brakes felt even better. With some resistance at the tires, the front brakes are mighty powerful, and the Telelever front end keeps brake dive to a minimum while also providing a decent connection to the road. Our destination was Williams, AZ and the cool coffee shop called Java Cycle, where we promptly filled our bellies with iced mochas and biscotti after pounding a few bottles of water. It was time for the most spiritual destination of the journey, a first-ever ride into the base the Grand Canyon.
The people of the Hualapai Indian Reservation allowed us to have our way with the 20-mile-long Diamond Creek dirt road that runs through the reservation and on into the base of the Grand Canyon, where lunch awaited us alongside the mystic Colorado River. Only 15 miles of gravel and a five-mile creek bed with water running down the middle of it separated us from experiencing something many people would love to do and even fewer can actually say they have done.
Java Cycle in Williams, Arizona, was flooded by the influx of GS Adventures. Having been through the dirt and some miles on the blacktop, it was time to take the Adventure up into the Grand Canyon.
I said it before and I will say it again, the GS Adventure is in its element on dirt roads, and so was I. At 80-90 mph the bike was predictable while sliding through the gravel, and the Boxer Twin power delivery allowed for easy throttle modulation in order to keep the rear tire spinning while remaining manageable. The rolling hills allowed the suspension an opportunity to work too. Cresting sharp rises could cause the bike to bottom out, and when you hit braking bumps at those speeds the rear of the bike chatters pretty hard. The EVO Paralever got a serious workout during this stretch. Slow the GS down to 50-60 mph and it’s smooth going, with the unconventional suspension components working well over taxing terrain.
Riding through the Diamond Creek bed/road that eventually dumped into the Colorado at what would be one of the most unforgettable lunch stops I have ever attended was fairly fun but it wasn’t easy. The steel footpegs provide plenty of grip wearing street boots on a primarily off-road excursion, even when wet. By keeping the gas on, the front tire was un-weighted so it plowed through the loose river rock hidden beneath the rippling surface of the water without too much complaint. Let the revs dip, however, and things get scary quick when you are no longer driving with the rear wheel. Try doing the duck-walk with a quarter ton of German engineering wallowing beneath you and only being able to barely touch with one foot was, to say the least, exhilarating. With this much mass to contend with, the trick is to keep momentum going at all costs. To my surprise, the bike recovered well when it did get out of shape, a testament to the torque offered up by the big Twin. Plowing through the water commanded attention, but the moment the view opened up and the Grand Canyon’s eroded walls were revealed, the effort it took to get to this point was all worthwhile.
The Adventure handled everything thrown at it, including sloshing through water. The Boxer’s torque output was able to correct problems before they escalated.
The last time I gazed upon the Grand Canyon from the seat of a GS was during our Adventure-Touring test. Looking down and seeing the tiny rivulet of water meandering through the red rock walls from a lookout point that few people have had the pleasure of viewing will forever be etched in my psyche. However, standing next to that same river, looking up to the sky at the rim high above, is borderline existential. I could hear the beat of the drum – it was in my chest and it was telling me I could check off one more thing on my to-do list before I visit that paddock in the sky.
After filling our bellies with grub and the bikes with fuel, it was time to make the return run out of the canyon and back to the task at hand. There were still many miles to go after riding out of the reservation. Our destination was Guano Point, yeah, bat-crap summit.
The majority of this ride would be off-road as well. Another 50 miles of single-lane unimproved country roads chock-full of switchbacks, water bars, rain ruts and loose gravel were there to challenge the off-road prowess of the GS. By this juncture, a few riders had tipped the bikes over once or twice, but not a single machine was the worse for wear. Scratched crash bars and hand guards were the extent of the damage, so the armor appears to work as it’s supposed to. Good thing, too, because this stretch of road was fast and dusty, and my BMW guide Jemme (pronounced Jimmy), who already was fast, was now eager to get us to the big surprise awaiting us at the end of the ride.
Ever wondered what a dozen BMWs look like at the bottom of the Grand Canyon? This particular spot of the Colorado River also happens to be a popular extraction point for adventurous river-runners.
The Adventure’s windscreen also acts as a blast shield if you are riding in close quarters with your friends or being shown the way by the fastest female at BMW North America. Despite getting stoned numerous times (By rocks – Ed.), the screen held up and never showed significant signs of damage. When the dust was thick I stayed seated and the saddle was superb throughout the ride, whether on the street or off. In the faster sections, without quite as much dust, I spent a lot of time standing on the pegs because I felt like I had better command of the bike in the dirt in this position.
The odometer spun through the last few miles and before I knew it, we had reached our final destination. An unregulated lookout allowed us to ride the bikes to the edge and then walk down to the lip of the western tip of the Grand Canyon. Here we took the opportunity for a few photo ops before stepping onto the tour bus that would take us down the road to the official Guano Point viewing area. The name really stinks, but the view is monumental.
Our big surprise was a chartered flight over the Grand Canyon and back to Sedona for a final evening of reflection as to what we had just done. I dozed off for a moment, and that dream state evoked a memory of a distant conversation I had with my father. He had asked me why I kept riding despite injuries, accidents and all the trouble it has caused me over the years. At the time I had answered that it was because I am doing what I love to do: I’m riding. In my dream, the answer was that I am merely following the beat of my own drum, it leads me to places few people imagine themselves going and even fewer actually do.
Adding the Adventure moniker to the end of the GS means something. Taking the new Beemer to the figurative edge of the earth, Ken got a scenic taste of just how much adventure the machine can deliver.
I awoke with a start and my mind was swimming for a moment while trying to make an association as to the meaning of the abstract desert images from my dream and the actual point of view as I looked down at the colossal red canyon below. Are these the type of feelings of accomplishment the engineers from BMW had hoped to share with us when they started making the GS over two decades ago? Did they hope we would find deeper meanings at the conclusion of our riding experience? Or is this a side effect of the vortices?
When a rider crosses the finish line at Dakar, only the handful of racers who shared in the adventure would truly understand what it meant to endure an escapade like that – feeling the elements fighting against you and manipulating the motorcycle to overcome the obstacles set before you. This is what riding is about, actually being there and doing what can’t be done, then reminiscing about the journey, sharing it with your friends and family, while all the time knowing in the back of your mind that because they weren’t there, they truly won’t comprehend the scope of your tale. Still, you are compelled to tell it, and still they are compelled to listen.
As a group we had just completed an expedition few of us ever thought was even possible. We had just ridden along, inside, and then flown over the Grand Canyon, all in one astounding day. If you expect to complete a trip like this in your lifetime, you will need more than a mere motorcycle. You need a one capable of tackling a wide array of terrain, that is resilient to damage and will lay waste to boundaries both natural and man-made. That bike is the BMW R1200GS Adventure.
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