Why I ended up buying another BMW GS

I really tried my best not to replace my 2009 BMW R1200GS with a newer GS, but I failed in that attempt. For my specific set of circumstances - where I live, the kind of riding I do, the uses to which I put my motorcycle, even the number and type of vehicles I own - there is simply no bike that is more fit for purpose. If Charles Darwin is setting the rules of engagement, and I am the evolutionary niche into which a motorcycle must fit, the BMW GS ticks all of the boxes.

If the GS is so good, why did I need to replace it at all? My bike was a 2009 model, with 87,000km on the clock. It had held up rather well, considering the way I treated it - my motorcycle lives outside and gets washed twice a year, if it is lucky - and had had a new clutch and shaft drive bearings. It was probably good for at least another 80,000km.

Maybe. But it had also developed issues with parasitic draw from the battery. Nine times out of ten, the bike would be fine after I had not ridden it for a couple of weeks. But the tenth time, the battery would be flat, and I would get no response. 18+ hours on the charger would fix the problem, until the next time. And it always seemed to happen just when I actually needed the bike to go somewhere.

My motorcycle is the only means of motorised transport I possess. I own a couple of bicycles (in The Netherlands, they will hunt you for sport if you don’t), but otherwise, if I want to go somewhere, I have to either travel by train or take my bike. My 2009 GS was quite simply no longer reliable enough. If my riding had been purely recreational, it would have been fine. But my bike also has to serve as transport.

Satanic contraption

“Why don’t you buy a car?” I hear you ask. Because cars are the work of Beelzebub, and steal your soul. I owned a car for perhaps 8 years of my life. It made me miserable, and every time I drove, I felt it sucking the life force out of me. I am not a fan of cars. I drive them when I have to, but they make me unhappy.

So a car is out of the question, and I need a vehicle to serve the role those less fortunate than I use a car for. And when I say “a vehicle”, I mean just that: one vehicle. In an ideal world, I would have multiple motorcycles, each for a different purpose. But this is not an ideal world; the fact I earn only a modest income from my work as a MotoGP writer is evidence of that. Life is good, but not lucrative. I live in a modest house, with a small garden and no garage. No garage means any bike has to live outside, so it is exposed to the elements (under a cover, of course, I am not a monster). I simply have no room to store more than one motorcycle.

This one motorcycle has to fulfil a wide variety of roles. It has to take me and my assorted work stuff (clothes, laptop, recording equipment) to and from selected MotoGP races. It has to take me to and from work-related events. It has to take my wife and I and all our stuff to and from selected races, and on holiday trips. It has to take me to work meetings. And it has to take me (with and without my wife) on day trips, fun rides out, and quick blasts just to clear the mind and cleanse the soul.

The need to carry luggage rules out sports bikes (just because a thing can be done, doesn’t necessarily mean it should), and long motorway trips to races means a naked bike is going to be tiring. A (sports) tourer could be an option, except for two factors: it has to be fun to ride solo, and it has to handle a fall. Because I will fall over, usually at a standstill or low speed while doing something stupid, like deciding it might be fun to try to ride down that sand path I just spotted.

That narrows it down a fair bit, essentially to some form of adventure bike. The requirement to carry my wife, self, and luggage narrows it down even further, to something with enough power and torque to manage, and not struggle. But most of the local roads I ride when out for a bit of a bimble have 60 km/h speed limits, so 200 brake horsepower would see my licence taken away in a matter of minutes.

Choices, choices

The above criteria meant I was left with just a few bikes to choose from. The KTM Super Adventure 1290S. The Triumph Tiger 900 GT Pro (the new 1200 was still just a rumour when I was making my choice). The Honda Africa Twin. The Suzuki V-Strom 1050XT. The Ducati Multistrada V4 or the Multistrada 950. The Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250. The Moto Guzzi V85, perhaps?

Matching bikes to my criteria soon narrowed the list down. I love the Africa Twin, having ridden one a few years ago, but the rudimentary (by 2021 standards) dash, and the fact that electronic suspension was only available on the Adventure Sports model, which also had the tall suspension, put me off. As did the fact that it has a chain drive, and given my attitude to maintenance, a chain seemed like a rusted mess waiting to happen.

The Guzzi V85 looks fantastic, but 76 hp and 82 NM of torque meant it looked a little anaemic for two-up rides with luggage. The Ducati Multistrada V4 was beyond my budget, and the 950S had a lot of plastic for me to break when I inevitably dropped it. The 950 was pretty much on the money in terms of horsepower and torque, but again, that chain…

The Suzuki V-Strom 1050 had potential, but was a little underpowered, and the luggage (and lack of alternatives for luggage) put it way down my list. It is a hell of a lot of motorcycle for the money, but I had my last bike for nearly 9 years, and I plan to keep this bike for at least the same length of time. In terms of technology, the V-Strom is not that much better than my 2009 GS.

Wheat from chaff

In reality, the choice came down to the Triumph, the KTM, and another BMW GS. Both the KTM and the Triumph have a chain, which was one strike against them. I was quoted a delivery time of 3 months for a Tiger 900, which was a second strike against it (though I did have a soft spot for the bike). I have heard (anecdotally, obviously) a lot of stories about electronics problems with the KTM. But the biggest strike against the KTM was its engine: I have no use for 160hp on the roads I usually ride.

The other strike against the KTM was the colour. There are two options: orange, or black.I am a fan of neither of those colours. And so embedded is orange into the identity of the KTM that making it a pretty colour would have been complicated.

Which brings me to the question of colour. Motorcycle colour schemes tend to be cyclic, like all things fashion, and we appear to be mired right in the middle of motorcycling’s Drab Period. Unless you like orange (KTM), or red (Ducati), your choices appear to be mostly black, white, or grey. I realise that being in the midst of a global pandemic can make it feel as if all of the colour has been sucked out of the world, but surely that is a reason to go for bright colours, rather than sliding further into monochrome?

It is all so unimaginative. Take the BMW colour scheme “Triple Black”. I realise BMW are just trying to put a positive spin on various shades of very dark grey, but if black bikes lack imagination, Triple Black is doubling down on dullness. It is the safe choice, the conformist choice, and especially for men, a way of ducking criticism and fitting in with expected norms of male appearance, the reason why Western business attire is so ineffably bland and innocuous. It is the choice of men whose deepest fear is that someone somewhere might not be entirely convinced that they are absolutely, completely, 110% heterosexual.

It could be worse, of course. It could be camo. You are not John Rambo, and you are not going to take your big adventure bike and hole up in the woods to hide from the police, who you accuse of taking first blood. You won’t need to camouflage your bike from aerial bombardment while you pop into Sainsbury’s for a six pack of beer and some vegan scotch eggs.

What I wanted was a red motorcycle. After nine years of owning a blue motorcycle, blue being my wife’s least favourite colour, it was time for something brighter. That meant either a Ducati, a Triumph Tiger 900 GT Pro, or a 2015-2018 BMW GSA. Or, alternatively, spending money to respray/vinyl wrap a bike in a different colour.

The Ducatis and Triumph had chains. The Multistrada V4S was outside my budget. The Multi 950 came only with plastic luggage, which, given my proclivity for the horizontal, would end up broken.

So I test rode a BMW, or rather, I test rode two BMWs, a GS and a GSA. I was surprised at the difference between the two, given that it is the same engine and gearbox in almost identical frames, the biggest difference being the size of the fuel tank.

There is a minor difference in geometry, mostly related to the longer suspension on the GSA. The GSA has a rake of 24.9° and trail of 95.4 mm, the GS a rake of 25.7° and trail of 100.6 mm (although the Telelever suspension complicates this), and the difference was remarkable. The front end of the GS felt flighty, like it kept wanting to get away from me. The GSA felt planted, precise. I could aim the GSA where I wanted and only my talent, or lack of it, would let me down. I felt like I was constantly chasing the GS, trying to bring it back into the corner, and back on line.

Ergos

What was most impressive is just how immediately I felt at home on the bikes. The bars, pegs, and seat were all just right, in the same place as on my previous GS. The ergonomics of the GS is perhaps its strongest selling point. Everything, all the controls, are in the Goldilocks zone for someone of my physical dimensions. No doubt this is more down to the fact I have spent nearly 20 years riding GSes - an 1150, then a 1200, and now a 1250 - but the fact that the ergonomics feels so familiar is a sign that BMW got it pretty much spot on a long time ago, and they have been sensible enough not to change it too much.

The 1250 may have 30 hp more than my old 1200, yet it didn’t feel like it was vastly more powerful. What impresses is the torque, an almost turbine-like spread of power. Open the throttle in pretty much any gear, and away you go, though it never feels like you are out of control. There is more than enough, but you never get the sensation that you have way too much.

During the test ride, I did try out the different engine modes, but as it was dry and I was riding on minor roads, it was hard to tell the difference. Also because it was the first time I had had a chance to play around with engine modes. Since purchasing the bike, I have had more time to try them out, and you do notice the difference, especially in the wet. The Rain mode feels much like my old 1200 did, with a much softer throttle response. Dynamic feels, well, dynamic, and quite aggressive, while Road sits about two thirds between Rain and Dynamic.

It was not all good news, however. Much like its predecessors, the seat is too soft, and after an hour you feel the urge to start moving around. The heated seat was better in that regard, perhaps because the heating elements require a stiffer seat, but even then it wasn’t ideal. I did not opt for the heated seat when I bought the bike, mostly because my riding in the winter is limited, and because core temperature is what matters, more than arse temperature. And you do get used to riding with the standard seat, so it is not as bad as I first thought. But I suspect there is a replacement seat in my future.

Form over function

Which brings me to the worst aspect of the bike. There are three things that many, if not most, GS riders replace: the seat, the suspension, and the screen. The seat, because it is the most intimate point of contact, and makes such a huge difference. The suspension, because even though the BMW GS is a premium motorcycle, components such as suspension are built to a budget, and the spring is too soft and the damping wears out eventually. And the screen - the windscreen, that is - because it is almost comically terrible.

Like many bikes, the screen is designed to provide a certain level of wind protection, but most of all, to fit the aesthetics of the bike. The styling on both the GS and the GSA is quite aggressive, angular, and fits rather nicely with the rest of the bike. But in practice, the screens are just bad, in the case of the GS, and absolutely awful in the case of the GSA.

With the standard GS screen, the wind is channelled directly into your face, whether you have the screen in its high or low position. It is noisy, and there is plenty of buffeting.

But even the standard GS screen is excellent when compared to the GSA screen. The GSA screen manages to be both large, yet simultaneously completely ineffective. The buffeting is even worse than with the GS screen, the noise is unbearable, and the screen tends to flop around at motorway speeds. There are multiple companies selling windscreen braces for the GSA, which is itself a sign of just how bad a job BMW have done. It looks butch though, and I’m sure that’s what mattered most to the product manager in charge.

When I ordered the bike, I had the GSA screen replaced with a standard GS screen, as the lesser of two evils. I have since added an MRA X-creen spoiler to the standard screen, which has radically improved the situation. The turbulence is gone, and I can ride with my visor open without having the wind vibrate my glasses off my head. It is quiet, and the air is directed over my head. The position of the spoiler needs work, and I still have plenty of air on my shoulders, which is likely to get tiring on long motorway journeys, but it’s a huge improvement.

What I really wanted was a Givi Airflow screen, like I had on my R1200GS: it was hideous, but it was astonishingly effective. The screen, consisting of two parts, meant that when it was hot I could slide the screen into its lowest position, and get smooth cool air onto my body and face.

When it was cold, or raining, I could raise the screen up to a higher position, and sit in a bubble of near silence, the gap between the upper and lower screens removing all turbulence, and the larger size taking the wind pressure off my upper body. But tragically, Givi don’t make an airflow screen for the liquid cooled GSes, neither the post-2013 1200 nor the 1250. I cannot fully express just how sad that makes me.

To be honest, the real reason I decided to buy another BMW GS is the combination of the TFT screen and what is officially known as the multi-controller, but which is informally called the wonderwheel. The TFT screen is large, bright, and has everything you need to know on it. In contrast to other bikes - the Ducati Multistrada and the Harley-Davidson Pan American, for example - the text on the screen is all large enough to read, even for my 57-year-old failing eyes. The operation is relatively intuitive once you understand the basic principles.

The killer app as far as I was concerned was the combination of the wonderwheel and the functionality offered by the BMW Navigator VI. The ability to zoom in and out of the map while riding, or while at the side of the road, is incredibly valuable if you are using a route as a guide, rather than sticking to it rigidly.

Heading off down a side road just to see what is there is easy, requiring you only to zoom in and out. Before, I would have to pull over to the side of the road, take my gloves off, and mess around with my TomTom Rider (or explore the area on OSMAnd or Google Maps on my phone). Now, I can usually see enough to understand whether I will get caught up in a dead end, or see where a side road leads, safe in the knowledge I won’t have to double back on my tracks.

I say functionality offered by the BMW Navigator VI, because I had no intention of buying one new. They are massively overpriced - over €800 for a Garmin GPS device worth less than half that - despite the addition of a bike data screen and the ability to use the GPS via the wonderwheel. My options were to haggle (I failed), to buy one second-hand, or to opt for the Wunderlinq, which fits on the BMW navigation adapter and uses bluetooth to connect to a smartphone. Then at the end of last year, BMW announced the Connected Cradle, a phone cradle which fits in the navigation adapter and which includes a wireless charger for a smartphone.

The downside of the Connected Cradle is that it will hold a phone, but not a phone in a protective case. Given the number of times I have dropped my phone, using it without a case is a non-starter.

I was fully intending to buy the Wunderlinq - the ability to display the bike data and use any navigation app I chose, plus the easy integration with music apps on the phone. But a very cheap, slightly damaged Navigator VI came up for sale, and it was cheaper than the Wunderlinq plus second-hand phone plus mounting options I would have needed. So I went for the Nav VI instead.

Ghost touch

In addition to being extortionately priced when new, the Nav VI has a further issue, in that the touchscreen is known to have issues of oversensitivity. All of a sudden, the screen develops a mind of its own, and starts acting as if a button is being continuously pressed, as if a finger is being held in the same position. Horror stories abound on BMW forums, though BMW have been very cooperative in immediately replacing units which riders have complained about, if they bought them new.

It is something I have also experienced, though switching the unit off, cleaning the screen with a lint-free cloth, then switching it back on again seemed to cure it. But knowing of the issues with the Nav VI, I am not intending to use it as a primary navigation device. Navigation is done with the TomTom Rider 550 I have been using for the past four years, and which works rather well. (If only TomTom would build an adapter to connect it to the BMW navigation adapter so it could be controlled via the wonderwheel…). The Nav VI is only being used to get a sense of where I am and where to go.

That’s the biggest problem with GPS devices. GPS can tell you exactly where you are, and yet leave you with absolutely no idea where that is. Context is a lovely thing to have.

So the wonderwheel was a major factor in my decision to go with another GS. Obviously, the bike feels as natural to ride as my old GS, with everything smoother, faster, more fluid (one of the advantages of waiting nearly 9 years to trade up). The handling is precise, the engine is smooth, with bags of torque and power. It is comfortable and fast enough for my purposes. The seat design has also been changed to make it a little easier to get your feet on the ground, and the Dynamic ESA suspension is a huge leap forward on the ESA controls I had on my previous bike.

Another reason to spring for the BMW is the vast choice in aftermarket parts. For anything you want to upgrade, you have a choice of multiple options and suppliers. Seats, windscreens, crash bars, luggage, you name it and there are eight different companies offering you options. Few other bikes can match that - the KTM Adventure, the Africa Twin, and the Suzuki V-Strom 650 - and that gave the BMW a huge advantage.

So I ordered a BMW R1250GSA. I wanted the lowered version, as I am neither Ewan nor Charlie, and won’t be going offroad, beyond the occasional meander along a sandy local lane. This was also why I opted for the cast wheels rather than spoked: it saved some money, and cast wheels run truer and stay straighter than spoked wheels. Also, they are not an absolute horror show to clean.

The advantage of a lowered bike is a better feeling of control. Even though I can’t quite flatfoot the bike, the bike never feels like it is about to topple over. I have not run into problems with ground clearance, but then again, I picked my bike up in December and it is still January. The weather has been dismal, grey and eternally damp. So testing ground clearance has not been high on my list of priorities. Then again, even if it were bone dry, I would run out of talent before I ran out of ground clearance.

You bought a 1250, hear you ask, but I thought you wanted a red bike? I did indeed. Solved easily enough, by buying the Ice Grey colour scheme and a second-hand set of red bodywork panels from an R1200GS (the bodywork is identical for the GSA). The Ice Grey version has a red and black seat, which matches the red panels from the 1200. With the main bodywork fixed, I can turn my attention to the other parts of the bike.

Along with the MRA X-Creen spoiler to remedy turbulence, I have bought a Denali CANSMart light controller to use with the Denali S4 lights I bought to supplement the frankly awful lights of the 2009 R1200GS. The lights on the R1250GSA are a massive improvement, though still fall short of the Denalis. The combination of the S4s and the stock LED headlight should be fantastic.

I cannot overstate just how good the Denali S4s are. I originally purchased them at the start of 2020, after a few sketchy rides home in the dark at Silverstone and Sachsenring. Then the pandemic happened, and I didn’t really get a chance to ride in the dark, or at all, to get to test the lights.

This year, there have been a few occasions when I have ridden in the pitch black, down tiny country lanes in The Netherlands and the UK. At low beam (50%, on the R1200), vision is already hugely improved. Flick the full beam on, and it transforms country lanes from night into day. Along with rider training and crash bars, this is the best money I have spent on the bike.

The TFT screen is outstanding, and linked to the BMW Connected Ride app, it means I don’t have to record my mileage all the time for the purpose of separating out work mileage from personal rides. It also displays the speed limit on the TFT, a useful reminder of just how much that fine is going to cost.

Bags of fun

I opted for the standard BMW aluminium side cases, because they are a good size, and can withstand me falling over. The Touratech Zega panniers I had on my R1200GS took a beating when the bike fell over, but always remained waterproof. I had considered the Bumot bags, but I was offered a deal on the official luggage including inner bags. The BMW inner bags are really exceptional, waterproof, spacious, and sturdy.

If there is a niggle with the panniers, it is that they use the BMW key. The keyless key fob costs north of €300 to replace, but it does not feel at all sturdy. Both the BMW panniers and the lockable navigation adapter require a good deal of force to open, and you constantly worry about breaking it off. I have already ordered one extra non-electronic key, and will likely order another, to use for opening luggage and navigation (the second is for my wife, who carries a spare set of keys in case I lose mine).

Having a 30-litre tank is also great. Fewer refuelling stops is always good, it gives you more flexibility. This was particularly irksome for me on trips to the Sachsenring. If I filled up before I left home, I would get to the A44 with a little over 100km of range left. There is a petrol station at the start of the A44, but the next one is something like 80km further. The petrol station just past Unna was earlier than I wanted to stop, the next one a little too far for comfort. Having a larger tank should give me a bigger choice in where and when I want to stop.

Apologia

If the above sounds like me trying to justify my purchasing decision to myself, that would because it is. But I hope that by laying out the decision-making process I went through, anyone reading this might be of some help. Think of it as part catharsis, part advice.

Anyway, 500 km in, and so far, no regrets, nor any on the immediate horizon. Looking forward to many happy motorcycle adventures.