Lessons Learned: Choosing A Bike.

I’m back home from my little journey through Latin America. Because it was my first big trip I learned some stuff on the road which I think might be of interest to some of you out there. So what I want to do is to write up a small “Lessons Learned” series – even before finishing with my ride reports.

My girl is still in L.A., waiting to be loaded into a container back to the old continent. I miss her. Very much. Even if it’s still too cold to ride around here in Europe. Because I miss her so much I want to start this series with her, a honest review of my R1200 GSA.

WARNING: This content is rated M (Mature 17+). Strong language all over the thing and my personal opinion only.

If you made it as far as this paragraph and thought about giving me shit in the comments for all the shiny gear I carried I hereby plead for more time: I’ll cover it in another post. Until then let me assure you that I was not happy with a large part of it.

Also, absolutely everything from here on below is from personal, first-hand experience only. I was on the road for eleven months, covered some 35,000 km going up from Valparaíso (Chile) to Los Angeles (California). I tried to stay off major highways and basically paved roads and very much enjoyed going off-road. If this is not your riding style then a lot of what’s listed below might not apply to you.

The bike: A 2010 BMW R1200 GSA

As much as I did seem to be the stereotype post Long Way Round BMW motorcycle traveller I have to tell you that thankfully I’ve only watched the thing while travelling. I did not see it before. I personally think that it is absolutely hilarious and if you don’t take it seriously also quite o.k. to watch. But man. Please don’t think that this is what it takes to go on a trip like that. If you happened to watch it I hereby warmly recommend you to also watch the other extreme: Mondo Enduro. Find a mix from both of them to fit your needs and off you go!

Anyways. I took my R1200 GSA through Latin America. Why? Well, it’s the only bike I got. I surely did not buy her for that trip. Overall she’s a great bike, I love her very much and she is a very good bike to go around Europe – but – if you want to go on a trip like that think twice before running to the next BMW dealer. Let’s start with the Pro’s:

The pro’s
  • She’s got power
  • No, really, she’s got a shit-ton of power. With that girl you’re holding the reins of over 100 horses.
  • Seriously. It’s ridiculous.

Is it too much? Well, if it wouldn’t come with the obvious downsides of weight, fuel consumption and such, then the answer is obviously no. There’s no such thing as too much power. But do you need it? Most definitely not.

The nice thing about power reserves is that even high altitude – like the altiplano or the cordillera blanca in South America, where you’ll be constantly travelling at altitudes of around 4000 m – as well as bad fuel (e.g., fuel in Bolivia) hardly make a difference for a reasonably powered bike. You’ll still be able to overtake just about anything on your way.

Does it have to be a big bike? No. Looking at it now I’d be comfortable to go as low as a 250 cc, 400 cc being an optimal bike. I wouldn’t like anything below that, though, I’d rather take a bicycle. No offence. I’d actually like to go ‘round on a bicycle at some point.

You still want to take a 50 cc? Just think about it when you try to reduce wind resistance on your C90 while hiding behind that big fat truck, going up a mountain pass at walking speed, breathing premium unfiltered exhaust smoke. Let’s stay with the engine:

  • The R1200 has a boxer engine, and I love it.

The best thing about the boxer is that it’s power is nicely distributed over almost the full RPM range. Even at low RPM there’s more than enough power, you can tractor that thing anywhere. She’ll even push you uphill in dirt while idling in first gear. It is also very easy to dose the power you need, the engine being very gentle and not itchy at all (like some parallel twins).

  • That girl can go places.

If you are a good rider, she can go just about everywhere. As long as you are not trying to trail-ride her there’s hardly any limit. Sure, lots of stuff would be easier on a small bike but then other dirt roads are much more fun on a big bike.

20150501-20150426-DSC_1412_stitch

DCIM100GOPRO
some roads are just made for big bikes

For me the biggest restriction was right between the handlebar and the seat. Also, I never had any off-road training so everything was learn as you go and I have to admit that it might not be the best bike to start learning off-road riding. But still. You can take her everywhere.

And no matter what you say, she really does well in sand.

20150331-DSC_1179

DCIM100GOPRO
no really, a 1200 GS does well in sand!
  • She’s comfortable to ride.

No reason to make fun of her for that. Seriously, she’s simply nice to ride. Even with the stock seat you can go hundreds of kilometres without stopping to give your bottom a rest. Compared to thinner bikes it is a bit more exhausting to ride while standing but she’s very well designed and I’ve been riding for hours while standing no problem. Also, it is literally not a pain in the ass to ride tar. C’mon, I dare you. Tell me how much better it is to ride a C90 on boring tar roads.

20151104-DSC_4534

DCIM100GOPRO
there will be boring tar roads. and they are much less tedious on a big bike.
  • Fuel consumption and range.

The “adventure” version of the R1200 GS comes with a ~33 l fuel tank. If you fill her up completely it adds a considerable amount of weight but I simply love the range. On a full tank I can go between 500 and 700 km, depending on the terrain, riding style and fuel. As an average I had a range of about 600 km. I never had to worry about fuel.

Also, in Bolivia the huge tank allowed me to always fill up on the local price as I simply rode to the next fuel station if they refused to fill me up. I never filled up using a jerry-can in Bolivia, I always got fuel straight into the bike.

  • Low maintenance, large maintenance intervals.

That’s a big pro for big bikes in general – in contrast to dirt bikes they need very little service although the cost of it might be a little higher. Further down you’ll find a small section about the maintenance I did on the bike while travelling.

  • Drive-shaft.

The R1200 GS does not have a chain. That means zero maintenance aside from the odd oil change every x0,000 km (depending on your preference, I’d say every 40,000 km). Just stay polite while you are waiting for your friends who might be done packing already but still need to clean and oil their chain (a scottoiler will not free you from cleaning it regularly). Also: Chains and sprockets are quite expensive and need replacement regularly.

  • Sufficiently good stock rims

The R1200 GSA has spoked rims designed for use with tubeless tires. I did the whole trip without inner tubes, you might still want to carry one in case you slash your tire or damage your rim. I found these rims to be very resilient – even though I had very hard hits I’m still without any infamous smiley (dents in the rim). Friends of mine with regular rims have not been that lucky.

  • Reliable.

She’s a good bike and for most of the time she won’t fail you. One thing you really need to carry is spare H7 light bulbs. They blow as easy as candles. Also, you’re probably in the shit if she fails you. See “Con’s”, complexity.

  • (optional) Low first gear.

The previous owner (I love full-optional commuter bikes) decided to want her with a lowered first gear. And that’s simply amazing. I don’t know how many clutches I have saved with that low first gear. It makes it easy to tractor her through difficult passages and is also amazing when you follow cars in heavy traffic, uphill.

  • Last but not least: There’s plenty of space for stickers!
Enough Said: Here come the Con’s
  • She’s got power.

Even though I said that there’s no such thing as too much power, here’s the consequence: You’ll be loading a lot of shit you won’t need, simply because she can take it. She’ll never complain but you will. On your first trip you’ll overload the bike (guaranteed) and you will be leaving bread-crumbs of gear all along your route with stuff you really should have never taken with you in the first place. Believe me, I’ve seen that movie.

20150121-DSC_9147
that is how I started my trip. dropped one duffle full of stuff, panniers were half empty at the end and tankbag was only the camera
  • Design of the boxer engine.

Aside from the weight one major disadvantage is it’s very design: Both cylinders are completely exposed. Your bike will be landing on top of them every time you fall, so make sure you have some guards mounted on them.

  • She consumes oil.

It is not as bad as it sounds, she needs about 1/2 a litre every 3000 km. You will be able to top her up with what’s left after an oil-change and therefore won’t have to buy extra-oil, but you’ll have to carry it.

  • It is a BMW.

What’s the problem with that? Spares are ridiculously expensive and very few actual BMW dealers can relate to what you’re doing. They’re used to clientele with tons of money, don’t expect shit from them. The worst quote I got was (no joke) 100 USD to replace two snapped screws. Needless to say a few cable-ties are still holding my windshield in place.

  • “Known” issues.

BMW bikes are known for their cheap ass rear shock. They blow like fire-crackers on new years eve, I was lucky enough that my stock shock made it through this trip fine, but be ready to replace it with an aftermarket shock. Another common problem is dying batteries (I carried and frequently enough used a battery charger, not just on my bike), and well, if you don’t have an LED headlight carry spare H7 bulbs with you (my girl popped four of them on this trip).

  • Complexity.

I said earlier that she’s a very reliable bike (2010 make) but if something big breaks then you’re done. This includes the zero-maintenance drive-shaft. I’d also highly recommend to carry a diagnostic tool (like the GS911) should you decide to take such a bike for a spin. It is almost impossible to find faults without one.

  • 2010 and earlier only: The clutch.

I don’t have the slightest idea what the bloody hell the engineers in Germany were thinking when they decided to place the clutch to just where it is now. Seriously. If you manage to burn your clutch – which is not that hard – you literally have to tear the bike apart completely to get to that thing. Thankfully they changed it in newer models.

  • Plain and simply: overkill.

The 2010 model is not that bad yet, but man, all those riding-modes and stuff – you don’t need it and you don’t want it. You’ll be riding with the same settings – hopelessly-overloaded-mode and ABS off – for most of the time. In fact, apart from the ignition the ABS switch was my most used button: On this 2010 model you have to turn the ABS every time you turn off the ignition by pressing the button for five seconds while standing still.

  • Tires.

That bike chews them up like no other. My average range for a rear tire was around 7,000 km (no, I don’t like them Heidenau rears) on a 50/50 tire, a front tire will typically last 15,000 km – and yes, that’s a Heidenau. But to be honest they don’t last that much longer than a TKC front. If you ride mostly tar you’ll get a better mileage, but that’s tar. Also she uses quite wide slippers thus more rubber thus higher price.

  • And, well, the IMHO biggest downside: She is heavy.

Really, really, heavy. The 2010 model does weigh around 275 kg, that’s without any accessories or luggage. You’ll easily top the 300 kg mark – which is a shit-load. Try not to think about dropping your bike while going through rough terrain.

Especially if you’re travelling alone I did find this a terrible downside: It is no fun picking up that bike alone and you can only do it so many times per day. It was especially bad for me as I tore my ACL not even two months into my trip leaving me unable to pick up my own bike. I only got a proper knee-brace half-way through my trip in Colombia and did not pick up my bike by myself until Baja California.

So if you want to go exploring she simply is too heavy (at least for most of us): Imagine riding down a bad road. They never get better and more than once I had to turn around because she was simply too heavy for me to carry on. And even then turning her around is a big fucking deal. Best thing to do would be to simply drop her and drag her until she faces the other direction, but that only works if you can still pick her up.

DCIM100GOPRO
you will drop her. and then there will be work.
Maintenance.

Before jumping to the résumé a few words on what you can and should do regularly should you decide to go on a GS:

  • While travelling – especially when going through a lot of dirt and dust – I changed the oil and filter more or less every 6,000 km. She’s not very picky on oil, I mostly used 15W40 semi-/synthetic. You’ll need around 3.6 l to fill her up, the rest you need to top up after around 3,000 km (see Con’s).

You’ll notice that you have to top her up or change oil quite easily as she’ll heat up more quickly and simply by the sound of the engine, especially on a cold start.

  • Don’t neglect your air filter. I have a foam filter and cleaned it at least as often as I changed the oil, more often if there was a lot of dust. If you have a paper filter don’t use a compressor to blow it out. This will damage the filter and let larger particles pass through. Everything that gets past your air filter goes straight into the engine.
  • Tire pressure. Be sure to check it every now and then. Some tires just can’t handle the wrong pressure, they might start to wear strangely. Also: Don’t forget to deflate if you know that you’re doing a large section of deep sand. It helps by a huge amount.
  • I regularly cleaned the break callipers to avoid the pistons to get stuck. By doing so you’ll also regularly check the state of your brake pads and it’ll be easy to change them.
  • If you have a neoprene guard for your forks make sure they are clean. While you’re at it check the fork seals and clean the shit out of it. Thankfully mine never blew.
  • There’s barely anything else to do but maybe check and tighten spokes if necessary. Remember, you don’t have no chain and no sprocket to check!
Résumé

What’s left to say? I absolutely love my bike. She’s a good girl, fun to ride and if I’d be a better rider she’d take me everywhere I wanted. Would I recommend you to take a 1200 GS to South America? Drum-Roll ……… No.

Only if you really know what it means to take a big bike off-road and only if you like it then go for it. Also, if you’re riding two-up she’s definitely a good choice. If you’re not travelling alone either then there’s no problem whatsoever – mainly because you have help picking her up.

Otherwise, if you want to go exploring, travel alone and if you are constantly looking for alternatives to the main roads you’ll end up on very bad ones very easily. A smaller bike seems to be a much better choice then. Would I take a smaller one if I’d do it again? Most likely. She’s really big. But I still love her.

In the end the only recommendation I can give for choosing the bike for any trip:

Take the bike you love, be it a fuck-all big dual-sport, an original ’74 Moto Guzzi, a Triumph Bonneville or a Honda C90. Just be aware of the consequences of your choice. And enjoy your trip.

Just please, please don’t think you have to take a BMW R1200 GSA ‘cause that’s what they did on the Long Way Round. Remember: They also had several support trucks, a doctor and most likely a camp manager. And you don’t need any of that. In fact – you don’t want any of it.

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13 thoughts on “Lessons Learned: Choosing A Bike.”

    1. the F800 is already over 50 kg lighter than the 1200 GSA plus the fuel tank is below your seat. a friend of mine (matthew) let me try his one (fully packed) and it sure feels a lot lighter. it’s like riding mine without all the luggage. regarding soft luggage – fuck yes (sorry for the language). i’ll come to hard vs soft luggage in a future lessons learned ;)

      i sure had an amazing trip thanks ! there’s plenty of options for “small” bikes, go second hand. a lot of people prep up DR650 which do sure do break down but they are predictable and easy to fix.

  1. I think you’ve explained it all pretty well, and kudos for taking it on on a GS. But if I may butt in… :)

    I took a similar journey with the opposite approach, riding a simple, light-weight KLR. That choice didn’t prove perfect either, but I am glad not to have done it on a bigger machine.

    Scottoiler, based on my experience, does free you from regularly cleaning your chain. In fact, I don’t recall even touching the chain between Los Angeles and Ecuador, where I had to top up the reservoir. (I had the now discontinued ‘travel’ kit with extra oil capacity) The original chain lasted 26.000 miles, and an oem chain & sprocket kit was not really expensive even in Chile.

    Later, I started a 2-up journey to SE Asia on a GSW. As much as I loved the bike, I hated its bulk even riding through Europe. Ultimately, we ended up parking the beemer in Istanbul, and roaming SE Asia on a 2015 Honda CB500X, which was a blast to ride there.

    The GS is a beautiful bike which I can’t bring myself to sell. Yet, I can’t think of a single journey where another bike would not be a better choice for me.

    Must be exactly like you said then… What’s the fun in making decisions based on reason alone anyway?

    1. a honda is an incredible bike, i love them. i cannot share any love for a KLR though ;) allow me a short rant about KLRs : on this trip i haven’t met a single KLR rider which truly loved the bike. lots of people think they should take one because it is “easy to fix”. my humble opinion is that it is a severely underpowered bike which breaks a lot – so it HAS to be easy to fix. even a DRZ 400 has more power than a KLR 650.

      the GS is a very big bike. that is true. i’m just saying that for that huge bulk of metal you’re sitting on she does handle exceptionally well. most likely a smaller bike will always do better on difficult terrain. haven’t ridden her two-up on a large trip so far.

      yes, decisions based on reason are never an argument for trips like that. if we’d do that we’d stay at home !

      one more thing that bothered me is that nowadays it seems to be all about taking inappropriate bikes for the cool-factor. you can’t believe how much shit you get to go on a trip with proper gear and a dual-sport bike.

  2. Well said :)
    I did south America in 2012 on an overloaded F800GS, two-up.
    Even though it is wayyy lighter than an 1200ADV, my next big trip will be on a sub-200 kgs (curb) horse. There were so many times that I felt restricted to go places due to the weight of the whole setup (with lots of user error on my behalf of course, lessons learned).

  3. I like how balanced your assessment is – the small bike versus big bike debate seems to breed polemics a lot of the time, which makes little sense to me as every bike has an element of compromise.

    I took an XR250 Tornado on my last big(ish) trip – around 180kg including luggage and myself. Great for that sense of “I can go anywhere”, but such garbage on the tarmac that I wouldn’t take it long distance again.

    Did you end up altering your route much as you discovered the strengths/pitfalls of the bike?

    1. nah i didn’t really alter my route for that. at least not upfront / planned. i still kept pushing until i either got through or had to turn around. the only “restriction” that really bothered me that you can’t just go exploring that easy as most side-tracks are dead-ends or get really bad soon – something you don’t want a big bike to get into

  4. So very true! I never owned a gsa, but felt that a 990 adv was already too heavy. Dowmgraded to a 690 enduro and later to the ccm 450. a big bike is for sure much nicer to ride, but what are you doing once you drop it and cant lift it on your own? Wait for help to come. Call for a crane? Just pray you are not deep in the wild when this happens.

    About the klr: i DID love mine, which took me 26.000km on some quite rough roads through canada in 2013, including forestry trunk road and dempster. Not a single problem except one lost bolt ( which i could have prevented using some loctite)!

  5. I enjoyed reading your review and will pass it on to my brother, he has a GSA. I have a Yamaha Super Tenere which I bought to go to Prudhoe Bay, that is now done, really enjoyed it even in bad and slippery roads up there but wished a lot of times I had a lighter bike. I only weigh 160 and I’m about 5.10″, wish Yamaha had come out with a smaller adventure bike. I bought the Yamaha because of shaft drive and 24k miles valve interval plus Yamaha known reliability. I have now 43k miles and not a single problem. I’m planning on heading to South America in 2018 and will be taking the Yamaha. Hopefully I won’t regret not taking a lighter bike.

    1. yes, the super teneré is also a heavy bike. a good friend of mine rode the 660 teneré from england down to sydney, and even though its still heavy for a 600 it sure makes a huge difference already. i’m sure you’ll have an amazing time, keep the rubber side down and you’ll be ok. just take the bike you love!

  6. Excellent review and thank you for your insights! Now we are in 2019… I am currently looking forward to a similar trip next year in April and have begun looking at motorcycles. I would be staring off in Florida making my way through the USA to Alaska – riding down to Argentina… I am in a current search for a bike and after reading lots of stories I’ve been wondering if the new 310 GS + mods would be an interesting choice? Thoughts, comments would be most appreciated.

    1. Hey Andres! It very much depends on the riding you’re planning to do. While the 310 looks good I’d not recommend modern bikes: Parts are generally a lot more expensive, especially in SA – they’ll charge you more than you’d pay in the EU or USA due to import taxes (> double) etc. Also consumables like tires, sprockets, chains, bearings are much easier to get if you stick to “standard” parts and sizes (e.g. a 17″ front wheel is not that common). This is why for anyone who does not have a bike yet and plans going off tarmac I’d recommend bikes like the Suzuki DR 650 (very easy to get in the US) or DRZ 400, Honda XR 400 or 650s, an old Yamaha 650 (lighter than the new one) … If you re-build them for travelling you’ll still be cheaper off than with a new bike (you’ll find a good writeup on https://www.pikipikioverland.com), the only thing that may give you work is the carburettor (you’ll need to change the jetting for high altitude). For 400cc make sure it’s not too much of a dirt bike or you’ll have short maintenance intervals (oil change etc.). An older bike also gets you closer to people – you’ll look less like an alien/foreigner than with new shiny stuff (consider that when buying clothing). Keep it simple :) and enjoy the ride!

¡Dígame!

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