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:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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).
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.
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.
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!
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.