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BMW 1200 GS Adventure to Yosemite

BMW R 1200 GS Motorcycles

"It’s not an adventure if you know what the outcome will be," our scoutmaster shouted as we braved the muddy rapids of the Colorado River in homemade canvas-and-plywood kayaks. While I believed he was an inspirational genius, most of our parents thought he was an irresponsible and reckless lunatic.

Nevertheless, his words have become something of a personal mantra for me over the years-a battle cry to muster motivation when the going gets tough.

It has come in handy in many grueling National Enduros and Hare Scrambles rounds, but who would have imagined that tapping into this kind of inner strength would have been necessary at a BMW Motorrad press launch on a ride with a bunch of journalists?

The odyssey began deceptively-a crisp bluebird day in late spring, the morning dew blanketing California’s serene Yosemite Valley.

Mother Nature had clearly made the requisite preparations to ensure that the unveiling of the newly re-engineered BMW Gelände/Strasse would be a delightful occasion in the typical cadence one expects from a carefully orchestrated media event.

The centerpiece of the celebration, 30 years in the making, is the R 1200 GS and GS Adventure. Visually striking and pragmatically German, the BMW GS line is the Swiss Army knife of motorcycles, brimming with unique gadgetry and designed to be navigated across any type of terrain.

The iconic GS has consolidated its reputation as the quintessential "big enduro" in the Adventure Touring segment of the motorcycle industry. BMW boldly boasts, "If you’re on a GS, you’re never on the wrong bike," positioning it to be the go-anywhere, do-anything machine for the rider with discriminating tastes.

Leveraging its storied pedigree, the latest GS appears similar to the previous incarnation, until closer inspection of the 1170cc opposed-twin reveals several clues to internal performance enhancements.

Carried over from BMW’s HP Sport racing effort are the reshaped protruding two-bolt boxer cylinder heads, and new dual overhead cams that replace the previous single high-cam pushrod and rocker design.

With larger radially positioned valves, and pistons to match, the all-new combustion chamber configuration produces 110 horsepower and nearly 88 ft/lbs of torque. Those numbers promise to deliver a stronger pull through the low- to mid-range, before signing off at a redline that is 500 rpm higher than last year.

In addition to the visible motor changes, there is a complex collection of hoses and wires for electronically controlled traction, suspension, and braking-a truly futuristic cocktail designed to tailor nearly every aspect of the adventure experience to the pilot’s personal preferences. An electronically controlled exhaust flap and BMW’s new muffler internals modify the infamous sewing-machine sound of previous boxer exhausts into a throaty-but-compliant rumble.

Weighing in, ready-to-ride, at a claimed 564 pounds and fitted with aggressive knobby tires, the GS Adventure is the long-distance expeditionary edition of the two siblings (the standard version is pictured on page 73).

Adorned with a host of utilitarian brushed metallic protective bits throughout, and boasting a well-positioned 8.7-gallon fuel tank, I quickly conjure up thoughts of global circumnavigation.

I teamed up with childhood friend and off-road legend Jimmy Lewis, as neither one of us has much of an appetite for crowds. Firing up the new boxer instantly created an aroma of adventure that seemed to waft through the air. We sequestered ourselves from the others, allowing us to ride at our own speed and seriously put the new GS through its paces.

Filled with anticipation, we began our journey by traversing a twisting menagerie of rocky clay fire roads that snake over and through the many granite outcroppings of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. With overnight precipitation and a healthy amount of morning dew, traction was plentiful and the Metzeler Karoo knobby tires found a home, gripping their way through the many furrows and bumps.

Contrary to appearance, weights, and measures, the GS is absolutely capable of traversing rough and gnarled terrain with voracity, but the rider needs to make a few adjustments to acclimatize to big enduro riding.

Standing on the footpegs is mandatory when riding in off-road conditions at any elevated rate of speed, so we had the BMW staff mechanics raise the handlebars to facilitate the stand-up riding position.

By transferring rider mass from the 35-inch seat height down to the bottom of the chassis via the wide, spiked pegs, the perceived weight is reduced to the manageable level one associates with a big dual-sport machine.

Combined with the low center of gravity of the flat boxer engine, the stand-up riding position provides a comfortable platform for carving terrain where the limiting factor now becomes the amount of traction available.

Additionally, this allows the pilot to transfer weight easily from front-to-rear, maintaining traction for both acceleration and braking. I prefer to stand, leaning forward, with my head and shoulders balanced over the handlebars. This gives additional traction to the front tire, and makes it possible to spin up the back tire and steer with the rear of the machine.

Stopping a big enduro with this type of mass and horsepower is vitally important, and with the ability to accelerate to eye-watering speeds with a crack of the throttle, extra braking distance and technique are critical.

The contact patch on the GS and that of your average dirt bike are very similar, even though the GS weighs nearly three times as much; consequently, ample stopping time and distance are needed. With these changes in riding technique in place, the GS comes alive with potential.

Gnarled uphill chicanes are where the big GS really shines. With its weight carried low, a nine-percent lower first gear ratio than last year, and plenty of torque, the big enduro becomes a missile; the force of gravity lessens the need to use the binders and keeps speeds suborbital.

Conversely, rough and rocky downhills are best navigated with a little more caution; the BMW’s weight is naturally shifted to the front end and the eight-plus inches of front Telelever suspension can pack up quickly. The ability to slow the bike and then accelerate to unload the front suspension is advantageous in working your way over large obstacles encountered during mid-decent.

The 2010 GS’s Enduro ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment) is a fully integrated system that allows the rider to adjust spring preload and damping, front and rear, with the touch of a button. Nine different settings are available for on-road conditions, and six settings for off-road.

Preload adjustments necessarily affect the ride height of the motorcycle and need to be done at a standstill, but damping adjustments can be engaged on the fly.

I found that the stiffest preload setting for "Big Bumps" matched with maximum "Hard" damping allowed the bike to sit higher in the stroke-the most effective arrangement for tackling nasty terra firma.

The ease and adjustability range of the ESA is amazing, although adventure riders are keenly aware of the value of simplicity when repairs are necessary in remote locales.

Cresting the top of Sweetwater Point and dropping down into Midpines for some well-deserved tarmac riding displays the versatility of the GS. Re-engaging the ABS and adjusting the ESA for road conditions provided a smooth and comfortable on-road experience. Even with wet asphalt and knobby tires, the Metzeler Karoo rubber provided predictable grip and action as the rear tire transitions from one knobby block to the next through initial turn-in.

The ability to hold consistent lines on twisty ribbons of road with authority and stability seems counterintuitive to the agility the GS displays in the dirt, but the balanced feel and low center of gravity make it a reality.

Thoroughly lost in the on-road experience, I hardly noticed the white flakey objects descending from the heavens. As conditions worsened from snow to intermittent hail, and then whiteout, suddenly the idea of sipping a warming beverage by the fire in the lodge and bench racing with the other riders was no longer a forgone conclusion.

Up ahead, CHP officers had the exit from Yosemite Valley closed. Tourists, although warm and snug in their cars, had their travel trailers jack-knifed across the road, blocking further progression. A line of vehicles was at a standstill as we dismounted our bikes and pleaded our case with the peace officers. Surely they would understand the potential of our travel-all machines and our ability to negotiate the icy and snowy conditions.

Although the mighty BMW GS can find its way out of nearly any situation, there was no handlebar-mounted button for dealing with car-bound Ponch and Jon, so we turned around and headed back through the frozen hell from whence we came.

Apparently seven riders were ahead of us and were able to get through before the snow and hail began to fall-they were safely down the valley and on their way back to the lodge. However, there were still 22 motorcycle riders behind us in the same predicament we faced. The adventure begins.

Regrouping with the others, we quickly figured out that the plan was to return to the lodge via the highway-a cold and, perhaps, miserable prospect. But, in the spirit of solidarity and safety in numbers, we decided to follow suit and proceeded through the snow and hail, stopping frequently to take a head count or help a fellow rider who had slipped and laid his bike down in the treacherous conditions.

As the weather continued to worsen and the adventure quotient rose, the collective spirit of the group was in decline as we neared the town of Oakhurst. At the next stop, we proffered the idea of taking a hard way through the mountains-a gnarled dirt road that we had ridden earlier in the day before the snowstorm.

The shortcut would be difficult, maybe even impossible, but it might also be the only way back to the lodge if the roads heading north from Oakhurst were closed. The group leaders quickly shot down the idea, surely for good reason, and the two-wheeled caravan cautiously proceeded down the highway with all of the remaining survivors-save two. Jimmy and I decided to take the mountain pass.

As we forged our way through the narrow snowy incline, my old scoutmaster’s words echoed through my conscious. I knew we had ridden through this exact location earlier in the day, but it was unrecognizable under the blanket of snow and limited visibility. A few inches of crunchy snow actually provides great traction.

However, in freezing temperatures, it becomes slicker, and this is also where the added weight of the big enduro becomes an advantage. Cutting through the white snow and finding traction in the frozen ground below, we plodded our way higher and higher.

The heated grips on the BMW GS Adventure became a double-edged sword, keeping my hands warm enough to feel the controls, but reminding the rest of my body of how cold I really was. After what felt like an eternity, we reached a clearing and stopped. I suddenly realized that this was an intersection; we had arrived at the paved road to the lodge! We stopped and reveled in a sense of relief

We then rode a few miles up the snow-covered road toward our destination before seeing headlights approaching us. Perfect, we thought. We’ll allow the car to carve tracks for us. But, it was not a car at all; it was a CHP officer in a 4×4 truck who saw us motorcyclists and stopped. Just as he rolled down the window, a huge gust of snow and wind came from behind us and peppered him with snow.

He looked very happy and surprised to see us, and insisted that he escort us to the lodge, red lights flashing, as if we were part of the presidential motorcade.

Standing on the pegs and riding up to Tenaya Lodge, we encountered frantic BMW staffers running out with walkie-talkies, barking quickly and taking inventory. Of the 24 motorcycle riders who were stuck in the snowstorm, we were the only two to return. The others were holed up in Oakhurst, victims of the weather conditions and road closures.

Rewarded by a glowing fire, a heated beverage, and the opportunity to recount our story to all that would lend an ear, I was overcome with a sense of accomplishment. Over the next few hours, the weather improved and shuttle buses were dispatched to Oakhurst to retrieve the remainder of the group.

Dinner was postponed until 10:30 p.m. to ensure all were in attendance, and the sense of camaraderie was evident in the after-dinner banter. Pieter de Waal, Vice President, BMW Motorrad USA, called the group to order and thanked everyone for a truly epic day. Then, he unexpectedly asked Jimmy and I to stand. He congratulated us on our fortitude, perseverance, and for personifying the BMW GS spirit.

I stood motionless, my wind-burned cheeks glowing red, somewhat humbled. Here I was in a warm restaurant, enjoying a small moment of glory with my colleagues, yet the credit truly belonged outside in the snow with the BMW R 1200 GS Adventure, the perfect bike for when the outcome is unknown. Photography by Jon Beck and Kevin Wing

Motorcycle Riding Apparel

  • Helmet: Shoei Hornet-DS
  • Suit: Joe Rocket Survivor
  • Gloves: Joe Rocket Sonic
  • Boots: Sidi Adventure Rain
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