Monday, July 5, 2010

The BMW R1200 RT: Riding a Big Bike

What’s big? When your everyday ride is a Vespa almost everything seems big. I’ll confess a predjudice towards large motorcycles and share my reactions as I tried out the BMW. The BMW R1200 RT fits neatly into my big motorcycle category with descriptors like heavy, lumbering, cumbersome, overpowered, and expensive. All of them negative and a reflection of my own riding preferences. Even Craig Kissell recognized my bias when he offered me the motorcycle beginning with, “I know this isn’t your style.” That’s the baggage I brought along on this ride.

I tell myself I’m going to be open and fair towards this BMW when I roll it out of my garage on a clear, 40 degree morning (back in early May). After placing my camera, notebook, and map in one of the side cases and checking the bike over I decided to leave my cold weather riding jacket and gloves at home and surrender myself to the protection of this touring machine.

My feelings about big bikes might color my riding expectations, but it does not affect my familiarization routine with a new machine. In a parking area at the end of the street I sit quietly examining the controls, feeling the switches with my thumb, and raising my boots off the ground to experiment with the motorcycle’s balance. It’s what I do. It makes me feel better that I won’t be making that call, “Hey Craig, you know that BMW I’m riding….”

There’s a riding plan in my head but before heading down the road I force myself to practice a few slow speed maneuvers and some braking tests. Nothing dramatic, just enough to feel how the BMW responds.

I plan is to ride north on main roads. Fast, without stops. No meandering down back roads looking for pictures. This time I am going to be a real rider. No frequent stops, just a fast direct route to breakfast 50 miles away.

The R1200 RT is designed to travel. If I had to ride to Montana tomorrow and didn’t have a lot of time this is the kind of motorcycle I would choose to make it a pleasant, comfortable trip. Pleasant and comfortable -- new descriptors.

It’s cold outside. On the Vespa I would have several layers under my cold weather riding jacket, electric gloves, and overpants. At 70mph on a 40 degree morning a person would get pretty cold without protection from the wind. But here I am with a sweater and t-shirt under my mesh summer riding jacket, summer gloves, jeans and boots. The power windshield and cowling keeps me out of the windblast. The heated grips keep my hands toasty and the heated seat, well, let’s just say it’s nice. By the time the thermometer reaches 55 I have shed the sweater. I could see riding this motorcycle until the snow flies.

I make the 50-mile trip to breakfast in record time with only one stop to take a picture. The BMW is smooth and the faster you go the smoother is seems to get. It feels luxurious. I add smooth and luxurious to my list.

No one passed me and when I joined the four-lane section of US 220 BMW traveled at speeds my Vespa could only dream about. Did I mention the R1200 RT has cruise control?

After a hearty breakfast at the Restless Oaks Restaurant near McElhattan, Pennsylvania I pointed the bike north towards Mansfield 70 miles away.

The BMW does a bit of deception when it comes to speed. The wind protection, power, and smooth ride give the impression that you aren’t traveling as fast as your actually are. On a stretch of US 15 I glanced at the speedometer and saw 80mph. I would have sworn to the State Police that I was going 60. No wonder I was passing everyone.

On the high points of US 15 just south of Mansfield I hit some heavy crosswinds. The bike's big profile would seem to make it a perfect target for some serious buffeting but the R1200 RT tracked along well after scrubbing off some speed. Pretty impressive considering how badly some other bikes I have ridden performed in crosswinds. I add stable to my list. I don’t want to add impressive yet.

I think about the motorcycle during a stop to stretch my legs and make a few pictures. I’m beginning to understand what a touring bike is about and why someone would want one. Everything works smoothly to deliver a great ride on the highway. It’s got plenty of power, lots of storage and storage potential, and plenty of features to extend a rider’s comfort range. Things like electronic suspension adjustment and integrated ABS brakes. What do I love? The big display that tells me what gear I am in. Now you know where I’m coming from technically.

After a stop for fuel along US 6 (I didn’t check the fuel economy) I headed into Wellsboro for a quick look around. Thirty-six years ago I regularly traveled through this area in a 1970 VW Beetle as I made routine trips from State College to northern Tioga County. The BMW is a far better way to travel than that old bug.

Just a few hours on this motorcycle and I had to reevaluate my early expectations. It doesn’t seem large and I was impressed at how easy it was to handle. It wasn’t cumbersome though you do have to pay attention to what you are doing, especially doing very slow maneuvers or pushing the bike around for parking. If something stupid is going to happen that’s where I’ll place my bet. Several times I caught myself saying, “This BMW is pretty nimble.” I’m not adding nimble to the list.

I make a stop for water and chocolate at the Pierce General Store in Morris, Pennsylvania. It’s nice to go into a place that doesn’t have dozens of other stores just like it. Standing outside I was considering routes home. There’s always a choice in Pennsylvania – the simple direct route and the rider route that is twice as far and four times as scenic.

I choose the latter and turn off PA 287 onto PA 414 towards Blackwell and many miles of narrow, twisting road along Pine Creek.

When asked “Why do you ride?” I think about places like this. Lightly traveled roads through the forests and mountains of north central Pennsylvania where my spirit and thoughts are free to wander unencumbered by the more serious nature of work and responsibility. And there is so much to see. My desire to see the landscape is, in part, why larger motorcycles don’t fit easily into my riding world.

With more powerful motorcycles I find I ride faster more often and I just see less. Over 30mph and you just miss the details of a place. Traveling fast requires a lot of attention to the road because things happen so fast. You just can’t pay attention to the landscape around you as well. And I’m much less inclined to stop and inspect things because of the work involved making U-turns, parking and getting on and off a big bike. But that’s me.

I did stop and turn around to look at this cable car linking this side of the road to a cabin across the creek. Lot’s of nice little cabins in this part of the state.

The road is narrow, high crowned with almost no shoulder. I feel as if the bike isn’t tracking well through the broken, uneven curves and turns. This is no place to cross the center line or drop off the side of the road. I ratchet up my attention and think again of the need to practice on a new motorcycle. It’s the first time my lack of experience with the bike is apparent.

I’m stopping a lot now to look around and take pictures. This time as I cross Pine Creek. I’m feeling the lack of flexibility in my legs and hips as I swing my leg up and over the side cases and seat of the BMW for the 20th time. While the bike is designed for comfort it was never intended for the stop, start, and stop again riding routine I can get into.

Just to make sure you understand what I’m talking about, I may stop 6 times in one mile and spend 20 minutes looking around. It’s a wonder I ever get anywhere at all.

The road moves in and out of the forest as it tracks along above Pine Creek. I never tire of this part of Pennsylvania.

Crossing into a new county the road surface changes. Amazing what planning and cash can do for a road.

This is the first BMW I’ve ridden with a boxer style engine. It seems to have great low and medium speed torque and power and shifts as smoothly as anything I’ve ridden. It’s easy to understand why the BMW has developed a mystic among its riding community.

At another bridge I’ve been on and off the bike for over four hours and aside from the soreness related to swinging my leg over the bike I am remarkably relaxed and comfortable. Had I been heading to Montana I would be approaching the Ohio-Indiana border with plenty of energy to ride on to Chicago and beyond before bedtime.

On one stretch of road along the creek it was nice having a windshield as I plowed through swarms of insects. I was nice not having to stop and clean off my face shield.

One final stop at Ross Siding and I made the decision to put the camera away and head home. Directly. I’m 70 miles from home and just enjoyed the ride on the BMW R1200 RT.

With the bike sitting in the driveway I imagined the kinds of rides I could make. Long day rides, weekend rides, or extended tours. The BMW R1200 RT would be ready for any of them. For my choppy, start and stop, pictures first, riding second style it would not be the best bet. But for many riders this motorcycle would be heaven.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The BMW F650 GS: A Crisis of Confidence

I feel guilty. It’s been over a month since I returned this BMW to Kissell Motorsports. It’s taken equally long to write this post. I knew I had to put something down here, so I began with an image I remembered: stopping, pulling off my gloves and walking across the road to take this picture. I was uncomfortable. Like Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World when they meet Aerosmith in their basement, I could hear my mind crying, “I’m not worthy.” I looked at this brand new BMW and felt like an imposter.

A mini-crisis of faith flickered to life.

I’d been warned. More than one dedicated BMW rider suggested something would happen if I rode one. A slight smile and oblique reference to some strange BMW voodoo. Hints that, once I put some miles on one of these machines, I’d be hooked. Thoughts of my friend Alex joining the Hare Krishna in 1973 came to mind. The usual music that plays in my head when I ride wasn’t there. All was quiet on the riding front.

I’m still not sure I can adequately describe what transpired, but I need to get past this post.

The BMW F650 GS looks at home in the central Pennsylvania landscape. On this bike, I began to think about the hierarchy of riders I’ve closeted away in some small place in my head. At the bottom, minibikes, mopeds and electric bicycles. At the top, those riders who regularly transverse countries and continents. The movie Long Way Round, with Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor circling the planet on their BMWs.

Was this really what I believed?

None of this would have occurred if the F650 GS wasn’t a fine, elegant machine. From the moment I heard the engine turn over to the moment I put down the kickstand, returning it to Kissell’s, I was impressed. This bike was well-designed, functional, powerful and smooth. I had nothing to complain about.

Well, almost nothing.

Starting out on a test ride with the thermometer reading 20 degrees Fahrenheit may not be the best way to critique a motorcycle. I’ve convinced myself that cold is a state of mind, and if attired correctly and focused properly on the task at hand (riding this shiny new motorcycle), the cold will melt away. So confident I was that I dismissed the need for my electric gloves (Gerbing plug wouldn’t fit the BMW port) in favor of the BMW’s heated grips.

A mile from home I feel a knife push on the side of my neck where the air found a gap between my helmet and ski mask. Another flow of frigid air inflates my one-piece Olympia riding suit, as air sneaks past the top of my left boot and on up my leg. The sun is out and I tell myself this is temporary. The instrument display still reads 20F. I switch on the heated grips.

Smooth comes to mind as I move down the road at 60mph. From the sound of the starter to the tires rolling on the highway, everything is really smooth. Shifting, cornering, braking. As if this BMW was designed purely to carry a rider along with a minimum of reminders of mechanical intrusion. I could focus on the experience rather than the machine. I think I was smiling.

Then my first minor complaint. An adjustment, really. I have to make a right turn and my left thumb automatically searches for the turn signal button. Returning to mechanical reality, my mind overcomes muscle memory and pushes the right-hand signal paddle next to the throttle. Unlike other motorcycles I’ve driven, which have one switch that operates the signal for both right and left turns, BMW’s are unique in having separate switches for each side. But by the end of that first hour of riding, the turn signal system is set in muscle memory, and it’s no longer an issue. That was the only mechanical stumble I had.

Well, almost.

Fifteen miles from home, it’s still 20F and my hands are getting cold. I am really disappointed with the heated grips. No help at all. I pull off the road to park so I can warm my hands on the exhaust system. I put my hands next to the muffler and see it is well-shielded and gives off no heat. The headlights are recessed a bit and hard to get your hands on, so no relief there either. So I just wait awhile for my hands to warm a bit inside my gloves. The sun is shining so it seems fine.

This BMW is quick. With little effort it seems to be instantly traveling 75mph. I slow down and before long notice a farm lane, more my style and speed. Ice still covers waterholes and I make a mental note so the bright sun and dry roads don’t surprise me.

The ground in this field is hard. Frozen. If this wasn’t a brand-new motorcycle belonging to someone else, I’d ride across this big field to see where I’d end up. The F650 GS seems as if it would be just as comfortable off-the-pavement.

Cold hands force another stop by a red barn. Or maybe I stopped because I wanted a picture. While sitting on the motorcycle, pondering the switch for the heated grips, it occurs to me I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box. Apologies to BMW for any adverse inference about their technology. It was a minor miracle when I realized I had never actually switched the grips on. On maximum my hands were toasty in a matter of minutes. Verdict: Heated grips coupled with a pair of insulated leather or windproof gloves would probably be all I’d need for temperatures down to the mid-20s.

The BMW eats up the road. It’s no wonder so many BMW riders pile on so many miles. It’s just so easy. Pennsylvania has a lot of roads that reach out ahead with little traffic and endless sights. I’ve spent my whole life wandering in one manner or another, and I’m still in love with this landscape.

Back to the crisis of faith. Last Saturday morning, my friend Paul and I went for a ride. This time on my Vespa. The usual excuse to have breakfast somewhere other than home. We made a stop at the Amish harness shop in Madisonburg. While there, a guy pulled in on a motorcycle obviously configured for travel. You know the look – big Pelican waterproof cases on both sides and top, all those little extras that say “I’m headed somewhere.” And in riding clothes that reflect a lot of time on the road. In the back of my head, I’m already thinking I’m not really a rider, but an enthusiastic dilettante with a scooter.

During the ensuing conversation, the rider relates his plans to leave in a few weeks for a trip to Alaska with a friend. Sixteen thousand miles and six weeks on the road. Listening to him describe his trip, I’m simultaneously calculating vacation days at work and conversations with Kim that contain the phrase “I’ll be gone for six weeks.”

I can’t picture that trip. I’m not sure I would even want to make that trip. The F650 GS could easily make that trip. Before leaving, the guys says he put 97K miles on his other bike in the last four years. And his friend has 240K miles on his bike. I was too embarassed to make a picture.

I’m not worthy.

Looking around in the woods for morel mushrooms, I can’t help but wonder who these people are that ride so much. Don’t they have jobs? Families? Responsibilities? I wonder if I’m jealous. Mostly I’m perplexed about my own riding life. And this BMW I have to play with.

I love riding alone and this motorcycle embraces it perfectly. Riding through the mountains here I’m reminded of scenes from Then Came Bronson. He rode a Harley, but what mattered is a person on a bike, alone, and on the road. This is why I ride. How far is of less importance. There are myriad paths for a rider to follow, literally and figuratively, and my challenge is to figure out how riding fits into my life. Riding is part of my life. A quiet time-out. A meditation. But it isn’t my life.

There were a lot of paths I would have liked to choose, but time and good sense got in the way. I really wanted to ride across this bridge and up into the woods on the other side. I knew, like a faithful horse, the F650 GS would take me.

The crisis of faith triggered by this motorcycle stirred up all the stories, lies, and marketing messages I have consumed over the years. If I wasn’t crossing Mongolia or screaming through an Alpine pass, I was somehow missing something important. I was forgetting who I am as a rider, in favor of some idealized notion.

The BMW was at home in town as well, which is something I can’t say for every motorcycle I’ve ridden. The bike is nimble and easily navigates the streets, alleys and parking spaces around here. Well, I suppose you don't have to be all that nimble in a small town.

Add side bags or a topcase and this bike would be an excellent commuter. BMWs are allowed to be commuter bikes during the week aren't they?

So, here I am, at the end of this post. I wish I’d kept the bike longer. I considered telling Craig Kissell I lost it but that seemed wrong. If I had more time I would have gone on a real ride. Far. Take a trip. I could go anywhere on this motorcycle. Alaska didn't seem unreasonable for a few moments.

But for now, I’m satisfied with the choices I’ve made and the riding I do. This BMW will adapt to my style, or for someone who wants to ride around the world.

I bet there is space in my garage for one of these.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Trying Out a New BMW F 650 GS

The time has arrived to check out one of the new BMW motorcycles at Kissell Motorsports. I was going to wait until the weather was a bit warmer but when Craig Kissell send an email asking when I was going to take a GS for a ride what could I do? So I am starting with a BMW F 650 GS. This one is brand new. Zero miles on the odometer. I get nervous being the first one to take something out on the road. But who am I to complain? A quick check of the bike and the controls revealed a big difference from the usual tools on my Vespa. This bike has ABS brakes, heated grips, built in port for electrics, and a lot more.

I didn't really have time for any riding today. Just a less than direct ride home from work with a few stops to check out the motorcycle. The turn signals took a couple of practice runs to reprogram my brain from the one button all function switch on the Vespa to the three button self canceling function of the BMW. A smarter person could make the adjustment on the road. I had to pull over and look at the controls for everything to make sense. A little side trip up a gravel road did the trick. This motorcycle is smooth, quiet, and seems to pull no matter what speed I'm traveling or what gear I'm in. My kind of performance.

Home appeared too quickly. I stopped the motorcycle at the end of the driveway being cautious with this shiny new machine. On the Vespa I would have zipped right between our cars and on to the garage.

I'm planning an early departure tomorrow despite the weather forecast calling for 20F at daybreak. And since my Gerbing electric gloves have the wrong connector I won't be able to plug them in. So I will have a chance to try out heated grips. And if all else fails I can cozy up to the big shiny muffler.

I'm excited. I can tell. For the next few days I am a BMW rider.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Triumph Tiger

Snow’s falling again and I’m daydreaming about the road and the Triumph Tiger I was riding back in late November. The last motorcycle of the 2009 season with temperatures hovering in the mid 40s the memory of that motorcycle fresh. And tempting. The Tiger story’s been hibernating in my brain all winter. Now may be the right time to revisit the prowl. Thanks to Craig Kissell of Kissell Motorsports I have the opportunity to ride such fine motorcycles.

The Tiger is sleek, powerful, and tall – at least in terms of getting onto the bike. With the hard side cases attached I needed to make a real effort to mount up without scuffing things up with my boots. On dicey terrain I didn’t want to step up on the pegs either. Some flexibility work would definitely be in order before I could bound onto the back of the Triumph. Once onboard the sense of height was gone.

With excellent planning I always seem to ride before breakfast. As much as I wanted to head out into the Moshannon Forest my stomach was making a stronger argument as I headed over the mountain towards Unionville. It doesn’t take long to realize how sweet the Triumph Tiger is. Everything about it is smooth – the ride, the transmission, the brakes. And the torque it puts out allows it to pull hard at just about any speed and any gear. Definitely a plus for a tourist like me who likes to wander and not be overly concerned with the workings of the machine I am riding. Coming down the mountain into Unionville I was pleased at how well the Tiger holds the road in a hairpin turn. I’m no racer but I’m sure this bike could fly through the curves if I made a request.

Railroad tracks strike a wandering chord in me. Looking at them vanish in the distance has me wanting to explore. What’s out there, over the next hill, around the next corner? It’s a big part of what riding is for me. The Triumph would be happy to come along and take me anywhere I want to go.

The Tiger is a nice looking machine. Even in a rush to get breakfast I couldn’t help buy admire it. This bike could take me to a lot of breakfast places. I can see myself in the northern reaches of the Adirondacks, or south along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Or in front of a diner in Utah. Alas, if I only had the time.

The Unionville CafĂ© is a good, solid breakfast place. Any riders passing through the area will find a place to relax and eat. It’s always nice to stop when it’s cold outside. There are times when I get warm I don’t feel like climbing back on the motorcycle and facing the elements. This wasn’t one of them.

The road out of Unionville towards Moshannon State Park is a clean, winding road climbing up to the Allegheny Plateau. The Triumph Tiger could race to the top if good sense didn’t govern the throttle. I’ve been up this way many times on a variety of machines. I just never got there quite so fast before.

Central Pennsylvania is blessed with endless miles of roads that no one seems to use much. Concern for other motorist’s fade as I find myself more concerned with bear, deer, and dogs.

Local forest roads come in two varieties – paved and gravel. A path heading off the main road is hard to resist. While more aggressive tires might be a nice addition for some riding the stock tires on the Tiger were easily up to the choices I made. With so much natural gas drilling and timber cutting underway there are a lot of places to explore.

Riding along a road more packed dirt and sand than gravel I began to worry that the heavy, grey sky would begin to release rain. With little desire to return a mud covered big to the dealership I returned to solid ground. But it was hard to resist the siren’s song of those long, winding, dirt roads.

Many of the smaller roads are uneven, the pavement heaved and twisted from the harsh winters. The suspension of the Tiger doesn’t blink.

There comes a time in almost every ride I make where I am not sure where I’m going. Riding down through some of the thickest growth of rhodendron I’ve ever seem I thought I might head towards Snow Shoe and a different kind of landscape. By this time I have been crisscrossing the region for most of the morning and was aware of how comfortable the seating position, seat, and handlebar position is on the Triumph Tiger.

A course correction and another little traveled road leads me to lost. The tank has plenty of fuel so I’m not too worried. I can’t remember exactly where this place was or whether I was crossing the West Branch of the Susquehanna River or Red Moshannon Creek. Lost is a gift in my book. And the reason why I’m not too keen on GPS. There ‘s something magical about being lost. And in the East, you seldom get that opportunity.

I eventually passed through Snow Shoe and headed off the plateau towards home. This little red and green building, some sort of remnant of the coal mining in the area just called out for a picture.

I had the option of trying the Tiger on Interstate 80 and see how it prowled along with the 18-wheelers. Passing on the freeway option I found more interesting roads that allowed me the chance to put the Triumph through some performance paces. Acceleration, check. Braking, check. Fun, check.

Tired, cold, and still not ready to take the Tiger home I make one last run along the rolling hills leading up to the Allegheny Plateau. Standing in the corn stubble and looking at the motorcycle and the valleys beyond I feel lucky that I am a rider. Being out here with the day fading and the temperature dropping is not what most riders strive for. But the spirit of adventure is something a lot of riders have in common. It feels good to stand up straight and take in the world. With this motorcycle I could take in a lot of places.

Until those rides come along I had to be content prowling home on the Triumph Tiger and hoping winter would not be too long or severe.