BMW K 1200R
When I was seventeen years old in 1984 I bought a basket case BMW motorcycle and spent many evenings in an unheated garage slowly piecing together the bike. I put many of the parts together incorrectly and spent even more hours correcting my mistakes. I ultimately rode that /5 across the country and clocked over 100,000 miles on it.
In 1990 a few friends and I decided to ride motorbikes from Washington, D.C. to the Arctic Circle in Alaska. I bought an R80GS for the trip but hated riding it so much that I sold it 24 hours later.
Although a bit of a luddite at the time and, therefore, suspicious of new fangled technology (see: “fuel injection, electronic ignition, cast wheels”) I was attract to the K100RS at the time due to the promise of touring across the country without my elbows wedged into my knees to keep the high speed wobble at bay as was required on my /5 or R90S.
I bought a 1985 K100RS, spray painted it black (natch) and rode it not only to the Arctic Circle but ended up putting about 100,000 miles on that one as well. It weighed around 500 pounds dry and put out about 90 bhp. It would cruise at 130 with hard saddle bags (two up even) and needed virtually no maintenance or servicing (well there was this one time when the water pump impeller nut broke off and spat itself out through the cover taking all the coolant with it in the middle of British Columbia).
I kept that 85 K100RS for two reasons, one is that I am a cheap bastard when it comes to street bikes and the other reason is that, in my humble opinion, none of the K bikes that followed the ’85 were improvements upon the original. They added some desirable features like wider wheels and a four valve head but they also started tacking on a bunch of heavy crap. I mean, if I wanted anti-lock brakes I would have kept the /5. As the K bikes became more ponderous I had less free time for lengthy road trips (see “Intentional Destruction of Laboriously Engineered Artifacts 1993 to present) and my street riding became more restricted to urban assault style commuting.
I share this with you, dear reader, not to list all my past motorcycles (since I did not mention the RDs) but to list my credentials that I know something of BMWs and, more importantly, BMW culture. For I even worked for a spell in the motorcycle retail world helping Mr and Mrs Shock-Bottom pick out just the right Corbin seat (with Motorrad accent colors) for their R 80 RT. It was during this period that I recognized that BMW owners (and I would not exclude myself from this cruel-but-fair categorization during this period of my life) were BMW geeks first and motorcycle riders second.
After drinking the blue and white kool-aid all other motorcycles simply cease to exist except for purposes of derision. I would go so far as to say that this obsessive cult is worse than the Harley crowd but, ultimately, at least the BMW guys ride their bikes to the rallies. The scales started to fall away from my eyes when I was loudly opining about BMW’s superior engineering when an wise motorcycle enthusiast asked me, in a gently and non-confrontational manner “Have you ridden a modern Japanese sport bike?” Of course the answer was “no” even though modern, at that time, meant an FZ600.
Slowly I broadened my horizons and began to explore the world of motorcycles instead of just the products of one brand. I discovered a rich and varied world and could never regain my propeller and blue sky blinders.
Two months ago Melissa (who was a BMW motorcycle technician for years) and I were gazing out a frost kissed window to a snow covered yard and idly discussing which bikes we would choose if we were to revisit a tour of the Canadian Maritimes (spectacular motorcycling by the way). We ultimately drew blanks because all the bikes we could think of were either too sporty, not sporty enough, too heavy or too boring to actually ride for two weeks.
When I got the call to fly to Spain to ride the K1200R we were both interested to see if the latest offering from Germany would fit our current touring requirements: light, fast, nimble and reliable.
The test ride course consisted of two stretches of southern Spanish back road that means fast sweepers on two lane roads shared with cars, tractors, scooters and trucks. In between the street rides we rode on a private country club style race track.
At 8:00am the air was still cool and my ventilated leathers were breathing a little too well despite my K1200R being fitted with the larger of the two diminutive sport windshields. The heated grips channeled enough heat back into my body through my hands to make up for what I was losing to the wind.
The ergonomics were just about perfect for the high-speed backroad work. The handlebars are located a bit high for tight corners which makes them just about right at a 85% pace. Despite the counter balancers the bars still have a deep vibration in them at certain engine speeds but it is not intrusive enough to be annoying.
The suspension soaked up the Spanish road irregularities with aplomb and handled the bridge seams and ruts admirably. The engine’s ample and flat power delivery encouraged the customary sport touring double yellow line passes and the transmission, although it required a bit of a firm boot, never missed a shift.
The morning sunshine was highlighting the orange trees and the tops of the gentle hills with the bike indicating about 240kph (that’s about 144mph) when I was struck with how relaxing the whole experience was. The suspension was removing the road and tire interaction from my attention while I enjoyed passing traffic and the scenery. Up ahead the traffic slowed as a gravel truck lumbered up a long incline. I started to slow down gradually to judge the closing speed but then got on the brakes hard when I realized that the traffic was stopped entirely.
It was then that I had the opportunity to weigh the other side of the insulated riding experience. The suspension takes away input from the tires so as I was braking and looking at alternate pieces of highway (instead of the ones currently occupied by cute and fuel efficient European cars) I had no idea how much traction with which I had to work. I couldn’t tell if the front was working at its limit or if it had plenty of grip to execute an evasive maneuver while braking. This was not a real on-road emergency maneuver situation but it foreshadowed my ultimate impression of the motorcycle.
On the track the bike could haul cabbage but it was a faith-based endeavor. If the chassis was talking to me I could not translate the language. I could turn the bike as hard as I could turn any bike of its length and girth but I was doing it primarily because I was watching the ex-German national champion (EGNC) execute such an action directly in front of me not because the bike was chiding or encouraging me to do it. The bike completely ignored the damp patches of the track created by landscape sprinkler run-off. In BMW world this would be greeted as a good thing, for a rider seeking the limits of available adhesion a bike that does not inform the rider that the pavement under its tires has less traction at this moment than it did a moment before is not doing the rider any favors.
EGNC was displaying Teutonic precision and the experience gained by hundreds of laps around the track. In a fourth gear sweeper I was not able to commit to his wide and late (albeit perfect) entrance line and turned about fifteen feet early for the fast kink. As I started running wide towards the curbing at the exit of the turn (with Rossi saying “For sure, they no ask me back” in my head somewhere) I grazed the front brake lever to drag the front wheel back onto the track. Trying to scrub a little speed is a different experience on the big BMW. Although it has all the engine braking you would expect, the front brake is electronically boosted. This means that the master cylinder at the handlebars is hydraulically actuating a sensor that controls an electronic solenoid that transmits hydraulic pressure to the calipers. From a rider’s perspective the brakes give no bite a low lever pressures and then engage aggressively, not something you want while running wide at the exit of a fourth gear turn. The rear caliper is being actuated to some degree when all this going on with the front as well.
The bike rolls into a turn well (low center of mass) and steers well but never gives that “front tire carving the pavement” feel. The low center of weight also requires the bike to be banked aggressively to follow a turn. Even with my exaggerated hang off style the well shaped and designed foot peg would dig into the pavement regularly. Thumbing the suspension to the stiffer settings did not keep the pegs out of the pavement. On the one hand that means the bike is good enough, even with street tires, to drag knee and peg, on the other hand, I hate dragging hard parts on the ground and the limitations on the suspension settings meant that was no getting around it as even I wasn’t bold enough to ask the mechanics to take a hacksaw to the foot pegs.
I was able to grab a couple laps on the R’s fully faired cousin the K1200S. The R has more aggressive steering geometry and less weight. The difference was immediately apparent. The R handled significantly lighter and was noticeably more nimble than the fully faired version. At lunch I asked the EGNC for his impressions of the bike. He now works for BMW’s marketing department but he was very candid in his observations. “BMW studies showed that, when braking, most riders do not actuate the brakes hard enough initially. The boosted brakes amplify the braking force at the initial stage of braking which allows for shorter stopping distances for most riders. They have made the system much better with this bike but it is still not perfect at light lever pressures such as when trying to settle the front end before a turn”. And the suspension “This pace is maybe a little fast for this suspension yes?”.
I let that sink into my head for awhile. Virtually all of my motorcycle-riding associates are racers or expert street riders with years of experience with aggressive riding. None of them would like to have brakes that are controlled by a computer and not by their own hand and brain, particularly when those brakes fail when the engine is turned off (think power brakes on a car with the engine turned off). But, in a theme that would be repeated to me by many BMW representatives over the course of the day, this bike is not being built for me or my ilk. This bike is being built for affluent riders, particularly ‘conquest sales’ (riders switching to BMW from Harley or Honda), whose skills are limited even while their confidence is not. A group whose weekend motorcycle activities are probably more likely to involve collecting rally pins and drinking beer than participating in braking drills at a local track day or working on riding skills.
For this class of rider a bike that has been engineered to provide some extra safety margins begins to make more sense. These guys are probably not accustom to searching for front tire feel through a carefully tuned fork or for initiating a turn by stepping out the rear wheel. Wheelies are considered to be abuse of the machinery and front brakes are viewed with, according to BMW’s own literature the “risk of taking a fall or tumbling forward”. To me a 160bhp street fighter that won’t do brake slides (ABS), rolling burnouts (integrated brakes) and only reluctantly wheelies (long wheelbase, low and forward engine weight, painful bottoming front end) is like decaffeinated espresso. But even when I ran exclusively in BMW circles the number of other BMW riders I knew who pushed their bikes hard could be numbered on one hand and this bike’s target market would frown on such antics, much less participate in such riding.
Despite the weird brakes, the numb front end and the weight this thing could be hustled around a race track. For a smooth rider who inches up on the chassis’s limitations the bike could easily run a fast expert track day pace which would, no doubt, infuriate the indigenous population of carbon coated Ducati riders. However, the K1200R is meant to be a roadster so an equal rider on a proper sportbike will be faster and safer at an elevated track pace. The bike is easy to ride at an 85% pace all day on the track or the street and that is exactly what it was designed to do.
For BMW’s target market they have probably built a winner. The buyers will marvel at the most powerful motor in the BMW world, they will admire the German engineering in the front suspension and they will be grateful for the compensating brakes. Those that are adventuresome enough to take the bike to the track will find that the bike is not completely out of its element. However, Melissa will have to put off her trip to the Canadian Maritimes for a few more years hoping that BMW continues in its current design direction but releases a bike with this motor, ten fewer kilos, a slightly bigger fairing, more feel in the suspension and Brembo radial brakes.