I’ve found my unicorn—my ideal motorcycle. I’m late to the party, though. Others have known this for decades. There’s a reason BMW’s big boxer-engined GS is insanely popular. It’s an amazing machine.
As you know my friends, I suffered a substantial motorcycle conundrum last year. My fleet became too complex. That motorcycling existential crisis set the stage for bringing home the machine that I can now envision riding for as long as my body and mind allow me to pilot a motorcycle.
I did a lot of soul-searching (AKA hand-wringing) and mental gymnastics (AKA over-thinking) to get to the jump-off point. The R1200GS is a big investment. And I had misgivings about its physical size and my ability to handle it. It only took a multi-day rental test ride to open my eyes to how phenomenal this motorcycle is and how supremely unfounded my misgivings were.
This bike—the proven R1200GS, and its newly released version—the R1250GS, have been reviewed and picked apart by folks more knowledgable and technically savvy than me. There are countless reviews out there that cover the nit-picky details. My thoughts are more global. It’s really about whether to GS or not to GS.
The set of questions I ended up asking myself about the full-size GS platform in general were things like:
- Will this bike do what I need it to do?
- Does it fit me? Or can it with some adjustments?
- Can I handle it—the size, weight, and power?
- What does this bike get me that my others don’t?
- Do the improvements justify the expense?
With that said, here are the things that stand out to me after my rental experience and now having put 5,000 miles on my own 2018 R1200GS.
It has half-again as much power as the F700GS I was riding most often. I was suspicious about that much power being overkill for my purposes. But boy howdy, it’s nice. I feel much more in control of my situations on the road knowing how much more quickly I can blip out of questionable scenarios.
The patented BMW Telelever front end is brilliant. I love the smoothness and consistent traction. (And no, I’m not going into the “technology makes you a weaker/lazy rider” debate. I have strong feelings about it but that’s a discussion for a different day.)
The R1200GS has considerably better wind protection than my other rides (the BMW F700GS and the Moto Guzzi V7ii Stone) which makes for less ride fatigue. It’s not like riding in a magic bubble but I’m pleased with the improvement without losing the visceral experience of wind and sportiness.
The balance is extraordinary. The weight is centered so much lower than my 700. That means pushing it around the garage and managing off-kilter moments are a non-issue. That also means I’m more confident in handling it. That’s invaluable.
The electronic throttle and hydraulic clutch are responsive and light. Having nimble controls is a game-changer for long stretches in the saddle as well as for low-speed maneuvers. Again, the 1200 is a far cry from my other machines in that regard.
I have to admit that cruise control feels a little like cheating but it’s a fantastic luxury, especially on long days. It took some getting used to but I’m on board now, especially given that I love long rides.
This was initially a con because I’m pretty damn good at managing hills on my other bikes. It felt awkward at first. Now that I’m used to it though, I’m a fan. And since using it is, of course, optional, I can use it to my advantage, on my terms.
Even the factory “comfort” seat is much more agreeable than the saddles on any of my other rides. Saddles are something you can customize, of course, but even fresh off the showroom floor, I’m starting with a much-improved setup.
No more chain maintenance! Of course, that means more complex repairs when things go south but it’s a bargain I’m willing to make.
Suspension and modes
On-the-fly Dynamic ESA and ride modes means being ready for anything quickly. I find myself in enough different scenarios and unexpected conditions that I make use of this far more than I thought I would.
The popularity of the boxer GS and the BMW brand means repair or maintenance while traveling is fairly accessible.
Related to their ubiquitousness, there’s no end to the offerings to farkle this beast. So as I need to tweak and adjust things, I have tons of choices.
Tires and wheels
The combination of tubeless tires on spoked wheels seem to be the sweet spot for adventurous travel. I feel less vulnerable to being stranded. Denting a rim and breaking a wheel are very different repair scenarios. Ditto for plugging a tire compared to replacing a tube.
Because of all of the features, luxuries, and improvements, big-mile days are much more achievable. My longer days on my other bikes left me exhausted. I now finish exhilarated for having a fabulous ride that was much less physically challenging. And that’s what’s so counterintuitive about this motorcycle. That such a “big” bike is so much easier to ride. The difference is dramatic.
Ok, ouch!!! The value is there, absolutely. It is a hell of a lot of bike for the price. But at the bottom line, it’s a big investment. It’s understandable why many folks can’t justify the decision.
If the cost of a new machine is an obstacle, there’s always a healthy used market of pre-farkled GSs seeking new homes out there. And you’re likely to find one for close to what you’d put into a new F750GS or similar bike.
It’s a very complex machine. That means more potential failure points in fancy electronics and other bits than simpler motorcycles.
Yes, there are lowered versions but as a standard model, it’s a long way to the ground for us inseam-challenged folks. I’m at the point in my riding career where I can handle it just fine but I had to build my skills to get here.
High tank profile
With the high dome of the fuel tank, I can’t reasonably use a tank bag, still see the displays, and not run into clearance issues with the handlebars at full lock. So I rearranged my packing system to have an easily accessible tailbag-esque setup in front of the top case instead.
Trying it out
My rental experience was a bit of a challenge. I had to separate my assessment of the bike itself from the need and ability to make adjustments to my own 1200 in the future. The reach from the seat to grips was quite a stretch for me. That made handling it difficult. I also had to quickly get used to a bike that leaves me holding it up on my tip-toes at stops. But that was a decision point in working towards my own. Did I need a lowered suspension? (Short answer, nope!)
So I rode about 500 miles on an ill-fitting rental bike trying to decide if I could make it work for me ergonomically. I also had to assess if any challenges I was having were because it didn’t fit me (a fixable problem) or if the bike as a whole was all-together the wrong choice for my stature. As you can imagine, there were a lot of machinations going through my head the whole time!
Making it fit and kitting it out
Despite the challenges during the rental, I came away realizing how phenomenal the big GS platform is and set myself towards bringing one home for good. I didn’t want to take years to put it all together again, though. I needed it dialed in from the get-go.
Fortunately the folks at Sierra BMW are not only incredibly knowledgeable, they’re also really patient. It took hours to sort the details, but with their help I had bar risers, auxilliary lights, aluminum racks and panniers, a skid plate, crash bars, an extra power port, a headlight guard, and a sidestand foot picked out and installed before I even took my new bike home for the first time.
The bar risers were the crucial part to fix my reach problem. Everything else was simply re-establishing the setup I had on the 700. In the end, I realized I didn’t need a lowered suspension and not even a lower saddle profile, both of which I embraced on the 700. I’m still planning on adding modulating brake lights but that’s a minor future detail.
Recommendations if you’re considering
If you’re thinking of embracing the GS platform, here are some things I learned in my process.
If you’re in a similar position to me—deciding to change bikes or keep what you have—I highly recommend the rental scenario. Make sure you ride a few days and lots of miles for the full assessment. Not only that, ride your current bike to the rental shop if you can. Then hop directly back on your bike after renting. With no lag time, you get a dramatic and enlightening back-to-back comparison.
Take a class
Consider taking a class at a school that offers the bike. That allows you to put it through its paces before deciding. I rode the R1200GS briefly at the BMW Rider Academy a few years ago and it was an eye-opener. Sadly, I’d only just bought the F700GS and couldn’t justify the switch at that point.
I will credit the instructors for encouraging us ladies to give it a try, though. They know full well we generally suffer from a GS mental block. And they know once we get on it and experience how “not big” it really is, that we’ll be better riders for it.
Keep it in perspective
Remember that the rental won’t be exactly what you’d have. Take stock of what matters and what doesn’t. You’re assessing the bike itself. You’ll farkle and fit it on your terms.
Let’s have a huddle, ladies
For many, a GS is a no-brainer. But here’s the thing. We women are largely a bit more skeptical, timid, or less confident in our motorcycling skills than our male counterparts. That’s a broad statement, I know. It certainly doesn’t apply to all women but I see it so much among female riders, myself included.
The point here is that I encourage women not to dismiss the GS as too big. As Jocelin Snow says
Don’t use misinformation as a limitation in your motorcycling life, get on it and ride it—if I can do it, you can do it.Jocelin Snow
I know it’s easy to look at that petite powerhouse, marvel at her epic badassery, and think she’s not talking about you. But she is. This bike is phenomenally well-balanced.
Yes, it looks big. But I can tell you it’s far easier to handle than my previous F700GS that carried its weight high. My riding has improved exponentially in just a few months on it.
Don’t get me wrong, my other bikes were necessary steps in my riding growth. The thing to keep in mind is that the 1200 is a powerful machine at 1170 cc. So if you’ve got some experience with smaller cc engines, this could be an appropriate upgrade for you, my fellow badass lady riders. But I can’t recommend any bike of this size for beginning riders.
So I encourage you to keep this bike on your radar. Tell intimidation to take a hike. It’s completely unfounded in this case. This bike is a dream to ride.
Fellas, let’s chat
Dudes, you might have noticed I’m a chick. And I work to promote women in motorcycling. That means much of my focus is addressing women’s issues in this pursuit. Having said that, if any of my thoughts here apply to you as well, that’s awesome. Fistbump to you, fellas.
Also, if you’re a confident male rider who has a lady rider in your life, don’t discourage her if she’s interested in this bike. Don’t fall in with the “too big” mindset. That would be doing her a disservice.
There you have it. My love note to the GS. I hope this less-technical review gives you some insight if you’re considering the GS platform in any of its iterations.
And by all means, drop me a note in the comments if you have a question I didn’t address here!
Now let’s get out there and ride, my friends!
Stephen Into says
I know it’s been a while since you wrote this – I’m glad you found your ride! I was wondering if you ever purchased the brake light modulator you mentioned. Reading the owner’s manual for my 2017 GS, I see that they include a nice brake light modulation feature this with Ride Modes Pro:
“Hazard braking with riding modes Pro:
If you brake sharply from a speed in excess of 50 km/h, the brake light flashes rapidly as an additional warning for road users behind you. The hazard warning lights system switches on if you brake to below 15 km/h in this process. The hazard warning lights system automatically switches off again from a speed of 20 km/h.”
I have yet to prove that it works – I’ll have someone follow me and test it. Assuming it works as advertised, this is a nice feature that would be nice to include regardless of whether you purchase Ride Modes Pro…
Val Weston says
Awesome, thanks for the info. I haven’t gotten around to that farkle yet but I’d still like to. Even with the feature your mention, I still worry about less dramatic stops or even when I’m already stopped and someone is coming up hot behind me. Sometimes just a little bit of flashing gets their attention. Let me know if you test the hazard braking feature though. I’d love to know!
Sebastian Prisacariu says
Hi there, that is a very useful review. Thank you for that.
I have a question for you. Me and my wife are looking to buy an ADV motorcycle to commute in LA and to travel around the US together (some off-road as well). A part of me thinks that this would be a good choice as we are both tall and somewhat heavy (I’m 6 ft. 3 for example), however we are still beginners and I am not sure if the power would not be too overwhelming.
We can only afford motorcycles up to $5000 so probably it will be either a 2005 1200gs or a 650gs. If you were in our shoes, how would you approach this?
Val Weston says
I would say the 1200 would be the way to go. I suspect the 650 would be underpowered for your needs. Having said that, I’d recommend taking a class on it to get comfortable and make sure its the right choice before you commit. If you’re planning on riding 2-up, do a solo class first then a 2-up one. The older GSs are likely perfect for your needs and budget (a newer GS is no joke on the wallet to be sure and the older GSs are a solid choice). You can probably find a great deal on a used one! I hope you’ll let me know how it goes. Wishing you sublime success!
I’m in a different boat. I like simple bikes, air cooled twins, without electronics. Think Bonneville, perhaps Guzzi V7. But at 6’6″ and with a 36″ inseam, very few bikes fit me. I just bought a Kawasaki ZRX1200R and after 85 miles into the first ride, I knew it wasn’t a good fit for me. Wish I had test ridden one. The most comfortable bike I’ve ever owned was a 2006 Ducati Multistrada, the ugly one. Loved that bike! Now looking into a used R1200GS, for the aforementioned reasons, but $2K clutch replacements and all those electronics scare the living daylight out of me.
Val Weston says
I totally get the simplicity of the Bonneville and V7. I’ve owned and loved both! I have the opposite problem with height, though. Sorry about the ZRX! Ouch! Yes, the complexity and failure points of the electronics kept me hesitant for a long time. I’m really just hoping for the best. I’ve heard good and bad stories and I’ll just have to deal with things if they come up. In the meantime, I’ll just be riding the snot out of it. 😉
Awesome article. I just bought a new-to-me 2014 R1200 GSA (6K miles) after owning a 2017 F800 GSA (bought new from Sierra BMW). I am an older fart (61) and I found the 1200 to be so much easier to ride for all the reasons you gave. I will still keep my 2005 KLR 650 as it’s just fun to ride and super easy to maintain, but my 1200 is my go-to bike. Safe and fun riding to you.
Val Weston says
Thanks for the kind words. It’s really counterintuitive. But the GS is just a brilliant design. I did sell my little Moto Guzzi since I wasn’t riding it with the GS in the garage. The sidecar rig gets to stay though. 🙂
Do you have a sidecar rig for your 1200? I have been looking at the SBW Adventure rig for when I either get 2 dogs, or start to have balance issues, or both. That is another reason that I like the 1200 over the 800. More torque and horsepower to support a sidecar rig.
Val Weston says
We’ve got a 1991 R100RT. She’s a quirky but fun old beast. She doesn’t get a lot of attention though because the dog is still learning to keep his goggles on and riding the GS is just so much fun. We do take friends out in it from time-to-time so we get to share motorcycling with non-riders. We bought it for the reasons you mention — preparing for the time when two wheels isn’t an option. At that point we’ll probably get a newer rig. This one is meant to be our “training” one. Here’s the story on Betty.