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!