14 Jun 2016

Christened!


It’s become tradition for my good friend Renate to have a photo taken on each new bike—and this one is no exception! However, I’m not sure it’s quite the right bike for her, as she struggles a bit to reach the ground... and—although she would never say it—as an Austrian, I think she secretly prefers me to ride a KTM 🙂



In 2013:


And in 2012:


3 Jun 2016

Gear: Top 6 travel gadgets revisited


Three and a half years ago I posted an article about my top 6 picks for travel gadgets. A summary of my picks back then:

  • 6. Bluetooth headset—Sena SMH5
  • 5. Tablet—iPad mini (WiFi+3G)
  • 4. Camera—Nikon D7000
  • 3. Universal charger—TomTom High Speed Multi-Charger
  • 2. GPS—BMW Navigator IV
  • 1. Smartphone—iPhone 5
Technology advances quickly so what’s changed since then?

6. Camera (nice to have)


Dropping from 4th to 6th place, I was considering leaving out the camera altogether as smartphones have begun to match or surpass the quality of even higher end compact cameras. Put another way—the average untrained non-photographer will almost certainly take a better photo with a late model smartphone than with even a DSLR. Not to mention DSLRs are huge and heavy, with my Nikon D7000 weighing in at an obese 2 kg with the speedlight attached.

The £399 Fujifilm XF1 caught my eye one day when I was at an electronics shop and I had a quick play with a display unit. When I got home, I read up on it and saw the XF1 was consistently receiving high ratings. A few weeks later it went on offer for an amazing £129 and I nabbed one.

The camera is tiny, a bit bigger than a deck of cards, and the main advantages over a smartphone include an lens with optical zoom and a real flash (noting that onboard flashes on any camera make for ghastly photos when used directly, but they can useful in slow-sync mode).

While it takes acceptable photos in Auto mode, Fujifilm included plenty of controls and features (including PSAM modes) which means a DSLR user like me is immediately at home with familiar settings. By being able to select metering, focus area, aperture, exposure compensation etc I can easily get the look I want and, in the right hands, this little camera is capable of taking some extremely good photos in conditions less than ideal for a smartphone.

If my trip focussed specifically on photography I would still take my Nikon DSLR, otherwise the tiny, light XF1 is all I need to get shots I’d probably not attempt with my phone. The battery life is just adequate at a few hundred shots (without flash) between charges, but this means a downside—the camera doesn’t charge over USB which means carrying a small battery charger.

Photo: Fujifilm XF1—£129 (on offer)

5. Bluetooth headset


Up a notch from 6th to 5th place, the Sena SMH5 is a low-cost, reliable, robust and reasonably well-featured headset—in fact I still use the same unit I reviewed back in 2013.

The speakers have become a bit crackly at higher volumes but replacements are only about £20. Otherwise the unit has proven virtually bulletproof, having survived temperature extremes, weather extremes, various drops on concrete and even a crash in the Czech Republic.

The battery still lasts more than a day with the intercom channel open and it charges via USB in about 2 hours. Software updates are quick and easy using Sena’s firmware update software and means the unit has actually gained features through the years.

I’m so happy with this headset, if it ever dies I would replace it like-for-like.

Photo: Sena SMH5—Single £90/Dual £170

4. Ultrabook


Moving from 5th to 4th place and replacing the tablet, the ultrabook is just more versatile. Last year Apple introduced the new MacBook range with the 12” retina model and I fell in love with it.

On paper it looks hugely underpowered with only a 1.1–1.3 GHz (depending on version) Intel Core M processor but, countered with an extremely fast SSD, for everyday purposes it never leaves you waiting. Although it was never intended to run high-overhead software like Photoshop and InDesign, it does so respectfully smoothly—and the high resolution (2,304x1,440) screen makes using it a pleasure.

Despite the full-sized keyboard, it is not much different in size and weight to a standard iPad which means it takes virtually no space in a pannier—it is about the size of a stack of 25 sheets of standard copier paper.

As the only port is USB-C (for charging and data transfer) I don’t bother bringing the charger—only a USB-A to C cable (for charging with a universal charger) and a small USB-C to A dongle (for connecting a camera etc). For internet access on the go, I use hotel WiFi or connect via my phone’s personal hotspot feature.

For those who like to edit video on the road, I understand the 2016 update (which brings next generation Core M processors) has encoding hardware built into the video card which enables it to process up to 4k video in near realtime, despite the humble processor speeds.

It’s small, light, beautifully built and finished, and silent in operation as it does not have a cooling fan—but this all comes a rather premium price. I wouldn’t call it an entirely rational purchase but so what—I absolutely love it!

Photo: Apple 12” MacBook in space grey—£1,049–1,419

3. Universal charger

Still in 3rd place is the universal charger which enables charging USB devices such as smartphones, ultrabooks, headsets etc on the go—useful for any device not powered directly by the bike.

The TomTom multi-charger has one high speed (2.4A) and one standard (1A) port which means fast charging supported devices such as smartphones or even an ultrabook in sleep mode.

I’m going to cheat a bit on this one—with the space I save by leaving my DSLR at home I have more than enough room to include a mains powered USB charger. US-based Anker, which was started by a group of Google employees, make a well-designed and engineered 6-port USB charger—the PowerPort 6—which means simultaneously charging both headsets, ultrabook and smartphone simultaneously overnight.

The charger’s IQ feature automatically detects how much current the device can take which means it will supply 2.4A to smartphones and ultrabooks and 1A to headsets automatically, regardless of which port the devices are plugged into.

A USB-C version has since been released which replaces one of the standard ports with a USB-C port providing even more current for ultrabooks.

In practice I don’t often need charge on the go so I could do without the TomTom (I say this until I realise my phone is nearly flat and I need to book a hotel for the night!) in lieu of the essential ability to charge my devices overnight and the convenience of doing so with a single charger. Having both chargers is ideal, but the Anker is essential.

Photo (top): TomTom High Speed Multi-Charger—£20

Photo (bottom): Anker PowerPort 6—£26

2. GPS/satnav


Still in 2nd place is the essential-for-me GPS—not just for getting to unfamiliar destinations but also for the safety net of always knowing precisely where I am.

When ordering my new bike I decided to upgrade from the solid but not so responsive BMW Navigator IV to the fully revamped Navigator V.

This updated unit features a much faster processor for noticeably less lag when scrolling through maps and quicker routing for complex journeys. It links in directly with the bike’s computer systems, giving access to readings such as fuel range, speed etc and stats such as number of shifts and brake applications during the last journey. For data, an app needs to be running on a smartphone which enables the unit to pull weather and traffic information on the go.

The Navigator V also plays nicely with both my headset and smartphone, whereas the Navigator IV didn’t like being simultaneously connected to both while they were connected to each other. It also conveniently snaps into the R1200’s locking cradle—which is theft-deterrent but certainly not theft proof—and is powered directly by the bike.

Device and map updates are carried out by plugging the unit into a computer and using the Garmin Express app—previous versions of this app have, quite frankly, been truly astounding pieces of programming poo, but Garmin has really pulled it together and the latest version works perfectly with a simple, attractively designed interface.

One complaint I mentioned in a previous post is that the unit only has 8gb of onboard storage (or a touch more than the size of the EU map)—this means after spending more than £500 on the device you have to fork out a silly £5 more for a micro SD card or it’s not possible to run a map update.

It’s very pricy, but it’s fully featured, fully integrated with the bike’s controls, and best of all, does everything it should, quickly, consistently and without any fuss.

Photo: BMW Navigator V—£549 (with maps of Europe and no mount/cradle)

1. Smartphone


The smartphone is the one device I would struggle to live without and stays firmly in 1st place on my list. It’s a single device which can be a camera/video camera, a GPS, a computer, a tablet, a debit or credit card, a music player, a compass, a pedometer, an alarm clock, a television, a boarding pass and so on. Oh, and it makes calls obviously.

If I could only bring one device on this list when travelling, it would be my smartphone—since 2013 I’ve moved from the 4” iPhone 5 to the 5.5” iPhone 6s plus which means the phone now fulfils many of the functions of a tablet.

The camera on the 6s is really very good—as good in most conditions as the XF1 above, and not too far off the Nikon D7000. An added bonus is that photos and videos automatically synchronise to my computer wirelessly.

With ApplePay available almost everywhere in the UK (due to our contactless infrastructure introduced nearly a decade ago) it replaces my wallet for most day-to-day payments—in fact it’s becoming quite rare to find a shop which doesn’t take contactless payments yet.

I keep PDFs of my device and bike handbooks, insurance documents etc on the phone so everything is easily accessible in one place. As everything backs up to the cloud, even if the worst happens (phone drops down a sewer, for example) all my files, photos and information can still be accessed from a computer, and if it gets lost or stolen it can be wiped remotely.

Essential to the functionality of a smartphone of course a generous data plan. I have an unlimited data plan on Three which includes free roaming in most EU countries—this costs a reasonable £17/month.

Whichever smartphone you choose, it is an indispensable tool for travel—I would be lost without mine!

Photo: iPhone 6s plus—£619–789 (contract-free)

2 Jun 2016

Blog tidy-up


I did a bit of a tidy-up of my blog with a new, cleaner font—Roboto Condensed—and a few tweaks to the search, subscribe, worthwhile reads, latest comments, top posts and archive gadgets on the right.

I also got rid of the Facebook ‘like’ and Google+ ‘+1’ buttons at the bottom of each post as this is redundant with the share box and it looked messy.

Unfortunately the worthwhile reads would not lose the text indents for each latest post no matter how much I attempted to override the CSS, and I could not access the Disqus code to adjust the linespacing and size of the small text which is a bit annoying.

Nevertheless, let me know your thoughts about the changes!

30 May 2016

R1200GS Adventure 2016 first impressions


Now that I’ve had the chance to put on a couple hundred miles I thought it would be a good time to collect my thoughts on the R1200GS Adventure, having come from an F800GS and a standard R1200GS.

Let me start by saying I am now certain I made the right choice with this bike as it just feels ‘right’. It has taken no time to feel comfortable on it, from U-turns to filtering (lane-splitting). I mentioned in a previous post that the Adventure pulls together what to me are the best parts of the F800/R1200 into one bike—that is, the characterful liquid cooled boxer engine and electronic toys from the 1200 and the soft, wallowy ride and effortless handling of the 800.

So far, other than a little bit of gravel, I’ve ridden strictly on-road—I’m not quite ready to get it dirty, at least not until after the running-in service at about 600 miles. And it has taken a bit of self restraint to keep the revs capped at 5,000 rpm!

Suspension and handling


This is the standout feature of the Adventure—the ESA system seems to be designed with the extra 11% of suspension travel of the Adventure in mind—it just does its job more effectively than on the standard 1200. Switching damping modes, soft really is soft, normal is normal and hard is noticeably firm. 

Despite the extra suspension travel, the anti-dive geometry of the telelever front suspension works as well as on the standard 1200, and the rear lift under braking seems about the same as well. To me, the raised suspension has many advantages but no drawbacks.

The Adventure also has a 1° steeper steering angle than the standard 1200 (and 0.5° steeper than the 800) which means it’s quicker on its feet to change direction. On twisty, narrow, poorly surfaced British B-roads it effortlessly cuts through the corners, soaking up mid-corner bumps with no drama.

Features


Everything will be familiar to anyone coming from a liquid cooled R1200GS—so you have plenty to play with. Drive-by-wire throttle with electronic cruise control, driving modes (rain, road, dynamic, enduro and enduro pro) with linked ABS and traction control calibration, aforementioned ESA with electric preload adjustment, gear shift assist pro, fairly comprehensive customisation for the onboard computer, daytime running lamps, automatic headlamps, grip heaters (which get much warmer than my previous bikes) etc. New for me are keyless ride and ABS pro.

Keyless ride


As somebody who seems to have some sort of mental illness relating to keys, the keyless ride option was a must when I placed the order for this bike. I forget keys constantly—at best upstairs at home, at worst in the ignition after I’ve parked. Now the key can stay safely zipped into the pocket of my jacket. 

How does it work? When the key is within about 1m of the bike, pressing the ignition button once unlocks the steering, and a second press switches on the bike, ready to start the engine. Alternatively, a long press will unlock the steering and switch on the ignition in one step. Stopping is the same, two short or one long press to switch off the engine/ignition and lock the steering (either to the left or right). 

If the fob’s transmitter battery goes flat, it simply needs to be touched against a special spot on the bike which reads the chip in the fob and allows the ignition button to work for a few seconds.

If the key is moved out of range while the bike is on (but not running) it will switch itself off after 30 seconds. If the engine is running, it will angrily flash a yellow warning on the dash (the engine won’t stop automatically in this case, but of course it won’t restart without the key in range).

The fuel filler cap remains unlocked for about 30 seconds after switching off the ignition and opens electrically via a small lever on top (similar to the keyhole cover on the standard filler cap)—after 30 seconds the lever deactivates.

ABS pro


In plain English, this is BMW’s name for lean-sensing ABS—a feature I hope I never need, and not one I’m in a hurry to test out. 

When braking while leaning in a corner without ABS, either the bike will stand up (and therefore go straight ahead), or the tyres will skid causing the bike to go down. With normal ABS, the bike will stand up and ABS will prevent skidding, but there is the potential to go straight into a ditch/hedge/oncoming car etc. 

ABS pro senses that the bike is banked/leaning into a corner and modulates the ABS to keep the lean consistent, therefore allowing maximum braking without affecting the current radius. KTM was the first to use this system in partnership with Bosch, and BMW uses the same hardware with their own software.

Gear shift assist pro


Readers of my blog know I love this system, and it feels much more refined on the Adventure. From what I understand there are two differences—one is that the system was fitted at the factory (it was retrofitted on my previous bike), and the other is that the Adventure has a dampener built into the driveshaft which reduces driveline shunt (that jerking motion you get when coming on and off the throttle at low speeds). Regardless of whether these differences hugely affect the operation of the GSAP system, it is smoother and lighter on the Adventure than it was on my previous 1200.

Drivetrain


Not a lot to say that I haven’t before... The liquid cooled boxer is hard to fault—it’s loaded with torque and a flat torque curve means you can pick a gear and go. The Adventure has a heavier flywheel than my previous 1200 (the heavier flywheel was added to the standard version for 2015 and has been on the Adventure since 2014) and it does seem a bit more resistant to stalling when having a ham-fisted moment operating the clutch when starting off, but more importantly makes the engine a bit smoother and more agreeable during low speed manoeuvres in traffic etc.

The clutch and gearbox is not quite F800GS-smooth when engaging first from a standstill but it’s not far off, and it’s a huge improvement over my previous 1200. The clutch engagement is also much softer—some hydraulic clutches (my previous 1200 included) feel like an on/off switch and this one is more progressive, almost as progressive as the cable-operated clutch from my F800 but requiring about a third of the effort to pull the lever.

These small refinements have all but addressed my complaints about my previous 1200 and come together to provide a much more premium feel overall.

Performance


The bike is still in the run-in period which means not applying full throttle and not exceeding 5,000 rpm for the first 600 miles. Since day-to-day I’ve not often had any need to exceed either of these restrictions, it feels like business as usual apart from resisting the urge to open it up on a motorway slip road—but it’s not for long! 

The Adventure weights 20 kg more than the standard version and holds 10 litres more fuel (which accounts for half the extra weight)—performance is not expected to be much different, it goes pretty much as fast as you’d practically ever need. I would say the extra 20 kg actually works in the bike’s favour as it sits over the front axle and means there is less tendency for the front wheel to lift (and the associated power cut from the ASC system)—the bike can use more of its power more often.

The most important part of performance is of course getting it to the road, and the Adventure is equipped with the same Michelin Anakee 3s as the standard version—pretty useless off-road, but an excellent tyre on-road. I will consider giving the Heidenau K60 Scouts a try once these wear out, as I found these to be excellent 50/50 tyres on my F800. Or possibly the new Michelin Anakee Wilds.

Wind/weather protection


The larger tank and windscreen mean it’s more sedate at high speeds—at 70 mph you can speak to your passenger without an intercom (without having to yell), which was not possible on any of my previous bikes. Not ridden in the rain yet but expect it wouldn’t be quite as wet an experience.

Luggage system


The Adventure uses the more robust aluminium pannier/top box system which appears similar to what I had on my F800 (but are actually mirrored due to the exhaust being on the opposite side, and also have slightly more refined latches and locks), whereas my previous 1200 used the plastic vario system.

One thing I liked about the varios was that they could collapse inwards which made the panniers almost unnoticeable in traffic. The F800’s aluminium panniers, however, really stuck out, making filtering through traffic an extremely precise ordeal.

On the Adventure, the aluminium panniers seem to be closer to the bike’s centre line—I’m not sure if this is actually the case, and maybe it is the psychological aspect of the wider fuel tank making the panniers seem narrower than they are, but filtering seemed easier with them fitted than on my F800. Day-to-day I only use the top box—the panniers are only used when travelling.

BMW Navigator V


Last to mention is the BMW Navigator V. This is a revamp of the Navigator IV with which it shares a form factor (meaning the mount and connector is the same) but little else. The screen is bigger, higher resolution and marginally easier to read in direct sun, and the unit is much, much more responsive. It also integrates more completely with the bike, allowing almost all functions to be accessed using the iDrive-type controller on the left handlebar of the bike. It connected without frustration to both my iPhone 6s plus and Sena SMH5 helmet speaker system which I will explain in more detail below.

The unit is notable because it allows access to the bike’s computer systems. This means you can see the status of everything from the dashboard on one simple screen—odometers, engine temperature, tyre pressure, fuel range, current speed etc, and also information such as the VIN and next service.

I do love a few good stats and it delivers on this front as well—it’s possible to view the number of gear changes, average throttle position, applications of both front and rear brakes and ambient/engine temperatures from the last ride.

One thing that frustrated me with the Navigator IV was that it was never happy to be connected to both my phone and headset at the same time—it prevented me from using the helmet controls to initiate Siri, start/stop music and answer phone calls (admittedly a rare occurrence). The Navigator V addresses this. Pair the phone and the Nav V can access data such as weather and traffic via the Garmin Smart Link app (which must be running in the background on the phone). Provided you don’t play music directly from the Nav V (which I don’t do) the headset is then paired using the handsfree profile (HFP). This configuration allows the headset to operate the phone correctly (Siri and music/phone) and also allows GPS directions and alerts to come through, as well as access to the phone’s address book to instigate calls from the GPS itself. While it’s possible to pair the headset and GPS using the A2DP protocol (which allows playing stereo music) this means the phone is only useful for calls and would require duplicating my music library on the GPS.

One complaint—the Nav V comes with 8 gb of internal memory which means with the full EU maps loaded it only has 180 mb free. Put another way, this is not enough space to perform a map update. This is not a cheap unit at around £500 so it seems like nickel-and-diming to death to require the user to spend another £5 on an SD card—either having 16 gb onboard memory or throwing in an SD card would have been much kinder.

Design


Nothing retro about this bike—the design language says ‘technology’ and is purposeful, functional and certainly impressive (I wouldn’t say beautiful, though). I quite like it—in fact, I think the Adventure’s design is more appealing than the standard version—particularly the black engine, frame and wheels.

The silver spoked wheels on the standard version were dirty in a day and a pain to clean due to the textured, anodised surface which held brake dust and dirt. The black wheels are the same texture but at least the grime won’t show as much.

I like that the aux/fog lamps are bolted to the upper crash bars on the Adventure as this is much more robust than the flimsy plastic mounts on the standard 1200.

I struggled with the colour when I placed the order—the white (with red lettering for 2016) was boring and the red had a seat in a slightly different shade which drove me crazy... so I ordered it in ocean blue metallic matt without ever having seen the colour in the flesh—now that I have it, I’m glad I went with this colour, it suits the bike well.

Extras


I insure via BMW’s own insurance (which is actually the cheapest for me, cheap being a relative term when living in London). For the Adventure, my premium increased by £25 but they required a tracker to be fitted which was carried out by the dealership before the bike was delivered. It has proven very sensitive as simply moving the bike off the centre stand triggers a text alert. If the bike is moved more than a few metres the tracker company is alerted which results in a phone call—if they are unable to get through they notify the police and provide ongoing location updates. The unit is claimed to provide up to 3 months of location updates even if the bike’s battery has been disconnected. I’m also able to view the location of the bike online at any time. I’ve not had trackers previously but they do provide considerable peace-of-mind. This particular unit only functions when the ignition is switched off (i.e. it doesn’t track the bike’s location when the engine is running for the conspiracy theorists)!

I fitted a tool tube inside the left pannier holder which is just the right size for me to keep my bungee cords clean and dry without them taking up valuable space in the smallish top box.

I have an R&G Racing drive shaft protector on its way. In my opinion this is something no one should be without (it prevented my last bike from being written off when it slid down the road in the Czech Republic in 2014)—at £17 it’s a steal and replaces the dust cover on the drive shaft to prevent contact with the ground.

I’ve also ordered Touratech upper crashbar extensions and a side stand foot enlarger to stabilise the bike when parked on soft surfaces. The extensions were somewhat reasonable (for Touratech) at £200 and the stand enlarger was about £30. Unfortunately both are on back order for up to 6 weeks so more on those later. While I have no doubt Touratech make high quality and well engineered parts, they are very expensive—they are also the only manufacturer of crashbar extensions which integrate into the factory bars on the Adventure.

Photos


I took a few photos while out and about the last couple days—I didn’t feel like bringing along my Nikon D-SLR so these iPhone snaps will need to do :) 






26 May 2016

Hello again!


After parting with my F800GS and R1200GS I’m back in action!



I picked up my brand new R1200GS Adventure TE today in Ocean Blue matt. The TE comes with everything except the options of gear shift assist pro, factory alarm and keyless ride for around an extra £600, which I obviously had fitted.

Accessories include the full set of panniers, pannier bags, tank bag, secure oil cap, and Navigator V GPS. I also had a theft tracker installed which automatically contacts a call centre (and subsequently  provides the location of the bike to the police) if the bike is moved more than a few feet while the ignition is switched off. To come will be a cardan shaft crash protector and side stand foot enlarger. I’m also considering the Touratech crash bar extenders (pictured below) which provide more protection for the (no doubt expensive) aluminium fuel tank.


Due to an excruciatingly painful pinched nerve in my back, I only rode the bike 6 miles in London so I don’t have a lot to say quite yet—a bank holiday weekend is coming up and I intend to make the most of it so will have more to say soon.

First impressions—it is much more refined than my previous 1200. The taller suspension is softer and more fluid, the clutch engagement is gentler, the gearbox is in another league, the gear shift assist pro function is lighter, and even the new, tight engine feels a little bit smoother. It combines what I consider the best parts of my previous F800GS and R1200GS.

More soon!

18 May 2016

Saying goodbye (for now)


As I prepare to say goodbye to my beloved F800GS (which I own) and my R1200GS (which I lease) I thought it would be a good time to reflect.

Like any models of bikes (or cars, televisions, anything) you’ll have ranters and ravers—have a read through the forums and you’d be put off from any bike (take the whingers with a pinch of salt)—but I’m not here to whinge, just talk about my experience with these two models.

I’ll say straight away, one experience was exceptional and the other broadly positive—neither ever left me stranded and both gave me many miles of motorbiking pleasure. Both were bolted together flawlessly, and while neither could be considered ‘pretty’, their angular and functional styling certainly couldn’t be confused for anything other than BMW.

Read on for my thoughts on each and feel free to leave me comments at the end of this post.




F800GS Trophy (2012 model)



I bought this bike brand new in March 2012, optioned with ABS, heated grips, trip computer, factory alarm and LED indicators. Accessories included the ubiquitous aluminium panniers, touring windscreen and wind deflectors.

I passed on the (feeble-looking) BMW engine guards as they didn’t seem good value to me and instead went aftermarket with the excellent Adventure Spec crash bars—£100 less than BMW’s offering while providing full protection for the engine and plastic bits.

After my first longish trip on the bike—during which my TomTom Rider drank water and promptly gave up the ghost somewhere in Belgium, forcing me to actually read road signs, a long lost art—I bought a BMW Navigator IV and a ‘comfort’ seat to replace the uncomfortable stock plank.

What went wrong

Under warranty, the stay-cable for the top box (a roughly £2 part) which pulled out from the crimped end, and the steering head bearings at the 6,000 mile service (I didn’t notice any issue, the dealership just went ahead and changed it). One recall for the side stand switch. I killed the chain by over-cleaning it (as a result I stopped using harsh chain cleaners and started using WD-40 as a cleaner instead)—the only unexpected cost on the bike at about £150 installed by BMW at the 6,000 mile service. The stock battery lasted 3 years before it began to struggle when starting the bike on cold mornings.

Quirks

The F800GS chews through rear brake pads—fortunately they are only about £20 and take 10 minutes to replace at home with only a screwdriver, a pair of pliers and a mallet. This reflects my tendency to ‘level’ the bike during braking by using the rear heavily, as the soft suspension likes to dive at the front. Also, the windscreen doesn’t offer much wind protection—even the taller, optional touring screen is rather turbulent at higher speeds. Finally, the ABS system (its technology dating back to 2008) can sometimes be eager to activate when riding over lateral breaks in the tarmac—not an issue if you expect it, but can catch the uninitiated by surprise.

Riding

After 14,000 miles the engine still runs like new. I’ve never found the oil level low, and it consistently got 60 mpg 2-up and fully loaded on longer journeys—an incredible number for such a large (and large engined) bike on semi-knobbly tyres and with brick-shaped panniers. Fuel metering is the smoothest of any bike I’ve ridden (although the 1200 matches it when in ‘rain’ mode)—this is electronic fuel injection tuned to perfection.

The parallel twin won’t excite anyone—it goes about its job with a functional, Germanic drone and, with a virtually flat torque curve, never gets peaky. It pulls strongly from any speed in virtually any gear, consistently and smoothly—perfect for this type of bike. Off road it’s happy to creep along with no grumbling from the clutch or gearbox. Speaking of which, the gearbox is possibly one of BMW’s best, with smooth, positive engagement—I’ve never had difficulty finding neutral (unlike the R1200GS) and 1st gear engages from neutral with virtually no clunk.

Conclusion

I won’t lie—I am very attached to this bike and sad to send it off to a new home. It has given me more than four years of exceptionally reliable enjoyment including two trips to the continent, one of which involved a snowstorm in Alps in late June. Servicing from BMW is relatively inexpensive, approximately half of what I used to pay Honda for my last bike, and the service interval is every 6,000 miles.

What I will miss most is its consistency—pick-a-gear-and-go attitude, soft and smooth ride, excellent economy, and its gentle, forgiving nature both on road and off. Some might consider this description a bit boring, but I would say calming. And it has a hidden hooligan side—perfectly happy to ride over kerbs, swallow speed humps at full speed and occasionally surprise sport bikes with the ease it can cut through a curvy road.

The F800GS might just be BMW’s most underrated bike.


R1200GS TE (2014 model)




I leased this bike in September 2013—it was among the first of the 2014 model year build which included a steering dampener and the required wiring for the gear shift assist pro system (and, oddly, different crash bars due to a slight change to the frame). As the TE model, it came with virtually all options—I added the factory alarm and cross spoke wheels. BMW accessories included crash bars, Vario panniers and auxiliary LED lamps.

When the bike was six months old, BMW released the gear shift assist pro unit for retrofit on qualifying models and mine was the first in the UK to be fitted with the system. In fact, my post about this system is by far the most read post on this blog with 9,649 views to date!

What went wrong

When the bike was in for its first service, the dealership performed a recall for the side stand switch (clearly BMW had a bad batch, as my F800GS had a similar recall). At this service they also replaced the rear brake pads with new ones composed of a different material. The only other warranty repair occurred while it was in for service in September 2015—the dealership felt the clutch wasn’t disengaging correctly and decided to replace it at no cost to me. Servicing was about 30% more expensive than the F800GS (but still about 35% less than my previous Honda).

It should be noted that the 2013/14 models were the first boxer models to use integrated gearboxes and I believe there were teething problems which didn’t get worked out until the 2015 models—courtesy bikes I’ve ridden from that year onwards do feel noticeably smoother when engaging 1st gear while stopped, and also when changing gears.

Quirks

Engaging 1st gear while stopped (at a traffic light, for example) clunks—like, in a way a bike at this price point should not clunk. Changing up through the gears is also clunky up to 3rd gear. This would have bothered me a lot more if I didn’t have the gear shift assist pro device fitted which means the only times you generally need to use the clutch is when coming to a full stop or starting off—I normally leave it in 1st gear while stopped (fortunately the clutch lever is lighter than on some 125cc bikes I’ve ridden—thrust bearings be damned) so I don’t have to hear the clunk. As mentioned above, the clutch was replaced under warranty but this made little to no improvement—and indeed other 1200s I’ve ridden from 2013/14 model years behaved the same. Perhaps related, this bike also has an almost magnetic propensity, at times, to snap into 1st or 2nd gear when attempting to select neutral.

One other minor thing which resolved itself once the bike had a few miles on the clock was a tick occasionally at idle from the cylinder decompression device—not a functional issue, more an aesthetic one. The device operates via centrifugal force below about 1,100 rpm to slightly open two of the valves to reduce pressure in the cylinders—this allows the use of a smaller, lighter battery since less torque is required when starting the engine. If the computer allows the idle to drop below this threshold, a tick is heard, although this has no consequence to the running of the engine. It’s possible the resolution was actually via a software update during servicing to prevent the idle from falling below the threshold, but this is pure speculation—in any case, I can’t remember the last time I heard this.

Riding

I’ve covered the clunking already. Other than this, the drivetrain on the bike is absolutely wonderful—most of the time no more than 4,000 rpm is required for more than sufficient performance. The bike is coarser—maybe ‘rawer’ is a better description—than the F800GS, but always smooth and fluid, with virtually no driveline shunt when coming on and off the throttle at low speeds. It revs instantly and has near-superbike acceleration up to 70 mph, with very strong, rapid performance above this speed, as experienced on unrestricted sections of autobahn last time I was in Germany.

When you open up this bike it truly excites—the engine becomes a beast and sounds amazing in the upper range, while never feeling abused or overworked. It has a very Jekyll and Hyde personality. Also, while previous air- and air/oil-cooled boxer engines traditionally consumed a non-trivial amount oil (due to relaxed internal tolerances to accommodate the expansion related to the greater heat range associated with these types of cooling), the water-cooled boxer doesn’t seem to use a drop—the oil level never fell between services in the 10,500 miles I had this bike.

I loved the (virtually) maintenance-free drive shaft which made the bike particularly easy to clean. The gear shift assist pro device—in my opinion a must-have for this bike—bypassed the clunking issues by enabling both upshifts and downshifts using just the gear lever. It cuts the power for a brief instant and rev matches the engine electronically, negating the need to use the clutch in most circumstances.

The electronics worked as advertised—never interfering unduly but always there to keep you from going one step too far. This is an easy bike to lift a front wheel in any of the first three gears, particularly if you have the weight of a pillion and/or luggage over the rear wheel—the anti-wheelie function of the traction control gently eases back the power to keep things civilised.

One feature worth mentioning is the Enduro mode—designed for riding off road (nothing overly technical, though) with 80/20 tyres like the stock Michelin Anakee 3s. It calibrates the ABS to stop effectively on loose surfaces and adjusts the traction control to allow just enough wheel-spin to turn without threatening to throw the rider into the bushes at the first corner. Riding through deep mud once, I discovered it also has a built-in ‘rocking’ function activated by holding the throttle fully open—this results in the computer taking over and cycling between 2,000 and 4,000 rpm to gently ease the bike out of the muck, and this worked much more effectively than it had any right to with entirely inappropriate tyres for the conditions.

Finally, the semi-active suspension could not be faulted—being able to set the preload at the touch of a button was handy, but the way it could firmly but smoothly even out a road was witchcraft. This, combined with the geometry of BMW’s telelever front and paralever rear suspension, meant the bike always stayed close to level—when braking or accelerating, riding alone or fully loaded. My only comment is that it could have done with a bit more suspension travel—something the Adventure version addresses, of course.

Conclusion

There are many things I loved about this bike—its touring ability, comfort, engine, flawless gear shift assist pro function, among the best lighting I’ve experienced on any motorbike (or car) with its full LED lighting, its general dynamics, and its notable fuel consumption (51 mpg 2-up and fully loaded on longer journeys). Yes, the clunky gear engagement was a bit of a let-down, but this has been resolved on 2015 and newer models—although even these are not quite F800GS-smooth.

But... I never quite bonded with this bike. I can’t really put my finger on it, but I don’t feel overly sad to see it go. Maybe it was the clunking spoiling what was otherwise a virtually flawless bike, or maybe it was because I developed trust issues with it following the axle grease incident in the Czech Republic a couple years ago... I don’t know.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t recommend this bike—it’s BMW’s best selling model for good reason. And with the clunking sorted in later model years, it is an incredibly sorted and complete bike, but I would suggest that someone considering one keep an open mind and also test ride an F800GS.


What’s next?


For now, I’ll just say... stay tuned!

14 May 2016

Emergency stop signal lighting and bank-sensing ABS


Emergency stop signal (ESS) lighting systems have been around for a while on (generally luxury) cars in Europe for some time now—during emergency braking, equipped BMWs use flashing or ‘growing’ brake lights (displaying more LED segments) on their cars, Volvo uses brake lights which glow brighter, Mercedes-Benz use flashing brake lights, and VW Group activates the hazard lights along with the brake lights. The idea is to grab the attention of drivers in following vehicles and enable them to recognise emergency braking situations.

The motorcycle market tends to be slow to keep up with safety innovations—BMW started offering ABS brakes on models in 1988 as an option on certain models with Honda and Yamaha following in 1992. In 2013 BMW made ABS standard on all bikes in their range, the first (and I believe only) manufacturer to date to do so. This has changed (in Europe) now, however, with EU legislation mandating standard ABS on all bikes over 125cc from the 2016 model year.

But while some manufacturers are scrambling to update models never designed to accommodate ABS in order to meet this new legislation, others have been innovating—namely KTM in partnership with Bosch launching the first bank-sensing ABS system in 2013, which takes into account how much the bike is leaning and modulates the ABS to prevent sudden stand-up (potentially resulting in the rider going straight and off the road) or low-sides (where the bike comes out from under the rider) when braking hard in corners. BMW released their version for the S1000RR sport bike the following year, using the same hardware but with their own software. As of the 2016 model year, this system is available on six different models in their range including the R1200GS, and somewhat predictably named ABS Pro (BMW loves to call everything Pro, Dynamic or Active, after all)—ABS Pro also features ESS lighting.

A step in the right direction for sure, but now let’s get the Connected Ride system, laser light technology and heads-up display helmet on the market!

I missed the press release from last July, which has a full description of the system. A video follows.


BMW Motorrad introduces dynamic brake light. Achieving an even higher level of safety by improving brake light warning function. ABS Pro incl. dynamic brake light available for six models from model year 2016.



3 Jul 2015 Press Release  

Munich. Braking and being seen by the traffic behind is of essential importance for motorcycle riders. That is why BMW Motorrad has developed the dynamic brake light as a component of the Strategy “Safety 360°”. It can warn drivers of following vehicles even better about when the motorcycle in front of them is braking.

This additional brake light function, which is still limited to the EU/ECE area, warns following traffic in two stages when the motorcycle in front brakes hard or makes an emergency braking manoeuvre. Stage one is activated when the motorcycle decelerates from speeds above 50 km/h. In this case the brake light flashes with a frequency of 5 Hz. As the motorcycle approaches standstill (<14 km/h), the hazard warning flashers are also turned on in the second stage. These remain turned on until the motorcycle accelerates again to a minimum speed of 20 km/h.

ABS Pro incl. dynamic brake light available for six models from model year 2016.


The dynamic brake light is available as an option ex works in conjunction with ABS Pro (in conjunction with the option “Ride Modes Pro”) from model year 2016 for the models R 1200 GS, R 1200 GS Adventure and S 1000 XR. The K 1600 GT, GTL and GTL Exclusive luxury tourers will feature this safety feature as standard from model year 2016 - as the ideal supplement to ABS Pro.

Compared to conventional ABS, ABS Pro goes a step further offering increased safety when braking in bends by allowing ABS-supported braking when banking. Here, ABS Pro prevents the wheels from locking even when the brakes are applied quickly; this reduces abrupt changes in steering force on shock-braking manoeuvres and stops the motorcycle from rearing up unintentionally. The benefits of ABS Pro to the rider are a sensitive response and a high level of brake and ride stability together with the best possible deceleration on bends.



- ends -


See the system in action:

1 Apr 2016

GS Survival Tool


Ok this one almost had me going—at least raised my eyebrows. Those Germans and their dry humour...

BMW Motorrad presents the BMW GS Survival Tool. Ride on where others have long since given up.


1 Apr 2016 Press Release 

Munich. All motorcyclist adventurers are familiar with the challenges: a slip-up out in the bush causes a technical failure - the bike is out of action, the nearest garage is hundreds of miles away and there’s no phone signal. Normally this would mean that the long-planned motorcycle adventure was over.

In view of the constantly growing desire for adventure among BMW GS riders, BMW Motorrad assembled a group of experienced GS motorcyclists to look into this issue and has now developed a special new tool for the BMW GS models R 1200 GS and R 1200 GS Adventure which even enables complex repairs and replication of spare parts out in the field: the BMW GS Survival Tool.

This special device was developed based on a historical precursor used by many mechanics in Bavaria back in the early 20th century: the so-called axe-hammer pliers. Like its classic role model, the BMW GS Survival Tool possesses unique multifunctional qualities: it can be used as an axe, a hammer, a pair of pliers, a knife, a screwdriver and a saw.

The GS Survival Tool was refined and perfected in the course of numerous endurance tests carried out by BMW engineers in some of the world’s most remote and barren regions. Many a fantastic motorcycling adventure would have been brought to a premature finish had it not been for this multifunctional device.

The product’s final test came at the 2016 International GS Trophy Southeast Asia from February 26th to March 5th 2016 in Thailand. Here the universal tool demonstrated its capabilities on numerous occasions – though only for hammering in tent pegs and opening bottles and cans using the fully integrated opener. In spite of the very extreme conditions, there was no need for spare parts to be replicated for the motorcycles.

The BMW GS Survival Tool is forged from high-quality chrome molybdenum steel and mechanically processed. As a weight-saving measure, however, the shaft is made of aluminium and plastic. Alternatively, the BMW GS Survival Tool Pro is available in solid titanium and there is also an extremely handy version made of titanium and carbon fibre - the BMW GS Survival Tool HP. Both variants bear a lasered GS inscription.

Prices (RRP) including 19% VAT for Germany:
BMW GS Survival Tool: €389.00
BMW GS Survival Tool Pro: €1,479.00
BMW GS Survival Tool HP: €1,699.00

The price includes the high-quality BMW toolkit service set and a multilingual construction manual for parts made of renewable raw materials.

Preparations are already underway to make a Survival Tool that is specially adapted to the mid-range enduro models BMW F 800 GS and F 800 GS Adventure.



- ends -


BMW has had a long tradition for April Fool’s Day press releases and of course this year was no exception. I’m curious how many people actually enquired about such a device!

30 Jul 2015

Wales... yet again!


It seems I can’t get away from Wales this year! When my best mate said he wanted to take a holiday away from the Italian summer heat we both agreed a five-day tour of Wales was just the ticket—two nights in Brecon and and two in Snowdonia in Northern Wales.

Due to its aluminium panniers, greater payload capacity and more versatile 50/50 tyres, my F800GS was the perfect machine for the job. Fed arrived in the evening on 24 July and by 10:30pm we’d fully packed everything in the bike, ready to set off first thing the next morning—in fact everything fit within the panniers save for pillows and extra blankets (a little luxury goes a long way) which easily fit in my waterproof Overboard bags strapped onto the panniers, and paperwork/electronics in the tank bag. Total weight, including us and our gear came in at 20 kg below the payload capacity of the bike, which meant the bike felt light on its feet, and, more importantly, was safe throughout the trip—an overloaded bike is not a happy bike!

I’ve previously said pretty much all there is to say about motorbiking in Wales—that is, I absolutely love the beautiful scenery combined with very little traffic—so I will let the photos tell the story.

Fed relaxes next to a stream in the Brecon Beacons

Stream in the Breacon Beacons

On the dales

Set up and ready for a sleep!

Doesn’t look steep... was very steep

On the way up to Llyn y Fan Fach—rain wouldn’t stop!

View from Dinefwr Castle

Dinefwr Castle

Dinefwr Castle

Morning coffee

Ready to set off to Snowdonia!

Stream near Nantmor

Stream near Nantmor

B&B near Nantmor

Snowdon Base Camp

Dock overlooking Llyn Cwellyn

All set up at Snowdon Base Camp

More grey skies but the F800GS is ready as always

Pub dinner at the Cwellyn Arms—leg of lamb, so delicious!

Fed’s dinner at the Cwellyn Arms—pork belly with red cabbage

Holy Trinity Church, Penrhyndeudraeth

Holy Trinity Church, Penrhyndeudraeth

View from restaurant in Harlech

Beach near Llandanwg

Road towards Nantlle

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch
Rail Station—and this is me saying it...

Finally some sun at Snowdon Base Camp!

Preparing potato and leek soup

Llyn Cwellyn at sunset

Llyn Cwellyn at sunset

A4086 towards Capel Curig—the mountains won’t shame the
Rockies but these are among the largest in the UK

One last stop at the Land Rover factory in Solihull on the way home