Goat Riders in the Sky: BMW R1200GS vs. Ducati Multistrada 1200S

MC Comparison

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing

The 2010 twin-cam Boxer feels stronger below 5500 rpm and more willing to rev from idle to the new 8500-rpm redline. Those extra pounds disappear with speed, but come back again when second-gear corners outnumber the straight bits out here on Cameron Canyon Road. Dialed up toward the sportiest of its nine pavement settings, the Telelever fork gives up mid-corner feedback in favor of astonishing stability, which comes in handy when you need to drop a lot of speed in a hurry for some diabolically tight corner. Integral linked brakes and optional ABS never get in the way when you carry a little too much momentum to the apex and need a whiff of rear brake to calm things down.

We're still an hour away from the air conditioning, cold beer, satellite TV and comfy beds waiting at Goat's Sky Ranch (see sidebar on page 59), but there's more than enough daylight left for a little creative high-desert meandering. Even within the intrinsic limits of cast wheels, glorified street tires and self-preservation, the GS is 150 percent more fun when crumbling pavement gives way to sandy desert two-track. More linear power and brakes along with a more cooperative chassis make all the difference. The Multistrada's ergonomics are better suited to sitting down than standing up, and those Pirellis struggle for grip in the loose stuff.

A touchy throttle and brakes along with a pavement-spec 17-inch front wheel make the Ducati considerably less forgiving on any surface resembling dirt. Switching to Enduro mode slows down throttle response enough to let the rear tire find something to hold onto, but the Italian's traction-control system is too heavy-handed in the dirt. Both bikes' systems overreact to any off-road wheelspin, taking away too much power too quickly. And while street-biased tires let you tiptoe through the mildly rough terrain in low gear, a talented/lucky rider can get away with more than that on the BMW. Push your luck any distance into second gear and the Ducati's lighter front end will drift wide of its appointed line or lose interest in the dirt altogether, with painful/expensive/embarrassing results. With more power, less ground clearance and the aforementioned 17-inch rolling stock up front, the Multistrada feels like what it is out here: a streetbike. After considering said imprecision and the sort of impression various local rocks could make on the front cylinder and/or its defenseless header, we headed for Trona Road and Goat's, in that order.

Good call. After a therapeutic drone back to the sky rancho, we're sharing the deck with two cans of Coors Light and a magnificent high-desert sunset. No traffic, car horns, sirens, barking dogs or blaring stereos. It's just the wind, an optimistic cricket down toward the General Store and the two-wheeled horses we rode in on cooling in the street. Choosing the best one to ride out requires the same expenditure of mental energy as cracking another Silver Bullet.

If you really are taking the long way up, down or around, take the BMW R1200GS. The Germans have an uncanny ability to improve their best seller just in time to stay ahead of everyone else, and they've done it again this year. Yamaha's impending Super Ténéré may shuffle the do-it-all deck when it lands stateside next year, but the GS owns that particular chunk of real estate for now. Just pony up another $500 for the optional rock-resistant cross-spoke wheels, lever on some off-road-worthy rubber and have a crack at just about any part of the world with enough oxygen for internal combustion that isn't under water. As good as it is most everywhere else, the Ducati doesn't have the chassis or the bandwidth for real all-surface adventures. But don't buy more bandwidth than you need, especially considering the extra bulk that comes with it.

If asphalt slots in right there with electricity, the flush toilet and twist-off bottle caps on your list of must-have modern inventions, take the Multistrada. If all you ever wanted was a mildly domesticated 1198 capable of commuting or crossing a few state lines without stopping for regular chiropractic care, the 1200S is light-years ahead of everything but the twist-top beverage-delivery system. Advanced command/control electronics and maybe 40 percent more power make the Ducati more fun and more comfortable on more different kinds of pavement than any pure pavement scooter, regardless of its chosen niche, engine displacement or national origin.

Off the Record
Tim Carrithers
Age: 52 Height: 6'3"
Weight: 215 lbs. Inseam: 35 in.

When a late-season blizzard in the Sierra Nevada tried to turn its coming-out party into the Donner Party, the 2010 BMW R1200GS was the reason I made it home. No other motorcycle I've ridden before or since could have pressed on regardless of variously obstinate terrain and 31 flavors of atmospheric ugliness without ending up in the ditch. And thanks to those heated grips, I can still type. Once everything thawed out, the big Bavarian omnivore surpassed its predecessors just enough to make me start saving up for one. The Ducati is faster and infinitely more engaging on the street. Especially my favorite twisty bits. But the BMW is better at more different things on more different kinds of roads-or no roads at all-than any other motorcycle in the world. Bar none. It isn't light or cheap. Otherwise, the GS is just about anything you'd like it to be.

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