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

MC Comparison

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing

Typically tall Italian gearing fends off objectionable vibration anywhere near the legal limit in sixth gear. On the flip side, you can't quite light that desmodromic afterburner at 70 mph without dropping into fifth. Punch up Touring mode on the Ducati's dot-matrix display and its Öhlins fork and shock erase most surface imperfections more effectively than the GS's Telelever/Paralever setup. Scrolling through all the possible permutations for the first time is a little too much like programming some vintage Italian VCR, and the standard shock spring is too soft for anyone to the right of 185 lbs. Order up something stiffer if you're adding a passenger and packing those hard saddlebags. Otherwise? No worries. Once you've taken the time to dial it in, Ducati's on-the-fly adjustable suspension delivers a smoother ride on any sort of pavement than BMW's ESA, even if the latter is more intuitive.

Traversing the suburban sprawl between the six lanes of straight pavement and two twisty ones, the Multistrada feels 50 lbs. lighter and a foot shorter amid the clots of Sport Ubiquity Vehicles, Starbucks and strip malls designed to look like authentic imitation Mediterranean villas. The Ducati actually undercuts the Beemer by 25 lbs.-33 lbs. with both bikes wearing their factory hard bags-but the Ducati feels twice as athletic in traffic. Switching to Urban mode drops peak power to 90 horses, slowing throttle response just enough to tone down the 1198's initial attack inside the city limits. Fueling is still a bit fluffy around 3000 rpm, and a stiffer hydraulic clutch makes stop-and-go more irritating than it needs to be. Especially when the GS is fundamentally perfect on both counts, pulling like a Schwartzkopff-Löffler locomotive from 2200 rpm through its fundamentally dummkoph-proof dry clutch. Unlike its excitable Mediterranean cousin, the Boxer is willing to chug along in low gear all day. Thankfully, that won't be necessary.

Making a clean break from traffic, the Ducati switches back to Sport mode and disappears. It's much more nimble, especially on roads that never let you past third gear. Sitting bolt-upright on something superbike-fast takes some getting used to, especially if you're more accustomed to assuming the more fetal Committed Riding Position. Most everything else comes naturally. Steering is astonishingly light-enough to take some getting used to after a couple of hours on the BMW. So do the exceedingly strong brakes. The only thing you won't get used to is the evil ergonomic abomination Ducati calls a centerstand. That's standard equipment on the Touring model and crowds your left boot in every turn-bin it and buy a race stand. If you can work around that, the friendliest Testastretta twin throws down hard enough between 6000 and 9000 rpm to leave the Boxer half a dozen corners behind. Traction control and ABS remain mercifully discreet, just in case you write a check Pirelli's sticky Scorpion Trail radials can't cash.

Despite less power and more of everything else except grip from its Bridgestone Battle Wings, the BMW is capable of extraordinary backroad velocity as long as you're willing to keep it spinning around 7500 rpm, conserving precious momentum with classic, Hailwood-esque cornering lines. If you're not, there's enough punch below that to keep the Ducati from disappearing into another zip code.

Off the Record
Aaron Frank
Age: 35 Height: 5'7"
Weight: 145 lbs. Inseam: 31 in.

Ironically, my most recent Multistrada miles were on a racetrack, at Putnam Park in Indiana. The Ducati 848 EVO I was scheduled to ride was late to arrive, so I warmed up on a nearby Multistrada 1200S demo instead. Talk about "all roads" ability! Even with saddlebags, squirrelly Pirelli Scorpion Trail tires and curb-feeler footpegs, the meaga-strong Multistrada easily managed an A-group pace. Thank signores Testastretta, Brembo and Öhlins for that. So what if GS jockeys mock the road-biased Multi as a poser enduro? They'd also drink their own urine, if only Touratech sold a titanium collection device. If the majority of your adventures take place on asphalt-and especially if you're sized more like me than T.C.-the stronger, smoother, more sophisticated Multistrada 1200S is the superior choice. If graded dirt is as dirty as you plan to get, your ADV oval sticker belongs on the duck-billed Duck.

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