With airbox and battery high up behind its steering head, the F800GS snorkels like a U-boa
Incremental practice is the reasonable man's path to improvement, but it was too late for that. When last I messed around with off-road riding, I was 16 years old and it nearly took my leg. I pushed that out of my mind as we defeated our ABS (one-button actuation, no key cycling required) and tore into the first dirt section: 13 miles of loose rocks and sand crisscrossed with 22 stream fords.
I don't love water crossings just for their happy otter splash. There's an ego-securing mystery to not knowing what's under the surface. Taking my neighbor Tony's pre-trip advice ("Gas on, brains off"), I blasted through dozens of streambeds, giggling deliriously as the bike stolidly refused to slap me across creek stones like the Third World's dirty laundry.
Zipping through corners, it all started coming back to me. Though the middie GS may not be magic, it was a real au pair for the dirt, nursing me through a thousand foolish errors with my hide (if not dignity) intact. Our first section was stand-up riding, studded with rock faces offering stony shoulder berm shots to the clumsy, plus a generous serving of crevasses where we could audition for Long Way Down.
Following the faster guys underscored where dirt riding differs starkly from street riding: "Trust your tires" is right out. But it also pointed out the Great Similarity: Corner exits are fun, but if you screw the waggling pooch at the entry, you'll flop through the turn in a bar-sawing, full-body flinch. I got smoked in a hurry following those guys (did I mention they were fast?), and after blowing a dozen corner entries in a row realized they were just funnin' at their all-day pace while I was wound out to 11/10ths, redlined eyeballs jouncing on my cheek bones.
I scaled back and set myself a second-gear limit. Call me a pussy, but the bastard does 70 mph in second and peels off tire knobs like old, dry scabs. It's like some mutant superbike for the dirt.
I'd been dreading Baby Head Hill since the ride briefing made me sick to my coffee. Slick and narrow, with one decent line between precipitous ruts and red rocks the size of toddler skulls, it looked ominous enough on the screen even before our safety briefers warned, "It's way steeper than it looks in this picture."
Traversing a few rock-picking slow sections along the way revealed the engine as my friend. It may wind out to streetbike power-we sure didn't have 85-horsepower dirtbikes when I was a kid-but it also pokes along at the bottom of first gear as contentedly as a donkey browsing clover. The chassis also seemed determined not to slam me onto my lips.
Pretty pipes provide nearly as much protection as the vestigial skid plate.
Still, after one twisting, narrow climb topping at yet another stunning vista across rusted rainbow canyons, I stopped and pretended to admire the view while I caught my breath and wondered how I'd make it up Baby Head. My knees weren't in pain yet but a short stack of herniated lumbar disks telegraphed threats of lurid vengeance all the way to my feet. My bike felt tight as a virgin mosquito, but its rider module was smoked. Our ride leader pulled up next to me.
"So, how'd ya' like Baby Head Hill?"
There you have it. Some journalists are fast, I am unworthy and the bike is magic.
Not immortal, though. We weren't three miles in before Ron Lawson's 800 spit off its left brake caliper and broke the sub-fender off that side. Served him right for picking a gray bike. Everyone knows yellow is faster.
All his brake bits were found and remounting the caliper was a trailside repair-but not with the underseat toolkit. The calipers are rider-proofed with male Torx bolts.
"It's like a Torx outie," Ron mused.
Seizing my Leatherman Wave, he snubbed down his caliper bolts, ISDT-style. Brief consideration was given to tearing off the unbroken side of the subfender, but since it provides routing points for all front brake lines the consensus was to let it flap and his bike finished the day.
Those two front discs are all you need and then some. Even on the street, they're a powerful two-finger stop. Shut down ABS and you can howl to a stoppie even on knobby tires.
Second wind for your Faithful Correspondent came when the trail system opened up and we transitioned from slow-dancing with dreadnaughts to Thunderdome desert blasting. Crow hopping from rock to rock at 80 mph is fun, Bubba, an alluring scent of bad fun that'll land you in the trauma ward in a hurry-but this bike smiles like a St. Pauli Girl. No matter how coarsely you smack her broad Bavarian rump, she just serves up another round.
Cutting way too deep into one corner, I tapped the back brake and got bent badly out of shape, sawing at the bars and kicking lowside rocks out of the way until the only thing left to do was pour the coal to it and pray, but this year's Gelnde/Strae is a jet pack for adventure squids. Wanton as an ovulating stripper, she snapped her tail around and clawed furiously out of the turn, perforating the sacred Native American ground with little black scores of toasted knobby, flat-out-belly-to-the-ground and I. Slowed. Down.