BMW F800GS Rocks Moab - Stoned To The Bone

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Jonathan Beck

They had me lashed into a full-house BMW factory gig, double-secret safety-checked and fully catered from soup to nuts to deep-chested Bavarian doppelbock. With legitimate staffers booked solid on exciting new bikes, there wasn't a bench warmer in sight to post-pre-review the pre-ridden F800GS already being delivered to buyers all over the country. Editor Catterson had gone deep and bounced off the back of his Rolodex by the time I emailed him, whining about imaginary back pay from 2006, when inspiration hit: "Hey, Mikey...that dumb bastard'll ride anything!"

It was the perfect scam. Without the least qualification, I would saddle up on Other People's Motorcycles to seek my fortune among the uranium fields in borrowed duds. Nothing left to do but pull on my Under Armour and run down to Laughing Buddha to have my blood type, social security number and the letters "ADV" tattooed onto my taint where the flames reach last...

Live to pose, pose to work.

"Open up my email and see if you can pull out any phone numbers," I barked into my scratch-fogged flip phone.

"Isn't there a sign or something?" Pretty Wife asked reasonably.

"There's a 40-foot limo out front. That can't be right."

Turned out the ber-stretch Lincoln was in fact occupied by various moto and men's mag journos, insouciantly sprawled across pale-blue leather under twinkling starlit ceiling mirrors in the kind of sordid tableaux that constitutes a prom queen's night terrors in full living color.

One of my Bic Round Stics (mark of the working professional) had burst like a second-hand condom during the flight, tattooing my carry-on with smeary, blue-black teardrops. I wiped an ink-sticky palm across my threadbare jeans, stuck it out and shook the hand of the guy closest to the door.

"Jack Lewis, (mumble)cyclist," I growled.

The gig was on.

BMW doesn't fart around on these junkets. This is well known. But I had no conception of just how pampered adventure riding could be. Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa is a rustic cattle spread in that peculiarly Western idiom of dulcet cosseting overlaid by the thinnest scrim of rough-hewn aesthetics. I smiled smugly and stopped worrying about gnarly technical bits.

Maybe I shouldn't have.

Fresh off the assembly line, vertical-twin GSs were sprinkled liberally around the ranch, including a pair silhouetted against the Colorado River in a gentle wash of color-gelled spotlights. Since the Colorado itself curled conveniently past a hosted bar, I was several Dead Horse Ambers to the good when we stumbled in to receive a highly detailed product briefing by several highly informed factory sources.

A striking German girl (we'll call her Liesl) exhorted us all toward enthusiastic consumption of BMW apparel items. Deep-brown eyes and an enchanting Bavarian lilt made Liesl marvelously persuasive. Actually, BMW makes bitchin' bike threads, and you should invest in a closetsful of them-immediately, please, as your loyal scribe would like to go adventuring again soon.

Moments later, Liesl's voice cracked slightly. Fired by lightning journalistic instincts, 20 arms lunged for iced pitchers, but I was first to the pretty girl.

It was the last time I'd be first to anything on that trip.

BMW Motorenkultur is a curious phenomenon, luxury crossed with purposeful seriousness and informed by a traditional Protestant work ethic-not the one where Jesus is your drinking buddy, but the one where God blesses the gifted and industrious. Chow call was 0700; safety briefing 0745; kickstands up and locked by 0815.

I stumbled out to the bike burdened by certain regrets. Liesl had joined me at dinner, fending off my clumsy jokes with soft murmurs of the sensuous satisfactions offered only by "BMW apparels." As the only two participants who understood approximately squat about off-road riding, we giggled over cabernet sauvignon until well past the dessert course. (Note to self: Espresso ice cream has real espresso in it.)

Though I stumbled out to purge my sins under the coal-black purity of a Utah night, Liesl followed at my elbow all the way back to the suite bunkhouse, lighting our way with luminous eyes. Keeping a white-knuckle grip on my fig leaf of journalistic integrity, I took from Liesl only test pairs of GS gloves and Boxer goggles. You have to draw the line somewhere.

By morning, the only thing I could remember to regret were all those Dead Horses beating me.

Liesl sensibly opted to drive the truck.

We rode motorcycles, too.

We happy few were split into two groups: the Blue Group and the Kick Jack's Ass group. Does it need pointing out that these guys can really ride?

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.

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.

I've seen fractures, experienced them, treated them, precipitated them and walked on them. I let the dust clouds ahead stretch their lead.

Late in the morning, just around a fast uphill sweeper along a perfectly packed dirt road, nirvana politely introduced itself. Within 150 steep yards, the terrain transitioned from rocky desert to semi-arid alpine territory and we plunged broadslide into a whispering boulevard of quaking aspens, quietly chiming their breeze-stirred leaves, bright as the yellow front fender of my bike.

If there are finer ways to squander hours or days than this, I have not found them.

Following our spirited descent from the stone ridges of Utah onto the high plains of Colorado, lunch was served on brilliant linen at the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum. Chefs flourished toques over unpronounceable savories as our tanks were topped off and brake calipers torqued al dente by preventive maintenance pixies in a flawlessly dichotomous juxtaposition of hard riding and soft living. (Note to self: Never let them know I could be bought much cheaper than this.)

Falling into my chair, I took a breather, another 800 mg of ibuprofen and stock of the situation.

Lessons learned: If you're gonna ride a long adventure loop in the desert, best be a skilled off-roader or hard as a SAPI plate-not neither. The first question you should ask yourself is, "Self, can you stand up on the pegs for 150 miles?" If the answer isn't well north of "Maybe," well...you should probably go anyway, but in the full knowledge that you'll get your butt kicked firmly and continuously.

My buckdancer's choice was to stand and immolate my knees like beeswax candles, or sit and pound my can. Nothing new there: Sore knees and pounded asses are well-documented risks of freelancing.

After a lingering glance at the world's sexiest cars-like Sophia Loren, Auburn Speedsters never go out of style-we remounted and snarled out past a parade-ground review of Aston Martins and Fort GT coupes.

What a truly good badlands bike this is. We fled fluid and fast across range country, tearing through corners on silky crescendos of torque. I can't report average speed or fuel consumption, as the bottoms of my bifocals fuzzed out the clever LCD menus of the optional computer. Besides, my 13-year-old son wasn't there to explain the functions.

The engine is easier to grok. Like a pre-burst-controlled M16, the saddletwin opens up smooth and cycles faster and faster if you hold the trigger down. Back in the pre-Corinthian era when I rode dirtbikes, they didn't weigh a quarter-ton or start with a button or have radiators hung from the front-and they damn sure didn't make 85 horsepower.

Just as post-lunch drowsiness loomed, I skittered through a corner and blasted onto a veritable esplanade lined with more glorious golden aspens. Bursting into song seemed right, but it turns out off-road helmets don't have the lovely resonance of full-face street lids. Also, high-speed rain hurts your face. Who knew?

Prior to this trip, I was unaware that BMW engineers could fine-tune the weather. The rain cooled me down, woke me up and dampened the dirty bits just enough to improve traction. Joseph Smith smiled as we reverenced the Church of Latter Day Supercrossers.

By this point, I was sitting most of the time. On open dirt roads, the tall, flat seat lets you slide up close enough to bejewel the fore-mounted air/battery box, stick down an outrigger boot, cross up the bike and flat-track it through the sweepers. That's the king of fun.

There may be no bad motorcycles, but that doesn't prevent there being some very good motorcycles. The hornet-yellow (actually Sunset Yellow) GS gave me confidence to run hard on unknown roads with changing surfaces. It is a very good motorcycle.

A word about Beemer-style breaks: We're not talking piss-warm Gatorade from the fanny pack-notwithstanding the fine fanny pack that showed up in my room. Pouty umbrella girls princess-waved over the bounty spread before us: iced energy drinks, 40 brands of upscale protein bars and fistfuls of handy painkiller packs. Wander off into the weeds and they chased you down with a bathroom trailer featuring hot and cold running everything. Like a homeless guy at the King's Table buffet, I furtively tucked a couple of spare lens wipes into my jacket.

Rested, ready and back on the road, I assessed the character of our adventure versus the suitability of the bike. How would an F800GS do in the middle of an African savannah without magic maintenance fairies, goggle nurses and Class A restrooms in hot pursuit?

Pretty well, I'd guess. The nature of the F800GS is to stay out of your fun-havin' way. About a hundred pounds dropped away each time I let out the clutch and it steered confidently through the dirt-with one exception.

In a naked attempt to make me feel at home and suitably annoyed, some wiseass imported hundreds of tons of Iraqi moon dust, the sifted flour of steering alarm. Hearkening to faint, 28-year-old muscle memory, I set the GS into corners with its handlebar and steered it out on the rear tire. But that lunar silt was a different story, so loose and greasy that neither end hooked into control. The only hope was to lean back, twist its neck and supplicate Buddha with all the desperate sincerity my panicked heart could fake.

Gas on, brains off, indeed.

My squawk list was short. The shock, innocent of linkage, could use more rebound damping. I wondered if Ohlins would be optional.

Curiously heavy, jutting rear peg risers are welded to the frame so you can't unbolt them.

Mid-morning, I experienced an odd fueling gurgle for about six minutes. Could have been a slurp of water in the gas or a panicky throttle hand. The subseat fuel tank's sticker demands high-test, but if you need to ride through Somalia (or Newark), the bike's gas-huffing computer sports oenophilic olfactory judgment, allowing the bike to drink Third World gas at the cost of a squib less horsepower.

Worst gripe: The 800's stock skid plate is a little plastic number by Frederick's of Hollywood. It would have a tough time supporting the bike and rider's full weight dropping onto a sharp rock. It also doesn't wrap up the front of the engine. One writer took a rock through his oil/water heat exchanger-an inch above the leading edge of his skid plate. For the record, that bike quit steaming and finished out the day in a feat of magical self-healing. I'd still upgrade to the optional aluminum armor.

As an aside, the swingarm is a pretty thing, made lighter than the Afrika Korps boxer R1200GS through the wonders of shaftectomy. Its countershaft sprocket aligns with the swingarm pivot. Perhaps BMW will be the outfit to successfully patent this notion.

What is good? The transmission is good. I've owned three German bikes and ridden dozens, and this is the first BMW that shifts like buttered silk even through my bolted-up kluge of an ankle. It felt Japanese enough to send shivers of Axis worry down my padded spine.

The riding position is variable and good. Better riders griped about the plastic wings forward of the seat, but when standing I was mostly too scared to notice them.

Spiffy pegs have rubber street tops that pop off, exposing useful croc teeth.

The engine is very, very good. An F800ST mill tipped up nearly vertical, it has a dummy piston to ensure that its agreeable snarl won't translate to Magic Fingers grip vibes. Torque and power claims of 61 lb.-ft. at 5750 rpm and 85 bhp at 7500 rpm make for a modestly exciting streetbike and a king-hell off-road snorter.

The best feature is BMW's heretofore-unannounced Autopilot Rider Replacement(tm) (you read it first in Motorcyclist), which trumps ABS and traction control as a robo-gestalt solution for rider safety.

Mid-afternoon, I overcooked a downhill, off-camber, decreasing-radius left-hander. Too sexy for my skill set, I was coming in hot when the surface transitioned inconveniently to moon dust and I apprehended for the 46th time that day that what you can see can hurt you. And was about to. Poking out a boot, I was levering at the handlebar like a pellet-crazed rat when I slid past the apex and straight across the bow of an onrushing Dodge Ram pickup.

Calmly opting for panic, I segued nimbly into a nasty high-side. By the time I finished wincing at imminent traumatic amputations, I was immersed in a bar-banging tankslapper and headed for the rocks.

What happened next is a mystery.

I came to my senses rolling gently along the ditch bottom. A little burp of throttle and off I went, shaking my head. Near as I can tell, I crashed two or three times right then and there, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bike just refused to cash the check.

If BMWs can do that, maybe they don't need skid plates at all.

Even on pavement, the GS felt as relentlessly unstoppable as a Special Forces expense claim. Tipping it into 90-mph paved sweepers resulted only in a tiny hunting sensation as the front knobby squirmed in protest. A short straight saw 115 very blustery mph indicated. Although there's a sit-up sweet spot of around 70 per, road wind made me want to sample the accessory touring windscreen. Stout brakes and modest weight would make a GS on knobless tires a fairly fierce road-assault weapon.

Factory reps gave no hint of supermoto wheels. That's not this bike's mission brief. A gender-bender bike with the 800's motorvation and an upgraded "650" chassis might star in the hack-and-squirt role, but this horse stands 16 hands high for gazing over the top of your commute, all the way to a distant horizon.

Is it the mount for me? I don't know. The GS was sumptuous through every dirty inch, but I paid for my fun on straight paved sections as my spine, momentarily undistracted by survival concerns, peevishly outlined my every episode of foolish living. Hard to say how that would play out in town and, let's face it, I won't spend much time haring around Moab. Besides, claimed wet weight is only 14 lbs. less than my R1200S streetbike!

But the F800GS is almost 50 lbs. lighter than its big dual-sport brother-and about 200 lbs. narrower. If the mid-F is a two-wheeled jeep, the R1200GS is a Land Rover station wagon-and the ginorphantine R1200GS Adventure is a Unimog.

Make no mistake, you can strap coffin-sized panniers to a used F650GS single-washing machine motor and all-and flog the thing to Prudhoe Bay and back. With a team of mules and a modest DoD grant, you could also wrestle an R1200GSA up the Rubicon Trail, although I'd hate to watch.

An F800GS would make those things fun.

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