Adventure Bikes | ADV 4 Ways

450, 650, 800, 1200: Which one's right for you?

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Karel Kramer

WORDS: Brian Catterson
BMW F800GS
Balanced, Not Compromised

I suspected we were in trouble when I came across a mountain biker pushing his bike uphill. Sent down the trail to scout the feasibility of our four adventure-touring motorcycles making it through, I paused at the top of a downhill so steep and nasty, it looked like a black-diamond ski run, moguls and all. I asked the cyclist how long it went on like this. “Not too much farther,” he replied. “This is the worst of it.”

I wasn’t worried myself: No matter how gnarly the way, I knew I could make it on my BMW F800GS. Yes, it’s a big bike by off-road standards, but it has that most important of all traits: balance.

Introduced in 2008, the F800GS is BMW’s olive-branch offering to those intimidated by the flagship R1200GS’s size, weight or cost. Thus instead of a German-made Boxer twin, the 800 is equipped with a parallel-twin manufactured by Rotax in Austria. Other cost-saving measures include a conventional chain drive and telescopic fork in lieu of the 1200’s Paralever and Telelever.

As one who started racing motocross as a teenager (and never stopped), I put a premium on an adventure bike’s off-road capabilities. Yet it still has to get to and from the trailhead. Dual-sport singles are great in the dirt, but are too “busy” on the street. And while a big twin like the R1200GS can go coast to coast on one breath, it’s little more than a two-wheeled Jeep in the forest. (Read: bull in a china shop.)

At 487 lbs. full of gas—100 lbs. lighter than an R1200GS Adventure and just 40 lbs. heavier than a G650GS—the 800 isn’t too, too big for the trail. Nor is it too small for the highway: While Ari and Aaron were hating life on their v-v-vibrating s-s-singles, counting the minutes till the next gas stop, I was happily tootling along at 70 mph in my mid-sized twin’s sweet spot. Range wasn’t a worry, given the 800’s 4.2 gallons of gas at 50-plus miles per, monitored via an onboard trip computer. And when the trail narrowed and Tim got that look in his eyes, afraid he might shear off one of his horizontally opposed cylinders, I just kept on keeping on, confident my 9.6 inches of ground clearance would carry me through. Granted, we didn’t tackle any AA single-track trails, and pulled an about-face once after Karel failed to make it up a steep hill on his Husqvarna TE630. Discretion … valor … yeah.

On the street, the 800 can’t be beat. Roomy, comfortable, speedy and long-legged, it made the ride to and from Big Bear a treat. Its softly sprung fork bottomed whenever I pulled hard on the double-disc brakes, but worked great for soaking up whoops. Likewise, its 21-inch front tire felt a little sketchy in the twisties, but performed markedly better than the 19s on the bigger and smaller GSs off-road, especially when outfitted with Continental’s excellent TKC-80 knobbies. I’m not saying the 800 wouldn’t have been able to do what it did on its stock Pirelli Scorpion Trail tires, but I would have been a lot less confident!

Like the 1200, the 800 makes smooth, tractable power that doesn’t overwhelm the rear tire in slippery conditions. It doesn’t have any high-tech stability or traction controls, but with just 75 horsepower on tap, it doesn’t really need it. Just remember to switch off the ABS if you tackle anything more challenging than a fireroad—and consider turning around if you come across a mountain biker pushing his bike uphill.

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