Adventure Bikes | ADV 4 Ways

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

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Karel Kramer

WORDS: Tim Carrithers
BMW R1200GS Adventure
Bigger and Better, 97 Percent of the Time

An obedient BMW PR droid once told me that riding a big GS means you’re never on the wrong bike. Never say never. But 97 percent of the time, that’s the truth. Make peace with the fact that it’s big enough to generate gravity and weighs as much as a mature Right Whale’s testicles. The Adventure can do things Newton’s laws of motion and good sense say it can’t.

Patterned after the graceful, flowing aesthetic of an offshore oil rig, this XXL masterpiece of functional design covers 340 miles between fuel stops—at least 100 more than the average overstuffed luxury-touring barge. And for anyone with enough inseam or a stepladder, the GS is just as comfortable. It’s not the obvious choice for track days. Not wearing Continental Twinduro quasi-knobbies anyway: mandatory for semi-gnarly off-road sections and not half-bad on the street. Shod with relatively appropriate rubber, it’s capable of horrifying velocities on twisty pavement. Especially the crumbling, cratered kind, long since abandoned by law enforcement and road-repair crews. Come Monday morning, it’s like rolling to work in a 75-ton Königstiger tank. People get out of your way.

This is Gelände/Strasse: German for having it all, most of the time. Anything smaller is just a more accessible rung on the ladder to an 1170cc, horizontally opposed destination. They’re cute, and plenty good enough if you can’t deal with The Real Deal for some reason. Some are very nice. Nicer for that 3 percent of the ride where riding a motorcycle slightly smaller than one of Jupiter’s moons seems like a monumentally big mistake

At 7700 feet of elevation on a 95-degree day, halfway up a loose, narrow, boulder-strewn climb pioneered by a sadistic mountain goat with no sense of direction, it becomes increasingly clear that I’m on the wrong bike. Only a Husqvarna TE449 strapped to the rack could’ve made it right. Barring that, maintain just enough momentum to traverse scree-covered inclines without kissing nearby boulders too hard and Das Boot does better than Isaac Newton or self-preservation might predict.

Speed is not your friend here. Not on the two-wheeled sequel to Battlestar Galactica. Throttle/clutch control is, along with choosing the sort of line that maintains precious forward motion. Starting off after stalling leaves you in a psychological/physiological hole, along with that small meteor crater the rear wheel buried itself in. And don’t even think about tipping over unless you can right a capsized refrigerator full of Spaten lager on the side of a mountain in mid-summer heat. Alone.

A standard R1200GS might have been enough. The Adventure is bigger, heavier and, at $20,495, at least a couple grand more expensive, making it too much for most people most of the time. That’s how it looked to me before this trip. But after dealing with everything from four lanes of traffic-choked San Diego Freeway to black-diamond single-track and everything in between, the maximum GS is just about right. Stout crash bars, cross-spoke wire wheels and that 8.7-gallon gas tank can make the difference between riding out of the wilderness and being hauled out in the bed of a sympathetic 4x4. Longer electronically controlled suspension travel, a lower low gear and sportier steering geometry just might keep you from tipping over in the first place.

It all adds up to a motorcycle that crushes the three flavors of GS Lite that wouldn’t exist without the Boxer’s 31 years of showroom success. So? No motorcycle is perfect for everybody everywhere all the time, but as far as I’m concerned, this one comes closer than anything else 97 percent of the time.

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