2019 BMW R1250 GS Adventure Second Ride Review

We ride through California’s remote and desolate Carrizo Plain

Adam Waheed aboard the R1250GS Adventure rides through a "super bloom" on California's Carrizo Plain
Adam Waheed aboard the 2019 BMW R1250GS Adventure rides through a "super bloom" on California's Carrizo PlainJulia LaPalme

From the sky, the San Andreas Fault looks like little more than a subtle scar. It breaks Earth’s surface on California’s remote and desolate Carrizo Plain. You’d never guess at the tension bottled up there, the propensity for violent slipping and wrenching. It’s overshadowed by the Temblor Range to the east. Untrained eyes see little more than a split rolling hill, low and soft, like miles-long earthy lips.

In the late spring, the plain is awash in native grasses and wildflowers. They grow fast, explode into color, and then, with shocking speed, become desiccated and brown under a relentless sun. All the while, a geological wonder—the bashing and slipping of two continent-size tectonic plates—is happening just underneath. It's a beautiful and sometimes frightening place. And it's crossed by roads. Wonderful, muddy roads. It's just the kind of place you'd expect to see BMW's new R1250GS.

The San Andreas Fault revealed in sandwiched layers of rock
The San Andreas Fault is revealed in sandwiched layers of rockJulia LaPalme

That coveted presumption of capability is hard-won and well-deserved. In Siberia, tough Soviet four-wheelers will come to the end of impassable roads, only to find a cheery round-the-world GS rider consulting a map. In frozen North American winters, bitter cold will send sensible riders and lesser machines to the comfort of the garage. Not so for countless acolytes of the GS, who will turn up the heated grips to otherwise insufferable temperatures and carry on into the cold. And in the Sahara desert, the big BMW has been wrung out in deep sand and otherworldly heat as a matter of course for generations. It’s an impressive machine, doubly so because, despite its reputation as an indefatigable world-crosser ready to chew through abysmal terrain, it’s even better at doing everything else.

2019 BMW R1250 GS riding down dirt road.
Twisting the throttle of the R1250GS is just as revealing, its eagerness exposing the 96-year history of BMW's boxer twin.Julia LaPalme

BMW has made the GS in some form and displacement since 1980, and it’s made a great many of them. Which means that for every GS showing off the utter gutsiness of the machine and pounding its guttural flat-twin burp across the wilderness, there are thousands of its twins pressed into milk-run service. And in daily use, the outgoing R1200GS is perfection. It’s sharp, versatile, and quick, whether it’s used as a commuter, a backroads machine, or a tourer. Adding capability, then, seemed out of the question for this new GS. To BMW’s credit, adding power was not.

2019 BMW R1250 GS being picked up out of mud.
Waheed, not for the first or last time, picks the 625-lb GSA up out of the mud.Julia LaPalme

A spec sheet will betray a small displacement bump and a higher compression ratio, but numbers only hint at the prettiness of BMW’s variable-valve solution. The intake cam uses two profiles side by side on the same shaft, ready for an actuator to fire and shift one or the other into position. And it happens explosively fast—five milliseconds, they say. BMW calls the system ShiftCam, and unlike other familiar variable-valve systems, it’s utterly seamless, even riding hard through the hairpins and shear cuts of rock up Highway 58.

It’s a wonderful road, a fast climb east to west from the spooky oil fields of McKittrick through the low, dark mountain range that frames the eastern border of the Carrizo Plain. You can’t help but explore the GS here. You can revel in smooth shifting and think sweet thoughts about the slipper clutch as you late-brake into shady oak ravines. You can dig deep into the BMW’s reserves of torque and claw your way to the hillside as the road cuts through red and white pancake layers of stone. And when you ride, you ride head down, the world blurring, attention flicking ahead, hunting apexes and danger at the expense of the surrounding beauty. Because here, a cut in a road is beautiful.

2019 BMW R1250 GS in field.
Besides the addition of variable-valve timing and a small displacement bump, BMW's big GS is largely unchanged.Julia LaPalme

Every one of them is a window into the history of Earth, sometimes millions of years of it. In riding twisting tarmac through a road cut, you flash through those million years in a miraculous instant. Measured by that extraordinary slice of rock, our existence—the entirety of our joy, the tremendous BMW, everything we’ve ever known—is good for a fraction of an inch.

For geologist Kelsey Young, our ecstatic roads and the cuts that created them are a resource.

"The San Andreas is on a tear, its plates grating along each other a few inches a year, about as quick as your findernails grow. Glacial, by GS standards, Mach speed on a geological scale."

2019 BMW R1250 GS and rider overlooking streambed.
Streambeds are among the many indicators of the San Andreas on the Carrizo Plain. Shifts in streambeds of as much as 30-feet are evident.Julia LaPalme

“They’re one of the only ways to see beneath the very surface of the Earth,” Young says. “I’ve had many field trips with stops at road cuts.” In fact, Young explains, our roads and highways are so useful for the study of Earth, there is a whole book series called Roadside Geology. State by state, the series details the extraordinary earthworks you might see over the handlebars. It’s as nerdy and wonderful as you can imagine.

Young—a NASA scientist with a Ph.D. who specializes in finding terrestrial analogs to geological structures on other planets—finds the geology around the Carrizo Plain as appealing as we do. Where we see a twisting two-lane, she sees metamorphic terrain, alluvial flows, and the beginning of a conversation about what you might find if you were to explore the moon or Mars.

“The Apollo 17 landing site was called Taurus-Littrow, and if you look at any picture of that site, you see a bizarre line that basically goes across the entire floor of the valley where they were driving around in the rover. That’s actually a fault called the Lee-Lincoln Scarp.”

It’s this extraterrestrial valley that springs to mind when Young goes looking for an otherworldly analog to the Carrizo Plain. There are similarities—the low hills and that fault snuggled close to the hillside—but it’s not a direct comparison.

2019 BMW R1250 GS riding on Highway 58.
Waheed rides through a road cut on Highway 58. Viewed from a geological perspective, a road cut transports riders through millennia.Julia LaPalme

“Earth is the only planet with plate tectonics in the traditional sense,” she says, “but we see faults on the moon. We think the moon is still cooling, and it’s actually shrinking a little bit. That planetary level of contraction might lead to a shift in the top crust.”

We know all this because there was a geologist on Apollo 17, Young says with more than a little pride in her voice. Jack Schmitt, the first of NASA’s professional scientist astronaut corps, crewed that flight. He drove the lunar rover, explored Taurus-Littrow, photographed the scarp and the hills, and today is the most recent living human to have walked on the moon.

Every planetary body is a work in progress, another piece of our not-quite-finished universe. All that study, the time gazing up into road cuts and down into faults, is worthwhile and important. The San Andreas is on a tear, its plates grating along each other a few inches every year, about as quick as your fingernails grow. Glacial, by GS standards, Mach speed on a geological scale. But sometimes the timelines sync. The Fort Tejon earthquake in 1857 predated both the widespread use of seismographs and the Richter scale, but the temblor would have measured in the vicinity of a 7.9. Formerly straight things on the fault such as roads, streams, and fences were displaced by 30 feet in an instant.

2019 BMW R1250 GS newly revised heads messy with grass.
A tip-over sends the newly revised heads of the R1250GS digging through the grass of one of the Carrizo's spectacular, sometimes slippery roads.Julia LaPalme

Plain, that dichotomy indicates the closed wound of the San Andreas Fault. She sees it in the flat valley and the swell of hills that press up and out of it. From the saddle of the BMW, another dichotomy is evident: the broad gulf between the romance of our roads and the utilitarian construction and use of them.

Rush-hour traffic on California State Route 14 can slow to a crawl just before the desert city of Palmdale. The highway connects the Los Angeles area with outlying suburbs such as Santa Clarita and Lancaster before continuing north into the Mojave Desert. Truckers and vacationers and commuters pass endlessly through the low hills and never notice the tight cowlick of pale rock looming over them. Dozers and graders and maybe a little dynamite cut a deep perpendicular line straight through a pressure ridge of the San Andreas Fault. It’s all there, all the features Young has described—layers of rock, made fine and thick and strong as hell from impossible pressure and unimaginable time, contorted into a cinnamon-roll spiral by a force even greater.

2019 BMW R1250 GS rides in front of wildflowers in Carrizo Plain.
The wildflower bloom happens in a flash. In a matter of weeks the Carrizo Plain explodes into greens and yellows, then fades as quickly into subtle shades of browns and tans. All seem to compliment the big BMW.Julia LaPalme

Miles north, you can stand astride the thing with your boots on the muddy ground. Facing north, on your right is the North American plate, and on your left, the Pacific. The scale of it is overwhelming, and if you think about the pressure building under you for too long, your skin starts to crawl.

“That’s why I study stress-fault analogs,” Young says. “Analogs are sites that look like what we see on other planets. I think it’s amazing that you can learn something about the history of our planet while also learning about destinations that human beings are hopefully going to explore soon.” The bike is tectonic in its own right, a force of nature with the need for exploration a part of its essence, moving into the future in fits and starts. It seems only fitting that it thrives here, hurtling resiliently into the Carrizo Plain’s mud, over and over and over again. As riders, we should be minor experts in geology. The machinations of the stone beneath our boots isn’t so different from the forces locked away inside our engine cases. It’s all physics played out on scales large and small, one to push us forward, the other to lift the road up beneath us and force it to coil around ridges and valleys ahead. The best riding in the world is draped across places where Earth tears at itself, and a machine like the GS can take you to each and every one of them.

2019 BMW R1250 GS riding down dirt road.
The picturesque landscape hides the constant friction and potential violence of the tectonic plates below.Julia LaPalme

In Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California, an illustrated map details the rock formations of an 80-mile slice of California, from the oil fields east of McKittrick to Morro Bay on the coast. More contemporary deposits appear as pale yellows, while ancient sandstones and sedimentary rocks appear in vivid greens. The unimproved roads through the valley floor of the Carrizo Plain are colored in the pale yellow of alluvium and lake deposits, and we’re covered in them. Graceful, speedy falls on the GS come hard and fast.

We decide we’re done when the big BMW digs a trench in the roadway as we tumble. Our struggle to pick it up from the slipping mud leaves us breathless and frustrated, but with a geological perspective, our struggles are ephemeral at best. We ride off the plain; the imprint of the BMW will dry and maybe remain embossed in the road, a lasting sign that when it comes to understanding our world, we’ve only scratched the surface.

2019 BMW R1250 GS and rider riding down road covered in mud.
Waheed takes a little of the Carrizo Plain with him on the spectacular Central California tarmac of Highway 58.Julia LaPalme