I've been riding for 20 plus years on a number of bikes. I've toured a bit, spent some time on racetracks for fun and helped guide a few thousand people through the system to getting their bike licenses. My most noteable memories have been spent blitzing backroads on sunny days or touring to remote locations. And trackdays have always been a big adrenaline rush. My past 2 mounts have been sport-touring bikes and my lanky 6'5" frame has always been pinched a bit when riding them. Pushing past 40 years old a few years ago my body parts all seem to have warranties that are expiring. Anything I did playing sports or jumping off motorbikes in the past 20 years seems to have come home to roost a bit. My knees are an issue on long hauls or track days as they are too cramped on most bikes and the seat height is too low for my 36 inch inseam. My current ride (VFR) is running ok but has many years of mileage on it and it's time for someone else to show it some love.
I started looking for a bike a few summers ago and mulling options over. The current trends that struck me as favourable were the move to Standards, Nakeds, and Adventure-Touring. Years ago I wanted a track bike but lately I just go take a FAST course and get my fix. The majority of my riding is sport-touring but I'd love to add some dirt and gravel into the mix. A few summers ago I started sizing up bikes like I size up jeans -- If they don't fit they don't get purchased. I started sitting on every bike I could to test the clearance around the knees the reach to the bars, the reach to the ground and to the footpegs. Anything that was cramped got taken off the list. I started with a bunch of sport touring bikes but most were too low and I kept feeling the call of the dirt.
I've spent years tearing past beautiful lakes and scenes with buddies but we rarely stopped to look at anything. The lure of the next curve ahead and hanging off our bikes seemed to pull us along at a spirited pace. And getting back home before sundown seemed to dictate that we would head north for good roads and a quick lunch and then blitz back towards the city. We were always on a mission when we were in a group. But whenever I'm out on my own on the bike I go slower, stop more and take more pictures, smell the roses, etc. I stop and grab a motel room somewhere and dinner and don't mind just enjoying things at a more leisurely pace. And with all the licence suspension for 50km over the limit and street racing legislation it seemed like the days of riding sport bikes on even backroads may be a higher liability nowadays. So I was thinking about finding a bike that suited my frame size and my individual riding style and hoping to slow down a bit.
My list of criteria went like this:
After crossing most sport-touring bikes off the original list my revised list became: GS1200, KTM Adventure, KLR650, Varadero, V Stroms, Kawi Versys, and a few others.
Thus, the test-rides and media scanning started. I picked up lots of magazines, surfed the user-groups and went riding.
- High windshield (for weather and longer hauls)
- High seat height
- Enough horsepower for highway passing ( I still want to do the odd tarmac blitz)
- Ability to do dirt/gravel roads occasionally without killing endless fairing panels
- A utilitarian bike as the majority of my riding is go-everywhere in any weather
- Hard luggage a must (I'm tired of the alternatives and rain issues).
I took the GS, the KTM, the KLR and a few other bikes out for rides. The GS made me laugh a lot. It's a great big SUV of a bike and very well designed. My only issue was that my shins were located ¼ inch off the boxer cyclinders so on hard bumps I mashed my shins up- not fun. The price was a bit steep too but it's a beemer. Someone told me recently that BMW is an acronym for "Break My Wallet". Other than that I've never ridden a bike that made me laugh - it just seems very well made and very user-friendly. It was effortless to ride, the mirrors are in your view without having to look down for them and the other riders on the test ride all seemed to think it was great as well. If my stupid long legs didn't rest on those opposing cylinders this would have been difficult to walk away from.
Next was the KTM 990 Adventure. I read alot about it and jumped on several at bike shows and it intrigued me. On the test ride the throttle was very snatchy and the bike was softly sprung at stock levels and I couldn't get my head around it. I hit a few on-ramps at a brisk pace and had a hard time leaning the bike over as the front wheel tracked forward drifting towards the outer guardrail. - Perhaps a bit more saddle time would have helped but the initial love affair hadn't kicked in. Clearly it would need to be tweaked a fair bit before it hit me right. I had good poke and was decent but didn't compare to the GS1200 for rideability out of the gates.
The KLR650 I took out next. It was light, flickable and fun. It would be great if 80%+ of my riding was gravel and dirt but it felt gutless and too light on the highway where I spend a great deal of time. At slower speeds or in the woods it would be great and you'd never strain your back picking it up.
While my quest continued, BMW launched the F800GS - effectively a smaller GS1200 but with a parallel twin instead of the opposed boxer cylinders that gave me the shin smoking. It sounded like the perfect mix of power, enduro ability, strong enough to take a pounding or a long tour, and it ticked a few other boxes like seat height. To my surprise it has heated grips as standard which I've tried before and certainly enjoyed on colder tours. The international media loved the launches and the bike was immediately back-ordered all over the planet with the U.S. and Canada seemingly at the end of the waiting list after the smaller 650 jammed Beemer's production schedule and the 800s hit Europe and other spots first. In fall 2008 some of them started to trickle into our part of the planet. The local media again heaped mostly praise on it and the aftermarket manufacturers around the globe were busy finishing prototypes for new bolt-on accessories. I think the only negatives I've heard are about the seat being hard and the fuel injection being a bit odd at slow speeds. I've rarely worried about hard seats on previous bikes and frankly, I'm a bit odd myself at slow speeds so I was willing to overlook these items.
Over the Christmas season I sat down and mulled over the options again and the revised list. The Kawi Versys and Vee/Wee Strom were still in contention but the Versys didn't fit the enduro component as well. The V/W Strom has always looked butt-ugly to me but certainly wouldn't dent my wallet very much. I saw one with a smashed front fairing and windscreen on Bloor Street in Toronto last summer and I laughed out loud - the crash actually made the front end more appealing. I think this was a clear message I should stay clear or offer the owner money for the "modified" front end version as it looked like such a noticeable improvement. The Honda Varadero bordered on the same "I'm uglier than you" camp so I stayed clear even though it's still in the highly-respected category for build and reputation. Actually, it doesn't look as butt-ugly as the v-strom and being a Honda it's probably a very decent ride. But it just didn't grab me and still had enough plastic to bust up should it find a tree or rocks somewhere.
So...I had some more detailed mulling to do. I mulled things over for a few weeks over the Christmas vacation period. I joked to a friend or two that I've done most of my homework but I'll probably just buy a bike on impulse in the spring. That is how most of my other bike purchases happened. You do your best to use your mellon and then you just crumble on a sunny day somewhere when you see something special.
The clincher for me happened during a discussion on the holidays. My partner and I were discussing expenses and trying to set a budget for the new year after just coming through a few years of extensive renovations to our house and a few other bigger ticket purchases. We were on vacation at the time spending money on relatives like it was water so the budget seemed to be getting off to a bad start -- but that's another story. I had mentioned the new motorbike idea a billion or so times over the past few years and shared my list and criteria. The Kawi Versys was leading the charge but it was coming up like a compromise decision. It wasn't exactly what I wanted but it was inexpensive and hit many of the criteria I was looking for. In the end, as luck would have it, I heard these fateful words from my partner: "you should just buy the bike that fits you the best. Anything less than a 750 is probably too small anyway and you'll just want to unload it in a year or so..." -- or I think I heard something like that. Anyway, that's the story I'm going to claim I remember when the new bike arrives. I was a bit stunned at the time and figured I should just shut my mouth in case the prevailing thought on the subject shifted. I carefully changed the topic away from motorcycles while still clinging to those few key sentences and wishing I had been recording the discussion. I didn't waste any time acting on this golden opportunity. As soon as we got back from our Christmas vacation I zipped over to the closest BMW dealership and slapped down a deposit on a new F800GS.
It was a bit of an out-of-body experience as I felt like I was acting on someone else's advice-- again, that's the story I'm sticking to. I'm going to claim I was pressed into the decision and did so against my better judgement (budget be damned!!). While I haven't ridden an f800gs I've done enough reading that I could write a review myself. And I've ridden enough bikes to guess, based on the reading and the test rides I've done, approximately what the ride will be like and what mods I might make to the suspension to get it where I want it if needed. It will probably take some getting used to but I'm trying to think of it like a mail-order bride or a pre-arranged marriage that I'll just have to like no matter what.
The bike already has a fledgling forum community, a number of aftermarket parts and a lot of favourable media coverage. The model I bought comes standard with heated grips, and I added the optional ABS (that you can switch off), hard panniers and top box, and a few other goodies. The bike has already cleared customs in Canada and all I need now is a clear spring day. I haven't ridden it yet but when I reflect on my previous purchases I've never test-ridden a bike I purchased. I always do a bit of tiring kicking and then jump in. So, I'm hoping this bike will suit me as well as the last few have.
I'm really looking forward to revisiting some of spots I used to explore in my jeep years ago and now I've got the bike to get me there and continue once the dirt starts. I can't wait for the snow to melt. Hopefully everyone else in the house will be just as excited when the new bike arrives!