Snow Day: The R1150GS

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R1150GS Snow DayBlame the weather; an early March dump of snow in Vancouver is near unheard of and put our regular bike testing plans on hold.  Sipping coffee and walking along the beach it was easy to eye the glistening downhill slopes of Cypress Bowl and buy into a lie that so many Vancouverites have perpetuated through the years, “You can be on the beach and then skiing twenty minutes later on the North Shore Mountains.”  It is something we tell the “easterners” to taunt them, just like that other Vancouver boast, “You can ride all year round.”  That may not have been the case this year, but we’re game to put both parts of Vancouver’s mythos to the test…  You can see where this is going can’t you?

Four minutes left and I’m in the final hairpin before a long uphill straight and the entrance to the ski area.  It’s not been a great ride getting here, it’s been a strangely fabulous one, an urban adventure of sorts.  I scrub off speed compression braking into the turn, then push on the wide bars.  The R1150GS Adventure rewards by me falling inwards with ease while the suspension compliantly holds the road.  I am pushing, especially considering the weather, it’s cold and clear and so for the most part are the roads.  My ski bag is hanging to the right of the bike, which is the upside of the lean so I don’t have to worry about the skis dragging – this time.

I’d forgotten how good the GS series of bikes are in the turns, but the big Adventure has set the record straight.  Still, I’m cautiously applying the throttle; there is fresh snow along the roadside and occasional slick spots of gravel, salt and some kind of new de-icing compound on the asphalt.  I may make my target on time, but I’m not about to risk it all in some vainglorious myth-proving drive.  Regardless of the outcome I’m grinning in my helmet at the silliness of it all.

The famed beach to skiing in twenty-minutes urban legend may have been true before Vancouver’s arterial pathways were clogged by a cholesterol mass of single-family-dwelling-sized SUVs housing squalling yuppie larva being schlepped up to the local ski hills.  These monsters, and I’m not referring to the kids here, are reigned by drivers intent on scrutinizing each others tail-lights with a closeness generally reserved for myopic tax auditors, which, ironically, seems to just slow them all that much more.

It was obviously that to make that twenty minute time frame we needed a bike capable of cutting through the auto-bloat as well as handling the odd bit of gravel, slush, and salt without losing its two wheel footing.  Just to complicate the matter we needed a bike that could carry skis, after all what is the point of going above the snowline if you can’t round things off with a bit of shushing?

So we needed an SUV of motorcycles, and any number of adventure bikes would fit the bill.  Securing one from a local press fleet in “winter” however was not likely to happen.  Jeremy Towning of John Valk BMW Ducati stepped up with an e-mail reply, “We have an R1150GSA that you can take out.”

The R1150GS Adventure may not be the newest Beemer on the block, but if it’s good enough to schlep Boorman and McGregor across the Mongolian step then it’s good enough for the local hills.  Only after securing the bike did we mention that, “We think it will look really good up at the ski-hill.”  Discretion, in securing bikes, is still the better part of valor around here, though Jeremy now seems immune to this sort of confession.

Coming out of the corner I open the throttle, launching the GS out of the corner; the rear end slithers sideways a little.  I catch a Chevy Avalanche by surprise, its driver trundling the truck-bling half-breed around the corner.  The rear tire holds and we’re good, but I’ve discovered new respect for the Longway Round team.  The R1150GS Adventure is no lightweight, and there will be no foot down motarding though the corners.

This GS is big and over built with the tank overhanging the frame and bulging outwards to the horizontally opposed cylinder’s heads.  The dash sits on the horizon in front of you, the windscreen further out.  The bars are wide set, providing leverage.   It is a combination of odd shapes resulting in something with the lopsided and ungainly appearance of a Picasso interpreting an elephant – the type that crushes to settlements to dust.

Our twenty-minute target is in jeopardy right from the start of the ride.  On short notice it was hard to see how to fit a set of cross-country skis, poles and boots onto the GS adventure, and that necessitated that I end up riding with the bag strung across my back.  Suddenly lane splitting was not an option. Take the Adventure’s natural breadth and combine it with the overhanging ski bag and such an act becomes an “exercise even more caution” event.  Bereft of that arrow from our vaguely hooligan-esque arsenal and suddenly the twenty-minute target, fairly easy to achieve unencumbered, is at risk.

On the upside I’m sure the folks from Siggie’s Sports Villa have never received so much exposure in any single vehicle’s transit through Vancouver’s West End.  To say the entire setup drew looks from pedestrians, traffic, and the occasional officer of the law would be an understatement.  Indeed, through the slow going in the clog of city traffic, the attention likely hindered our progress as drivers gawked and pedestrians slowed in crosswalks.  “I can,” I told myself, “make up the time on the highway.”

Despite this Adventure’s excellent wind protection, it’s sporting an Areoflow windscreen, I discovered suddenly the top speed is limited by the skis. Where I would normally wick it up on the highway, parsing through traffic eagerly, the wind drag prevented me.  Not that the skis were about to go airborne, though in a cross wind on the Lions Gate bridge it seems a possibility, but at any speed over 110kph the ski bag attempted to strangle me.  That meant I’d have to make the time up on the uphill portion of the run.  Slowing off to a mere sense of being “slightly” strangled, I had a chance to contemplate the GS Adventure.
 
At walking speed in town the Adventure seems slightly cumbersome and awkward, but the moment it’s moving the bike sheds the weight and gets down to business.  The gearing feels a bit shorter than the R1150GS, and the suspension definitely has more travel, making curb hopping a possibility and then, as familiarity grows, a matter of course. The engine is smoother than I remember the R1150 plant being from our previous reviews, possibly the result of this plant being seasoned with mileage, this 2003 sports 84,000kms on the clocks.  There is a lot to like about this engine, it has good torque pulling through the gears to a moderate but quick top speed.  Opening the throttle lets you know there is a tiger in the GS’s tank, but of the soft cuddly variety, and from the engine note I suspect it has flatulence.

Then there is the near legendary comfort.  These ergonomics are busy delivering you a message, something about trying to ride across the continent on dirt roads.  It’s a shame that this bike is likely being so quickly passed over for it’s newer sibling, the R1200GS (and GSA), because at $14,000 CDN fully equipped, the R1150GS Adventure is still an iconic vision of exploration.

Time ticking on the clock we finally hit the exit to Cypress Bowl Ski Area, the R1150GS Adventure amazes in the turns even on cold roads.  It handles them with a zeal that results in a certain cavalier attitude.  That attitude in turn results in lean, preposterous lean, ski bag scraping lean.  As a result I’d recommend a minor retooling of your ski equipment to protect any overly expensive set of sticks and boards.  Time being of the essence, there is only one option to keep the boards from dragging – stand up though the hairpins.

Luckily, the passing lanes are with the GS and I, we thrum past traffic in the straights and the turns.  Though for the first couple tight 50 and 30kph marked twists, the act of standing on the pegs at a lean is counter intuitive to the lowering center of gravity hanging off I’ve become accustomed to, and fights against every bit of sportbike training I’ve had. Whipping through the corners at a photo ruining pace, the R1150GS Adventure does the business with only an occasional sideslip of protest.  Even traffic gives way to this peculiar sight and for a brief time a driver of a Honda Element attempts to keep pace with his four-ways going providing a rearward “escort” of sorts.

I’m forced to slow down through the final corner U-turning the mighty GS and I into the ski area.  Slush slides the rear tire sideways, and for a heart pounding moment I have visions of returning the Adventure to the shop with a set of scratches and ponying up for a new paint job.  This is no “put your foot down and save the fall” bike. Regardless, with mere seconds to spare the R1150GS Adventure delivers me to the Cypress Bowl Cross Country area for my “Snow Day”.  No time to spare I shed my riding jacket, ditch the riding boots for a set more suited to skis and snap in.

The twenty minutes?  Let’s just say it was very close, because in the end this is really about mythology.

The BMW R1150GS Adventure has been iconic of exploration, while Vancouver has striven to be iconic of an Urban Adventurer’s paradise.  This city sits on the edge of the Pacific and stands on the shoulders of the mountains, while it’s inhabitants strive, as every city does, to preserve its mythology.  New York may never sleep, though that missive was surely penned by someone who had never craved sushi at 4AM.  Los Angeles may be the city of angels, except it’s filled with movie producers, executives, writers and their lawyers.  The thing is, with the R1150GS Adventure’s stature and Vancouver’s winter mythos, they still hold true.   You can be skiing in twenty minutes from the beach, and you can still ride all year round…  with the right Urban Adventurer as your mount.

Bike Provided By: John Valk BMW/Ducati

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