R-Type of Tour: Mapping the RT, ST and GS Provinces – Part I

R-Type of Tour: Mapping the RT, ST and GS ProvincesWe ascend into Manning Park to the aeronautic thrum of the three horizontally opposed twin engines as the BMW R1200RT, R1200ST and R1200GS Adventure sweep though in single file.  April’s rugged meteorological terrain has been washed over with summer’s sheen, with the sun beating the snow back into the trees along British Columbia’s Highway 3.  The retreat has left the shoulder well graveled but the lanes themselves clear if occasionally dusty.  The wind picks up a bit, a sword of cold air slashing through my summer weight jacket.  I thumb the heated grips to high and then turn on the heated seat for good measure; behind the electrically adjustable windscreen the RT becomes its own microclimate.

Bounding ahead is photographer Kevin astride the R1200GS Adventure uncaring of the road conditions.  To the rear longtime rider Mic Cumming is sampling the sportier side of touring on the roundel mark’s enigmatic R1200ST.  Physically our route doesn’t cover new ground, the roads are a comfortable selection of old friends and favorites, but in sampling these three bikes we are touring across three strangely dissimilar provinces of the R-engine territories.

Mapping BMW’s R line you find the horizontally opposed 1170cc twin core to its topography.  The engine is uniquely flexible and characterful – its behavior similar across these three bikes.  At idle it rumbles like a gravel shaker, at start it shoves the bike awake with a torque-laden twist to the right, and if you’re rude enough cranking the throttle will near raise the bike off its side stand.  At idle performance, however, is sophistry at best.

The R-type engine comes into its touring own between 3500-4500 RPM, churning along smoothly.  Nowhere is this better felt than on the freeway where 120kph in 6th is an effortless contented thrum.  Beyond that relaxed range lies the meat of the plant’s output. 
At 7500 RPM the RT and ST hit a peak 110bhp (claimed) with a peak 85ft-lbs of torque developing at 6000RPM.  The GS Adventure’s plant, mechanically identical to its precursor the “plain” R1200GS, is more softly tuned with a peak 85 ft-lbs of torque coming in at 5500RPM and 100 hp at 7000rpm (claimed).  Regardless of the bike surrounding this engine, beyond 6000RPM you’re in the realm of sport and passing.  These characteristics make the R-type distinctively suitable for touring, the punch to pass and the smoothness to while away hours.

If the character of an engine is integral to defining a bike, then this tour’s character was defined four days earlier by a rare confluence of tributary events.  Three R bikes from BMW were offered up during the layover of a demo trailer in Vancouver, a circuitous detour around the fact the brand has no west coast press fleet.  We take it as a sure indicator that the planets are aligned in our collective “House of Motorrad”.

Time off from the day jobs comes just as easily.  In Mic’s case it is the result of a covert negotiation with his employer.

“I told him to pack his passport and his helmet,” says the chipper voice on the cell, “Mic doesn’t know what is going on, only that he’s going on a secret mission for work.”  Would that all employers were so obliging.

Even the traffic cooperates on the trip’s first day.  Escaping from British Columbia’s Lower Mainland along Highway 1 from Vancouver to Chilliwack is normally blocked by a turgid stagnation of hardly moving auto-bloat.  Single occupant Excursions hoard the left lane rocketing along at 90kph, “’cause that’s pretty fast you know”, and semi-trailers slow racing in parallel with a fluidity that makes sub-zero molasses appear athletic.  Not today.  In the lead, the R1200GS Adventure and I transcribe a clean path away from the city, traffic parting as if caught in the massive bike’s bow wave.

It’s only later topping up fuel that we realize this might have more to do with the GS’s Alpine White paint and black tank panels, from the front on the Adventure looks suspiciously officious – vaguely “cop-like” even.  Capitalizing on this we enjoy a more expedient escape from the Lower Mainland than usual, the GS in the lead and the other bikes following at a respectful distance.

Three days later and twenty kilometers East of Hope, an otherworldly jagged and shattered terrain serves as the backdrop for snapping a “few” photos.  On January 9th, 1965 the scene must have been so very different than today’s sunny spring afternoon.  A small snow slide brought four people and their vehicles to a halt below Johnson Peak, when a minor earthquake unleashed the largest landslide recorded in Canada.  The peak’s southwestern slope sheered off, thundering 2000m into Outram Lake bellow.  The violently displaced the lake, its bed, and adjacent lands sluiced up the opposite mountain side, before gravity took hold and brought the debris thundering to a rest in the valley.  The 47 million cubic meters of mud and boulders was up to 85 meters thick and spread over a 3km stretch of the Valley, one lake, and four human lives.

In the parking lot of the Slide’s viewpoint, some 55 meters above the former valley floor, the absence of the mountain’s face carries an ominous weight; begging the unspoken question could it happen again?  Opting for better cheer, I find myself playing on the R1200RT in the lot while Kevin quickly fills a 2GB flash card, for an avid photographer with a new camera there is no such thing as a “few” pictures.

The RT is a shock, not for the opulence but for the handling, even in the lot’s confines.  Tightening the corners and increasing the speed it’s inevitable I hear the “tetch” of metal against the asphalt – a harsh sound not entirely out of place amongst the bolder strewn scene.

We’ve come to the lookout through a circuitous itinerary, the first leg of the ride carrying us from Vancouver through the Fraser Canyon, sling-shotting along the 8 from Spence’s Bridge to Merritt, then downwards along the 5A to Vancouver again.  Drawn on a map our excursion in the end will look like an amateur cartoonist’s rendition of a fly; two loops and Vancouver’s dot as the body.

We head out again on this second wing and past Manning Park’s Eastgate the Crowsnest (Highway 3) kicks up its heals, tapering to a narrow single lane each way.  Leaving the sweepers behind the real riding begins as the R- fleet begins transcribing 30 and 50kph esses and hairpins as the road traces the Similkameen River below.

Herb Caen, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist once put it, “Martinis are like breasts, one isn’t enough, and three is too many”.  The same applies to multiples of the suggested maximum give or take a few kilometers an hour.  If the Hope Slide radically redefined the geography outside of Hope then the R1200RT similarly buries previous notions of a tourer’s handling.

The turns tighten and the maximum suggested speed on the signs plummets.  A quick double tap of the Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA) button transforms the RT, taking it from the wafting chop consuming comfort mode to Sport.   The transformation takes seconds, the R1200RT’s damping adjusts – the bike becomes more taunt, provides more feedback, and feels more connected.  The comfort mode’s wallowing across the ripples is replaced by tenacious road holding ability.  In this setting should anything get in your way, an errant photographer attempting to frame a bike-to-bike picture for example, changing your line mid-corner is entirely reasonable if a bit pace quickening.  Despite the inappropriateness, taking another rider on the inside on a public road astride a fully load tourer is an experience not to be passed by.

Coursing along the Number 3’s narrow twists and turns the lands of sporting and comfort have met, though decidedly on comfort’s territory on the RT.  The R1200RT’s sheer luxury doesn’t weight it down.  Not light through the corners the bike is majestic, unopposed and neutral, with momentum carrying the RT smoothly though its natural domain.  The ease of riding the R1200RT belies the swiftness it is capable of.

The lower mainland has long since fallen to the rear and the Okanagan plays out ahead of us.  It is a scene painted in greys, browns and oranges; lodgepole pines and grasses await greenery, only recently having been revealed by the melting snows.

In the intransient language of cartography there is no warning for the light dust spotting the road as we near Princeton, only experience.  The Interior’s public works crews call the springtime act of gravel redistribution “sweeping” the road.  A puff of dust coming up from the Adventure’s rear tire serves as foreshadowing.  If I were a smarter man less caught in the moment I wouldn’t say “just one more corner” and back off, but I’m not.  The R1200RT’s rear slides sickeningly out in a 50kph turn featuring a sky-meeting scenic vista I’ve no wish to be part of.  The R1200RT copes with greater aplomb than I.  Still, sliding the posterior of a 259kg (claimed in full road trim sans cases) bike is not a repeatable offence, I’ve been rebuked and roll off the throttle accordingly.  It’s a short-lived choice.

We catch traffic and an elderly rectilinear Nissan Sentra, of questionable repair and dubious beige and brown two-tone paint job, unexpectedly snaps its signals to life pulling off into the gravel calling on us to pass.  This may be common on the roads of California, but in British Columbia’s heart it’s near unheard of.  Handed an engraved invitation to the party no one needs to draw us a map – we are off again.

As we finish refueling “the fleet” the Nissan catches up.  The occupant is a stereotypical K75 owner complete with trimmed beard, middle age, and admiration of the current BMW hardware.  He strides purposefully towards us a “let’s talk bike” gleam in his eye.

“I saw you coming up fast,” he says smiling, “and thought I should let you through.”  One can only express gratitude for such road kindness.

After we’ve reviewed the ABS, ESA, heated seats and grips, electric windscreen, cruise control, and luggage, our new friend moves towards the somewhat indelicate question of cost.  The question broached, I see him doing the mental math on the entire fleet’s value.  Inevitably this will lead to the next question, “And they trust you with that many bikes?”  I detour the subject by asking for a restaurant recommendation.
“There is a fish and chips shop over in town.”  Princeton may grandly be described as being at the confluence of the Similkameen and Tulameen Rivers, but I’m unsure that there is enough of it to require the use of “over in”.  Still Mr. K75 offers to navigate.  We arrive to find an ironic “No Fish Today” sign posted in the window.  Politely we wait until our guide is around the corner and out of sight before continuing our search for lunch.  The result is Billy’s Family Restaurant and mountainous clubhouses deserving of recommendation.  The restaurant’s name is a callback to one of the town’s former residents that went by the innocuous alias of George Edwards, in reality the “gentleman bandit” stagecoach and train robber Bill Miner; such oblique references to historical color are plentiful in B.C.’s interior.

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