BMW F800GS – A Small Adventure

Brapppppp! In the far lane a rider on a R1200GS Adventure (GSA) has just sailed through an opening in rush hour’s waning traffic. Well played sir, but BMW’s F800GS isn’t so easily tossed aside. The GSA may have more guts, but it also has more mass, and the F800GS is proving epee precise and saber effective at slicing its way through the automotive throng.

We back and forth through the tangle in a gentlemanly duel as we take measure of each other’s mounts. By Oak Street bridge, the GSA makes a light that I just miss… only to be blocked by traffic’s immovable masses. A few cars slip around the corner between him and I. The F800GS cavorts into the fray, sliding through openings the GSA never could. I pass with a little nod.

Hitting the commuter lane the GSA surges into the distance as I hit my personal speed limit of plausible deniability. But the big bike’s escape isn’t as quick as I expected, the “little” F800GS’s 782cc liquid-cooled parallel-twin engine is quick if not fast. The F800GS claims 85 hp at 7,500 rpm and 62 ft-lbs of torque at 5,750 rpm. That doesn’t sound like much punt, but for everyday riding it’s ample. Better, the power is hugely accessible, from 2000 RPM onwards the twin pulls, fully hitting its stride at 4500-5500 RPM and continues to pull through to the red line undaunted. Still, the plant misses the bigger GS’s effortless burp of passing torque. The parallel twin may sound like a brutal case of flatulence, but it belittles riders needing the crutch of massive horsepower.

By the time I reach the turn off for the ferry the F800GS and I are hanging off the GSA’s rear, and I’m suitably impressed. I sweep through the exit ramp. The front end feels a bit vague, but that could be down to the narrow spoked 21” front tire. It will add stability offroad, but at hard angles on the pavement it’s an act of faith. Also the jostle of the unadjustable front suspension is a minor irritant.

Clean for the moment

The overhead sign reports that the 7:00 sailing is 74% full, I glance down at the trip computer’s cornucopia of information; air temperature, oil temperature, average fuel consumption, distance until the next fill up… and most importantly time. I assumed I’d just make it, but I’ve over a half hour before the sailing. It’s 5ºC out as the F800GS shoots along the causeway, making me happy for human factors like the accessory plug for my heated vest, heated grips, headlights offering excellent illumination, and well placed (and surprisingly stylish) mirrors helping me keep an eye on traffic. I’m coming into the tollbooth a bit hot, and grab the front brake lever. The 45mm Marzocchi forks dive, but the ABS doesn’t come to life. The Brembos are offering adequate stopping power, but in a kind and gentle sort of way. In the tollbooth the attendant looks up with a smile.

“Having fun?”, she asks.

Is it that obvious? I look at the clock, it’s close to a “personal best” to the ferry despite traffic. There is a perverse pleasuring in becoming a hooligan on the F800GS, but this is a GS, and while I love it in traffic its measure will be taken in an adventure. Here’s a problem, soon as I hit 110kph the straps from the ski bag are strangling me, and by 120kph the drag is stripping me from the F800GS. You can’t fault BMW for that, riding from Vancouver to Whistler in January sits outside expected usage, but I’ve been pushed to my winter “waiting to ride” limit.

Snow Where it belongs.
Snow Where it belongs.

Anticipating BMW’s mid-displacement adventurer and we booked our tester for December. A beautiful sunny warm December, that was transformed into real winter when the snow stopped staying in the mountains where it belonged. Worse, there was no “head for California” weather escape. Our tester F800GS came with the stock Bridgestone Battlewings tires that are more street than dirt, and lacked luggage.

So if you can’t escape winter, embrace it… once the roads cleared a bit. It’s a small adventure then, but enough to see if the F800GS can fill the hob-nail hiking boots of its elder siblings the R1200GS and R1200GS Adventure (GSA), and the GS name.

The R1200GS Adventure is world-renown, thanks to Sir Ewan McBoorman of Long Way Down and Round fame, and because it’s very good at what it does – namely effortless crossing of continents on road and dirt. For many the F800GS represents a more affordable adventure option to the R1200GS, but BMW has carefully differentiated the F800GS from its big brothers. The low windscreen serves shorter riders, but at 6”2’ I’m dealt a face full of buffeting wind. The seat comes in two flavors, with regular sitting at 880mm/34.6 inches high and a no-cost low option at 850mm/33.5 inches for the inseam challenged. The bid to make the F800GS offroad friendly has compromised the continent crossing comfort, unless you’re planning to stop every 30 minutes for a photo or periodically standing on the pegs to stretch. Then there’s the vibration.

Sustain highways speeds of 110-120kph the parallel twin’s throb overcome its balancing system and you’re confronted by wearying vibe through the bars and the pegs. A lucky thing that the ski bag sees me holding around 90kph for most of the ride. In total there are just enough road niggles that the world circumnavigating tourist, or those who aspire to be, will be tipped towards the R1200GS. Or will you? Because there is an aftermarket waiting to step up with taller windscreens, luggage, easier breathing exhaust and (most emphatically) more comfortable seats… Between shooting photos and video, by the time we hit Whistler it’s more apres than ski. The next day the Lost Lake Cross Country Ski Area parking lot is rutted with ice, covered in snow and sporting a good measure of frost. It’s deterrent, but last evening’s ride on Whistler’s frosty roads has emboldened me. Riding across the lot is a revelation.

The F800GS is do what a good adventure bike should – coping with unexpected conditions and securely expand my personal limits. Here I am, in a snowy lot, playing on a bike. Ride or ski? The F800GS has opened up a webwork of dirt roads around Whistler. In summer these would be a mildly entertaining, but in winter they are “I can’t believe I just rode that” roads. I abandon the pretext of skiing entirely.

BMW F800GS - A Small Adventure - Playing in Mud
BMW F800GS - A Small Adventure - Playing in Mud

On dirt roads, even the well iced ones, the F800GS turns the tables on its big brothers. The F800GS is smaller, lighter and more manageable than the R1200GS or GSA, and has the advantage. The claimed wet-weight of 207kg/456lbs., making bigger competition like the R1200GS or KTM 990 Adventure seem arduous and hefty in the dirt. It’s not just the weight though, BMW’s thought out the F800GS’s off-road design.

There’s the basics like large off-road style footpegs with removable rubber covers, wide bars, and a comfortable and relaxed standing position, but subtler points too. BMW rotated the F800GS’s parallel twin back in comparison to the S or ST, allowing 230mm of front suspension travel and a 21-inch front tire. The frame was especially designed to perimeter the F800GS’s vulnerable soft bits and protect them in event of a fall. While the parallel-twin itself is narrow and light contributing to the bike’s easy riding nature. BMW also equipped the F800GS with a chain final drive, so there’s no heavy shaft drive or rock vulnerable belt. The downside of course is that you’ll have to remember to clean and lubricate it periodically – a hassle while on the road.

The F800GS and I are on a sheet ice down-hill and it’s off-road nature is all that’s standing between me and an embarrassing tumble, but few points give me pause. The 6-speed transmission is smooth and easy changing, keeping me from upsetting the bike as I down-shift. Rolling off the throttle the engine offers good compression braking, but the Everest tall first gear has the F800GS threatening to run away. I’m forced to scrub speed by gently and periodically locking the rear brake on the ice.

Luckily the ABS is switchable. Running or not simple bring the bike to a halt and hold the button down to toggle the ABS on and off. The only improvement would if the system retained its setting after a re-start, as in the case of stalling the bike. The suspension does do a good job of keeping the rear tire connected, but I’d love the option of dialing in the unadjustable front forks. Adding gas reveals another problem. The F800GS has an abrupt initial pickup that offroad can prove unsettling, beyond that the power is easy to meter out smoothly allowing you to maintain traction. That is the last problem, traction.

On road the Bridgestone Battlewings are a grippy match for the F800GS, but they simply aren’t off-road fare. Aired down, on gravel these stock tires are acceptable. In mud the tires transform into “Deathwings” packing up and becoming slicks. Intending to use the BMW off road? Your new mantra is, “I want knobbies!” Even so shod the F800GS’s competencies shine through, allowing me to ride on snow, ice, gravel and mud. Strangely these elements are the same reasons I kept giving BMW for delaying the bike’s return.

The question remains, will the BMW F800GS honour the family “GS” name? Absolutely. Like its bigger siblings I love its easy riding and good natured disposition. I love that it’s faster across town than most superbikes. I love that the F800GS lets you push your personal limits. And that it dismisses concerns of weather and road conditions. And I love that it is a small adventure ready for your big one – that makes it a full and proper GS, it’s just a little more dirty.


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