Blast from the Past

The all-conquering ADV bike has all but squashed the sport-tourer. BMW's R1250RT is one of few that's crossed to safety

 

I’m mired behind a multi-brand caravan of trikes that clog the road like hair in the bathroom drain. Most, naturally, are Spyders, but there are Gold Wings and Harley-Davidsons and a VW-powered trike ridden by a man with a long beard whipped by the wind so his whiskers look like flames shooting out his ears. Ahead I glimpse the road snaking up a hill, and with no time to downshift, I twist the throttle on the BMW R1250RS and lunge past the herd just in time to bank into a sweeping left. Impressive (the torque, not the beard. Never that beard).

That a BMW boxer engine in a big sport-tourer can accelerate with such vigour is noteworthy. This new engine, larger by 84 cc than the old one, has more than displacement to credit for its lustier temperament. ShiftCam is the name given to its valve gear, which has four lobes on its intake cam instead of two. When revs are lower, the intake valves don’t fully open and cam timing is retarded. (Interestingly, while at low revs, one intake valve opens slightly ahead of the other.) Above 5,000 rpm, the entire intake cam shifts longitudinally to engage the second set of cam lobes. Now the valves fall into lockstep and maximum lift is achieved. And unlike some innovations with snappy names where you’re forced to take the engineers’ word because it’s something you can’t feel, ShiftCam is noticeable from the get-go. Like when you’re passing a logjam of tricycles ridden at a speed slightly above the threshold that allows a two-wheeler to maintain balance.

 

In the past decade as the boxer gained potency, it’s been at the expense of smoothness, but this is—partially—subjective. When we were tired and it was raining, the RT vibrated more. When it was sunny and we were happy, with a belly full of duck-fat frites, it was smoother. Your results may vary.  

Once upon a time, the sport touring motorcycle was nothing short of a revelation. No longer was it necessary to fold onto a sportbike to cross the flatlands or be saddled by a supertanker-sized tourer when the roads became interesting at the foot of the mountains. The sport tourer was an entirely livable compromise between athleticism and comfort, and, in its heyday, came in variations as numerous as there are ways in which to incur debt. But those days are gone. The sport tourer, in case you’ve missed it, is just about dead. And what brand did more to kill the popularity of the sport tourer than any other manufacturer? BMW itself, of course.

 

The BMW GS adventure tourer begat a movement that has seen the ADV bike become one-half the standard motorcycle of our age. (The other half—or half and then some—is the cruiser.) But despite skewering an entire segment with the I-could-ride-to-Peru-but-I’ll-only-ever-ride-to-work GS, BMW is insistent that it won’t abandon the RS and RT sport tourers.

Perhaps it’s time to address the oft-quoted refrain that posits ADV motorcycles as the two-wheeled SUV equivalent. It’s a tempting comparison. SUVs look like off-roaders, but with the exception of the gravel parking lot at the farmers’ market, they don’t go off road. And few riders have the skills—or the stones—to hump an R1250GS or a Ducati Multistrada Enduro up slippery, rocky, single-track.


The disdain heaped upon the ADV bike is unwarranted. Motorcyclists, I hope—I really, really, hope—are not as timid as SUV buyers, who, in a US survey, admitted that the primary draw to the SUV was that the elevated height of the vehicle body allowed them to see the legs and feet of someone lurking behind. It’s not climate change nor the widening gap between rich and poor that concern SUV owners. It’s the fear of being sodomized in the parking lot of a Walmart in Thousand Oaks, California.

What the ADV bike offers is the most comfortable way to sit on a motorcycle. Feet below the hips and a modest reach to a broad handlebar is as sensible for the control of a motocrosser as it is comfortable for touring. Allied with tire technology that allows the blocky tread of an ADV tire to grip at astounding angles of lean, the ADV bike begins to look like the most sensible way to go touring. And it is. But not for everyone.

Some find the ungainly appearance of the ADV bike unpalatable. The funky tongue-depressor GS beak (copied by most brands) is not to everyone’s liking. The baroque styling of ADV machines—where crash bars and frame tubes zig-zag in the unkempt manner of copper plumbing inside the walls of an oft-renovated farmhouse—is far too jolting for traditionalists.

 

If a motorcycle, in your view, should have smooth, flowing lines—and a seat height a few inches below the towering saddles of ADV bikes—then the RT could be for you.

 

A perk for touring riders is the RT’s electronically adjustable suspension. In Road mode the sensation returned to the rider is very likely close to that felt by a slice of orange suspended in Jell-O. Magically, any sensation of the road below disappears and ride quality is mid-’70s Cadillac majestic waft. On a really bad road, of which there are plenty in Quebec, it was brilliant if slightly nauseating. Exacerbating the sensation is the Telelever fork, which doesn’t return the feel of a traditional telescopic fork. It’s not that the Telelever is flawed, it’s just that aggressive cornering is based more on familiarity with the machine than feedback from the road. (Curious footnote: BMW, in early development of its S1000RR sportbike, welded a Telelever to a Suzuki GSX-R1000 and sought test-rider feedback. No-one liked it, hence the S1000RR’s conventional fork.)

The cure for the vagaries of Road mode is Dynamic mode, which firms up the suspension considerably. Significantly more important than any suspension setting, however, is the performance of the heated seats and handgrips. The morning mountain chill, even in August, seeps through riding gear and burrows straight to the bone. In other first-world news, cruise control disengagement was abrupt, feeling almost as if the transmission was inadvertently knocked down a gear. And in the what’s-good-for-the-gander-isn’t-necessarily-good-for-the-goose department, the electrically-operated windshield, at its highest setting, was ideal for the rider but less so for the passenger perched up on the pillion pad who received the windblast. Domestic harmony, alas, remains elusive.

 

On a 1,600 km two-up trip through New York, Vermont, and Quebec, we averaged a little over 5 litres of fuel per 100 km (45 mpg) at somewhat above the average speed of traffic. (Heavy-wristed solo-riding returned virtually identical fuel consumption numbers.) With the RT’s 25 litre (5.5 gallon) fuel tank, it facilitates a range of approximately 475 km (300 miles). The base price of the RT is $22,050 Canadian/$18,645 US, and be forewarned that our test bike was generously optioned.  

 

If you’re unfamiliar with large motorcycles, the RT, at a claimed weight of over 600 pounds (270 kg) may seem bulky. But it’s still a few hundred pounds lighter than the largest luxury-tourers. On the road, it’s a willing machine to thrash, while remaining viable as a milk-fetching runabout for those times when a nimble machine is useful. And there’s something else, too, that remains a BMW hallmark—the farther you go the better the bike becomes. In town it’s OK. In half-a-day it’s better. Half a state away it’s better still. Why is this? It’s because the panniers are easy to open and close. And the torque is just right there. And the wind management works. And the boxer, when it settles into a nice gait north of the speed limit, suffuses the rider with the sense that it could rumble on forever, over the mountains to the coast and back home again without so much as breaking a sweat.