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km : First Ride

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27 July 2011

It’s no secret we have a thing for BMW bikes. A few of us have owned them, including an F800S that surprised many sport bike owners with its canyon carving abilities, and a K1200S owned by another staffer who suffered through a couple different bikes before finding true happiness on his Beemer. The recently departed R1200GS long-termer can’t be discussed without wistful periods of silence from the guys in the home office who were lucky enough to live with it for the last year. In those three different bikes we just mentioned exist three unique engines — an inline twin, an inline four, and a boxer twin, respectively — but our hands-down favorite is the iconic boxer of the R-series bikes. Drop that engine into a more sports-oriented chassis, and you have the R1200R.



For 2010, the dual-sport R1200GS received a significant power upgrade in the form of new cylinder heads of the same design used on BMW’s semi-exotic HP2 Sport. The changes took power from 105 hp at 7500 rpm to 109 at 7750. Torque improved as well, jumping from 85 at 5750 rpm to 88 at 6000. For 2011, BMW upgraded the rest of the R1200 lineup, including its naked roadster, the R1200R. Additionally, tweaks were made to the Telelever front and Paralever rear suspensions, both stiffened for better response. Add the latest version of ABS, traction control, and, oh yes, stability control, and you’ve got a machine BMW touts as the cutting edge for motorcycle safety. So, despite a low-key, traditional look, the 2011 R1200R is cutting-edge tech.



It can be hard to tell one naked bike from another these days by a quick glance alone, but with that boxer motor sticking out, the R1200R can’t be mistaken for anything but a Beemer. Stripped of any plastic addenda, this bike has major presence. Jumping in the saddle is a promising moment. Newly updated and clearly laid-out gauges sit in front of you, with a classic two-pod tach and speedo setup capped by black gauge faces and white lettering. The trip computer, fuel and temp gauges, and a host of warning lights sit nestled between. The riser bars allow a real heads-up riding style, like all the good touring Beemers.



Our bike came equipped with Bridgestone Battlax BT21 tires, a sport-touring tire that leans heavily toward sport. Under way on the surface streets of LA, the bike is surprisingly stiff compared to its GS brothers; broken pavement causes strong rebound, as a result of a front tire that deflects little from side to side. Once up to speed, as we start taking corners, the front end is so solid we have trouble trusting it initially, convinced we’re not getting enough feedback compared to bikes with a conventional telescoping front suspension.



Torque delivery is immediate, making the roadster version of the R1200 a pretty ideal choice for commuting. Splitting lanes to move to the front at a stoplight, it’s hard not to worry about scraping off a cylinder head as we glide between a Range Rover and a food truck, although there’s comfort it that additional width in the form of ankle protection. In reality it’s less than the span of the mirrors, and the bike displays exceptional low-speed balance as we crawl up to the front — the boxer motor’s low center of gravity coupled with the unwavering front wheel make this bike a master of precision low-speed maneuvering.



Our favorite spot for testing sportier bikes has always been Angeles Crest Highway, northeast of Los Angeles. For the better part of the last two years, this local legend has been closed for massive reconstruction following a major wildfire and the subsequent landslides that resulted from the scorched earth. But this freshly repaved and much improved twisted ribbon of glorious asphalt reopened the very day we picked up the R1200R. Coincidence? More like a direct command from the gods.



Before we even got to that dream stretch, we took a more familiar route to get in tune with new R. Mulholland Drive has unintentionally become an excellent test route of a different kind — not because of its fantastic multitude of turns, but because it has deteriorated quickly with the recent rain storms and mudslides, and it’s never been a forgiving road. Multiple cracks, small sinkholes from the earth crumbling underneath, and sloppy patch jobs at the most unfortunate places all add up to an extremely demanding ride if you’re attempting to keep a brisk pace. Most bikes lose their composure — and grip — all too quickly.



Here, the R1200R was in its element. The front suspension, which seemed overly stiff initially, proved particularly good at keeping the front wheel in contact with the remnants of the road, no matter how severe the ridge or pavement break. Rebound was instant and perfectly judged, the steering wobble-free; it only took one quick run to realize how trustworthy the Beemer was in this imperfect situation.



On faster, smoother canyon roads, the R1200R lived up to its initial promise. We were able to toss it way down in the corners — once we’d gotten over the unfounded fear about scraping cylinder heads — letting the bike quickly take its set through the turn and getting in the throttle early and hard to scoot out of the corner, taking advantage of the big torque and excellent grip. The motor makes power everywhere, but it’s so smooth that we found ourselves hitting the 8500-rpm rev limiter easily, the engine never straining nor complaining as we pushed it all the way through the tach. The accuracy of the steering and the overall stability made it easy to hit our apexes again and again.



On a run to Little Tujunga Canyon and up to Angeles Crest, the Beemer was great for an all-day ride. Wide open on the brand new pavement, we could fly; braking at the very last possible moment over and over had no affect on the R. This 109-hp Beemer can’t quite match the straightaway pace of some of the high-revving sport bikes, but under braking and through a corner, the bike is precise. Leaned over, hanging off the side, the R1200R rewards with its solidity, locking into its line cleanly. And after a good hour of intense riding, it’s still infinitely more comfortable than a true sport bike, so we were able to keep going while the guys on race-reps needed a timeout.



Bikes like Triumph’s Speed Triple and Ducati’s Monster 1100 are logical alternatives — both good naked bikes with plenty of character — but the Beemer offers a level of sophistication and maturity that the others don’t even shoot for. It’s priced appropriately, as well, starting at $12,900. Its real competition, however, may come from within the family, where it sits between the more docile inline-twin F800R and the raucous four-cylinder S1000RR. Of course, neither of them delivers the quintessential boxer experience we love so much.


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