I feel guilty. It’s been over a month since I returned this BMW to Kissell Motorsports. It’s taken equally long to write this post. I knew I had to put something down here, so I began with an image I remembered: stopping, pulling off my gloves and walking across the road to take this picture. I was uncomfortable. Like Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World when they meet Aerosmith in their basement, I could hear my mind crying, “I’m not worthy.” I looked at this brand new BMW and felt like an imposter.
A mini-crisis of faith flickered to life.
I’d been warned. More than one dedicated BMW rider suggested something would happen if I rode one. A slight smile and oblique reference to some strange BMW voodoo. Hints that, once I put some miles on one of these machines, I’d be hooked. Thoughts of my friend Alex joining the Hare Krishna in 1973 came to mind. The usual music that plays in my head when I ride wasn’t there. All was quiet on the riding front.
I’m still not sure I can adequately describe what transpired, but I need to get past this post.
The BMW F650 GS looks at home in the central Pennsylvania landscape. On this bike, I began to think about the hierarchy of riders I’ve closeted away in some small place in my head. At the bottom, minibikes, mopeds and electric bicycles. At the top, those riders who regularly transverse countries and continents. The movie Long Way Round, with Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor circling the planet on their BMWs.
Was this really what I believed?
None of this would have occurred if the F650 GS wasn’t a fine, elegant machine. From the moment I heard the engine turn over to the moment I put down the kickstand, returning it to Kissell’s, I was impressed. This bike was well-designed, functional, powerful and smooth. I had nothing to complain about.
Well, almost nothing.
Starting out on a test ride with the thermometer reading 20 degrees Fahrenheit may not be the best way to critique a motorcycle. I’ve convinced myself that cold is a state of mind, and if attired correctly and focused properly on the task at hand (riding this shiny new motorcycle), the cold will melt away. So confident I was that I dismissed the need for my electric gloves (Gerbing plug wouldn’t fit the BMW port) in favor of the BMW’s heated grips.
A mile from home I feel a knife push on the side of my neck where the air found a gap between my helmet and ski mask. Another flow of frigid air inflates my one-piece Olympia riding suit, as air sneaks past the top of my left boot and on up my leg. The sun is out and I tell myself this is temporary. The instrument display still reads 20F. I switch on the heated grips.
Smooth comes to mind as I move down the road at 60mph. From the sound of the starter to the tires rolling on the highway, everything is really smooth. Shifting, cornering, braking. As if this BMW was designed purely to carry a rider along with a minimum of reminders of mechanical intrusion. I could focus on the experience rather than the machine. I think I was smiling.
Then my first minor complaint. An adjustment, really. I have to make a right turn and my left thumb automatically searches for the turn signal button. Returning to mechanical reality, my mind overcomes muscle memory and pushes the right-hand signal paddle next to the throttle. Unlike other motorcycles I’ve driven, which have one switch that operates the signal for both right and left turns, BMW’s are unique in having separate switches for each side. But by the end of that first hour of riding, the turn signal system is set in muscle memory, and it’s no longer an issue. That was the only mechanical stumble I had.
Fifteen miles from home, it’s still 20F and my hands are getting cold. I am really disappointed with the heated grips. No help at all. I pull off the road to park so I can warm my hands on the exhaust system. I put my hands next to the muffler and see it is well-shielded and gives off no heat. The headlights are recessed a bit and hard to get your hands on, so no relief there either. So I just wait awhile for my hands to warm a bit inside my gloves. The sun is shining so it seems fine.
This BMW is quick. With little effort it seems to be instantly traveling 75mph. I slow down and before long notice a farm lane, more my style and speed. Ice still covers waterholes and I make a mental note so the bright sun and dry roads don’t surprise me.
The ground in this field is hard. Frozen. If this wasn’t a brand-new motorcycle belonging to someone else, I’d ride across this big field to see where I’d end up. The F650 GS seems as if it would be just as comfortable off-the-pavement.
Cold hands force another stop by a red barn. Or maybe I stopped because I wanted a picture. While sitting on the motorcycle, pondering the switch for the heated grips, it occurs to me I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box. Apologies to BMW for any adverse inference about their technology. It was a minor miracle when I realized I had never actually switched the grips on. On maximum my hands were toasty in a matter of minutes. Verdict: Heated grips coupled with a pair of insulated leather or windproof gloves would probably be all I’d need for temperatures down to the mid-20s.
The BMW eats up the road. It’s no wonder so many BMW riders pile on so many miles. It’s just so easy. Pennsylvania has a lot of roads that reach out ahead with little traffic and endless sights. I’ve spent my whole life wandering in one manner or another, and I’m still in love with this landscape.
Back to the crisis of faith. Last Saturday morning, my friend Paul and I went for a ride. This time on my Vespa. The usual excuse to have breakfast somewhere other than home. We made a stop at the Amish harness shop in Madisonburg. While there, a guy pulled in on a motorcycle obviously configured for travel. You know the look – big Pelican waterproof cases on both sides and top, all those little extras that say “I’m headed somewhere.” And in riding clothes that reflect a lot of time on the road. In the back of my head, I’m already thinking I’m not really a rider, but an enthusiastic dilettante with a scooter.
During the ensuing conversation, the rider relates his plans to leave in a few weeks for a trip to Alaska with a friend. Sixteen thousand miles and six weeks on the road. Listening to him describe his trip, I’m simultaneously calculating vacation days at work and conversations with Kim that contain the phrase “I’ll be gone for six weeks.”
I can’t picture that trip. I’m not sure I would even want to make that trip. The F650 GS could easily make that trip. Before leaving, the guys says he put 97K miles on his other bike in the last four years. And his friend has 240K miles on his bike. I was too embarassed to make a picture.
I’m not worthy.
Looking around in the woods for morel mushrooms, I can’t help but wonder who these people are that ride so much. Don’t they have jobs? Families? Responsibilities? I wonder if I’m jealous. Mostly I’m perplexed about my own riding life. And this BMW I have to play with.
I love riding alone and this motorcycle embraces it perfectly. Riding through the mountains here I’m reminded of scenes from Then Came Bronson. He rode a Harley, but what mattered is a person on a bike, alone, and on the road. This is why I ride. How far is of less importance. There are myriad paths for a rider to follow, literally and figuratively, and my challenge is to figure out how riding fits into my life. Riding is part of my life. A quiet time-out. A meditation. But it isn’t my life.
There were a lot of paths I would have liked to choose, but time and good sense got in the way. I really wanted to ride across this bridge and up into the woods on the other side. I knew, like a faithful horse, the F650 GS would take me.
The crisis of faith triggered by this motorcycle stirred up all the stories, lies, and marketing messages I have consumed over the years. If I wasn’t crossing Mongolia or screaming through an Alpine pass, I was somehow missing something important. I was forgetting who I am as a rider, in favor of some idealized notion.
The BMW was at home in town as well, which is something I can’t say for every motorcycle I’ve ridden. The bike is nimble and easily navigates the streets, alleys and parking spaces around here. Well, I suppose you don't have to be all that nimble in a small town.
Add side bags or a topcase and this bike would be an excellent commuter. BMWs are allowed to be commuter bikes during the week aren't they?
So, here I am, at the end of this post. I wish I’d kept the bike longer. I considered telling Craig Kissell I lost it but that seemed wrong. If I had more time I would have gone on a real ride. Far. Take a trip. I could go anywhere on this motorcycle. Alaska didn't seem unreasonable for a few moments.
But for now, I’m satisfied with the choices I’ve made and the riding I do. This BMW will adapt to my style, or for someone who wants to ride around the world.
I bet there is space in my garage for one of these.