Hacking the Bagger
“Seth, we have much to talk about…” Seth arrived at our first meeting and set his motorcycle helmet on the table. My public relations person rolled his eyes. “What do you ride?” I asked, thus beginning a 30-minute conversation about motorcycles in which a trip was planned. Business conversation followed.
Seth Rosenblatt is a well-known technology journalist. He is a reporter and editor for The Parallax, a consumer-oriented security and privacy news site. My PR firm directed me to meet with Seth because my company, a cyber security firm, recently did some work that Seth would find interesting. Delighted that my new contact was an avid motorcyclist, I effortlessly accepted his invite to ride to BlackHat and DEFCON, the world’s largest cyber security conferences, with him and Paul Vixie. Paul Vixie is a well-known technologist and is largely credited with the development of the software that became the modern domain name system. The fact that you and I can type www dot anything and get anywhere is in part due to Vixie’s work.
The previous year I rode my 2014 R 1200 GS with one of my colleagues from our offices near Washington, D.C. to the same conferences, which are held in Las Vegas each August. This year I couldn’t afford the time to ride across the country, so I arranged with a colleague who had a new K 1600 B in Los Angeles to borrow the machine for a bit. I was already curious about this machine, which seemed to pander to a motorcycle audience atypical for BMW. I heard so many great things about the K 1600 engine, but had not experienced anything BMW beyond Boxer-engined models.
My plan was to pick up the bike in Torrance, just south of LA, ride the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to Santa Barbara, and visit a friend for a couple of days. I would continue on the PCH to San Jose to meet with one of my company’s advisors, also a motorcycle enthusiast. Following that, I would meet up with Seth and Paul to start our journey through the Sierras and across the desert to Las Vegas. All of this would be done on a sweet 2018 K 1600 B.
BlackHat and DEFCON are annual conferences focused on information security and hacking. Information security is self-explanatory, but hacking can take many forms. To those in the field, hacking is two things. It’s what the mainstream media correctly depicts as computer crimes and breaking into systems for profit or gain. It is also a technological discipline of taking things apart, putting them together, and generally making them do something they weren’t intended to do. For example, if you took a Roomba apart and messed with the software controller to get the machine to do a specific pattern in your room, a dance or something, that would be hacking. Lock picking is hacking. Convincing someone to do or tell you something they shouldn’t is a form of hacking called social engineering. In this way, hacking is not all bad, but a form of academic research into systems. Simply, it is using something in a way that was unintended by the creator. I planned on hacking the Bagger – sorry, BMW!
The term “bagger” is commonly used to define a cruiser motorcycle with bags. More specifically, it is typically aligned with Harley-Davidsons with hard bags, sometimes paint matched and permanently affixed to the machine. Having thrown my leg over a traditional bagger or two, I was perplexed as to how a German motorcycle manufacturer would approach this classification. Baggers are big machines, they rumble and roar, they ride in a straight line well, but are less nimble than a European machine. BMW made one of these? Why? Who is it for?
The Pick Up
My first impression of the bike was that it looked like a spaceship. It is big, dark and futuristic looking. Sleek, though, as sleek as a bike this size can be. The integrated bags are slick looking; even the passenger grab bars seem refined. The seat looked extravagant and integrated with the bike so well that I wondered if an aftermarket seat could ever work aesthetically.
I came equipped to ride and work. I had a backpack, helmet bag and an Ortlieb dry bag with all of my motorcycle gear. Opening one of the side cases on the Bagger, I realized I was in for an engineering exercise. Small and side-loading, these were not made for the trip I was on. Further, the grab rails were too sleek to confidently secure any hooks from the bungee net I brought along, and there didn’t appear to be any other place to fasten them. Sleek indeed. I spent about 20 minutes refactoring my gear and left behind the helmet bag and backpack, empty. Surprisingly, I was able to fit everything I brought into the cases. Barely.
As I first threw my leg over and uprighted the bike, I tried to put myself in the head of a traditional bagger owner. I closed my eyes and imagined what those are like. Loud, snarly, shaky and low-slung. This didn’t feel at all that way. I thumbed the starter and it sounded like I hit the ignition on a flying saucer. The six-cylinder 1600cc engine is smooth and unassuming. Timidly, I rolled on the throttle and rode this spaceship right into the worst traffic in the continental U.S.
As expected, the bike is a marvel of engineering. Unquestionably German, the fit and feel of the ride was precise. I initially struggled with the menus on the console, at one point turning on the seat heaters inadvertently—not something you want to do in LA in August! I had an ongoing issue with finding neutral throughout the trip, having to do the obligatory up-then-down motion to get it to click in. As I headed for Santa Barbara, I thought about traditional bagger riders on this bike and how they would be feeling. Shifting through the gears and finally getting on it a bit on the PCH, it changed from a flying saucer into the Batcycle. It roared and pulled hard out of the corners, surprisingly nimble for a 750-pound machine. It is a great machine, but not a bagger. I think the traditional bagger rider would find this machine to be too refined, too smooth, too German. I made a mental note as I pulled into Santa Barbara to call somebody who owns a dealership to find out who is buying this bike.
I spoke with Brian Carey, then VP of North American Product Management for BMW Motorrad. Brian said he feels, “The bagger’s primary appeal is around style and design, which is a new angle for BMW. Riders buy the [K 1600] GT for function and amenities; they buy the Bagger for the design, an appreciation for an emotional connection with style.”
Big Sur and the PCH
A couple of fine days in Santa Barbara passed, and it was time to jump back on the PCH to head for San Jose. One of my company’s advisors, Joel, is a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur and motorcycle enthusiast. and he promised me a place to stay and a guided ride to one of the Valley’s motorcycle hangouts for breakfast the next morning. On the PCH I witnessed some of the most amazing views I have seen on a motorcycle, navigating through beautiful sun and surf and the occasional fog bank. I also encountered the first of two motorcycle incidents I would witness on the trip. This incident involved a group of GS riders on the PCH, one of which had been rear-ended by an ambitious Mercedes on a blind curve. I stopped to talk to the rest of the riders to ensure they had what they needed. Indeed, they had it under control. My best to you fellas if you are reading this. I continued on, watching my six for other hotheaded car drivers.
The PCH is an amazing and ever-changing landscape. Immediately upon launching from Santa Barbara and heading north on Rt. 1, ocean views and epic sweeping curves threw themselves at me faster than I could consume. Time flew by as I mentally engaged on the turns into the straights only to shift focus to the view and then back again. The bike showcased its guts on these curves, snarling and popping as I rolled on the throttle out of each curve. The spaceship would morph into a dragon from moment to moment, gifting me cliff face and tide views rivaling museum paintings.
I arrived in San Jose to meet Joel and Yip. Yip is a successful Valley patent attorney and befriended Joel after filing a few of his patents. Yip piloted a Triumph Street Triple R and Joel sported a beautiful Ducati 899 Panigale. As we ate sushi and got caught up on business, I wondered how I was going to keep up with these guys the next morning.
Alice’s in the Valley
We woke to a typical San Jose sunrise. Temps in the 70s, sunny, fresh. We were headed for Alice’s, a staple Valley breakfast spot on the top of Skyline Drive. The parking lot on weekend mornings at Alice’s is packed with supercars, classic rebuilds, exotics and myriad motorcycles. We swung by Yip’s and in a few short highway miles we were exiting and heading into the hills. Rt. 9 is splendid, and early on a Saturday, you can fully enjoy the curves and scenery. I was ready to keep up and stayed on Joel and Yip as they snaked through the twisties. When we parked, Yip remarked, “Dude, that thing is a machine!” I was hoping he would give more credit to the rider, but he was right. The K 1600 motor is an engineering masterpiece; taken into the high RPMs it can be as sporty as you need it to be to have any kind of legal (or slightly illegal) fun on the road. Sitting at the table with two tech titans, the discussion turned toward motorcycle technology. The K is packed with it, much of it standard. Adaptive headlight, adjustable suspension, ride by wire with real-time adjustable ride modes, ABS, traction control. It is a data center’s worth of computer smarts on two wheels and powered by the lightest, most compact inline six-cylinder engine ever produced.
After breakfast, I returned to the bike to find it surrounded by local riders. They wanted to know all about it. One gentleman, a Honda Gold Wing owner, explained to me how to use the reverse gear. (I did not read the manual.) The general consensus was that it was a sweet-looking bike and many of the riders were unaware of its existence until that morning. “Cheers!” I yelled as I rolled off the lot to head past the famous Sand Hill road and onto the 405 to head to Copperopolis to meet Paul and Seth.
Copperopolis and Paul Vixie
While many California Sierra foothill towns were settled around gold mining, Copperopolis was settled on copper. It sits about 110 miles slightly northeast of Oakland, just on the edge of New Melones Lake and the Stanislaus National Forest, tucked along the western slopes of the Sierra mountains. Getting there was an adventure, as the 205 was perpetually backed up; I leveraged my newfound lane splitting skills to make my coffee with Seth and Paul just in time. I knew I was in the right place when I saw the vintage airhead parked in front of the coffee shop. It looked to be an early ‘80s R 100, but I couldn’t make the class of the bike. I walked into the shop, about to meet an internet luminary.
Anyone who has been in tech should know who Paul Vixie is; he pioneered the software and systems that allow us to browse the internet and send email. Having spent my career building and securing internet infrastructures, I was humbled to meet Paul. Unsurprisingly, our introductory conversations were entirely about motorcycles. I learned that Paul is an avid BMW rider, and the R 100 parked in front of the coffee shop was a 1983 police model which, after budget cuts, was relegated to the sales floor. Paul picked it up for a song new in 1983. The police modifications, which included improved suspension and carburetion, left the R 100 without the trailing class designation. It was simply an R 100, and unique. As we became acclimated to one another’s moto history, we received a call from Seth. He wasn’t going to make it, the magic smoke was pouring out of his bike on the side of the 205.
I am from Illinois and currently live in D.C. I have virtually no lane-splitting experience. Further, I ride smaller, skinnier bikes. The Bagger is huge. When I picked up the bike, I noticed the mirrors were wider than the bags, so I decided if the mirrors fit, I am good. It took a while sitting in the hot California sun on the interstate for me to garner the courage to lane split, but once I did it was magical. It helps that because it is common practice in California, the drivers tend to give you room. I needed it. That said, the bike easily cruised between the cars, and I gained confidence as it became a fun part of my trip. I found the lane-splitting experience to be challenging and engaging, especially since the K 1600 B is low-slung and superbly stable at low speeds, making it ideal for the task.
The Sierra Ride
Paul took the lead and the vintage airhead began carving a path for my flying-saucer-meets-stealth-bomber through the Sierra Nevada mountain passes. We started on Rt. 4, heading slightly northeast and climbed the mountain. The roads and views were epic yet fleeting for me, as I was still trying to get my arms around navigating with this machine. As we climbed nearer to Ebbetts Pass (8,736 ft.), the roads narrowed to a single lane. Much of it was vast stone on one side and a sheer drop on the other. I was reminded how much of a role the rider plays in how a bike handles as I observed Paul carving these roads with sheer confidence. I lagged behind, still timid on the K but gaining confidence in the maneuverability of the machine. The bulky impression of the bike had me worried on a number of blind corners. Paul masterfully navigated each hairpin, demonstrating the magic of a man who had become one with a bike he has been riding for 40 years. As we made our way from Rt. 4 to 89, heading east toward Nevada, my confidence in the K came to life. Every time I dove into the corners and rolled on the throttle on exit, the bagger would pull hard and let out a snarl. The electrically adjustable shield was in the low position and I could feel the mountain air, and the BMWs, old and new, dove into the eastern valleys through the haze of the smoke from the Carr forest fires.
We experienced the gamut of air quality on the ride. At the time we were riding through the Sierras, firefighters were fighting three major fires, the largest of which, Carr, destroyed 1,079 residences, 22 commercial structures, and 503 outbuildings, and severely damaged 190 residences, 26 commercial structures and 63 outbuildings. The fire caused the deaths of eight people, including three firefighters. All in all, 2018 was rough for California. There were 6,188 fires that burned an area of 1,489,473 acres and caused $2.8 billion in damages. Our ride through the Sierras went from crystal clear to whiteout conditions from ash that looked like a snowstorm, tainted with the smell of burning pine. It was a sobering experience and a reminder of how delicate and simultaneously dangerous the environment can be. My respect and hats off to the brave firefighters who went to battle.
We descended out of the Sierras on Highway 395 heading south, engulfed by thick smoke. At times smoke obscured the sun, the sky looming an ominous blended red and grey. The electrically adjustable windshield from the K in the full up position protected me from the deluge of ash. Benton Hot Springs was the destination, and as we pulled in, it was bittersweet. It was abundantly clear that this place would be a beautiful spot, but the smoke lowered a terrible veil over the landscape. Benton is a tiny town once serving as a supply base for nearby mining towns. Underground geothermal springs feed the wells and fountains, spouting clean, 135-degree mountain spring water. We unpacked the bikes and settled in. Beers in hand, we finally moved past motorcycles and into tech. Humbled, I listened to Paul’s impressive life experiences and how he adapted to changes in the tech landscape over the course of three decades. He didn’t ride the wave, he helped create it. Ultimately, Paul found solace on the bike from the hectic and fast paced technology space, as I did. We bonded on this and planned our route to the BlackHat and DEFCON conferences in Vegas.
Much of the ride from Benton to Vegas is what you would expect, desert. Temperatures soared to 110 degrees and higher. The roads flattened, becoming long and straight, seemingly existing as punishment for the amazing riding the day prior. It was on these roads I became acclimated to the forward footboards. I am not a fan of the foot-forward position of the traditional cruiser, but the K 1600 B offers a hybrid approach. The controls are situated in a more standard or Euro position that allows for an approximate 90-degree leg bend. The bike also sports flat footboards in a forward position like a traditional cruiser would. While I was skeptical, this feature not only allowed me to stretch my legs, but changed the airflow and allowed the wind to enter my armored pants’ vents more effectively.
Passing the Harley baggers as I rolled into Las Vegas, I was reminded to make a few calls. I called Bob Henig, owner of Bob’s BMW in Jessup, Maryland. “Bob, tell me who is buying this amazing machine that looks like something Batman would ride.” Bob reported that they had seen a decent number of Harley trade-ins, but a nearly equal number of trade-ins of GTs and GTLs and even someone upgrading from the C 650 BMW scooter. This bike is more approachable to buyers with a shorter inseam, and it offers a unique style. Brian Carey of BMW Motorrad told me many Bagger buyers were adding one to their stable rather than trading in another bike. I am a fan of this strategy.
The console read 113 degrees outdoors as we entered Vegas. I waved goodbye to Paul at an intersection and headed to meet some of my colleagues. We had seven days of customer meetings, hacker events and media interviews ahead of us. The bike remained parked during most of the conference week, but I found myself eagerly waking early and taking it for a ride before sunrise to enjoy the bike and the Vegas lights.
BlackHat and DEFCON
BlackHat and DEFCON are the world’s largest cyber security conferences. Each year over 30,000 computer security professionals, government practitioners and hackers descend on Vegas to collaborate, build and break things. On motorcycles (as well as cars), the systems that manifest everything from traction control and the fuel/air mixture to tire pressure monitors (TPM) and ABS brakes are centrally controlled by the bikes’ computers. These computers are susceptible to remote attacks. At prior conferences, hackers demonstrated how some TPM systems could be compromised, giving somebody away from the vehicle control of the steering, brakes and even windshield wipers. The systems in automobiles are strikingly similar to motorcycles, and these vulnerabilities could be present in our bikes. Conferences like DEFCON are a safe venue for the research community to discover and responsibly report these vulnerabilities and attack vectors. They are also a good venue to get your data stolen. My phone remained in airplane mode throughout the conferences.
The second accident
I left my Airbnb on the K at approximately 4:30 a.m. for a brief ride before Vegas rebooted and lost all moto approachability. My Airbnb was about a two-mile straight shot from the strip. I had only ridden approximately a quarter of that distance when I came upon a motorcyclist lying on his back in the center of the lane, his mangled bike to his right. He was talking but was clearly in shock. A Lyft driver had stopped and was comforting him, visibly upset that oncoming traffic refused to stop, instead driving around the vulnerable and injured rider. I blocked as much traffic with the K as I could and called 911. Frustratingly, the driver that had pulled in front of the rider was standing on the median shouting over and over to no-one and everyone about how it wasn’t his fault, “He was going too fast, 100 mph!” He was more interested in adjudicating his position than calling 911 to assist the human lying in front of him. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the experience was that traffic insisted in creeping around my bike and the Lyft driver’s car to proceed past the incident, sometimes driving within inches of the injured rider’s limbs and crunching over pieces of his bike. Perpetrators included a Las Vegas municipal bus, which I reported to the authorities promptly after returning to my Airbnb. I waited until the EMTs arrived, leaving them to their work. I sincerely hope the gentleman is doing well now. Be safe, friends.
Sandbagged at Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California covers nearly 800,000 acres and is larger than the state of Rhode Island. It is named after the Yucca brevifolia, an unusual-looking tree native to the Mohave Desert. It was given the nickname Joshua tree by the early Mormon settlers, who were reminded of a Biblical passage in which Joshua reached his hands to the sky in prayer. They are pervasive in the park and form sparse forests decorating the arid, sandy landscape. I had always wanted to check this place out, and the park was more or less on the way back to LA. I booked a couple of nights at an Airbnb nearby and pointed the Bagger toward the golden state.
Arriving in Joshua Tree, I faced an immediate challenge. There was sand everywhere. Even in town, the paved roads were coated with inches of soft, fine-grained sand. As I pulled up to my Airbnb the K came to an abrupt stop in the drive, the front wheel submerged in golden grains of Mohave dust. Recognizing that more momentum would be required to traverse the trap, I surgically used the reverse gear to back out of the mess and parked on the road. This was going to be a recurring challenge.
Each morning, I woke before sunrise, hopped on the K 1600 B and rode to a trailhead. The first day as I followed the GPS, it was pitch black. As I neared the trailhead I could feel the ground beneath the tires shift from pavement to mushy sand. I was riding a 750-pound cruiser in the dark in who knows how many inches of soft sand. I have done a fair amount of off-road riding on both small dirt bikes and large adventure bikes, and sand is challenging for those machines. I applied the same principles of throttle and eyes-forward focus. The eye focus did very little because I couldn’t see in the dark, but the K handled it with grace. In no time I was parked at the trailhead.
The hikes were epic. The desert is a freakishly quiet place, especially early in the morning. Amazing sunrises and temperatures cool enough to make the hikes enjoyable were the rewards for my brave off-roading each day. These early approaches were necessary, as the temps reached 110 degrees by 11 a.m. daily.
Each morning was a rinse-and-repeat of the first; I would ride from the town of Joshua Tree and venture deep into the dark desert, eventually hitting the pillow-like sand, then carry on with confidence and throttle control to the trailhead. I had hacked the K. I am confident that the engineers who built this machine had no intention of a rider burrowing through the desert at 4:30 a.m. to park in the middle of nowhere, strip off armored gear and hike for hours. Of course, neither did my colleague who had lent me the machine. I am sure this article will be eye-opening for both.
If you have never ridden through windmill alley in southeast California, good for you. Just don’t. Windmill Alley is the moniker assigned to the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm, a collection of over 3,000 windmills that produce approximately 615 megawatts of electricity. The pass was chosen for the farm due to a constant strong wind. I noticed immediately that the fully-faired Bagger responded to the strong wind current and the volatility of the other vehicles like a sail. I had to keep my wits about me to navigate what is considered one of the windiest places in California.
As I rolled back into Los Angeles to return the bike, I knew I had probably taken this bike for granted. As much as I appreciated it during the ride, I barely took advantage of what it had to offer. For instance, I never once adjusted the wind deflector vents or used the Sirius satellite radio. I never used the hill start feature, which if you pull the brake lever hard and release, it will hold the bike on a hill, only releasing when the throttle is engaged. Regardless, I was grateful to have had the opportunity to ride such a fine machine, even if it is a tad out of my genre preferences. I parked her in her garage and grabbed a rideshare to the beach to await my redeye flight back to D.C.
The K 1600 B, a machine primarily intended to have a strong aesthetic appeal, was comprehensive on the road. It was a strong performer on the interstate, seaside and mountain passes. The machine performed in the desert and even in deep sand, all while looking great. Regardless of whether or not this machine appeals to you, BMW Motorrad has built something remarkable. Ride safe and often!