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Putting the F 850 GS to the test over 11 days

Photos by Ely Woody

My first review of the F 850 GS came courtesy the BMW press-launch and was featured in the January 2019 issue of BMW Owners News. While I did get to spend a long day riding the bike on a combination of pavement and fun dirt in the wildlands of Utah and Colorado, it was on relatively enjoyable terrain and without the demands of luggage or camping gear. I liked the bike and was pleased with how it performed that day, but it was really just a first date; there were still many things to learn about the true character of this machine.

It’s now September 2019 and I am riding out of Manhattan with a crew to spend the next 11 days filming the North East Backcountry Discovery Route. Once there, we will explore country lanes, bucolic landscapes and dirt roads in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. I am on my Touratech-equipped F 850 GS, fully-loaded with camping gear, food, water, tools and clothes. I am joined on this trip by the usual BDR team members, including NEBDR route architect Tim James and special guests Jocelin Snow of BMW GS Trophy fame and eight-time AMA Enduro Champion, Mike Lafferty, now retired from a 20-year professional off-road racing career as a factory rider for KTM.

With any bike choice there are trade-offs. For adventure riding, it really comes down to two things for me. How light weight or maneuverable is the bike and how does it handle the load? Lighter bikes are maneuverable and easier to handle, but they don’t respond as well when fully loaded. Larger bikes carry the extra cargo effortlessly but require more effort from the rider to physically manage the heavier machine when the trail gets tough. I have always found the BMW parallel twins to be good middle ground for off-road adventures that involve camping off of the bike.

I soon found that the harder I pushed this F 850 GS in off-road terrain, the more impressed I was with it. This bike just carries the load well and feels balanced and comfortable even with full expedition gear on board. While the scale reveals the F 850 GS to be heavier than its predecessor, it has far superior manners on the trail. The suspension on the F 850 GS is so much better than the F 800 GS that you just can’t compare the two. That being said, the F 850 GS, like most stock bikes, is set up for a rider weighing 175 pounds in their riding gear and only 15 pounds of luggage. I am closer to 200 pounds in full gear and am carrying about 45 pounds of clothes, tools and camping gear on board. To handle the extra payload, I installed a progressive spring kit from Touratech Suspension to keep the bike handling well. I also set the suspension to the two-rider setting to adjust the preload to better handle the weight. I found this set-up to be perfect for riding this fully-loaded F 850 GS in an off road environment.

Having ridden all 10 of the existing Backcountry Discovery Routes, I can say with certainty that the NEBDR has some of the toughest terrain I have ever experienced. The Class 4 roads have more in common with a rocky riverbed than they do a dirt road. Some of it is exceptionally fun to ride and other sections are pure challenge on a big bike. As we roll onto one of the first Class Four roads things quickly got rugged. The soil on this 200-year-old road washed away long ago leaving behind a foundation of embedded rocks with loose shale on top.

It’s slow speed trials-type riding where line choice is key and carrying momentum is tough with your bike flopping around as it bounces and slides around on the rocks. The 21” front wheel and tall ground clearance (1.3” more than F 800 GS) allow the bike to roll through rough terrain relatively cleanly. Before long, this rocky section yields to tight and twisty two track, brushy on the sides and tremendous fun to ride. There are roots, ruts, bumps, jumps and all kinds of character which is super fun to play with aboard this F 850 GS. The bike felt planted and balanced, boosting my confidence.

Enduro champion Mike Lafferty was grinning ear-to-ear at the end of this section as it felt like we were on a “special test” section of a big-bike enduro course. These Class 4 roads are generally short in length but provide high-intensity experiences that cause all of us to work up a sweat.

Jocelin was riding her GS Trophy Edition R 1200 GS and using her magic skills as a rider to get that boxer through the difficult terrain. I was following her and Mike closely when some truly spirited riding ensued. We continued our play in the woods on these big bikes for days as we made our way north. On several occasions after getting through a particularly challenging section, Mike and I looked at each other and shook our heads in disbelief about how this 5-foot-1 phenom, who goes by the name Jocelin, could get her 600-pound bike through that gauntlet. The chatter between Jocelin and Mike was just as spirited as the riding. She would chide him for riding such a small bike, and he would make fun of her for bouncing that big boxer off of trees, which she did without even putting a foot down, just rolling on like nothing had happened. The Champ and I agreed, Jocelin is a badass.

I found myself needing every bit of help provided by the F 850 GS’s Enduro Pro ride mode on this bike as I chased Mike Lafferty, the real-life enduro pro, though the woods on his KTM 790. As the helmet cameraman on this project, I had to ride very close to the person in front of me to get the shot because of the wide-angle lens of my camera. Oftentimes my subject was Jocelin or Mike which meant we were riding at speed on technical terrain with hazards all around us. I had to be able to stop on a dime to avoid contact with whoever was in front of me.

The off-road ABS equipped front brake on the F 850 GS quickly became my favorite feature on this bike where good stopping power without losing the front end in dirt, gravel, or mud, is critical in this type of riding. The full-manual rear brake of Enduro Pro also helps you cut through the gravel and slide the bike around to initiate turns. Additionally, the bike’s Traction Control allows a moderate level of intervention from the computer to keep the back-end from getting too far away, while still allowing you to slide the back end around and have fun like you are on a dirt bike. I really liked that the bike retains this ride mode setting through key cycles so you don’t have to constantly turn off ABS and Traction Control every time you turn the bike off as I had to do with the F 800 GS. This is a wonderful feature.

I have little to complain about with the F 850 GS beyond the weight of this bike being high, relative to some of its competition. The handling feels lighter that one expects, but it’s still heavier than it could be. I did have to tighten up the steering stem a few times as the punishing terrain was taking its toll and the bike didn’t have enough shakedown miles on it before beginning this 1,700-mile ride. I also hit an embedded rock so hard that it severely dented the front rim and required a tube to be installed to finish the day.

As with most stock adventure bikes, the rims are soft and after this trip I replaced the rim with a Woody’s wheel which is much more resilient. On top of the rim, I did experience a bit of trouble with the seat latching mechanism and had to seek help from the local BMW shop to get that solved.

All things considered, this bike treated me much better than I treated it over those 11 days. I was happy with my choice of bike for this ride.

I believe the F 850 GS is one of the best choices for riding a Backcountry Discovery Route. It has plenty of power to keep the rider excited on pavement, creature comforts like cruise control for the highway, and heated grips for those cold mornings when you crawl out of the tent to see frost on the seat.

I like to ride fast on dirt. Like my friend Jimmy Lewis says, a rider’s speed is not limited by the bike’s ability to go fast, it should be limited by the rider’s ability to stop. This bike stops as well as any ADV bike I have ridden. The ABS front and manual rear brake available in Enduro Pro are perfect in my opinion.

This bike is balanced, predictable, and confidence-inspiring in challenging off-road terrain. It carries the load of full gear for an extended trip exceptionally well. When you find that fun dirt road with lots of character you will be glad you are on the F 850 GS.