Photos by Ken Bell
If you’re sitting there stunned that a beard-y, tattooed biker would quote Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music, well, I’m not sure what to tell you. The second line, “Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me,” fits as well, and that’s where I am with the brand new 2021 R 18 First Edition I’ve been riding lately. Getting to know a new motorcycle is always exciting and interesting. Oddly, it opens an opportunity for you to get to know yourself a little better as well.
For example, a decade of wrestling my sidecar rig through twisty back roads and on long-haul highway rides has improved my upper body strength, but sitting on a cruiser and having to deliberately reach for the handlebars taught me a new appreciation for the latissimus dorsi muscles. I don’t mean to imply the R 18 is uncomfortable—far from it. I just mean the seating position and the reach to the stock bars requires some muscle retraining.
It’s been 20 years since I rode a cruiser, and my former Honda VT1100C was my freedom machine at the time. I didn’t own a car, so I rode the Shadow everywhere no matter the weather, which sometimes alarmed my coworkers. Coincidentally, the opportunity to engage the R 18 in an extended test came at exactly the right time in my life, as my 2005 R 1200 GS is currently down, awaiting brake system repairs and upgrades, and a parts breaker hauled off my 2005 Honda Element after it recently rusted to death. BMW Motorrad offered me the R 18, affording me the opportunity to directly compare two highly hyped motorcycles to each other, the other being the 2019 Indian FTR 1200 S I bought about 18 months ago.
The R 18 and the FTR are only marginally alike in that they are naked twin-cylinder motorcycles. The FTR has an upright seating position biased toward sporty, with most of my weight on the balls of my feet and my upper thighs. The R 18 has me sitting fully on my butt, often on my tailbone, with feet in front. While the hip angle differs between the bikes, the knee angle is pretty close to being the same.
Even with the break-in recommendations in the owner’s manual—no riding for long periods at the same speed and no going over 4,000 rpm—I’ve been having a lot of fun on the R 18. Eighty miles an hour on the freeway is 3,000 rpm in sixth gear, so I’ve never worried about being choked up by traffic. The bike’s torque in first and second gear is simply astounding; it doesn’t just pull at your shoulder sockets, if you really get on it, it can stretch out your elbow joints, too. It has THAT MUCH torque, it really does. Third and fourth gear are largely interchangeable, and fifth and sixth gears are high-speed overdrives for highway riding.
I’ve ordered a standard “high” (tall) seat to hopefully open up those hip and knee angles a bit and give my butt a little extra padding, and I’ve also joined a couple of online R 18 groups to see what other folks are saying and doing with their bikes. MOA member Ken Bell sent in some great photos of his R 18, as you can see here, and the one I’m riding looks exactly like his, only I still have the original gas cap (sorry to expose you on that, Ken!).
The only things I needed to do initially to the bike were to change the angle of the shift lever, rotate the handlebar to raise the grips up just a bit, and tweak the hand controls (both the brake and shift levers are adjustable, so it was quick and easy). I’m working on dialing in the preload on the rear shock as well (hiding it under the seat gives the R 18 a classic hardtail look I really like). Beyond these few things, I’ve done nothing but put gas in it and ride it. Once I get past the break-in service, which BMW says can be done any time between 300-700 miles, I’ll be able to ride the bike a bit harder and see what it can really do.