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Oh – NOW I get it!

In nearly a half-century of motorcycle ownership, I’ve never been this enthralled with a bike—and I’ve owned 29, most of which were superlative examples of their types. I’ve also ridden countless others, on loan from friends, dealers or manufacturers, and even taken some of those on tour or to the track for more intimate evaluation. This is merely context for the gushing review to follow, not a boast about the breadth of my experience. All the glory here goes to my new (to me) 2020 R 1250 RS.

Mark's F 800.

I bought an F 800 GT last fall in hopes of doing some long rides in greater comfort and with more luggage than my bikes at the time allowed. Although I’d ridden BMWs in the past, they were all R bikes, and I’d never loved one enough to make it mine. The GT was a mix of the sublime and obnoxious. I loved its gorgeous lines, supremely neutral handling, relaxed ergonomics, and user-friendly—if not quite inspiring—drivetrain. However, I hated its buzzy vibration (arriving right at prime cruising speed) and the thigh-baking heat its fairing channeled my way. A combination of mods tamed the vibes considerably (but not entirely), and improvised ducting might mitigate the heat, but I saw no way to coax significantly more power out of the 800’s mill. Yes, the GT could be hustled through the twisties, where its wonderfully confidence-inspiring front end felt both nimble and planted, but I didn’t like having to row through the gearbox and wring its neck in the process. The bike didn’t like it either; such behavior was out of character, undignified. Burdening it further with luggage and/or a passenger seemed sure to require forfeiting the sport in this bike’s sport-touring mission, and I was never excited enough about those prospects to leave town on it for more than a weekend. Still, at less than half the price of a modern R-bike, I’d have probably embraced this F-bike’s compromises and kept it as my “touring BMW,” were it not for a 20-minute conversion experience.

My buddy Russ had also been itching for longer rides and thought a BMW would be the logical choice. He recently acquired his first boxer, a 2015 R 1200 R, and we promptly rode into the local mountains to check it out. Russ, a former road racer, is the more skilled rider by far, but he’s also patient and doesn’t need to bolster his ego by leaving me in the dust. Usually, I feel it’s good for me to push a bit to keep up with him. My 85% is probably equivalent to his 65%, so I get valuable exercise while he gets to relax. The contrast between our machinery that day made this characterization truer than ever before. I’d never given the GT such a thrashing, while he’d barely applied any effort at all. Since Russ will likely be my touring partner, this was a disquieting preview of how such journeys would play out.

Then we swapped bikes.

Even after hearing Russ rave about the R’s electric-motor smoothness, its bottomless torque, and stable-yet-responsive handling, I was amazed at his machine’s competence and how immediately I felt at home on it. A single pass through a section of our familiar route was enough to radically update my understanding of the boxer phenomenon. The last opposed twins I rode were 1150s; I loved their copious grunt and brake-dive-less Telelever front ends. However, I also found them awkwardly tall and frighteningly heavy in parking lots, gas stations and intersections (I’m only 5’8” and a buck-sixty). I despised those turn signal buttons on both sides and couldn’t reconcile assorted other weird quirks with the high cost of ownership. They were “nice places to visit,” but I didn’t want to live with one. I concluded BMWs were an acquired taste and their riders were a different breed. I wasn’t quite the same species, despite my fondness for that uniquely charming powerplant.

Mark's R 1250 RS.

To me, Russ’s bike proclaimed BMW’s decontamination of the R-bike formula, while maintaining the satisfying character of the older Beemers I’d ridden. Gone were the handling and control eccentricities, and there would be no more use of the euphemism “adequate” when describing (non-S-bike) BMW power; his R rocketed out of corners and pulled like a freight train as long as I could stay on the gas. I was sold, or—more accurately—I knew my GT would be.

Please don’t get me wrong, F-bike fans! My GT had fewer flaws than many other bikes I’ve owned, and I appreciate how its genuinely sterling virtues could easily eclipse my niggling complaints in another rider’s assessment. While in its saddle, I always wanted to ride longer than time allowed, and I enjoyed much more about it than I disliked, as I’ve shared here along the way. Nevertheless, those few disappointments really detracted from the overall experience for me. While admirable, the GT wasn’t exactly the motorcycle I wanted to take on tour, especially not with Russ on that 1200!

An S 1000 XR would no doubt deliver the acceleration I craved, along with all-day comfort, but I’ve had lots of inline fours in the past and have settled into an identity as a twins enthusiast at this stage of my life. If I was going to immerse myself deeper in the BMW universe, it would be done with an iconic boxer. Since I already own a sport-naked liter-bike, I wouldn’t be duplicating Russ’s purchase of an R, and a GS would imply off-road aspirations not in my touring plans. I’d lusted after the new RS ever since its release but had prudently dipped a much less expensive toe in the Germanic water by starting with the GT. Still wary from my mixed reactions to the old 1100s and 1150s, I’d been hesitant to invest serious coin in a new boxer I wasn’t certain I’d love, no matter how perfect it seemed on paper and in videos. Russ’s bike firmed up my confidence; surely the latest iteration of that motor would be even better. Seduced by the RS’s sexy contours, TFT dash, electronic wizardry and superior protection from the elements, I felt this was the model to bring home. Within 48 hours of my infection with boxer-mania, I was driving two states away to pick up a 6k-mile-young R-bike of my very own. Since before I bought the GT, my perpetual scanning of classifieds had kept me abreast of the locations, features and prices of every RS in a 500-mile radius; I was ready to pounce!

Alas, after this powerful surge of initiative, the honeymoon back home wasn’t what I’d expected. I returned from my first quick spin on the RS worried and confused by an incongruous blend of awe and apprehension. Was this really any better than my mixed feelings about the GT? Had I made an impetuous and costly mistake?

While the RS impressed me mightily with its turbine of a motor, effortless/limitless thrust, dazzling technology, and superb ergonomics, it bore little resemblance to any bike I’d ridden before, including Russ’s. Instead of feeling instantly familiar, as had the R 1200 R, it was alien and intimidating.

I immediately found the RS’s weight scary, despite the low center of gravity widely touted by boxerphiles as negating the ills of heft. (I recalled people in 110-degree Arizona insisting their climate really isn’t so bad because it’s “a dry heat.” So is the heat in your oven! 535 pounds is a lot of mass, even slung low.) Perhaps the higher, wider bars on Russ’s bike had obscured some of this with additional leverage, but the RS’s handling also seemed compromised by a horribly worn front tire (the rear was fine). The previous owner must have been a serious corner-carver, as the side was worn more than the center, creating a wedge-shaped profile with a sharp ledge at the transition where the bike began to lean. I hoped this fixable problem was what gave the steering a pronounced floppy feel that greatly compounded my anxiety about tonnage going to ground. Previously installed bar-risers added another layer of possible “distortion” to the front-end geometry I couldn’t parse. Lastly, I had to get used to the bike’s surprisingly soft throttle pickup off the bottom, accompanied by a much narrower and more distal clutch friction zone than what I was accustomed to. All combined, these factors made every launch and all low-speed maneuvering precarious and unpredictable. I did not want to drop my expensive new bike!

Exacerbating my dread was the route I (unwittingly) chose, an unfamiliar backroad winding over a cramped series of treacherously steep hills, replete with broken pavement and numerous harrowing hairpins at off-camber grades, all strewn with loose gravel. It made Deal’s Gap seem like the super-slab by comparison—truly one of the worst rides of my life. My main reaction upon returning home was relief the ordeal was over.

I pried on a new front tire and hoped fresh rubber and better road selection would cure my trepidation. When I got back out I was thrilled to discover proper handling had been completely restored. Removal of the bar-risers gave the steering a more natural/intuitive feel, too. In fact, I now consider this bike’s front-end among the very best I’ve ever sampled. These fixes, accompanied by sustained saddle time on healthy pavement, unleashed a torrent of pure bliss! Acclimation came readily and alienation vanished. I remained uneasy about the weight at low speeds and when transitioning through tight esses, but everything else about the bike made me giggle out loud in my helmet. No longer did I harbor any doubt about the wisdom of this purchase. I’d been worried about the cost of ownership. I had no idea how high a price I’d been paying by not owning one of these.

I jettisoned my other plans for the day and rode until dusk, then arose early the next morning to do it again, this time with Russ, whom I kept in my sights with relative ease. No buzzing. No heat. No dancing on the shifter and keeping the motor near redline. Just unmitigated euphoria of a distinctly sophisticated (Bavarian?) quality. The closest any motorcycle has ever come to this level of pleasure induction was my first-gen CBR900RR. My initial trip into the mountains on that featherweight repli-racer was a revelation; it was like riding talent you could buy. Of course, it was definitely not a bike I wanted to sit on all day long, day after day! The R 1250 RS is such a machine—exactly the bike I want to take on tour. It’s like riding enthusiasm you can buy.

Mark with his new bike.

Now I get it—no wonder the Beemer crowd routinely traverses continents! I’ve enjoyed motorcycle travel in the past, but never felt much desire to ride continuously for days on end. I guess I never had the right bike for it. Last year, my interest in longer rides fueled my interest in getting a BMW. Having this BMW now feeds back into the loop, fueling my interest in riding longer. Maybe owning a boxer many years ago would have made me more of a distance guy, maybe not. My own personal development and the evolution of R-bike design might not have converged until both reached their present forms. What I do know for sure is I never want to get off this bike.

Most of you have known this feeling for decades. I’m embarrassingly late to the party, and I certainly don’t mean to equate my newfound insatiability with the seasoned dedication to mileage of the hard-core among us. Perhaps I’m passing through a fleeting phase, or maybe I’ve been changed forever. At the very least, I have much to learn. Even though I’m literally a pro at getting human experience into words, I cannot yet articulate what about my RS has stirred up this unprecedented desire to chase the horizon, but I suspect it’s at the heart of being a BMW devotee. I’ll be doing my best to capture this essence in future columns.

For now, I only hope my account brings back fond memories of your own conversion experience. What made you join the fold?

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.