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Light makes right

It’s been nearly two decades since I took off for a whole week on a motorcycle, so heading to this year’s national rally in Springfield, Missouri, had me a bit uneasy. Not only was I out of practice for such a trek, but I had to ride alone on the most intimidating bike I’ve ever owned. My R 1250 RS is fantastically comfortable, competent and user-friendly in many ways, but it also outweighs every one of its dozens of predecessors in my garage by 100 pounds, and I’m a small animal at 5’8” and a buck-sixty. As I’ve written elsewhere, low-speed maneuvering (and even pushing it around in the garage or parking lot) was extremely anxiety-provoking early in my relationship with this machine. With time and practice, I’ve grown more confident in such activities, but they still arouse serious concern, albeit with somewhat fewer fearful fantasies of dropping the motorcycle. Once moving at more than a walking pace, the RS now feels much less like a leviathan (of the sleek and fast variety, of course—maybe an orca), and more like a frisky dance partner, which has been a very welcome development. Still, I have a long way to go before I’m in sync with all its moves.

One way to discharge anticipatory tension in an arguably constructive manner is via obsessive preparation (“arguably” doesn’t always mean truly!). I’ve been taking some lengthy day rides to ensure I have the stamina necessary for the mileage I plan to cover on the longer legs of my travel. (I’m well aware what’s “long” for me is easily dwarfed by what many rally attendees and readers of this column take in stride on a routine basis.) I’ve been deliberately exposing myself to the season’s rising temperatures to facilitate the bodily acclimation process, and I’ve been spending time with my bike’s side cases, top case, and tank bag mounted and carrying various loads. This last variable is the only one giving me any trouble, as the added weight reignites the trepidation I felt during those first months with the RS. I wondered how much poundage I’d actually added, and realized I’d never before weighed bike luggage or its contents when I went on previous tours. I’m guessing few others have done so, so I’ll share my findings.

I’m using BMW’s standard plastic clamshell side cases outfitted with the robust Motorrad liners. My top case is a Shad SH48, also containing a bespoke duffel bag-like liner. Finally, I’ve mounted SW-MOTECH’s midsized Engage tank bag. Obviously, other luggage won’t weigh exactly the same, but these figures provide some data points to begin building a frame of reference. I’m terrible at guessing such things, but I found the total surprisingly high.

Empty luggage weights:

  • Left and right side cases, 8.9 lbs each (17.8 lbs total)
  • Left and right side case liners, 0.7 lbs each (1.4 lbs total)
  • Top case, 10.3 lbs
  • Top case liner, 0.9 lbs
  • Top case mounting hardware, 3.5 lbs
  • Tank bag, 2.4 lbs
  • Tank bag mounting hardware, 0.3 lbs
  • Total: 36.6 lbs

The luggage itself is obviously a constant; what’s packed into the luggage is the variable over which I have some control. Recognizing my longstanding penchant for over-packing, I read old ON articles by Wes Fleming on the topic and talked with him about streamlining this process (listen to those conversations on The Ride Inside podcast). Using his experienced guidance about what’s likely to prove essential versus unnecessary, I took my best shot at assembling an appropriate collection of things to include, with a modicum of cheating (additions). I tried distributing the content categories in my various compartments as he suggested, too. Before I even got to any issues of weight, I realized the sheer volume of my prospective cargo was excessive—too much to squeeze into my luggage. This forced the first round of thinning.

BMW R 1100 GS (03/2010)

Once I could close all the cases, I realized they were shockingly heavy in their loaded state. The second round of thinning was focused on shedding mass by subtracting items or replacing them with lighter alternatives. I was only able to lose a few pounds, but this was a significant percentage of the total. I also realized the weight was not distributed ideally using the initial categorical organization. I wanted the weight pretty even, left to right, and as much of it as possible down low in the side cases. At the same time, I wanted to end up with an arrangement that still allowed ready access to things I was most likely to need on my way, and minimized the number of bags I’d have to carry into the hotel. After multiple reconfigurations and lots more weighing, I achieved the following numbers.

Packed contents:

  • Left side case, 10.7 lbs
  • Right side case, 10.5 lbs
  • Top case, 12.8 lbs
  • Tank bag, 6.5 lbs
  • Total: 40.5 lbs

This brings the total additional weight of luggage and contents to just over 77 lbs., which doesn’t seem like a monumental amount, given it’s only half the weight of many passengers. Nevertheless, on a bike I already experienced as hefty, it caused quite a drop in my confidence level while managing the bike at low speeds, either from the ground or the saddle. I did as much riding with the bike in this state as I could in the limited time remaining before my trip, but unfortunately wasn’t able to increase my comfort level much. The RS still behaved exceedingly well once underway, with nominally (non-troubling) increased sensitivity to airflow/crosswinds and effective self-leveling by the dynamic (electronic) suspension setting. This was worlds better than when I used to strap a ton of clumsy, swollen, soft luggage to the back of a crotch-rocket and head toward the horizon! Nevertheless, touring with a pillion and their luggage seems just as impossible for me as swapping paint with Valentino Rossi on the Grand Prix circuit.

Just for fun, I weighed the gear I’m planning to wear to see how much it adds to the bike’s total load—not that I would cut weight by forfeiting protection. Again, I’m fairly small, so larger gear sizes will yield higher weights.

Gear weights:

  • Medium duty boots, 3.2 lbs
  • Uninsulated leather jacket, 5.8 lbs (3.6 lbs for lightest mesh version)
  • Uninsulated leather pants, 4.5 lbs (2.6 lbs for lightest mesh version)
  • Medium duty gloves, 0.5 lbs
  • Helmet (carbon-fiber), 4.1 lbs
  • Total: 18.1 lbs

Given the magnitude of these numbers, it’s rather comical we farkle-heads can spend enormous sums to shave an ounce or two with carbon-fiber substitutions. We’d save far more weight cutting out beer and desserts for several weeks. Yet the quest to “add lightness” is a worthy one, given the negative effects weight has on most any motorcycle’s acceleration, braking, and handling—and most noticeably in my case, rider confidence. Learning to pack efficiently seems like an extremely high-yield approach to keeping off unwanted pounds—certainly a better return on investment than anything the aftermarket has to offer.

Overlander Michael Martin, somewhere in Africa, with nearly his entire loadout on display. Granted, he has a sidecar attached to his bike and a riding companion … but still. Photo courtesy of BMW North America.

I expect my rally trip will yield a handful of other articles about various aspects of this odyssey, and I’ll provide an update on what it was actually like to take my fully laden machine on its first big adventure. Perhaps I’ll successfully adjust to the weight increase at some point along the way, or maybe my diminutive size and lack of specialized training in this area will preclude substantial progress. In any case, here’s hoping seasoned mileage veterans enjoy reliving some of their early touring experiences while reading about my re-entry (or feel happier to be on the other side of these challenges), and that newbies find something helpful in my accounts as they begin the steep portion of the learning curve.

Don’t miss part two: Lighter makes righter!

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.

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