Friday, July 3, 2009

BMW K1200S

It was a hell of a trip.
The weather was less than perfect, and I found myself riding in temperatures as low as 60 degrees (15C), we got rained on, heavily, all the way from Florence home to Terni, some 200 miles (300 kms) through downpours of tropical intensity. But it was a great ride, and how could it not be on a machine like this?173 horsepower, a top speed far above the measly 125mph (200km/h) I managed to wring out of it on the freeway and barely any weather protection at all from it's magnificent bodywork. Cycle magazine in the United States rated this a top contender for sports/tourer above all other such bikes but I think they are crazy, because this is a sports motorcycle that is competing with all the junior league crotch rockets the Japanese produce to satisfy the speed demons who are much younger (and impecunious) than we old men.This is a shaft driven four cylinder speed machine that costs close to $20,000 in the US and thus goes for about half as much again as a comparable Japanese speed machine. It's also comfortable enough if you are able to bend in the middle and hoick your feet up onto the pegs. Seen here on Monte Amiata in Tuscany, a knob surrounded by winding roads and forests and ideal country for motorcycles. Getting this machine through traffic is another matter all together, though I found the instant acceleration to be quite the thing for roaring past people ambling in cars.
The saddle bags are of the expanding hard shell BMW type, very convenient but at a thousand dollars the pair quite an extravagant option. Mind you the whole machine is extravagant. It'll hit 50 miles per hour in first easily, 75 in second, and go way off the chart in the third. In Italy motorcycles don't simply get to lane split, they dominate the traffic. Car drivers expect motorcycles, especially sports bikes to ignore traffic rules like rights-of-way and lane separation. If you are riding something like this and you ride less than aggressively you just confuse other road users. Tail gating is expected and if you ride with determination people in cars will pull over to let you by.
On the freeway it is the most exhilarating thing in the world to follow a car at say 80 miles per hour (130kph) and as they pull aside to let you by, to wind open the throttle and watch the needle roar past 160/100 with no shifting required. It's quite astonishing how smooth and comfortable this bike is at 180/110, the only thing is traffic starts to drift backwards at you at an alarming rate at those speeds and the concentration required is exhausting.We only hit the freeway when we had to, as we were intent on spending a few days riding the mountain passes of northern Tuscany, the Alpi Apuane in Central Italy.We stopped frequently so we could recharge with Giovanni's favorite fuel, what you would call espresso and what he would call un caffe allungato, a "slightly stretched" coffee, a drop of hot water added to the espresso: Stir in a spoonful of sugar and swallow the lot in one quick go. Then take a seat, because drinking coffee at the bar standing up is cheaper (80 Euro cents, about a buck twenty in real money) than sitting down. While sitting and enjoying the view he would smoke, because he is a cardiologist, and check his messages from his hundreds of private patients eager to line up for an audience with their heart doctor:"I'm terribly sorry," he'd say to the dozens of callers," I'm on vacation for just a few days..." And then we'd get back on and take off for a few more hairpins and forests and bold panoramas:The K1200S is an amazing machine, fully computerized, with digital readouts of fuel burned, range before empty, air temperature and so forth. The right hand gray button on the left handlebar is the suspension control button with three positions, comfortable, normal and sport which can be changed while in motion to give a softer or sharper ride. The handlebars are heated of course which became necessary during the downpours we encountered later. This photo was a beech forest on the upper slopes of Monte Amiata. The location was so pretty I managed to prevail upon Giovanni to stop and take some pictures. His is the style of riding that likes to cover miles and stopping for pictures is a bit of an option for him. He accused me of being a Japanese tourist, stopping to take pictures of everything. I accused him of being a Philistine for living in such a gorgeous place and forgetting to record any of it. We kept riding.It always takes me a few days to get back in the swing of riding in Italy. On the plane back I listened to two Americans in the row behind me compare notes on this most fascinating and alien of cultures. They talked about the traffic and how scared they'd be of driving in it, but even though it looks chaotic the rules are simple enough.Look forwards, not backwards, and let following traffic take care of itself. Drive with confidence and let people know your intentions. Of course this is tough if you are caught in a free flowing flood of cars and haven't a clue where you are going....So would you take a left or go straight here? Quick- decide!I confess that when I took off by myself I got lost a few times diving into the wrong overpass or choosing the wrong tunnel to get out of the Terni city center:But Terni is a provincial capital of only 125,000 people and I remember it well enough to correct my mistakes, and with 170 horsepower under my seat it didn't take long to put right a mistake. Of course pulling a u-turn in streaming traffic is hectic with such a long awkward motorcycle. Whatever else it is the K1200S isn't an urban machine, with the rider all hunched over and the tiny handlebars and the wide turning radius making slow speed maneuvers complicated to say the least. Nor is it an off road machine either- far too slippery for even a little gravel: Giovanni's R1200GT offers an upright riding position and lots of weather protection. We swapped bikes briefly on the freeway but he couldn't take the hunched riding position. This is how he likes to ride: I would never buy a K1200S, as it is too specialised for me,but renting one for ten days is pure joy, in my opinion, in those mountain roads:

There are only two drawbacks to renting a bike like this. One is everyone expects you to be a hooligan on a such a rocket, and I am not by nature a wild rider. The second problem is that sooner or later you have to hand it back. My eternal thanks to Gianluca, the motorcycle salesman at Auto Capital, Terni's BMW dealer (0744-814841) for entrusting me with this bike. He was grinning like crazy, already working out what he wants me to rent next year, after I told him my wife was planning on coming too, and for a longer trip, perhaps a tour of Sicily, if Giovanni's wife has her way. Two couples, two bikes and ten days in the orange groves and Greek ruins of Sicilia.

He had to go, he was selling one of his last motorcycles on the floor at the dealership. Italy is in an economic crisis like the States, but you wouldn't know it at the BMW dealer! They are running out of GS1200's to sell. And me? I had to go catch a plane back to Miami via Newark.