The motorcycle that carried me on my trek across Canada and up the Alaska Highway is a 2003 BMW R1150GS named Gunther. It’s the same bike on which Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman circumnavigated the globe a few years back during their infamous Long Way Round trek ; however, they were riding tricked out GS”A” (“Adventure”) versions. Not that this meant to impress you; rather it’ll give you an idea of what the bike is capable of.
Why not ride one of the bikes I already have?
Now, I already had two bulletproof motorcycles–my trusty girl (Wicked) Wanda, a 1982 Suzuki GS650G; and Suzi (a.k.a. Queen Bitch), a 1974 Suzuki T500 I rebuilt from the frame up a few years back. So why on earth would I acquire yet another bike for my journey? Well, to be honest, the thought of riding one of the current steeds out west did cross my mind, initially; and, if I had been riding just next door to, say, Manitoba or Quebec or south of the border into New England, either bike would have been viable. Wanda and I used to ride to Boston and back, sometimes 2-up and loaded down, stopping only to splash and dash along the way (14 hours in the saddle — ah, youth!). However, Wanda was 33 years old; and, while there’s no doubt she would have given it her best, I’d have been worried about whether the old girl would hold together–particularly on The Alaska Highway. Also, classic that she is, she uses carburetors to mix the air and fuel that get sucked into the engine to propel her down the road. As effective as carburetors are at sea level, they require re-jetting to operate efficiently at high altitudes (like, uh, The Canadian Rockies), where the air is thinner; and then again when you descend to sea level — it’s doable; but one more thing I would have needed to worry about.
Then, there was the question of capacity — Wanda’s 650cc power plant is perfect for a weekend trip through undulating hills; but hauling myself and my gear up a winding mountain road would have beeen pushing things to the limit. Again, that’s not to say it couldn’t have been done — in fact, many people do RTW tours on 650s and smaller — but, as with the carburetors, my approach was to avoid the risk rather than plan to mitigate it.
What about Suzi? Well, she was even less of an option for the same reasons as above — mainly because she’s a 500cc two-stroke. She’s fast and hot — designed more for track sprints than hours on the highway.
Then, there was the question of parts, should I need them–dealerships tend not to stock parts for old motorcycles.
Why the R1150GS?
For starters, it’s got power. There are these two, massive cylinders protruding from the sides. My approach to avoiding the risks noted above was to use a sledge hammer–an 1150cc sledge hammer. As expected, it was more than enough muscle to haul me over The Rockies fully-loaded. Plus, being a more modern machine, it uses fuel injection to squirt the fuel directly into the cylinders; and this is managed by a computer that’s constantly checking things like air density.
Parts were still a risk given Gunther was still 12 years old and is a BMW — meaning, while there are lots of BMW dealerships around that carry parts for cars, motorrad service centres are nowhere near as omnipresent. Still, a 12-year-old bike was less of a risk in this regard than one that was 33 or 41 years old.
Then, there was this bike’s reputation for reliability. Yes, he was 12 years old; but he was a 12-year-old BMW. The engine design has been evolved and improved since the second world war to the point that it’s bulletproof. It’s more than just the engine, though. The BMW GS has been the de facto motorcycle of choice for RTW tours for a while now. It’s not an off-road dirt bike. It’s not a low-slung highway cruiser. It’s a little of both–perfect for a blast across the prairies, over some mountains and up The Alaska Highway.
Beyond this, the bike is so well balanced, it’s a breeze to ride: You look where you’d like to go, and he takes you there, smoothly, effortlessly. Jawohl!
If there is one, generally-agreed criticism the BMW GS, it’s the weight. At 250 kg (dry), Gunther maneuvers like a Bison when moving at anything less than 20 km/h. This is one reason the GS doesn’t fair well in muddy, off-road trails. Oh, sure, you’ll find plenty of photos of GSs bushwhacking through jungles, climbing muddy inclines and traversing rivers. What you won’t find are photos of a fully-loaded GS on it’s side in the mud with its rider looking on helplessly. Know why? It’s because few can right a fully-packed GS that’s been tipped on their own; and where there’s a photograph, there’s a photographer to help pick the thing up.
While the weight was a concern, I was not planning any off-road excursions. That said, The Alaska Highway which can best be described as semi-paved with massive cracks and heaves and potholes caused by temperature swings between winter and summer combined with massive trucks with massive tires that continuously chew it up was somewhat of a concern. This “road” has a reputation of switching from smooth tarmac to golf ball-sized gravel, debris and potholes that will swallow a front wheel without warning. Was Gunther up to it? Have a look at The Continuing Saga to find out.