"Challenger, you are go for throttle up..."
In space, nobody can hear you scream. Or swear. Unfortunately, I was trying to follow Andy Pearce as he carved through the Bracknell rush-hour, him on an 1150GS & me 5 minutes into my first ride on a 3-bedroom semi-detached house with integral double garage. Everybody could hear me swear!
It all started so well. I met up with Andy at the BMW (UK) corporate HQ, which occupies a large part of a trading estate on the outskirts of Bracknell, & we renewed our acquaintance with Kevin Pascoe, BMW UK Marketing Manager & one man off-road wrecking crew / wheel chock to the gentry. It is his extraordinarily good offices that have secured me a long distance test of this shiny new K1200LT, which forms part of the BMW promotional fleet. After filling in a loan form, I left my ST in his tender care, poured my goods & chattels into the capacious built-in luggage (including a carpeted top-box, if you please!) & climbed athwart the beast. Bloody hell! Legs wide akimbo, enormously plush, wide arse mated to even more enormously plush, wide saddle, it was time to push the beast upright. Good job I've got strong legs! Strewth this thing is heavy! OK, ignition on... in front of me the control panel, obviously lifted from the flight deck of the space shuttle, lights up like a christmas tree. Honestly, there are more little flashing lights here than in my office comms rack, & believe me, that's a lot of flashing lights. A prod of the starter & the engine whirrs into life. A prod of a different button & Radio 1 assaults my ears. Pushing a third button causes the electrically operated windscreen to partly retract into the hull of the beast, & two quick flicks of a fourth button reset the onboard computer & then instructed it to show me the ambient temperature in degrees centigrade. The remaining 30 or 40 switches, levers & buttons would clearly need further study...
OK, no more putting it off... into first with a loud clunk, & then letting the clutch out gradually, the 1200cc torquemeister stalls. Bugger. Try again & give it more gas - this bike redefines heavy - & this time, the leviathan moves under its own power. The mini-roundabout that lay between me & the exit of the BMW facility was an early introduction to the low-speed handling characteristics of the K1200LT. I managed to get round at about 5mph without leaning the bike over at all, feeling every kilo of the weight. Pausing at the exit & putting my feet down was an adventure - had this thing started to go, I'd probably never have caught it. Anyway, as Mr Pearce trickled past me & then blasted off up the road back towards his gaff, I was about to experience its capabilities as a traffic-buster... OK, reheat on, launch!
As Andy charges towards the first of two roundabouts on the trading estate within which nestles the BMW (UK) Bracknell HQ, I'm amazed to note that the K has the roll-on performance to stay with him. 1200cc of grunty motor ensures that the warp-drives are online if required, although the back wheel can be encouraged to skip alarmingly if it encounters any bumps whilst one is demonstrating this amazing performance. We then reached the roundabout, & Andy gently ambled round at lowish speed. To emulate this feat on the K required a significant angle of dangle on my part - which didn't inspire confidence for the travails to come, but I didn't have time to worry as Andy filtered down the outside of a line of traffic between the second roundabout we went across & the A329. I followed, of course - under the misapprehension that I was riding a motorcycle, albeit one which obviously needed an all-in wrestler to pilot aggressively - & very nearly caused grid-lock when the 18-wheeler coming the other way found me occupying too much of his lane for him to be able to get through. Fortunately I squeezed in a little further & made room, but the K is damned wide! Once we hit the front of the queue I used the presence of the beast to my advantage for the first time; Andy nipped into a gap behind the front car in the queue & I made as if to follow him into the niche he had chosen, despite the K being four times the size of the available space, but it miraculously opened up before me & I found that I could indeed slip in there. Next on the menu, a gentle sweeping right hander round a shellgripped roundabout takes Andy onto the A329, & I heave the K over to the right, & follow him, noting a disconcerting if brief scuffing sensation on the outside edge of my right boot, & then I'm briefly on the gas before braking for the melee that is the big roundabout which connects Bracknell to both the M4 & M3. Impressively, for something the size of a supertanker, the front end doesn't go boing when you brake, thanks to BMW telelever/paralever suspension, & the whole plot stops with remarkable alacrity. Later, in the spirit of investigation, I deliberately braked down emergency-stop stylee from around a ton on an exit slipway into a set of motorway services, & the bike stopped far more quickly than I felt I had any right to expect, ABS firing away sporadically as it did so. The only clue that they had just successfully hauled a supertanker to a halt was the smell of lightly sautéd brake pad that wafted up around the bike as I parked up a few seconds later, so I assume you wouldn't want to do that too many times in rapid succession before the whole lot faded into oblivion or boiled the brake fluid, but I'm not sure that's much of a limitation in practice...
Bracknell is all roundabouts, & in rush-hour it is all snarled up as well. Thus when Andy started demonstrating the traffic-busting competence of his 1150GS, dodging & jinking through the stationary traffic to reach the front of the queue & get into the unoccupied lane we required for the direction we were headed, I was not impressed. On a bike wider than a very wide thing indeed, such antics are not feasible. However, amazingly, gaps opened up as I approached, & I was able to apparently emulate Andy's agility with far more room at my disposal than he had; I suspect that a number of motorists were terrified that if I dropped the bike it might fall on their cars & crush them flat. I also suspect that in serious traffic, I'd have no chance, & I'd be sitting in the queue waiting with all the cage drivers. Still, at least I'd have a radio to listen to...
The rest of the trip to chez Andy was similar. It's a ponderous beastie, the K12LT. Whereas every other bike I have ridden has transitioned from steering to countersteering at somewhere between 5mph & 10mph, I was still steering the K like I was using the tiller of a barge at 20mph. Despite that, it was amazingly stable, smooth & composed from where I was sitting, although I suspect a little less so from the point of view of the suspension & tyres which must take a monumental hammering. In fact, I shudder to think about what might happen if the roads were wet or slick. I never experienced inclement weather on the K12 & I'm not sure I want to...
We reached the Pearce residence soon after & while he nipped in to swap bikes (he was off for a blast on his EXUP for the evening) I decided to head up the road to turn around. Now I know how 18-wheeler drivers feel when they've gone the wrong way! I ended up going right round the block in my search for a handy roundabout or car park I could swing the bike round in, & ended up back where I started & heading the same way as before. Oops! Nothing for it, then, but to turn round in an adjacent road, using gravity to help me paddle the beast backwards. It has a reverse gear, & it is more than damned useful, but it took me until the following day to work out how to get past all the safety interlocks & actually use it. Anyway, I got it turned around - which worked up a decent sweat inside full leathers - without dropping it, which considering it isn't mine, was the main thing. Actually, if it had been mine, provided I wasn't under it, it wouldn't have been a disaster; the bike is well provided with sacrificial crash-bumpers which the machine will land on if it does go over, so one doesn't write off the machine if ones foot slips out on some diesel or the like... getting it up again could be fun, though!
Andy duly appeared on the EXUP, & he led me back to the motorway, via a fuel stop for both of us at the local Tescos, prior to heading off for a hoon. By now the worst of the traffic had subsided, & the EXUP, which has been tuned to the bollocks & does 80 in first gear but apparently doesn't pull much at all below 7K, has a different perception of gentle cornering on
the Bracknell roundabout collection to that which the GS understands. What the EXUP regards as gentle cornering (and Andy really was being gentle, I was watching him - almost upright, any slower & he'd have stalled & fallen off) had me reet over on the LT. At the 40mph speed limit, the K countersteered like a proper motorbike & the bulk became slightly less overwhelming, but pitching that bulk into a roundabout is fairly buttock clenching all the same. At one, as I trundled sedately around at about 35mph, 3-bedroom-semi banked hard over with the double garage almost on the deck, a car made to pull out. Seeing two tons of teutonic iron bearing down on him clearly changed his mind for him, but had he done so, there was no way that I was going to be able to brake, & standing the bike up to try to stop and/or steer round the back of him would have exposed the lack of agility somewhat I fear. It was at these gentle velocities, & at one of the several roundabouts in Bracknell town centre that I managed to get both boots down in a moment of dramatic 40mph hooliganism. Or, to put it another way, I found the apparent limits of the K's ground clearance on both sides while gently circumnavigating & then exiting a roundabout at urban traffic speeds. I don't know how far one needs to go after ones feet are down before something solid touches down & it all goes terminally Pete Tong, but I'm not that inclined to find out. I do know that the following day, two up with Sue on the back, something metallic went down with a clang on both sides on roundabouts I was negotiating quite sedately, without my feet touching at all. Memo to self: If you ever go into a moderately tight corner at speed on this thing, make sure you have all your affairs in order first...
And so I waved Andy farewell & hit the A329 dual carriageway, en-route to the M4. Enough of how the K12LT copes with things it isn't designed for, let's see how it handles stuff it is designed for! The answer is very well indeed, but with a couple of big niggles & a couple of question marks as well. As the speed creeps up on the dual carriageway, the bulk drops away. By the time I'm doing 80 & wanting to do an overtake on a dawdling artic, I can just check the excellent panoramic mirrors (better than those on many vans I've driven), quick lifesaver, then drop the right shoulder to flick (yes, flick - sort of. Like I said, it feels much lighter at speed) the bike out for the pass, then a drop of the left shoulder to flick it back in again. OK, hit the motorway, dial in 85mph, & push the button to raise the windscreen fully. Except that fully extended it is still too short. I'm not overly tall, you understand, but with the screen at full extension, I'm getting a lot of wind noise in my helmet, noise which I can get rid of by ducking my head below the screen. I don't expect to need earplugs on a bike like this, particularly since I can't hear the radio while wearing them, but then I can't hear the radio anyway unless I do hunchback impressions, which are distinctly not comfortable for any length of time. This is a trivial complaint in many respects, but with no taller screen option apparently available from BMW, & nothing (that I've seen from a quick scan) in the aftermarket, it's a potential show stopper. It could be that the problem was a function of the interaction between the K's aerodynamics & my Arai, & that a System 4 would have been fine, but I doubt it. Either the screen needs to be higher or the airflow over it needs to be cleaned up in some way so that people of my height or taller can listen to the radio on the motorway. It's also not a shortcoming I would expect from a £14,000 or £18,000 motorcycle. That's niggle 1.
OK, 85 on the clock, engage cruise control! The throttle twitches under my hand as the computer grabs control of the plot, & we're maintaining speed, without me having to adjust the throttle position. Or even keep my right hand on the bars! Huzzah! No worries about my speed creeping up through over enthusiasm, it just keeps the whole plot chugging along at the selected velocity up hill & down dale, hour after hour. You can use it in 30 & 40 limits to maintain the requisite speed as well - which is a fine boon in our gatso-infested land. But here's the first question mark. Is this a good idea? It's certainly hugely convenient, & allowed me, in combination with the excellent stability of the machine, to stretch my arms out wide in order to help defeat an attack of 'sitting-in-one-position-for-too-long-itis', at 85mph in the middle lane of an empty section of the M4. It also rendered me effectively gatso-proof in 30's & 40's, where I always stick to the speed limits but am as vulnerable as the next person to a momentary error that puts 10mph on my speed in the wrong place & gets me a ticket. But I found that ploughing along at 85, I was less inclined to disengage the cruise control than I would have been to roll off the throttle, which I guess implies that it's potentially less safe, & with less to actually do, I suspect that inattention might be a serious risk on long journeys - I figure that I need to be much more on the ball on a bike than I do in a car, even on the motorway. Finally, that 30 or 40 thing. If I was a pedestrian, I'd rather people were actively taking responsibility for their speed at any given moment or location & paying attention rather than drifting along at 30 with thumbs up bums & brains idling away in neutral. Cruise control is the ultimate response to our speed-obsessed road traffic enforcement environment, & when everybody has it, I expect our roads will be far more dangerous places than they are now. All bow down before the great god of unintended consequences...
I paused at Membury services for a snack & then ploughed on, playing with the onboard computer. This is a fine device, like the cruise control an optional extra on the K, & I reckon that something like it should be standard fit on any touring or sports-touring motorcycle. It tells me that at present consumption levels I have sufficient range to make it home, & another button push tells me what the aggregate MPG figure is since I reset the device. By the time I hit Carmarthen I've averaged about 40mpg. For something this large, with a motor this big, that's not so bad, but nevertheless, as a dedicated mile muncher, doing a steady 85, I'd hoped for much better. Cars of a similar size manage it, why can't bikes? Gawd alone knows what the numbers would have been if I'd been Peage-surfing on an Autoroute! The following morning when I fired it up, the fuel warning light came on & I had to go & fill it up again. Question mark 2. Is this really as good as it gets for this class of machine or would more development yield better economy? How does the new 'wing stack up, I wonder?
I was halfway between the bridge & home when the 2nd niggle struck, & it wasn't one I was expecting. Comfort. For all its plushness, its sheer size works against it. Although by bike standards I found it had more in common with an armchair than a motorcycle, sat athwart it, I had no real opportunity to move about during normal riding. On the ST, there's plenty of room to shift your arse about, waggle your legs, stretch your feet & ankles, all while riding up the road. But, as with my earlier comment about the 'sitting-in-one-position-for-too-long-itis' which struck my upper body, I found by about Port Talbot that all my joints had seized up, & I had to go through some pretty radical contortions to exercise them while seated on the bike, & whilst I was able to stave off cramp & restore flexibility to my knees & ankles, I decided the only complete solution involved stopping & getting off the bike to stretch my legs. Which is what I did. I've never had to do that on the ST. Or my VFR. Or the T595 on the couple of occasions that I brought it up this way, come to think of it, & comfort was not the T595's forte (although perhaps its pathetic fuel range meant it was less of a problem)! Most surprising!
In the interests of research, despite the scorching temperatures, I tried the optional heated seat & grips during the latter stages of the trip home & both worked admirably. In fact, on the full power option, wearing full leathers, I had to switch the seat heater off sharpish & stand up on the pegs for a couple of seconds before I roasted my nuts... just the thing for a serious winters day, although I suspect riding in ambient temperatures sufficiently low to justify the heated seat might introduce the behemoth to surface conditions that it might not be ideally suited for...
Despite all this, & the wind noise which is certainly tiring, I arrived home in reasonable comfort. The last little bit of the journey, through Carmarthen town centre, was a pain in the butt, but at the time I thought that that had more to do with the fact that I was nearly home after a long day as with the K in particular so I discounted it.
The next morning, I resolved to properly test its practicality by running a couple of errands in town. It turns out that manoeuvring it round a poorly laid out provincial town centre is bloody hard work. Holding it upright at traffic lights on dodgy downhill cambers gets your muscles working, & wrestling it round tight corners is also excellent exercise. For the ringpiece, mainly. Having to find large spaces to turn it round in made just nipping in to e.g. the local backstreet garage to check on the current status of my Range Rover's crankshaft a bit of a chore. On the plus side, when I did park up outside, the entire work force, plus those from the adjacent tyre depot, flocked around to look at the beast. Presence it certainly has. Nope, wrestling the K round town in full leathers on a hot day is definitely a mugs game!
OK, so how does it fair two-up? Well, only one way to find out. Sue jumped on the back... well, Sue had to climb onto the back via one footpeg & then work out how to get her other leg across between me & the armchairesque backrest without taking both me & the bike over in a heap on top of her. Hmm. I wonder if the pillion is meant to get on this thing first or something? Anyway, destination the millennium coastal park in Llanelli, we headed out down one of my favourite scratching roads to Pembrey. Good, we can combine the pillion test with the scratchability test, although I think I already knew enough not to want to engage in any heroics, let alone two-up. The extra passenger was completely undetectable from the riders perspective, amazingly enough. As I've already mentioned, something metallic went down on a couple of the roundabouts on the way out of Carmarthen, but I do wonder whether if I'd wound up the rear preload a tad, that wouldn't have happened & it would have been my boot that went down as 'usual'. Anyway, off up the Pembrey road we headed, into the first national & I applied an appropriate amount of earole. That 1200 lump can certainly boogie when required. It's so torque-laden that it'll trundle along at 30 in 5th, allegedly an overdrive, without feeling too laboured, but start using some of the rev range in the lower gears & the good ship K has a surprising degree of get-up'n'go between corners. But scratcher it isn't. It took us from A to B competently enough, but it's tall, heavy, ponderous, feels all of the above, & stops better than it corners. The only line that works with the limitations of the motorcycle is the smooth sweeping line that minimises (for large values of minimal) the angle of dangle, whereas the line that maximises view, involving a later, sharper turn-in, would deck everything out hard in a tighter corner, & I didn't fancy that much. In fact, the amount of lean required to negotiate gentle corners relatively slowly restricted the view so much anyway that one's speed was severely restricted. Open corners, where visibility was much less of an issue, didn't suffer in this regard, but the absolute cornering limits are still very restrictive indeed. All this on warm, dry roads. Slippery wet ones might have been much less fun...
We returned home via another route, again with wonderful open roads ahead of us, & again I found it hard work, frustrating & less than inspiring. If my mind hadn't been made up before, it would have been by now. Which brings me, very sadly, to my second & last question mark. I was perhaps already starting to ask myself this question by the time I got back to Carmarthen
from Bracknell, but after an attempted hoon, it just to be asked. When I considered having one of these (or a new Wing) for my next bike, I started from the premise that merely for ploughing up & down a motorway, a car is a superior tool to a bike most of the time. Therefore, I reasoned, if I could get a bike that was more or less as good as a car on the motorway, it would still be a bike when I wasn't on the motorway & therefore by definition, more fun. For all of this thing's wonderful excess, & technological wizardry, the big question is, how exactly is it better than a car? You could certainly get e.g. a hot hatch for the same or less money than the fully loaded K costs, it would be more fun for scratching purposes than the K (what? a car more fun than a bike? By a fair ways I'm afraid), more use in town, better at load carrying, & frankly no less competent on the motorway. The K is better at... being a motorbike & attracting crowds, I think. But then, if I compare the K with my current Sprint ST, the luggage capacity is about the same (amazingly enough), the ST is sub-optimal but not impossible to live with on the motorway, & the rest of the time it's a complete blast from B-road to race-track & back again, weighs half as much, is plenty torquey enough & has plenty ground clearance to spare. Oh, & it cost about half as much. Therefore I’ve come to the following conclusions:
OK, the beast has gone back to its keepers now, & I have to say that I'm more impressed with it than I was when I wrote that reviewette. It got progressively easier to manage as I got more familiar with it, and by the end I was quite comfortable with its bulk. The hoon back up the A40
demonstrated that on fast, sweeping A-road swervery it can be pedalled with remarkable and surprising alacrity, although the weight and size are never far away and one works up a serious sweat so doing. I'm also sure that my statement that having a pillion on 'back made no difference to the bike's handling is wrong - the seat is so high up that while Sue really didn't make any noticeable difference in or close to a straight line, I think that even her sylph-like figure perched somewhere out back and above my head was the cause of some of my lack of cornering confidence and more restricted ground clearance in the nadgery stuff. It'll never be good at that stuff, but I don't think it is as bad as I found it on that run when ridden one-up. Lower speed, tighter corners will nevertheless remain its nemesis.
I discovered that it goes faster when one is playing Born to be Wild on the stereo, faster again when one plays Hawkwind's Silver Machine, and that any attempt to play Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries at full volume is extremely dangerous and should be avoided away from the confines of a closed circuit...
I also discovered that BMW do do a taller screen option - 6 inches taller in fact, it's huge, and I've seen it in the flesh (but I still can't see any reference to it's availability in the blurb anywhere - maybe I've missed it) which will definitely banish the wind-noise issues for people my height in the body and taller - see niggle 1.
So, if I rode mainly motorways, with merely an occasional foray into fast, waggling and swooping A-roads, then something like this would be more appropriate, the humongous and redundant pillion accommodation notwithstanding. If I was paying US petrol prices it would be even more appealing. As a town bike, or in the tight nadgery stuff, it is never going to be anything more than far too big and far too heavy with far too restricted ground clearance, regrettably.
I'm still very grateful to Kevin Pascoe for giving me the chance to evaluate the thing, and I look forward to taking an extended spin on the R1150RT. If that is what I'm expecting from the reviews I've read, I suspect I could find room for one of those in the garage, along with a TT600 for scratching and track duties...
Copyright © 2003 Ken Haylock. All rights reserved.