MCN Fleet: Covid Travels for the BMW F900XR TE

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It’s my first big riding adventure of 2020. In a 'normal' year I’d have already clocked up thousands of touring miles but 2020 is proving to be anything but normal.

Like many, my dreams of far-flung foreign adventures have been quashed. Ever-changing government guidelines mean I don’t feel comfortable travelling to the continent but want to head further afield than the twenty mile bubble I’ve stuck to in recent months.

Scotland has recently re-opened its doors to tourists and having visited the Highlands in the past, I thought this is the ideal opportunity to explore a little closer to home. Sticking a pin in the map, I chose the Lowlands, they are around five hours from home and the scenery looks breathtaking.

Packing the BMW F900XR

With my route planned I head north, a surprising amount of traffic is on the roads. For weeks I’ve spent most of my time on quiet country roads, close to home, so it’s a shock to get stuck in a massive traffic jam.

Clear of the queues and over half my two hundred and fifty mile journey under my belt, I take a break at Scotch Corner Services. What a mistake! It’s chaotic, understandably entry is limited and once inside the building, cordons are in place, to help guide visitors. With face mask on and queuing for the loo needed, it feels claustrophobic and slightly over-powering.

MCN Facemask at the ready

Luckily the sun’s shining, so I head outside to a bench in the corner of the car park, away from the crowds. Refreshed and ready to tackle the remainder of the journey, I kit up and continue north.

I near the border, traffic reduces and stunning scenery comes into view, at last, I begin to enjoy the ride. I’m basing myself in Moffat, a small spa town, nestled in the Scottish Lowlands, with a reputation for being motorcycle friendly and loads of fantastic local roads to explore.

I’m only here for two nights and my home is The Buccleuch Arms, run by motorcyclists and designed to cater for our every need. I want to make the most of my time and armed with one of the hotels many routes I head out to find the highest village in Scotland, Wanlockhead, which is about twenty miles away.

Roads are near deserted, views breathtaking and I enjoy the freedom of being on the bike - even the moist weather isn’t dampening my spirits. I’ve taken the hotel up on the offer of a picnic, not all cafes are open and with so many roads to explore, it seems the perfect way to enjoy lunch.

I wish I’d planned a longer stay, two days barely scratches the surface and all too soon I’m homeward bound. I learn from the mistake of the service station stop on the way up and find a smaller, more peaceful petrol station to fuel up and enjoy my perfectly prepared picnic.

Five Top Tips for Travelling in Covid Times

  1. Guidelines and rules change daily, so before you set off check government websites for the most up-to-date info, in case of local lockdowns.
  2. I’m usually a bit off the cuff with routes but it’s worth planning and check ahead that cafes and fuel stops are open.
  3. If you need an overnight stay, book your accommodation, don’t take the chance of getting to your destination and not find a bed for the night.
  4. Pack a 'go-bag' with essentials. Anti-Bac gel, wipes, small packet of tissues, snacks and some water. You can always picnic in the wilds.
  5. Keep gloves on to fuel up. This can be a bit cumbersome but keeps contact with potential hazards to a minimum.

Where I stayed: The Buccleuch Arms, Moffat

As I pull up outside the family run The Buccleuch Arms, father and son duo, Dave and Clint Smith, extend a cheery welcome. They point me towards the secure courtyard, at the rear of the hotel. The secluded garden is decked out with biker themed flower arrangements and houses a row of motorcycle garages, along with loads of paved parking, for any overspill.

Buccleuch Arms

With the bike tucked up for the night and before I’m able to step into the hotel, Dave commences his Covid briefing. He’s quick to explain that they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure the safety of guests. Sanitisers are located in the courtyard and dotted around the hotel, along with posters that give gentle reminders of social distancing guidelines.

There’s a few changes to how they’re running the hotel and for the time being, the bar and restaurant are only open to residents. The menu, in the award winning restaurant, is limited but this doesn’t impact on the quality or quantity of the meals served.

BMW becomes a picnic table

Picnic lunches are home-made and plentiful. At a tenner, they’re decent value and a fantastic idea. I’m self-sufficient when I’m out exploring and with lochs, mountains and stunning countryside to discover, there’s an unlimited amount of picnic stops on hand.

BMW F900XR TE: The story so far

Update five: 1000 Miles and counting

Published: 10 August 2020

Riding the BMW F900XR TE

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here and I can’t get enough of the BMW F900XR TE. I have a tendency to be an 'all or nothing' kind of girl and with a month under my belt, I’ve already clocked up a thousand miles.

0 Miles

I’d got so much planned for the year but like the rest of the country, life’s constantly changing. Rather than my usual daily commute, all I do now is crawl out of bed and fall downstairs in my 'jim-jams' for another day in the home office - with the cat on my lap and coffee on tap.

With a new bike calling from the garage, I kit up and head out, to mock up my old commute. It may seem bonkers but gives me a reason to ride and a chance to get to grips with the Beemer.

It instantly feels familiar and the upright riding position is similar to that of the much-loved Yamaha Tracer 900GT I rode for 10,000 glorious miles a couple of years back. Seat height, on the XR is perfect for my 31 inch inside leg and the riding position is spot on.

250 Miles

I’ve taken to exploring the local countryside with bimbles around beautiful Rutland to enjoy, I’m not a throttle happy rider, so fuel economy is tipping over 60mpg. Fuel stops are easy, for once it’s a truly keyless ignition, unlike the Ducati Diavel I had on test last year, that had a keyless fob for ignition and integral key to open the fuel cap.

Truly keyless ignition

There’s a little lever on the fuel cap of the Beemer and once the ignition is off, it can be opened. In the current climes, I’m fuelling up with gloves on - to avoid any contact with inanimate objects - and it's easy to opperate with a gloved hand and less hassle than fiddling around with keys.

More long-term tests

500 miles

I’m being brave. I’m fifty miles from home, riding north to Scotland for the weekend! Naively I thought roads would be quieter but the A1 is at a standstill and I filter through mile after mile of stationary traffic.

It’s a chance to practice clutch control and the lever is in the perfect spot. At slow speeds, the bike’s well balanced and with the exception of the odd one or two vans, the mirrors slip perfectly through the gaps. One thing I do notice is the rear brake - it’s hard to locate and it could do with being about a inch up from where it is.

1000 miles

Tucked behind the adjustable screen, there’s minimal protection from the changeable weather but I don’t care. I’m exploring the heather clad hillsides of the Scottish lowlands and although not the best conditions, it doesn’t dampen my spirits. I’m having a ball, I’m 'out out' and it’s such a change from the recent weeks of near imprisonment at home. Now, where to next!?

BMW F900XR TE: The story so far

Update four: Back to School for the BMW F900XR TE

Published: 23 July 2020

The F900XR goes for some BMW rider training

I can’t lie, I’m a little nervous as I kit up and head off from home, on the BMW F900XR TE, to the World of BMW Rider Training School on the outskirts of Royston.

It’s a month since I was involved in an accident, which has dented my confidence and initially left me a little nervous on the bike. After fifteen years of near incident free riding though, I’m determined to return to my former, solo riding, self.

More long-term tests

What better way to quash my anxiety than to brush up on my skills with a day of one-to-one tuition with head honcho, Ian Biederman.

Alison gets to grips with BMW rider training

Ian greets me, with a cheery smile and, as I enter the modern building, I’m asked to take a moment to wash my hands. We’re living in different times and the guys have worked hard to ensure Covid-19 measures are in place, with hand washing on arrival, classrooms socially distanced and anti-bac wipes evident for when shared equipment is needed.

There’s a couple of learners and their tutor preparing for their day, they’re heading out to take Mod 1 of their test. The school caters for everyone, with CBT courses, Direct Access, Advanced Riding courses and the bespoke one on one Rider Training, which I’m taking part in today.

As Ian and I head into our classroom, we start to chat about why I’m here and what I want to gain from the day. It’s my day and will be tailored to my needs. I’ve got his undivided attention for the next eight hours. Instantly I’m at ease, Ian’s been teaching for 30 years and it’s apparent he’s a people person, he’s calm, considerate and listens.

Ian takes to the whiteboard

Over a cuppa, we spend the next hour chatting about my riding experience, what led up to my accident and what could I have done differently. I can see Ian is mentally taking note of areas for us to work on during the day. Initially, it feels a little random, but as I stand in the classroom doorway and start explaining what I can see, we’re already working on the observation skills, which we’ll brush up on further on the move.

As the day progresses, I feel it’s more a therapy session, than an advanced riding course. Ian’s approach is calm, thoughtful and shows his knowledge and experience. He classes it more as a coaching session, than training and I like the way I’m learning without being dictated to or patronised.

I’ve opted to ride my BMW F900XR TE but if you prefer, for £50 you can hire one of their fleet of brand-new BMWs. With machines ranging from the novice friendly G310R, through to the R1250RT, there’s something to suit all riders.

The schools affiliated to BMW (and I’m sure if you cut Ian in half he’d have the letters BMW running through him, like a stick of Blackpool rock) but he’s happy to teach any rider, on any machine.

It's not just about BMWs

We link up with intercoms and I take the lead. For the first five miles Ian wants to see how I ride. The centre’s in the perfect location, with undulating hills to the south, flat Fen roads to the north and situated between the M11 and A1, there’s motorways within striking distance.

The feeling of being watched makes me act slightly out of character but I’m soon in the swing of my ride. We’d talked about the types of roads I love to ride and start on my favourites; fast, flowing A-roads. Within minutes though, we’re down tight country lanes.

At our first debrief Ian is complimentary, but we both realise there’s areas I can work on. My observation is good but not as good as it could be and I’m also spending too much time changing road position.

Ian’s all about not muddling the brain with stuff you don’t need, ensuring you’ve got capacity to concentrate on the more important bits. For example, indicting to go round a hazard, when there’s only me on the road, is pointless. Save that tiny thought to make sure I’m looking that bit further up the road to catch sight of that hidden driveway.

Ian then takes the lead and he’s talking the whole time - explaining where he’s looking, why he’s in that position on the road and what his next move is. I take confidence from the fact I wasn’t that far out with my road positioning and my observations could be sharper but are pretty decent already.

A couple of hours on the road and I’m mentally drained. I’ve learnt a couple of nuggets that I’ll apply to my day-to-day rides and more importantly, I’m rebuilding my confidence.

It’s a safe, friendly environment and I can’t recommend it enough. Little touches that to blokes will mean nothing but to ladies mean a lot, like the basket of personal hygiene products in the ladies loo, shows they care about their customers. At £345 for the day, it’s not cheap but I’m a believer that you get what you pay for and the quality of training and friendly approach make it worth it.

Three things I learned:

  1. One area we concentrated on was road positioning to ensure you get the best of view the road ahead and be able to react to the conditions around. Something I’d never noticed before and not considered is to look at how road markings have worn. In particular - as you approach a tight bend - pay extra attention to the centre white line. If it’s worn away, it’s an indication that traffic cuts the corner, so position yourself slightly off the normal line, to avoid oncoming hazards.
  2. Observation is key and by the end of the day this had been drummed into me - reinforcing what I already knew. Ian commented that I’m more observant than a lot of riders but as he took the lead, and talked me through his ride, I realised if I’m looking 100 metres up the road, his view is at least half that distance again. Using tree-lines and spotting vehicles way in the distance help plan the ride.
  3. Vocalisation and talking through my ride; it’s something I was taught when taking my IAM course a few years ago. If you talk through the ride, it makes you more aware of what’s going on around you. It also reinforced other areas of training I’ve had in the past. Most importantly, it gave me the confidence boost I needed to feel that I am capable and that I shouldn’t be so critical of my ride. That doesn’t mean I’m over confident - just that I know that hopefully, should I get in a sticky situation in the future, I’m able to get out of it.

The Facts:

    What is it? A one-day one-on-one advanced rider training session.

    Price? £345

    What’s included? Tuition, both classed based and on the road. Bike and kit can be hired for £50, including full insurance and fuel.

    Where is it? Royston, Darlington, Exeter

    Duration? One day

    Where can I stay? Hotels and B&Bs are plentiful in all areas, ask the team to give you some tips.

    Do I need my own bike? No


Update three: Getting to grips with the BMW F900XR TE

Published: 17 July 2020

Ali gets to grips with the BMW F900XR TE

It’s been a strange summer for us all. With the Coronavirus crisis, delivery of the BMW F900XR TE was delayed and with lockdown rules in place, like many of you, my riding plans for the year have had to change.

I’d got ferries booked for a trip to the Outer Hebrides, a plan to visit my mates in Le Mans and an aim to take part in the Iron Butt Rally and Round Britain Rally. For now though, it’s all about rides to explore some of my fantastic local roads and short hops to visit family and friends (in a socially distanced manner, of course).

From the first ride, this bike has felt familiar and it’s going to be perfect for touring and long days in the saddle. It’s exactly the kind of riding position I love, too. I had the pleasure of taking charge of a Yamaha Tracer 900GT a couple of years ago and this bike feels incredibly similar. It’s upright, comfortable and although it’s smaller than the Tracer, it doesn’t feel cramped. One of the major differences, from the initial ride, is the screen.

Anyone who’s ridden the Tracer will know that wind noise from the screen is an inherent problem. Thankfully, it’s something the Beemer doesn’t suffer from. The XR’s manually adjustable screen has two positions and, at 5ft10in, I find that it doesn’t matter which position it’s in, the noise is minimal.

My only criticism is the adjuster, which is easy to use but is on the right of the bike. From a safety perspective, I suppose it can’t be adjusted on the move, but I'm not a fan.

One thing that has got me intrigued is the BMW Connected app and the ability for my phone and bike to talk to one another. I’m a complete technophobe and far prefer maps to sat-nav and normally couldn’t care less about using an intercom. But this year might be different.

I can preload routes into the app and then, through the power of Bluetooth, hook the bike up to my phone and directions miraculously appear on the massive TFT dash. At the moment, instructions can’t be heard, so I need to explore the different intercoms and see which will be the easiest for me to use.

I do hope that, as time passes, the world becomes a little more normal, so I get the chance to explore the bike’s capabilities further and head further afield.

Update two: Waiting for the BMW F900XR TE

Published: 22 April 2020

A BMW F900XR cornering

It’s been a funny old start to the riding season. Well, I say funny old start, I’m yet to turn a wheel on my long-term test bike. Like the bulk of the UK, and along with the rest of the MCN team, I’m currently working from home and the only two-wheeled action I’ve seen of late is my daily hour of exercise.

I’ve swapped to pedal power, so at least my fitness is improving and there’s a fighting chance that I’ll fit in my leathers when the need arises.

Talk about bad timings! I was due to collect my BMW F900XR TE the week we went into lock-down. So rather than getting to grips with the parallel-twinned beauty, I’ve spent the last few weeks reading the reviews of our Road Test team and busy planning, for when my riding gear can come out of storage.

One review caught my eye was the recent MCN250, where the Beemer was pitched against the Yamaha Tracer 900GT - a former long termer of mine.

Chief Road Tester, Neevesy, put both bikes through their paces and I was interested to read, the power delivery of the 103bhp XR is far more docile than that of the slightly more powerful triple in the Tracer. This will be something that should suit my riding style, I’m not a throttle happy rider and love the characteristics that twins offer.

One thing that was highlighted was that the XR isn’t as roomy as the 900GT, which is a slight concern, as I’ve signed up to take part in the Round Britain Rally. It will see me spend hours in the saddle, as I tour the country to take snaps of me (and the bike) at landmarks all over the UK.

I’d paid my £35 entry fee, been issued with the countrywide list of landmarks and with the Rally due to start at the beginning of April, I’ve been poring over maps at the weekend, rather than heading out.

I’ve planned for the XR to come with a sat-nav and I’m taking my time to plot the best routes, so I can cover off the most landmarks in the shortest period. As soon as the bike arrives, I’ll use all my technical wizardary to load the nav with my desired routes, kit up the Beemer with some essentials and disappear for a couple of weeks.

Update one: Introducing the BMW F900XR TE

Published: 10 March 2020

A side view of the BMW F900XR TE

I’ll spend the summer touring the UK on the BMW F900XR, as I take part in the Round Britain Rally, and racking up miles for my #ride5000miles target.

I’ve also planned a road-trip to the Outer Hebrides, where I may sample the odd glass of locally distilled Isle of Harris Gin!

The rider Ali Silcox, Office Manager, 50, 5ft 10in. 15 years of year-round riding, daily commuter.

Bike specs 895cc | 103bhp | 219kg | 825mm seat height

Read the latest stories causing a buzz this week in MCN Fleet…

Alison Silcox

By Alison Silcox

Office Manager and centre of the MCN universe.