SPLATT! A direct hit, smack bang in the middle of my visor. Here comes another. Splatt! This one’s even bigger. It looks like the daddy. Splatt! Again, it’s a bull’s eye and the front of my lid is starting to look very messy indeed.
But that’s what happens in the summer, isn’t it? Your lid gets splattered in flies. And this is summer. Well, as good as. The south of France in April certainly feels like summer after the wet and miserable weather we’ve suffered in our
The roads in France aren’t bad, either. Fast, open, twisty, with spectacular views. Best of all, most are surfaced with near-perfect Tarmac and the car drivers – well, most of them – simply move aside and wave you past. If you’ve never ridden in France then repeat after me: " I will go this year. "
But while it is sunshine and blue skies now, it was very different just 24 hours and 600 miles ago when we arrived at a grey and chilly BMW headquarters in Bracknell to start our journey to the sun. The mission? To ride three bikes to the south of France and back. The bikes were the flat twin R1150RT tourer and R1150R roadster and the four-cylinder K1200RS sports tourer, all of which have been updated for 2001.
The journey starts with a short but frantic blast to Portsmouth on the RT for the overnight ferry to St. Malo in northern France.
This bike is one big mother, tipping the scales at 279kg (613lb), and it certainly makes its presence felt on the motorway. Barrel up behind cars hogging the fast lane and it doesn’t take long for them to clear a path when they spot the giant headlights of the BM in their rear-view mirrors.
The journey is quiet, comfortable and event-free until we try and board the ferry. The foot and mouth crisis means that disinfectant mats have been laid to try and prevent the spread of the disease. They appear without warning as we round a bend at the ferry terminal and the bike goes into a full-on two-wheel slide. I’d like to think it was my amazing reflexes and riding skills that kept the RT upright. But I doubt it. However, somehow the bike and I slid to safety, with me shaken and slightly stirred.
Twelve hours later and there’s more of the same as the grey ferry doors open to reveal similarly leaden skies in France and some very grey-faced gendarmes. They’ve set up another obstacle course of disinfectant mats. I ease the bike across, helped by the smooth and responsive power delivery of the big boxer motor at low revs. But just when I think it’s all over, I hear the muffled shouts of the police and spot them, arms waving frantically, in my mirrors.
With my helmet and earplugs I can’t hear what they’re saying – not that I understand French anyway. Finally, one of the gendarmes starts hopping about pointing at his boots looking as if he’s caught a dose of foot and mouth himself. It becomes clear that I’m going to have to ride over the mats again, this time paddling with my boots to make sure they are cleaned, too.
This is more tricky and the front tyre squirms in protest. But finally we’re home and dry and on the road south.
The early part of the route bypasses Rennes and then heads out towards Angers, on fast, open country roads. The RT has been fitted with the 1130cc boxer engine from the giant GS trailie, a capacity increase of 45cc over its previous motor which has also pushed peak power up from 90bhp to 95bhp. But this engine is really about torque. And there’s plenty on tap in the real-world rev zone of 3000-6000rpm.
There’s also a new six-speed gearbox. But you don’t need to spend much time playing with the cogs and the digital gear indicator spends most of the time showing 4 on these 60-70mph roads. The engine also seems to spin up quicker than previous BMW boxer twins – the result of a lighter flywheel according to the company’s technical staff. That has also reduced the torque reaction – the swaying from side to side when you blip the throttle while the bike is at a standstill.
We pull in for our first fuel stop – the tank is good for around 200 miles – before heading out towards the west coast port of La Rochelle. Don’t ask why. BMW set the route to maximise the number of miles we travelled and it’s all been plotted into a neat satellite navigation device strapped to the tank. Slightly smaller than a brick, it has a full colour screen with a rolling map that tracks your progress to your pre-programmed destination. It can also pinpoint your location. It should be available as an option from BMW later this year for around £750.
After six hours in the saddle – and with no sign of numb bum – we hit La Rochelle and grab a quick bite to eat. There’s still a long way to our destination – and we decide to ditch our pre-planned scenic route and head down the péage to Bordeaux.
The grey skies have been threatening for a while and we’re only 30 minutes out of La Rochelle when the heavens open – big style. The electronic screen adjuster comes into its own here, allowing me to raise the shield until only a thin mist of water is hitting my visor. In fact, the wind protection for the redesigned fairing is so good it is actually causing my visor to mist up and I have to ride with it slightly open to keep a clear view through the spray.
We battle on at a steady 90mph and the bike feels rock-solid. For the first time 6 is showing on the gear indicator. It’s an " overdrive " gear designed to maximise fuel consumption and it means you have to snick down to fifth for any overtaking. But that’s not a problem as the box is very slick and I haven’t hit any of the false neutrals that seemed to have bugged Beemers I’ve ridden in the past.
The constant rain means my gloves are getting damp. But a flick of a switch on the handlebar activates the heated grips. I set it on high to begin with, but have to run it down after half an hour because it’s just too warm.
The RT is fitted with BMW’s newly-developed EVO brake, which is lighter and more powerful than previous designs. Slowing the bike is certainly no problem. And fortunately, there are no moments which trigger the ABS system – also standard.
Finally, the weather breaks as we push past Bordeaux and on towards Toulouse. The ride is steady, stable and vibe-free and it’s tempting to dial in more speed. But we keep below three figures. The French police are clamping down on speeding and they don’t need to catch you in the act. On the péage they can simply check your ticket when you arrive at the pay booths and work out your average speed.
After another fuel stop and 10 hours into the journey we finally come off the péage and use a cross country route for the last 60 or so miles to Albi. The weather suddenly perks up and we find ourselves riding in bright sunshine along typical tree-lined French roads. This is the life! The RT also gets a chance to show its prowess on the twisties. Pick your line carefully, stay smooth and the big Beemer can be hustled along at a decent rate.
An hour later we reach Albi – the sat nav system greeting our arrival with the flourish of a chequered flag icon. Nice.
Despite the long journey – we’ve covered around 650 miles since leaving Bracknell – I feel pretty fresh. There are certainly no aches or pains and the RT’s saddle is probably the most comfortable my ample rear has graced.
Chatting in the car park of the hotel is the first chance to really give the bike a look-over. The styling has definitely benefited from the facelift by BMW’s design guru David Robb. The front end is more purposeful and the overall impression is of a pretty good-looking bike.
Day two and we switch to the R1150R for a blast in the hills around Albi. It has also been fitted with the bigger 1130cc motor for 2001, though the four-valve engine has been tuned to deliver low-down grunt and acceleration. But power is still up 5bhp on the old 1085cc motor, now producing a claimed 85bhp.
Compared to the RT, the stripped-down, retro-style R feels lightweight. It still tips the scales at 238kg (523lb), but carries the weight well. It’s nimble in town traffic and the motor is responsive, delivering plenty of drive as soon as you twist the throttle.
It looks the part, too. When we park up outside a pavement café for a coffee the R wins plenty of admiring glances. Well, the French are supposed to know a thing or two about style – aren’t they? I can almost hear you chuckling now, but this BMW is a real looker and definitely a strong rival to the likes of Ducati’s Monster.
It’s good fun on the open road as well. As the temperature climbs past 60°F we head out in to the hills for probably the best three hours riding of the trip – bright sunshine, clear, smooth roads and even flies. It’s summer!
Like the RT, the R also now has a six-speed box and it is just as smooth. The standard top gear can be replaced with an optional " taller " sixth to improve fuel economy.
But mpg is the last thing on our minds as we wind it on through the French countryside. Grip the tank with your knees, keep a light grip on the bars and the R flicks through bends without any fuss. This bike isn’t all about speed, but the chassis, including BMW’s familiar Telelever front end, feels like it is.
The R also features the EVO front brake – which apparently improves stopping power by 20 per cent on the old system. It’s a bit of a wrench when we have to hand back the R.
Day three of the trip and we start the long trek north. This time we’re on the K1200RS, which has also been given a facelift for 2001. The formerly pug-nosed bike definitely looks sleeker and the air intakes under the redesigned upper fairing have a strong echoes of the famous kidney-shaped grilles of BMW’s cars.
Power comes from an
in-line four-cylinder motor, which uses a ram-air system to produce 130bhp. Torque is claimed to be 10 per cent up for 2001 and most of the grunt is on tap from 3500rpm. That translates into a responsive motor which delivers the power smoothly from low revs. A good job, because as we head out of Albi on the mountain roads towards the Dordogne, the weather takes a turn for the worse.
First drizzle and then rain turn the tight, twisting climbs and descents into a ride that demands total concentration. Not only is the surface wet, but it’s also pretty smooth and it looks as though the diesel sprayer has been working overtime. The greeny, blue streaks are clear to see on almost every bend.
As we descend towards the town of Villefranche, the hairpins become seriously nasty switchbacks, with drops more like a cliff face. Suddenly I start thinking about " chicken arms " . I’m riding in some of the most difficult conditions I’ve ever experienced and I remember some advice from a former MCN road tester about staying relaxed in turns. The test is to see if you can flap your elbows chicken-style. I can, just about. But the conditions focus my attention on the K’s suspension, which is a little wooden and could certainly do with providing more feedback.
The K also has the new EVO brake and ABS, though on this model the front brake lever balances both the front and rear brakes while the foot pedal activates the rear only.
For some reason I don’t feel comfortable using the front and find myself dabbing the rear brake pedal. When I think about it afterwards, it doesn’t make much sense. With the bike heading down a hill and the front loaded up it should be better using the front brake as the rear is already light. I can’t explain except to say the conditions fazed me a bit.
We take a 10-minute break in Villefranche. But it takes a few minutes before I can actually get off the bike, because I can’t find the sidestand. It’s tucked behind the rider’s footpeg and pushing it out takes a bit of getting used to.
Back on the open roads heading up towards the ancient town of Sarlat for lunch, the RS is in its element. It feels rock-solid and not a little fast.
Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, the weather goes from miserable to seriously pants as we blast up the motorway to our overnight stop between Limoges and Poitiers. Rain is lashing down so heavily there’s an inch of water lying on the surface and it’s impossible to see the lane markings. But the RS is unruffled and we manage to maintain decent cruising speeds.
The redesigned fairing does a reasonable job of keeping the weather at bay. I pull the screen up into the higher position – you have to do it by hand on the RS – and that helps.
The riding position is more relaxed than on previous RS models, with a handlebar design and low pegs that have you sitting fairly upright. After a couple of hours in the saddle only a fuel stop forces us to take a break. We might look like drowned rats as we slosh towards the filling station cashier, but I’m actually warm and dry, thanks to some new Gericke kit I’ve been using on the trip.
It’s another hour’s ride to the hotel, and the last part of the journey is completed in the dark on unlit roads. Once again, the sat nav system has been fitted and the glow from the screen is quite comforting. But the headlight on the RS works well enough and we reach the hotel without drama.
Day four and a fast 200-mile blast to Caen is on the agenda for the afternoon ferry home. The weather starts dry and bright and heading north on country A-roads is a blast. The best moment comes just outside Le Mans, however, on a new stretch of péage. It’s deserted in both directions and offers mile after mile of perfect, straight Tarmac. Will there be gendarmes waiting at the other end? I toss a coin in my head and win. The throttle is wound on and the RS runs to the red line in every gear, delivering a seamless surge of power. The claimed top speed is 150mph and it’s probably not unrealistic. And no, there aren’t any cops waiting for us.
But the weather soon turns turkey again and the last 100 miles up to Caen are completed in the now familiar rain, rain and more rain.
It’s easy to dismiss BMW as dull and worthy bikes, but sitting on the ferry back to Blighty it dawns on us that we’ve covered the best part of 1800 miles in four days without a hitch. And we’ve even had a little bit of summer, too.