Luxist Attends the BMW Performance Center Motorcycle School
BMW invited Luxist to its Performance Center in Spartanburg for some lessons on how to ride and how to drive. The idea was that we would hone a few things we did know and learn a few things we didn't, guided by some of the best instructors and piloting some of the best machinery in the business. The first day we tackled -- sometimes literally -- motorcycles. It was a cool, rainy morning in Greenville, South Carolina when we straddled the BMW F 650 GS for an education in 2-wheeled manners. It would also turn out to be a wet, muddy, and thoroughly rewarding workout.
Gallery: BMW R 1200 GS
Gallery: BMW F 650 GS
It is intriguing to note the gap in brand perception and understanding between BMW cars and BMW motorcycles in America: so, so close, and yet... Comedian Chris Rock said of drugs, "People don't sell drugs. Drugs sell themselves." The same could almost be said of BMW cars; and based on the relationships not a few owners have with their BMW's, the comparison is closer than some might first think.
The spearheading 3 Series and its stablemates in tow sell practically on reputation and a 26-year-old hook ("The Ultimate...") just as much as their styling and dynamic ability. We could say "We drove the BMW Gobbledygook 46xti today," and although you'd have no idea what we were talking about, once we told you it was BMW's new car you'd have a pretty good idea of everything it stood for and who its intended buyers are. It's a BMW. What more do you need to know?
When it comes to BMW motorcycles, the case is more complex. We can still start off with "It's a BMW," and at that point you know, "All right, it must be good." And then... blank. What does a BMW motorcycle stand for? We'd venture to say that most BMW car owners don't even know. And you know who we can blame for that? Vanilla Ice.
Well, we can't blame this all on him, so we'll throw in John Travolta to keep him rightful company. American motorcycle culture and perceptions are far more informed by Mr. Ice and the Wild Hogs bunch than Ewan McGregor and dusty roads of The Motorcycle Diaries. For the most part, U.S. riders want to check these three boxes: looks cool, makes noise, chicks dig it. Kawasaki and its sport bike brethren, and Those Harley Things generally get the job done there. BMW, uh, not really.
The U.S. is also lacking the enduro scene that have helped earn BMW motorcycles their reputations. It's nothing to ride your bike from Palos Verdes to the Palisades every weekend. It'll be a long while before you meet someone packed up and headed to Panama on two wheels. That's where a BMW bike begins to glow.
Dare we say it, but BMW motorcycles are the Audi cars of the U.S. scene. You need to invest the time to understand them, get to know them, before you can fully appreciate them. BMW cars are The Ultimate insert-adjective-and-noun-here -- it's impossible not to understand that. Audi cars are "Vorsprung durch Technik," commonly translated as "What?" Yet the "technik" school is where the BMW lives: it calls its bike division "Motorrad." That means "motorcycle" in German, but to most American riders translates simply as "pretentious."
It doesn't however, necessarily equal 'pretty.' Neither BMW motorcycles nor Audi cars are the ostentatious kind, but if you appreciate design and respect an object that has put special things in special places for special reasons, then their pleasures are correspondingly deep, because BMW bikes are bursting with creatively packaged technology. Frankly, so is a Ducati. But a Ducati looks cool, makes noise, and women dig them. And it's red. And Italian. BMW bikes are... literally bursting with technology. No, really. Bursting.
You see the predicament. That's why a gent who's run a BMW car blog for years and just got around to discussing BMW bikes wrote, "The guys I talked to said you basically had to be a gadget freak or an engineer to really love and understand the Beamers."
Thankfully, you don't need to be a freak of any kind, nor an engineer: all you need is the love of a good ride, because if there's anything BMW cars and bikes have in common, it's fantastic riding.
To the day, then: there are on-road and off-road courses offered at the Performance Center, and we'd be sampling both. The road portion is meant to develop basic skills so you can ride on the pavement without denting yourself, anyone else, or the countryside. The off-road course is designed to maximize your ability on unpaved surfaces. Each is limited in size and comprises both classroom and outdoor instruction.
Our first mount was the BMW F 650 GS. Streetbikes in the 600-cc class can be handfuls for beginning riders because of their horsepower and immediate handling. The 50-hp dual-sport BMW, however, was the perfect steed, ostensibly down on power but serving up every acceleration with alacrity and attending to maneuvers with a dressage-like deference. We tackled several skills tests on an oval portion of the circuit and pretended to synchronized riding routines -- one hand in the air, then one leg in the air, then stepping over the bike on the go to put both feet on one side. This helps you get used to the bike, and it lets the instructors know who's already got The Right Stuff, and who's there to get it. We were there to get it.
After that were organized rotations of trials, such as the slalom, and working on skills like the 4-punch combo of signal-look-brake-turn, and safely swerving around a sudden obstacle. Perhaps the most telling trial was when we tested the ABS brakes with which BMW bikes are equipped. Normally, asking a motorcyclist to slam on both his brakes, in the wet, would be the same as asking him "See that alligator over there, looking at us? I want you to kill it. With your teeth." He might do it, but only if the other option is even uglier.
In fact, some of the more experienced riders in the group had the hardest time with the ABS exercise since they have spent years training themselves not to drop all the anchors in the wet. After testing it out a few times, though, you realize not only is it pretty cool that your brakes don't lock up, it's a lifesaver.
We spent the morning on the F 650 GS, but just before the afternoon break for libations and vittles we climbed on the F 1200 GS. As soon as we pulled out, the reaction was instant: um, yes. The 650 was plenty, like a 3 Series would be plenty. The 1200 was like something from another side of BMW's stable: a Rolls. Imagine if you took a Rolls-Royce Phantom, affixed an impossibly comfortable chair to the hood and sat in it, strapped on some goggles and hoisted a set of handlebars just for verisimilitude, then told your chauffer to drive. That's what it's like to ride the 1200 GS. It is like riding a sweet, wonderful wave of Devonshire cream. Without the clean-up that would be required if you actually did such a thing.
Gallery: 2010 BMW R 1200 RT
After being pried off the 1200, we were escorted to the off-road portion of the day's training. Hours of rain had turned much of the course into rocky, slimy goop, and it was here that we would learn, repeatedly, that almost anyone can ride on the road, but not just anyone can ride off-road. As with a bicycle, a motorcycle on the go wants to stay upright if not given anything to throw if off balance. Riding on tarmac, assuming you know how to sit up straight, you'll generally be all right.
Dirt riding is a horse of another color -- all kinds of things are trying to disturb the bike's balance. Trees and their roots are especially difficult negotiate with. And now you're not just trying to keep your own balance, but also that of the 400-or-so pounds of bike swaying and sliding through rocks, roots, and muck. And into trees.
We stayed away from the 1200 here because piloting the thing through narrow gaps, to our novice hands, was like trying to ride the planet Neptune with footpegs.
Back on our 650, we traversed washboards, humps, hills, gravel, slalom courses, narrow, log-lined singletrack, gullies, water crossings, and there were always trees in the way, or worse, their slick-as-a-fish roots to bumble over. A few hours were spent in the manicured, forested grounds, and we make it sound easier than it was. Thankfully the class was taught two methods for lifting up fallen bikes, and Luxist got heaps of practice in both kinds as we raised our 400-pound leviathan after numerous "Hey, how did we end up down here?" moments.
That doesn't, however, mean we didn't enjoy the day. As a matter of fact, it was nothing short of tremendous. The instructors were patient and instructive, and there were so many of them that everyone was able to get all the attention he or she wanted -- and this was during a shortened demonstration day. If we this had taken its customary two days, the rewards would have been even greater.
With 1-day courses offered for $595, classes limited to 12 students, every skill level catered for by instructors trained in Germany, and the equally compelling distractions of the BMW museum and factory in one place, the Performance Center Motorcycle School really does make a fantastic case for itself if you want to start riding or learn to ride better. For those who want to see some Southeastern sights and try the bikes out, the center also leads 3-day tours through the Western Carolinas and eastern Tennessee for $1,995, which includes the use of a BMW motorcycle.
We might not have thought it before, but we're believers now: German