First Ride: 2006 BMW R1200GS review

BMW's all-conquering flat twin reviewed and rated on a French thrash

This review is part of the Monster Trailies Lap France mega-test review. Click the link for the rivals.

First of all I had better introduce myself. Although I don't often appear in Visordown, my work does - I'm the man behind the camera charged with making this magazine look good. So while the rest of the guys just have to remember to bring a change of clothes, I have to pack enough kit to photograph the whole sorry episode. Which means my luggage carrying needs are a little different. Simply put, I don't travel light. To shoot a road test for Visordown I need a camera body, a spare body, three lenses, lights, battery, filters and a computer. And the rest. All this gear needs to be safe, dry and, most importantly, secure. On an average shoot I have around £25,000 of kit, weighing around 40kg. Imagine looking in your mirrors and seeing that tumbling down the road!

So riding a bike isn't usually that practical. Ordinarily I would follow along in a comfortable car, but not this time. Actually at first the trip sounded like a laugh, but at that point I didn't realise I would end up in a French lay-by throwing up wine and part-cooked sausages into a river...

This was to be my first long-distance run by bike for over three years. I get a quick blat up the road from time to time on various test bikes but that's about it, so I need to take it easy and get into my groove. Which doesn't happen. After two days of what feels like a Japanese-style endurance test by motorcycle, I wake in the hotel in Brive cursing my damn camera bags.

I've blagged the bike with what I reckoned was the best luggage capacity, but even the R1200 GS, with its clever expanding panniers, can't take all my kit. Despite looking huge it seems as though each pannier's inner space is not as great as its exterior suggests. Never mind, the luggage rack on the back should supply a secure base for bungee action. Which it does, but with the bag now located behind me I have to sit forward of my normal riding position, which makes it uncomfortable and difficult to steer in slow corners. Not ideal for a long ride since I'll get backache and have to stretch my legs every 50 miles.

So, knowing it will get in the way within a few minutes, I strap the bag to the back of the BMW and fiddle around trying to locate the pannier mounting points. It's an easy system, but the angular pillion rails can get in the way.


Pulling out of the hotel, I toot the horn for what seems like the millionth time in the last two days. Bloody BMW indicators. Why do they need three buttons when one will suffice? I rode a BMW about 10 years ago and got used to the switchgear after one day, but maybe I'm getting too old to re-learn new tricks because I can't get the hang of it. I decide it's better not to use the indicators.

Slowing for the first roundabout and the BMW still feels top heavy, which isn't surprising considering how much kit it's carrying. But the servo brakes keep threatening to catch me out. The fierce initial bite and lack of feel is disturbing (for someone who hasn't ridden a bike for a while) and lead to some wobbles, especially when slowing to a stop. Not good with such a tall bike.

That's a thought that had been causing me concern for most of the journey down. Not so much the top heaviness, more the question of what the handling would be like on twisty roads. Motorways are easy: hold the throttle open and go in a straight line. But what about corners? I don't meant to sound like a wimp but Alex, Jon and Jim ride bikes all the time, and Niall is a racing god. How am I going to be able to keep up? Can you imagine how intimidating it is to have Niall Mackenzie in your mirrors? I desperately didn't want to hold them up or ruin their fun.

After a few miles I realise I've been worrying about nothing. It dawns on me that these bikes are great levellers, and that not every run is a mad, flat-out thrash. Carving through the corners at a fast but steady pace I forget all about the bag digging into my back and really start loving the ride. Over the last few days I had convinced myself the BMW was a great, capable bike, but just a bit dull and lacking in enough character to keep me interested. I'm sure a large part of this was down to the route, because the few hours through central France are brilliant fun. And I even manage to take some photos while on the move, a task in itself. The BMW's stable handling makes riding the bike one-handed while holding a 2.5kg camera steady as I negotiate a path between 60mph trucks fairly easy. A move definitely not recommended in the owner's manual, but all in a day's work, eh?

But it has to end, and the motorway beckons again. Screen adjusted to its highest setting (which can't be done on the move) I tuck in behind it and contemplate a night's camping. Not a nice thought, since I didn't have room to pack a sleeping bag, but as luck would have it the hypermarket we visit sells duvets. Perfect.

Quite what the locals make of the scene as the five of us attempt to attach even more kit to already well over-laden bikes I don't know. But we manage, and the old trick of following a river brings us to the campsite.

Watching the others set up their tents, I get on with the last job of the day: photographing their laughable efforts. I realise (as I watch Jim's pathetic efforts at tent erection while sharing sympathy with Niall and his Swiss cheese-style canvas shack) I've done well to double-up with Jon, whose tent seems sturdy enough.

Soon my classy plastic camping cup is full of (cheap, boxed) wine. And now I'd like to leave this story because this is a family magazine and, as far as I'm aware, there's no photographic evidence of my nocturnal 'illness'. Sometimes it pays to be the snapper!