Who needs a car? Snowboarding by bike with the BMW R1200GS
Can an adventure bike really be an alternative to a car? To find out, we sent Chris to the top of an Alp, loaded up with snowboarding kit.
I’m not a huge fan of being cold. I’m happy to admit it, when it gets chilly, I’ll be the first person looking for a warm café to duck into on a road test. John can stick all his hard-man army ‘think warm, be warm’ nonsense down his thermals for all I care; being cold is not my idea of fun. So I’m not sure what I’d been smoking when I came up with the oh-so-brilliant idea of a snowboarding trip that involved riding there, rather than curling up in a nice warm car for nine hours. At the time, the friends there with me were all encouraging, saying things like “great idea”, “we’ll ride too” and “can I passenger?” I now realize what they meant was terrible idea, we’ll ride too (in a warm Mercedes SUV) and can we passenger (in the aforementioned SUV). So what started as two bikes, four mates and a 9-hour schlep across France to Courchevel, ended with me on a GS in a cold, wet convoy of warm dry cars. Was I cold? No. Was I miserable? No. Here’s why the best vehicle to go snowboarding on is definitely a BMW R1200GS:
No man should have to get up at 4am. It’s an unhealthy hour that leaves your brain fuzzy, your stomach confused and your toes stubbed as you stumble around in the dark. But with the promise of beers in an Alpine resort before the day was through, I was awake, kitted up and ready to go with only minimal grumbling. Kitting up, now there’s an epic job, just how many layers of clothing can one man put on? I’ve done plenty of stupid long-distance winter rides before and my normal tactic is to keep putting clothes on until I can’t move, then jam a bike jacket over the top. It does work to keep you warm, although I’ve dropped more than one bike as a result of having more than my own body weight in clothes on. So this time, with the right bike for the job, I got the right kit in too. Heated kit. Bloody brilliant stuff, heated kit; like portable central heating. One under suit, a heated vest and trousers, a jumper and then my bike kit; I’ve never felt so light riding a long trip. I tried out three different brands of heated kit on the way, Keis, Oxford and Gerbing – there’s a write up coming in a future post. But they all kept me warm and left my mind to think of other things on the 675-mile journey to the snowy place.
The first thing that my brain bothered to notice, threading through a sleepy, wet, 4am London, was just how well integrated everything is on the GS. All the buttons or controls you could possibly want are neatly integrated into the switchcubes on the handlebars. There are no heated seat buttons hidden on a random side panel, no shitty brackets holding a lashed on extra button to turn the spot lights on – it’s all neat, effective and well thought-out. Heated grips on full, saving the heated kit until the French leg of the journey and one-piece waterproof in place, we aimed at Folkestone and tried not to think about how much warmer it was in our beds. The blast from central London to the Eurotunnel terminal was one of those blurry, numb, I’m-not-so-convinced-I-was-concentrating sort of rides. You know the ones where you leave and then arrive with little recollection of what happened in between, save for the fact it was wet. Really wet. I remember looking into the spray, wondering what the hell I was doing this for and considering turning round, sticking the bike in the van and cheating. If I’m this wet and cold already, how am I going to make it 500 miles across France? What a cry-baby, but that’s the truth, that’s what went through my head at 5am on the M20 in the pissing rain. I didn’t turn round, gave myself a talking to about not being such a pussy and ploughed on. I told you, I’m a massive wimp when it comes to being cold. I went to write some notes on the GS when we got to the terminal and, realizing I had paid no attention since marveling at the buttons when I left, I dropped the notepad and followed the smell of coffee.
Sat on the train, I poked around the BMW for things to fiddle with. The scrolly-wheel GPS control had baffled my sleeping brain, but by the time we rolled into the French mist, I had it nailed. I bring this up because, exciting though bikes are, when you’re sat at 100mph for hour-after-hour on French motorways, you need plenty to keep you entertained. On most sports bikes you’re limited to checking the outside temperature, the time and occasionally fiddling with one of two trip meters. By comparison, the 1200GS was a veritable encyclopedia of fascinating information and readouts. Average fuel economy, instantaneous fuel economy, engine temp, external temp, auto trip meter, tyre pressures, average speed, max speed, current compass bearing – it’s impossible to get bored on one of these. It is, of course, possible to run into the back of a French lorry because you were doing 100mph while marveling at the respectable 41mpg current fuel consumption read out. Did I mention that the ABS works really well?
I lasted about fifty miles outside Calais before giving in to temptation and firing up the heated kit. Ten minutes later I was frantically stabbing at buttons trying to turn it down again because I was too hot – not a sensation I had anticipated early in February. With the heated kit set right, it was on with the serious business of gobbling up the miles and day dreaming about snowy mountains. At the slightly cheeky speeds we were doing, the GS was managing 150 miles between fuel stops. Normally, I’m counting down the miles before I can stretch my legs and have a quick break, so a 150-mile fuel break would be quite welcome. But the GS was comfy enough that more than once the fuel light pinging on was a surprise. And another opportunity to fiddle around with the satnav that’s linked to the bike’s computer, knows you need fuel and will suggest a bunch of places you can stop and get some. Obviously in the light of such helpful technology, I got all stubborn, ignored all the suggested fuel stops and kept going until I was stuttering along the hard shoulder at 50mph trying to see how many miles a GS will do once the fuel range indicator has reached zero. I managed 13 miles before cruising into a gas station, cursing myself for passing all the garages earlier on.
Heated grips on high, fuel range 185 miles (it’s not sussed out that I’m only doing 70mph because there’s traffic), tyre pressures 36 and 42psi, outside temperature 2 degrees Celsius, heated jacket on medium; let’s do this. The traffic clears, we blast up to a useful speed and set the cruise control. Yeah, cruise control. If you’ve never used it, don’t. Because once you’ve had the luxury of not having to constantly think about maintaining a steady speed, going back to riding without it is like having an eye poked out. Though maybe less painful. Like everything else on this bike, the cruise control is pretty intuitive and works properly – toggling speed up and down is as simple as flicking the button. Actually, this is one feature that does highlight a weak area of the GS compared to the more powerful adventure trailies available. When you set the cruise and let go of the throttle – you realize just how hard you had it turned to maintain a three-figure speed. This is obviously not a relevant complaint if you a) never intend to leave England or b) don’t feel the need to charge across countries in the shortest time possible with irresponsible disregard for your license. One thing that’s relevant and impressive at any motorway speed, is just how good the wind protection is. With the seat and screen set in the high positions, I could open my visor to flick the snot off my top lip without the windblast blowing it in my eyes or trying to pull my head off. Not a nice image, I know, but hey, that’s the price you pay for such edgy, real-world testing. If you’ve ridden in the cold, you’ll know exactly what I was going through; there’s only so much you can hoover off with your tongue. Eeew.
Flat out – fuel stop – flat out – tolls – flat out – adjust heated jacket to ‘high’ – flat out – fuel and toilet stop – flat out – hang on we’re in the mountains. When you’re this excited about snowboarding and on a bike that doesn’t cripple you after four hours, the journey genuinely did fly by like this. The first 100 miles take the longest, but after that you just settle into a rhythm of setting the cruise control, fiddling with the GPS and then topping up with fuel to do it all over again. Once the temperature dropped into minus figures, the heated grips didn’t seem man enough, but luckily I had some heated gloves stashed and ready to throw on.
With the motorway slog dealt with, we stopped to fill the cars with cheap booze at the bottom of the mountain. All that remained was a 30-mile winding pass up to the resort, nestled 1850m up in the Alps. Minus four, set all heated gear to ‘max’ traction control and ABS to Enduro mode to cope with the snow, check tyre pressures, still good, and… stall it coming out the car park. Heated gloves are nice and warm, but I wouldn’t recommend them for delicate clutch work. Yeah, I’m blaming the gloves, what of it? With the motorways dreamt away, enjoying the wind protecting and cruise control and thinking about everything but riding, the first few corners were a shock to the system. A patch of snow in the middle of the lane sucks at the front tyre, sliding it enough to curse, but not to crash. That’s within a mile of the beer stop. This is going to be interesting. After that first slide, every change in colour on the tarmac becomes an instant suspect, every bend has me tensed up, closing one eye and waiting for another slide. By mile five I’m boiling up inside my portable oven. I stop, dial out the heat and talk some sense into my limbs – relax, ride smoothly and stop fretting about little slides. The pep talk took a while to work, as I acclimatized to the grip levels and started to make better progress. By mile twenty, 1400m up the mountain, I was backing it in to hairpins and wheelying past coaches like an idiot. Mile 21 and a big highside on a damp patch has me cursing my bi-polar riding style. Just a normal level of confidence would be nice, rather than either fretting about every damp patch or firing myself to the moon riding like I’m on a qualifier. The last five miles to the resort are snow-covered and slow. The ABS and TC aren’t really sure what to make of sheet ice and I’ve got tears running down my face from not blinking. As I paddle the wheelspinning bike across the carpark, it occurs to me that I haven’t felt cold since the first stint to Folkestone, before I had the heated kit on. That’s a big win right there.
So was the GS a worthy alternative to the car?
If you’d asked me that the minute I got off the bike, I’d have had to think about it. Three beers in a warm bar later, the bike was the best invention in the world, cars should all be banned and we should all ride adventure traillies everywhere. On reflection, the bike was a good option – it drank less fuel than the cars, was cheaper through the tolls, cheaper on the Eurotunnel and didn’t get stuck in traffic. The GS’ expanding luggage gulped up enough clothes and snowboard kit for one person for a week and, if I’d remembered the straps, the snowboard wouldn’t have bothered it either. With the right (heated) kit and the right bike, riding to the Alps in one hit in winter was nowhere near as heroic as I’d figured it would be. But a word of advice – watch the tiredness. After seeing my riding deteriorate when we got to the slippery stuff, I should have taken note of what happens to reactions and concentration after 9 hours on the road. When I charged into a sliproad five miles from Calais on our return, only to find it was wet halfway round I got my second alarm call. I didn’t feel tired, but boredom and a lack of concentration caught me out. I got lucky both times, but if you’re gonna do big miles, make sure you keep your self control topped up towards the end of the day.
Er, hang on a minute, where’s your snowboard?
Yes, er, well, ahem. My original (and quite brilliant) plan involved taking all the snowboarding kit, including the boards on the bike. With the panniers packed full of boots and waterproofs, I slung my board bag around my shoulders and off we went. So, you’ll notice that there’s no board evident in most of the pictures, right? Now, snowboards are great for whizzing down the side of a mountain, but, and here’s a funny thing, their aerodynamics have not been optimized for 100mph windblast on a bike. So instead of staying nicely wrapped around my shoulders and behaving, I ended up with a 5ft long fiberglass kite trying to parasail me off the back of the bike. After wrestling with it for several miles, fending off angry French motorists who apparently did not want a fiberglass javelin through the windscreen, I had to give up. The board was stashed in the camera car and I rode on, a phoney; if only I’d remembered to pack some straps.
Words: Chris Northover
Pics: Max Hunt