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Now before we get started on the important business of reviewing the motorcycle I should say I’m a little bit biased towards the F800GS. I rode one while at Simon Pavey’s off-road training school and that was one of the best weekends I’ve ever had, not just of riding bikes, but ever.

I’m not sure if this makes me terribly sad or just a little bit too into motorbikes but I think you should be aware that just looking at the bike, especially covered in mud, reminds me of good times. And yes, I’ve just realised that sounds a bit sleazy. At the off-road school I got to experience what the F800GS is like in the mud with proper knobbly tires on it, and I’ll put a link to that at the bottom of the page. This is a review of what the bike is like on the roads.

The bike, with a little bit of mud on it.

The F 800 GS, with a little bit of mud on it.

I tried to think of somewhere completely unlike rural Wales to take the bike. Something far away from the rolling hills and muddy tracks I’d been on before so I took the motorbike to London. In the rush hour. In the rain.

Since I first encountered the F800GS when it was parked up next to a load of 1200 GS motorbikes I always think of it as rather small, well perhaps not small but not huge. However when you put it next to most other bikes it’s size is fairly noticeable. It’s a bit of a giant, but in a good way. The only time that this became an issue was when I was trying to park the bike, although too be fair the panniers were causing most of the troubles.

The bike had the BMW panniers attached to it and they are big, heavy and waterproof. They are wider than the handle bars and after about ten minutes of riding around London I realised why you never see couriers with panniers, they only ever have top boxes. They also make it fairly difficult to park the bike snugly in the motorcycle bays dotted around London. On the plus side the can be removed in a few seconds with a satisfying clunk so once you’ve found a space you just pop them off and put the bike in.

The bike lurking in London.

The F800GS lurking in London.

The rest of the ride around London was fairly uneventful. The F800GS has lots of pleasant torque at low revs which means if you need to blip ahead of someone when the traffic lights go green you will. While it can be a little bit snatchy at low speeds once you allow for that with a bit of clutch work it’s great fun. It’s roll-on acceleration is really impressive so if you have to go from 30mph to 60mph it will get you there before almost anyone else.

The height is also an advantage, while sat in the seat you will see over the top of most cars and if you stand up on the pegs you’ll be able to see over the roofs of black cabs which is very, very useful. So useful in fact that they should include that in the sales pitch when selling the bike in London.

The next big test of the bike was some motorway riding. I had to go up to Silverstone for a work thing and then down to Devon. The weather report was awful with rain, vicious crosswinds and even a hint of snow. This would be a proper long distance test of the bike. I zipped up everything I could on my Tuareg suit (a link to the review is at the bottom of the page) and set off.

At 70mph the bike cruises happly, and strangely doesn’t seem to actually use any petrol. It has a specially programmed engine which tries to use as little fuel as possible and it really works. it’s amazing how far you can go between filling up.

Aside from the surprising fuel economy there isn’t really much else to report about the bike on long distance slogs and I mean that as a good thing. I travelled through horrible cross winds, had to deal with rush hour on a motorway in the snow and even a couple of slightly hairy moments when a hire van decided to change lanes without indicating or checking it’s mirrors the bike just dealt with it.

This glows orange at night which looks excellent.

The display glows orange at night which looks excellent.

That’s the overriding impression the bike gives, it deals with things confidently. Put the panniers on and you can cover vast distances with all the gear you will need without it getting wet and take them off and you’ve got a surprisingly slim bike that can slip through tiny gaps in traffic.

Even without the impressive fuel economy this would be a bike to consider but once you factor that in it’s something you really should take for a test ride. BMW really are ahead of the pack on this, I talked to a load of other motoring journalists about reviewing bikes and they said the top question they get asked about bikes these days is fuel economy.

So it’s stylish, comfortable, fast, adaptable and even suitable for when the fuel runs out and we live in a Mad Max style society fighting over petrol. in short it gets a big thumbs up from me.

Links mentioned
A review of Simon Pavey’s off-road school

An off road review of the F 800 GS

Review of Hein Gericke Tuareg gear

BMW F 800 GS

I thought I’d do a quick report on the Tuareg suit I recently aquired, this review is based on two days of hard riding in Wales, in a range of weather conditions including sideways rain and boiling heat so I think it’s a fairly good test. I even fell off a few times so the armour got a bit of a going over as well.

The suit drying out after getting soaked, the next day it was bone dry.

The suit drying out after getting soaked, the next day it was bone dry.

The suit is composed of three main components. An outer layer which isn’t completely waterproof but seems to hold off light showers and splashes, some lovely chunky armour and a warm and waterproof inner lining. The outer layer has a load of pockets for storing small important things and includes a few handy vents that can be opened for extra cooling. On the back there is a quite large pocket mounted low down which I found perfect for stashing maps and my license in. The build quality is excellent and there are lots of little touches that make you realise how much thought has gone into the suit. The trousers are just as well made and the knee armour feels especially secure.

I spent most of the weekend wearing the trousers with the lining in, to try and stop getting completely soaked when riding through rivers but I wore the jacket without the lining to stay cool. I was fine in this combination in light showers but when it really started to rain I chucked in the waterproof lining and I was instantly snug and dry. It’s a great bit of kit, my only niggle is that you have to be a little bit careful when opening and closing the poppers that hold the lining in. They are designed to be a lightweight as possible so they don’t get in the way but this means they seem a bit fragile. You don’t have to do them all up if you are in a hurry, I got caught in the rain and just zipped the lining in the front and left the poppers alone.

I’d say the suit gets a bit thumbs up from me. It’s going to become part of my winter kit, who am I kidding it is my winter kit. It’s lovely and warm, dries out really fast and it impresses girls who see it because it looks so serious. Yup, so I’d say that is a success. It would be suitable for a serious adventure rider but it would work just as well for a commuter who only rides to work but has sparkle in their eyes that hints of the Dakar.

The Tuarag jacket was £299.99, the trousers (pants for my American chums) were £129.99

Http://www.heingericke.co.uk/

Click here to read a review of the boots I used with the suit

Like almost every other man alive I watched Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman ride motorbikes around the world and thought, ‘cor I’d love a go at that’ so when the opportunity arose to be trained to ride off-road with Charley Boorman I couldn’t resist.
The BMW off-road centre in Wales was set up eight years ago by Simon Pavey and the sadly departed John Deacon, to teach novices, and Jedi (Ewan and Charley did the course before they set off) all the skills they would need to ride motorbikes around the world. Simon really knows his stuff when it comes to off-road riding; he has competed in the Paris Dakar rally six times. All the instructors on the course have at least some Dakar experience so you are in good hands. 
Rows and rows of lovely bikes

Rows and rows of lovely bikes

You can hire out almost everything you will need – apart from a helmet but I decided to get my own gear as I’d been warned how hot you get and I didn’t want to spend a couple of days bathed in someone else’s sweat. I got slightly over-excited and so got hold of a top of the range Tuareg suit – I’ll have reviewed it here.

On the F 800 in the Taureg suit

On the F 800 in the Taureg suit

I was riding around on the new F 800 GS which has only recently been launched and is a bit of beast. There are a range of bikes you can ride (650s and 1200) but for off-road beginners like me, there are more suitable bikes. It’s an amazing bike, but as it’s so responsive I found it a bit of handful to begin with.

The first day started with us filling out extremely long disclaimer forms and then being assigned our bikes. We would have a short, slightly nervous ride to the site on roads and then the proper training would begin. The site is amazing, it’s an old quarry that has been landscaped so we had 4000 acres of muddy paths, gravel roads and streams to ride around in and we didn’t have to share it with anyone else.

We began with familiarising ourselves with the bikes, we had to walk around them holding on with only one hand to get a feel of the balancing point and the weight. Then we practiced picking the bikes up when they were on the ground – something I’d be doing a lot over the weekend. This training course is quite different to other off-road courses in that they make a big thing of really teaching you skills. So we worked through a series of excises like turning in the tightest circle possible and how to slow down properly on mud so we could handle the bikes off-road. The breaking was excellent fun because before we were shown how to do it properly we had to practice doing it wrong and then learning to control the bike. I’ve never done so many skids and wheel spins in a short amount of time.

Charley appeared at this point to help out and almost immediately someone flew off their bike because they got distracted. The chap and the bike were fine (although the 1200 lost it’s windscreen which I thought was a vast improvement) and so teaching resumed and we started working on some more advanced, alien techniques with Charley helping out. We were standing up on our bikes at this point – it feels weird at first but it makes it much easier to balance and gives you more control.

The first big step was being taught to steer the bikes only using our legs, something I didn’t realise was even possible. And then once we had got the hang of that we had a ride around with our hands in the air – only using our legs to manoeuvre. Riding at 40mph on a gravel track with your hands in the air is a bit terrifying to say the least.

After a morning of skill based work we started on our first ride around the site. Gary (one of the instructors) took us out in a group of six and we would follow him and try not to fall off. I fell off a lot. I could have been auditioning for BMW bike diving team, but I didn’t hurt myself, or the bike and I loved every minute of it. I couldn’t believe some of the tracks we were managing to ride along. At about 4pm the riding stopped for the day and we were physically and mentally exhausted. It was definitely time to go to the pub and swap stories.

All the instructors joined us in the pub as did Charley. Everyone was really jolly after having such a fun day, Charley said this was entirely normal for the course ‘The lovely thing about helping teach here is that everyone is so happy and then people go away and realise that there is a whole world out there to explore.’

The second day began with a couple more advanced techniques, like stopping the bikes on hills you couldn’t even walk down and then more tricky rides around the site. I was feeling far more confident at this point and I started to really understand and enjoy the bike. The F 800 GS is an amazing bike, absolutely amazing but you have to have the confidence to bully it a little bit and then it really comes alive. We also had a chance to ride around on the other bikes on the course so I had a quick lap on the F 650 XChallenge, F 650 GS and the infamous  R 1200 GS. Compared to the F 800 GS the F 650 GSs were a bit more nimble but didn’t quite have the same responsive grunt that I’d come to love on the F 800 GS and the R 1200 GS felt very strange but stable. On the first day I wasn’t a big fan of the F 800 GS but by the second day I’d got the hang of it and now I’m a huge fan.

Other people on the course were also amazed by how far they had come. Paul, a lecturer in Scotland had been riding for 35 years had learned things and even Elvin, a Policeman from Northern Ireland who also is an observer with the Institute of Advanced Motoring was picking up new skills.

Simon explained that this was one of his favourite aspects of teaching ‘People are always amazed by how much they have come by the end of the course, and then they go and use these skills in the real world. We train people up and then a few months later we get an email from them saying that they are in Ulaanbaatar (in Mongolia).’

Near the end of the course Gary offered to take out a brave group on a really tough ride to test out their new skills. Testosterone got the better of me and I volunteered to join them. Out of the thirty people on the course only four people dared to go on this ride. It was really tough work, everyone else fell off their bikes at least once including the instructor but it was the moment when it really clicked for me and I fell in love with my bike – when I had to hand it back I had a manly tear in my eye.

The group who dared to go on the final ride

The group who dared to go on the final ride

The course ended with us getting certificates and people talking about what they were going to do next – almost everyone was planning to go off exploring around the world. If you are even slightly tempted to do any off-road riding go on this course, the level of instruction is amazing and no-matter how long you have been riding you will learn some useful skills. So who else is up for a jolly around the planet?

The two day beginner off-road course costs £449 – Http://www.worldofbmw.com – 08000 131 282.

My Tuareg suit is from Hein Gericke – www.hein-gericke.co.uk

Today I emailed an editor to organise meeting up for lunch in London, fairly standard stuff really. I just happened to mention that Charley Boorman was doing something with the BMW off-road course in Wales. It was only an aside and not really a pitch. However it caught her attention and a few phone calls later and I’m going along as well to write about it. So no trip to London for me, I’m off to Wales instead
Most of the time journalism is hard graft, constantly chasing down stories, pitching them to editors, last-minute rewrites, cancellations and things but sometimes it’s absolutely brilliant and today has been one of those days.
Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor

Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor

Like most people I’ve been hooked on Charley (and Ewan’s) adventures since they started riding around the world. I admired how their shows introduced new people to riding, and gave bikes a public image that wasn’t biker gangs or racing. Plus they are properly obsessed with bikes in a slightly schoolboy way, which is how you should be.

Anyway I can’t wait to get on the bikes and to start sliding down hills and falling off logs. It was a bit of a trial to get on the course, all the journalist places had gone, long, long ago and then there was a very tense half an hour when the editor checked in with her boss to see if I could go  but I got the thumbs up and now it’s all sorted.

So I’ve got two glorious days of riding BMWs in Wales to look forward to, the only marginal down side is that it will cost slightly more than I could reasonably put on expenses so I’ll have to absorb some of that but I think it will be more than worth it. I’m treating it as a sort of working holiday, this won’t be an assignment that helps the Daytona fund.

BMW F800 GS

BMW F800 GS

This is going to be my bike for the weekend, the sparklingly fresh F800 GS. BMW want me to ride it because it’s new and so they want it to appear in the newspaper. I’d imagine that after I’ve spent two days riding it up and down the Welsh countryside I’ll be able to provide a pretty reasonable assessment of it’s off-road ability so expect a review to pop up a few days after I return from the course.

Riding bikes in Wales has an extra significance for me as my dad lived in Wales and one of the last weekends we ever spent together – our best weekend together really – was spent riding motorbikes around in the rain on the hills in Wales.

He died a year ago of cancer, and I’ll be spending the anniversary of his death on a motorbike in Wales. I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute.

EDIT – I’ve noticed a lot of people are finding this page while searching for the course, so here it is.

http://www.worldofbmw.com/content/offRoadSkills.asp?article=251

You can read my review of my time on the course here

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