BMW R1200GS vs the GS Trophy Challenge

For them, getting invited all expenses paid by BMW to represent their country on a brand new R1200GS in one of the most spectacular riding spots on Earth was literally winning the lottery. And they were taking it dead seriously, “friendly” competition or not.The R1200GS showcase: Every other year since 2008, BMW holds a global competition it calls the GS Trophy. Reserved for customers who won one of the GS Challenges held around the world the prior year, it is an event of massive scale with a cost in the millions for the German manufacturer. In 2014, 64 participants from 18 countries spent seven days duking it out in the Canadian Rockies. Bertrand Gahel was invited to join team Canada. He lived to tell the tale. Barely…

Seven Tough Days in the Rockies

Once in a lifetime opportunity,” they said. I said I wouldn’t do it. Quite frankly, I wondered why BMW even thought of inviting me to its International GS Trophy challenge.  I often joke about my poor off-road skills, and they’re probably not as bad as I imagine them to be, but the fact remains I’m out of my element as soon as I leave the pavement. And there they were asking me to join not just any bunch of maniacs, but the best off-road amateur riders of their respective countries (GS Challenges aren’t opened to competitors) who had been madly training for the past year to show up at their very best for the Trophy. For them, getting invited all expenses paid by BMW to represent their country on a brand new R1200GS in one of the most spectacular riding spots on Earth was literally winning the lottery. And they were taking it dead seriously, “friendly” competition or not. I hardly saw how I could possibly follow such a group and the whole thing actually seemed kind of dangerous. 

But BMW’s Rob Dexter was reassuring. “Competitors compete amongst themselves and journalists (one per country) follow,” he said. “I checked with Germany and they’re very conscious a journalist doesn’t necessarily have the skills of a GS Challenge winner. Don’t worry. Plus, we have an absolute trust in your riding skills and stamina. You’ll be just fine. This is the ride of a lifetime, you can’t miss it.” 

The decision wasn’t an easy one and I never felt completely sure it was the right one, but I eventually accepted. If all I had to do was follow a big group on an R1200GS and if the Canadian team competed without me, then I guessed it should be doable. (Queue the Rocky training montage music…)

There was a bit of time before the Trophy, so I intended on using it to do a few off-road rides. The first came when I was invited by Québec off-road club MTA (www.mototrailaventure.ca) to join them for a ride about a month before the event. As the difficulty level was relatively high, they insisted I bring a lighter off-road bike, not an adventure model. So I called KTM and bluntly asked to borrow “something” to practice for the BMW Trophy. KTM Canada boss Florian Burguet coughed, laughed, then said something about having no shame, and then let me borrow a 500 EXC. It was my very first time on an off-road motorcycle. 

As the MTA organizers had promised, conditions were tough. But every hour that went by my riding got more fluid and my confidence grew. That is, until the front wheel of my bike slipped off a big, loose rock while going down a steep, curved hill. 

Before I even had time to understand something had gone wrong, I was on the ground, face and hands hitting rocks hard. I got up, but felt dizzy so I sat back down. My fingers were throbbing with pain and it took a few minutes for everything to stop turning. The deep marks on my helmet’s chin piece hinted at a solid hit to the head. Man, what had I gotten myself into? 

Even though the first practice didn’t go perfectly, my intention was to repeat those rides as often as possible to be as prepared as I could be for the Trophy. But with several new motorcycle launches to attend and a long list of bikes to test at home, I only had one more chance, this time with the team of Moto Internationale’s “Sécurité Active,” an off-road riding school. Charles Gref, the president of the Montréal dealership and an excellent off-road rider—he was one of the GS Trophy marshals—told me he’d personally look at my case and let me know if I was headed for carnage or not. 

For them, getting invited all expenses paid by BMW to represent their country on a brand new R1200GS in one of the most spectacular riding spots on Earth was literally winning the lottery. And they were taking it dead seriously, “friendly” competition or not.

This time, I was on a R1200GS shod with knobbies, exactly what everyone would be riding during the Trophy. Patrice Glaude, one of the three members of Team Canada was also there to give me pointers. They started by making me do a few essential maneuvers. “You pretty much do the same few things over and over when you ride off-road,” they said. “If you can do them, you’ll be okay. If not, then it doesn’t look good.” 

They basically asked me to do figure eights in the dirt. At each end of the eight, I was asked to put the bike sideways with the rear brake to initiate the turn and keep the bike sideways throttling out of the turn. It wasn’t graceful, but I could do it. 

An R1200GS is a big and heavy machine to throw around like that, but strangely, I felt more comfortable on it than on the light and narrow KTM EXC, probably because I’m used to riding adventure bikes. For several hours, both Patrice and Charles filled my head with basic advice. “I don’t ever want you looking down and near. Look up and far, always,” Patrice kept insisting. 

Sure, but what about the rocks and the sand and the holes and the mud and the water that’s right there? Shouldn’t I be looking at all of it to decide where to put my front wheel? 

“No. When you look up and far, you see all those things. You record them at that moment and you don’t have to look at them again.”

Right, record them… I thought that pinning the throttle was the way to climb a hill, but I learned that on the contrary, the rear wheel should never spin. I learned that deep sand, especially on a heavy bike like the R1200GS, is one of the toughest and most physically draining off-road terrains there is. I learned that I hated following someone because that rider would probably choose a path I wouldn’t have chosen myself. And I learned an R1200GS is a very heavy bike to lift up, especially after it’s been dropped several times… 

Let this R1200GS adventure begin. 

I was very nervous on that September day I finally flew to Calgary for the Trophy. I’m used to knowing exactly what I’m getting into when I ride. Whether it’s a long trip or a fast day at the racetrack anywhere in the world, I’m used to feeling excited, not nervous. But in this case the only emotion I could feel was anxiety, maybe even terror. 

Every moment—from meeting the teams arriving from around the world, the arrival on the site, and even putting up my tent—became another reminder that this whole thing was now very real and that I was about to do something on a motorcycle that I wasn’t sure I could do. 

The rider meeting didn’t help one bit. Here, it was announced that compared to the GS Trophys held in Tunisia in 2008, in South Africa in 2010 and in South America in 2012, this one would be the longest and the toughest. Great.

As if I needed anything else to ramp up my insecurity, I met the rest of the Canadian team that first night. Other than Patrice who I already knew, I met Cory Hanson and Matt Wareing, two young men from Alberta. Both had won a GS Challenge the prior year and were extremely excited to finally get this adventure started. Matt had even quit his job to be there. 

As for Cory, he took the competitive side of the event very seriously and immediately started interrogating me. Clearly he wondered how much “the journalist” would slow down the team. He was there to win, not to wait around or play babysitter. I told him I was first and foremost a street guy and that I only occasionally ride off-road on big adventure bikes. I also said I was going to take it easy and that above all I wasn’t looking to injure myself and that I wasn’t asking for anyone to wait for me and that anyway journalists don’t participate in competitions and that all I asked was to be left alone to do my thing at the back of the group and that I’d see them when I’d see them—probably not what he wanted to hear. 

On the morning of day one, a long parade of over a hundred R1200GSs accompanied by several medical vehicles (I was asked my blood type in the pre-event questionnaire…) and technical assistance trucks prepared to embarque on a seven-day trip through the Rockies. The whole organization was much bigger that anything I’d ever seen a manufacturer put together. 

Our guide for the day (a different marshal led both ours and another team each day) let us know conditions were going to be very tough, starting with deep gravel roads. He gave us a few pointers and was adamant: as the least experienced rider, I would stay with him at the front of the group, not at the back like I wanted. If I wasn’t comfortable, then we’d all slow down, but the group was going to stay united, period. I became more anxious than ever, but I forced myself to calm down and vowed to stick to my rules. 

I would deal with each obstacle one at a time, I would ride at my own pace and I would take advantage of the fact that I know and like the R1200GS. 

As the first kilometres of gravel roads went by, I kept nervously waiting for the hard part to arrive, but strangely it never did. Alberta is magnificent. The mountains, already partially white in early September, were breathtaking. I could have sworn this was Europe and the Alps. Strangely, with all the traveling I do, I’m rarely in Canada and it was all a surprise to me. 

A few hours went by without any incident. We were riding on mostly hard-packed gravel roads at decent speeds and although I could deal with that type of environment with relative ease, I couldn’t help but be anxious as I knew sooner or later, it would get much tougher. 

We eventually left the gravel and branched out into tighter dirt roads. There again, everything went fine. The trails were narrow, but the ground was almost dry and pretty flat, which allowed us to keep a good speed. I tried to ride well, to apply the advice I was given, to make my own decisions and to choose my own route rather than blindly follow the lead rider. 

At some point, the caravan stopped right in the middle of the woods. It was the first competition of the GS Trophy North America 2014. After walking along a long line of parked bikes, I finally saw several participants on a small bridge. They were observing a team pushing an R1200GS across a river. All three members along with their journalist (wait … what?) kept pushing the bike up a muddy hill, parked it, then ran back down and across the river to repeat the whole thing with another GS. All four of their bikes had to be parked at the top of the hill before the clocked stopped. The best time would win and would score maximum points, the second best would take second place and so on. 

When they completed the task, team participants were drenched, covered in mud and physically drained from the effort. While everyone seemed amused and excited to finally compete, I couldn’t help but be furious. I was clearly told I didn’t have to be part of the competitions. Now all my equipment was going to get wet. And if I got exhausted pushing those bikes, how was I supposed to keep riding the big R1200GS? 

Of all the GS Trophy experience, this moment was my lowest, the one I had the most doubts about my decision to accept. But I didn’t have a lot of choice and when the Canadian team’s turn came, I pushed like everyone else in the cold water and in the mud again and again until all four bikes made it through. I was, of course, beat, but some of the guys were in worse shape, and even had trouble breathing. 

After letting everyone catch breath, we started riding again. Trail conditions got quite tough, but everyone had slowed down a fair bit after the challenge, so the pace was just right for me. We got to our first campsite a few hours later. 

Another competition was waiting for us there, but that one didn’t include media, so I lay down in the grass to observe and finally relax a bit. It was just a fun ability contest: on a tight figure eight on the grass, a ball had to be picked up with one hand and dropped in a bucket while riding the bike with the other hand. Everyone was laughing and having fun. 

In front of me were the majestic Rockies. The late afternoon sun was warm and its golden light felt good on my face. And I started to think. I felt relieved. The day hadn’t been easy by any means, but it hadn’t been impossible either and I ended up making it through without even going down. I didn’t however allow myself to get confident. This was only the first of seven days and it was only logical that conditions would get more and more difficult as the event progressed. 

A tough ride

The second day started early in cold, rainy weather. We were told the night before to expect tough conditions and this time, it was true. Several hours were spent in slippery mountain trails muddied by the constant rain. My riding was anything but elegant, dabbing my feet to deal with more difficult obstacles and barely avoiding multiple falls though I’m not sure how. When we finally emerged from the woods and stopped a few minutes before joining a paved road, I was physically drained, but perhaps even more so mentally from having to concentrate so intently on avoiding disaster. Man that was hard work. 

Cory came to talk to me. He let me know I worried him enough during the first day to make him seriously wonder if I would be capable of going through the seven days of the Trophy, but then added that what we just did was very tough and that I should be proud of having gone through it. 

Fortunately the weather cleared out for the remainder of the day, which was mostly spent riding logging roads that didn’t give me too much trouble. 

The sun was shining the morning of the third day and for the first time I was feeling my anxiety level drop. 

So far, I had gotten through everything without crashing and the challenges I participated in were fun and enjoyable. To be frank, I would have liked to be included in more of them as I thought I could do okay in some. 

BMW could have chosen to make these challenges, or “specials” as they were called, much more radical, but considering how competitive every team member was, the result would have undoubtedly been injuries and destroyed bikes. The Trophy is not intended to be a race, but rather a friendly competition, so it was smart to choose challenges that would reward riding skill and team work rather than all out aggressiveness. 

For example, on that day, one special consisted of one bike towing another with a strap on a narrow trail over a few kilometres. Another consisted of crossing a river and coming back with one participant operating the bike and the two others having to hold onto it, which was hilarious for onlookers. Between these specials, hours and hours were spent riding mountain trails that were sometimes not too tough and sometimes very tough, all of it in an environment of incredible beauty, surreal calm and near perfect purity. The feeling of anxiety that had overwhelmed me at first was now almost gone and I was finally starting to have fun. I was even getting eager to discover what awaited us in the next section of trails the Trophy organizers had planned in those absolutely magnificent mountains.  

A new mindset on the R1200GS

It was with a new mindset that I started the fourth day, which was splendid. The GS impressed me more and more. Shod with knobby tires—only one set per rider was allowed for the week—and equipped with a few crash bars, the Trophy 1200GSs were otherwise stock. Deep rivers, big rocks, steep hills with sandy, muddy or rocky ground: nothing could stop it. Many competing manufacturers have doubts about the big GS’s off-road capabilities and think the compliments it gets are exaggerated, but I know what it can do and except for perhaps the KTM 1190 Adventure R, I really can’t think of another machine this size that would have gotten through something like the GS Trophy with such grace. 

The fifth day was by far the hardest technically. It was almost entirely spent going up and down a mountain. The climb was the toughest technical part of the entire Trophy and ironically the one I had the most fun with, and found the most rewarding. 

It consisted of several dozen switchbacks tightly zigzagging right off the side of the mountain all the way to the summit. We were reminded that the key here was to keep moving forward and that if we stopped, chances were the rear tire would spin and dig a hole in the steeply inclined trail. 

Although admittedly a little spooked by the warning, I concentrated and started the ride up. The view was spectacular: on one side, a mere few inches away, was the mountain side and on the other, right there, emptiness. I struggled and almost stopped a few times, but Patrice’s advice about not allowing the rear tire to start spinning helped me keep progressing. 

The more I climbed, the more participants I saw who had crashed or who had stalled and couldn’t get moving again. I didn’t care how, but every time I would find somewhere to go around them without stopping. And then, there it was, the summit. I was happy. I even told myself that after that one, maybe I deserved to stop saying I suck at this. 

Many participants got stuck midway and took forever to arrive, which gave me plenty of time to take in the views from up there. Many motorcyclists don’t get what’s interesting about adventure bikes or what’s fun about bringing them off-road. They would have understood it all had they been there. 

The end in sight

The second to last day was marked by a special that probably damaged the motorcycles more than all the previous ones combined as each team had to push their bikes over a big roadblock made of huge rocks. The rest of the day was spent riding more fabulous mountain trails and admiring more mesmerizing views of the Rockies, something we repeated on the last day, at least until we got back on the road for the long stretch back to Calgary where the winning team, CEEU (Central and Eastern Europe), was crowned. Team Canada ended up ninth. 

The moment I kicked down my side stand for the last time in the parking lot of the ranch where the whole event had started a week ago was a proud one for me. In total, over 2,300 km were ridden, the majority in conditions I would have never thought I was able to deal with. But I got through it all not only without crashing or getting a puncture, but also without putting a single scratch on the GS and without slowing down my team’s progress. 

I was also happy that I was able to completely let go of my initial nervousness and have fun instead. I even got a hug from Cory who repeated how much I had him worried in the beginning and how he couldn’t believe the improvements I had made. He went as far as saying I could ride with him anytime.  

I made countless trips over the years all over the world to test countless new bikes. Despite the somewhat negative attitude with which I approached the GS Trophy 2014, it was the most awesome thing I have ever done on a motorcycle. Ever. 

But what’s really remarkable about the event is that it’s not reserved to a few journalists some manufacturer is trying to impress, or to the rich and privileged few. Rather, it’s within grasp of the average adventure rider, at least the one who’ll win his or her local GS Challenge. The GS Trophy will take place in Asia in 2016. 

Would I go if asked? Hell yeah! 

-by Bertrand Gahel, August 2015 issue

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