Julian challis swaps his textile adventure suit for a leather jacket and jeans at the international launch of the BMW R 18 B in Germany
As I round a sweeping bend, the road opens up ahead and I twist the throttle. Below me, two massive pistons respond with a surge of power, the torque effect momentarily twisting the motor as the huge crank spins up. As if perfectly choreographed, the sun finally breaks through the early morning mist just as the opening chords of AC/DC’s Back in Black blast out a set of onboard Marshall speakers.
The sunlight pools on the road as it breaks through the shadows of the trees that line the ribbon of smooth tarmac ahead. When Brian Johnson’s iconic vocals cut in a few moments later, I could not be any happier. What a day to be alive.
I’m in southwest Germany for the launch of two new variants of the BMW R 18 cruiser: the Transcontinental tourer and the R 18 B bagger. To be honest, just being abroad for any motorcycle launch is pretty damn special.
Overladen with certificates, sample tubes, and swabs, I’ve finally made it to the monolith that is the Radisson Blu Hotel Frankfurt, the base for our international launch. BMW has pulled out all the stops, with a raft of both stock and customised R 18s, and the whole accessories catalogue displayed in Perspex cases hanging on the walls, not to mention what appears to be the entire BMW top brass.
It’s clear this is no side project for the mighty Bavarian manufacturer or a diversion from the core business of producing ever more GS Adventures. BMW aims to become a major player in the cruiser market and the R18 was the machine they were going to do it with.
But the planned roll-out of BMW’s new venture has not exactly gone to plan. Although the original R18 (an unfaired version without any luggage) was revealed back in September 2020, the inevitable restrictions of the global pandemic necessitated a joyless and anodyne virtual launch. Yet, although in far from ideal circumstances, BMW still managed to sell just over 4,000 of the original R 18 to a world that was largely locked down and couldn’t cruise anywhere. That’s pretty impressive.
Roll with it
So, it’s with plenty of excitement that we are finally in Germany to ride the new iterations of the machine, the Transcontinental and the R 18 B (or Bagger). We’ve all swapped our usual textile riding gear for more cruiser appropriate leather and denim, topped off with a suitable helmet selection ranging from Shoreditch to Sturgis.
As soon as we are allocated our bikes, the BMW team run us through the controls, before moving on to arguably the best part of the machine. For this, BMW has teamed up with iconic British speaker and amplifier manufacturer Marshall to equip both new variants of the R 18 with a full-on sound system.
Depending on which spec you choose, you can have up to six Marshall speakers in the fairing and fixed side panniers pumping out your favourite tunes, and BMW has been good enough to equip the test bikes with a carefully curated rock soundtrack from a smartphone in the fan-cooled stash pocket. Across the whole forecourt of the Radisson, bikes are bouncing to everything from Deep Purple to Metallica. Now that’s how to start a day’s riding.
With the keyless fob stowed in my leather jacket, my kit in the rear panniers, and my sunglasses in place, it’s time to see what this bike feels like. I have to admit to being slightly intimidated by the sheer size of the machine and taking it off the long side stand does take a bit of a heave to get the 398kg. Yes, you read that correctly, 398 kg of German engineering upright.
Sadly, we’re not actually going to ride the Transcontinental version today for reasons best known to BMW. This is a shame because the fully decked out model, with a thrown for a pillion seat, and additional top box, would be my choice if I was planning a long-distance tour two-up. Instead, we’re riding the B, or Bagger model, which is a very similar motorcycle, minus the pillion armchair, top box, and spotlights.
Start me up
I prod the starter, the motor fires with that lurch to the left that characterises the brand. At 1,802cc, the R 18 B’s air and oil-cooled engine is the biggest capacity twin-cylinder boxer motor ever put into a motorcycle, weighing in at a smidge over 110kg with all the gearbox and intake gubbins. To put this into context, the BMWs motor alone is heavier than my entire KTM EXC 250. This is a bruiser of a bike.
With the motor chugging away lazily beneath me and Smoke on the Water on the soundtrack, I click into first with a slightly agricultural clunk and head out onto the road, following our guide, Thomas. Our route has been loaded onto the same phone as the playlist and linked to the bike’s positively enormous 10.5” wide TFT screen.
In a nod to the heritage of the cruiser class, and inevitably the American competition, the R 18 B also has an array of four analogue clocks over the screen. From left to right there is a fuel gauge, speedo, tacho and power reserve dial. While the fuel and rev counter are understandable, the inclusion of an old school speedo above the clear digital display seems odd.
For those about to rock
We ride away from the hotel and quickly pick up the A66 autobahn towards the west of the city in the relatively busy morning traffic. I wouldn’t say that turning straight onto a righthand drive motorway after a year away from continental roads is the best environment to get to terms with a new bike, let alone a style of bike that I have rarely ridden.
While cruisers are undoubtedly the choice of many riders worldwide and they are just as capable of providing epic adventures as any other bike might, the low and relaxed riding position is a world away from the usual adventure bikes I ride and it takes me a good few miles dodging through the commuters to get used to the different geometry and lazy manners of the R 18 B.
Thankfully, the width of the motor means that the BMW does have the conventional position for the footpegs, gearchange, and brake controls rather than forward sets, so I’m saved the embarrassment of sitting with my legs stretched out like Peter Fonda. The bike is more than capable of keeping up with the morning traffic, the 1,800cc lump putting out a strong but not excessive 91bhp at 4750rpm, but perhaps more importantly, an impressive 158Nm of torque at just 3000rpm.
As the new R 18 B has adaptive cruise control which automatically slows or accelerates the bike depending on the speed of the vehicle ahead. However, it’s an optional extra, the stock bike having conventional cruise control.
After a short while, Thomas takes us off the autobahn and heads north towards Königstein im Taunus. I’ve never ridden in Germany before, and I’m immediately impressed at just how beautiful the country is, with rolling countryside and cute little villages that are just as picturesque as anything you might have ridden through in Northern France.
With nothing but open and largely empty A-roads to enjoy, I can start to experiment with the different riding modes. The R 18 B keeps it simple with just three modes to select on the left-hand switchgear. However, in what is either a stroke of genius, or maybe the lamest Dad joke in motorcycling history, the designers have decided to allow the rider to select from Rock or Roll modes, their inspiration falling short when it came to the Rain option.
All three modes allow access to the motor’s impressive power, but choosing Rain makes the delivery buttery smooth and predictable for slippery conditions, and with a 400kg bike, you really don’t want any hint of an unexpected slide. Changing up to Roll mode (effectively Road on other bikes) delivers what BMW terms ‘optimum throttle response’. In this mode the bike’s automatic stability control and traction control computers keeps everything under control for whatever road or surface you might encounter as you ride.
If you are feeling spirited and keen to get a wiggle on, a swift chop of the throttle and a press of the mode switch will take you into Rock mode, where the throttle response becomes that bit more punchy, engine braking is more pronounced, and the onboard computer cuts you a bit of slack.
Born to be wild?
After a while, our route turns away from the faster A-roads and onto smaller and tighter roads, which is a bit of a surprise choice for a bike better suited to American cruising rather than backroad scratching. Yet despite this, the bike responds well to the challenge, coping with the more testing route with relative ease given its large dimensions and heft.
Compared to the more familiar and idiosyncratic design of the GS frame and suspension, the R18 B goes back to something far closer to its ancestor of 1936, the iconic R5 on which the bike is styled. Although somewhat more complex for 2021, the basic frame has a backboned double-loop steel cradle construction that the original designers would instantly recognise.
Upfront there are conventional telescopic shrouded forks, albeit closer to scaffold pole dimensions compared to the R5’s delicate legs.
At the rear, the R18 B may look similar to the 1936 rigid back end, but what is actually there is a cantilever swingarm strut attached to a horizontally mounted single shock.
For all the R 18 B’s competence on the tighter roads, I can’t say that I entirely loved the experience compared to riding the same type of road on a more conventional road or adventure bike.
Although I’d probably get used to the sensation, it often felt like the bike wanted to press on past the corner and I was having to concentrate far more, especially if I wanted to increase the pace. But I’m more comfortable keeping things smooth and unhurried as we head for lunch in a picturesque converted mill just outside Aarbergen.
Suitably refreshed, we fire up the sound systems and head out once more. Considering few of us have ever owned a bike with an inbuilt stereo, or indeed thought we wanted or needed one, the Marshall kit has been a resounding success with every one of the riders.
Each time we stop at a junction, the air is filled with a cacophony of different rock anthems. Until you’ve swept through German forests singing along to Iron Maiden’s Run to the Hills on a massive cruiser, you simply haven’t lived. Of course, concentrate too much on Bruce Dickinson’s vocals and too little on the road, and the living part could come to a swift halt, so it’s good to know the R18 B has sufficient stopping power to haul up the beast.
Upfront on the cast alloy 19” wheel, there’s a pair of 300mm discs, and at the rear, there’s a 16” wheel with a single 300m disc. Callipers both ends are BMW’s own brand with full ABS, and both front and back units manage both delicate control and, when required, anchor-like stopping power with a minimum of fuss.
Having been riding the bike for nearly five hours now, I’m beginning to gel with it and I’m definitely starting to feel that if I was planning a transcontinental adventure, particularly one across America, that the mighty BMW would be a smart choice to do it on. The seat is supremely comfortable, the bar position is refreshingly natural and easy, the wide front brake and hydraulic clutch levers are a joy to use, and while it’s not exactly agile, the handling and suspension delivers a predictable and extremely comfortable ride.
In terms of that motor, if you like a Boxer to start with, then you are onto a winner as this is the pinnacle of the breed. Monster torque, great sound, and low-down stability are all BMW trademarks and the R18 doesn’t disappoint.
Shaft drive means no chain worries too and the fact that the drive shaft is exposed is a great little design touch, even if the slightly clunky gearbox, particularly on down changes, occasionally lets the side down. And you’ve got to love the look of the jet-black bike with the double coachlines and simple roundel on the tank.
All along the watchtower
As the shadows begin to lengthen, our guide Thomas leads the group eastwards back towards Frankfurt, taking in a road that is clearly a favourite with local bikers. Cutting briefly away from the forest roads for a moment, we climb to a local highpoint where there is a rather grim-looking biker café, dwarfed by an austere looking observation tower and an even taller and uglier concrete transmitter tower. It’s a popular stop-off for bikers of all persuasions, but not one that will ever feature on a bucket list of the world’s best tourist destinations.
With the tower ticked off our list we set off again, and with our return route featuring far more fast and sweeping roads than the earlier part of the day, both the bikes and the riders are loving it. Like a true badass biker gang, the seven of us blast through the landscape over the north of Niedernhausen and then swoop down to the south of Hofheim to pick up the A66 autobahn once again. And, with the afternoon traffic far lighter than this morning, we can really open the taps.
The quoted top speed on the R18 B is just over 110mph and moving at anything approaching this speed on such an imposing motorcycle is a truly exhilarating experience and one that I’d recommend wholeheartedly, but only where it is legal to do so of course.
OK, so the mighty BMW may lack some of the features on ABR’s regular diet of GSAs, Multistrada’s, Tigers, Africa Twins, and Ténérés. But who’s to judge whether crossing the USA on Route 66 or just riding to the South of France on a bagger is any less of an adventure than riding the Pamir Highway on a Suzuki DR650 or tackling Scotland’s NC500 on a KTM 1290 Super Adventure. If you get a chance to test ride the R18 then you should jump at the chance.