France on KTM and BMW

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We take the new R1200 GSA and this year’s 1190 Adventure R to the South of France for a quick blast around. but how did we get there?

Words: NM Pictures: NM & Alun Davies

France. Just outside Nice and we’re riding the roads around the Verdon Gorge. It’s beautiful weather, there’s barely any other traffic about and there’s not a straight bit of road longer than a quarter of a mile.

It’s just left-hander, straight into right-hander, and on it goes throughout the entire day.

To be honest, there’s not a much better bit of tarmac anywhere to be found, and the scenery is equally spectacular, with small French villages built into the hillside, as can be seen on the picture above.

The bikes we’re riding are a KTM 1190 Adventure R and the new BMW GSA. The 1190 is a short term loan bike from KTM, whereas the GSA is a long term test bike we’ve kindly been lent for the year.

The intention is to give it a good run out and see how it copes with the various rigours of the road. Having ridden the BM on the official launch last issue I’m keen to spend more time with the bike.

My initial impressions in Spain were good, and the bike’s ability to cope with all conditions was supreme, but remove the hype and hysteria of a flamboyant product launch and riding the bike in the UK leaves me wondering even more if it has gone just too far.

Looking back at it as you go to pay for your petrol you can’t help but think how big and ungainly it looks. Borderline ridiculous, like a Goldwing on stilts. But then you ride it and it does everything so well.

The LED headlights are brilliant, comfort is good, range is excellent, power is there, and the integrated sat-nav is sublime. I was certainly looking forward to spending more time with it in France.

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To accompany it in France we went for the KTM 1190 Adventure, in R spec. Paul Jennison tested the standard Adventure last year on launch, but the R had always alluded us; issues with insurance and making arrangements to get hold of a bike here in the UK. But we finally got there…

The R is the off-road-focused derivative of the 1190, losing the electronically adjustable WP suspension (in favour of manually adjustable WP), the taller touring screen and the wheels are more serious 21-inch front and 18-inch rear, as opposed to the 19-inch front and 17-inch rear of the standard bike.

Suspension travel on the R is also increased front and rear from 190mm to 220mm, with ground clearance up from 220 to 250mm. The handlebars are also wider than the non R, and the bike comes with crash bars as standard.

There is also a difference in seat height, with the R fixed at 890mm, whilst the non R ranges from 860 to 875mm. The R is also five kilos heavier, accounted for by the engine guards and the bigger rims.

As a result, the bike comes in at 217 kilos, which on the surface sounds low, especially when you consider the standard GS weighs in at 238 and the GSA at 260kgs, but bear in mind that BMW weighs their bikes with 90 percent fuel onboard, whereas KTM weighs theirs with the fuel tank empty, so the difference is probably less than it initially looks.

The KTM certainly has the edge on performance, as you would expect it to with that extra 25bhp from the twin-cylinder engine lifted from the RC8 superbike and retuned to provide more low and midrange torque.

What’s surprising is just how manageable it is, the fueling and throttle response are excellent at lower revs, with no ‘shunt’ or lag in the delivery; much improved over the old 990.

The power doesn’t really begin to build until around 4,000rpm either, meaning that anything below is actually quite civilised, and the perfectly metered throttle gives you complete control over the delivery.

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Above 4,000rpms and the engine really starts to get going, giving clear indication that you’re riding a 148bhp trail bike, with knobbly tyres that in this instance have been flat-spotted by the previous rider.

Tipping into the first corner offered a heart in mouth moment, but overall our first impressions of the 1190, especially in comparison to the GSA, is just how light and playful it feels. Everything about it is direct and punchy.

The clutch and gearchange are beautifully slick, the steering is sharp and light, the brakes strong and the riding position perfect.

From the outset, you know that you’re riding an exciting bike, and those first few miles along the motorway having picked it up from the KTM depot were spent rolling on and off the throttle, enjoying that massive burst of energy, until the gear indicator light flickers at 9,000rpm and you knock it up into the next gear. Over and over again.

The only initial negative about the 1190 is the height of the seat. At the first junction, you realise it’s a long way down to the floor, even with the manually-operated preload wound right down to bottom, and I stand at 5’10”, so I’m not the shortest of blokes.

That said, once up and rolling the bike feels like a toy compared to the BMW. Vanished is all that weight and mass between your knees. The KTM is slender, noticeably light, and the bars and pegs perfectly placed and set out and so even after the first mile you feel connected with it.

In terms of France, we only had a day and a half down in the South. It was enough time to do a good 200 miles lapping the Verdon Gorge, and the next day pottering down to Monaco, along snarled up coastal roads.

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It was here that we picked up one of the KTM’s main flaws; and that is the heat from the engine, the head of the rear-facing cylinder right beneath the padding, making it feel like the sun was on the back of your legs even when at a steady cruise.

It was okay on the open road, but in traffic, crawling through Monaco, it was a bit too much and would actively make you avoid such situations, especially in summer.

We also had a slight niggle with the loss of some coolant fluid. Pulling up in a French village, switching off the bike, fluid began pouring from the radiator. It happened once the next day too, with online research and chats with KTM revealing it to be nothing more sinister than radiator hoses not tightened down firm enough back at the factory.

We can live with and forgive it that, because by comparison to the BMW, the KTM is a more hands-on bike, it’s more of an enthusiasts bike, for someone who doesn’t mind oiling and tightening the chain, or getting the tool kit out every now again.

There’s certainly not that much to go wrong with it, not that much to leave you stranded at least, which is what you want if you are actually going to go off the beaten track on your adventure bike.

We found a couple of opportunities to take the bikes off-road, even a river crossing. The KTM in these conditions is more than capable of what it was designed for, especially with the TKCs on.

Up on the pegs, the stance is perfect, the bike light, nimble, and the low-speed manners spot on. There is an off-road mode you can put the bike in to, reducing power to 100bhp and slackening the leash on the traction control and ABS, which can both be turned off completely.

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The roads (D71) to the north of Verdon Gorge. Empty and spectacular

On the subject of ABS, this year’s KTM comes with some trick new ABS software developed in conjunction with Bosch, effectively a linked system, whereby if you go into a corner too hot, hitting the front brakes to the point of locking up, not only will the ABS prevent this, but it’ll also apply a touch of rear brake to help bring the back into line and somehow help you around.

I’d like to say I tested this function thoroughly on the roads around Southern France, but it’s fair to say I’d much rather bring the £14k press bike back in one piece than come back with it in pieces, having tested the new ABS just a little bit too thoroughly. I’ll take their word for it.

Overall the KTM was a pleasure to be riding. There was a part of me that wished that it was the non R, with the smaller wheels and regular road rubber, but there was certainly something about this R model that made you want to own one.

It is a serious-looking bit of kit. More than that, it’s actually built, designed and engineered to be a serious bit of kit. It’s not just a badge stuck on it, meaning that it is by far the most focused and talented genuine go-anywhere adventure bike on the market.

Is it for everyone, and will it wear you out trying to keep up with it? Perhaps, but you’ll certainly have a lot of fun trying. This brought us to the second day, when myself and Alun swapped bikes, him taking to the KTM, me to the GSA, a bike I’d actually been eager to spend some more time on.

LED headlights
Hard to match the LED headlights of GSA

I rode it down to Brighton to visit Metal Mule (featured in this issue) and on the ride back in the dark, it was a sublime piece of kit. Those headlights alone are worth the admission price, brighter than any other bike, by far, and most cars.

The integrated sat-nav with the roller wheel operated by your left thumb is also intuitive and a genuinely desirable piece of technology for anyone doing a lot of miles on unfamiliar roads.

I think what you can see from the GSA is the adoption of the sorts of technologies and functionality that is present in their cars, giving it the similar glossy showroom appeal. Perhaps the GSA has become or is becoming, the BMW X6 equivalent of the two-wheeled world, offering the toys and the tech and the image of adventure.

Certainly, in terms of technology, the other manufacturers are all playing catch up.

It’s other things as well, like the way rider modes integrate the suspension, the throttle response and the traction control, making it incredibly user friendly and self-explanatory to use.

The new Ténéré by comparison just lacks that simplicity and takes more of a ‘geek’ to understand and work it, which is no bad thing. But the BMW does such things better, for me at least.

Despite all that bulk ahead of you, the GSA is a delight to ride through the city, especially once you’ve had a bit of time in the saddle. It’s that low down weight, the natural balance of the boxer engine, allowing you to potter with both feet on the pegs and not feel like you’re about to topple. Much easier than on the tall KTM, it has to be said.

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Where the BMW struggled was when we took the bikes off-road. On the KTM you had no fear of grabbing it by the scruff of the neck, whereas the GSA was quite the opposite, intimidating in fact, and if I was buying a GS to use off-road I’d stick with the standard model. It’s the better bike for the job. But for touring, this GSA takes some beating.

One thing’s for certain, bringing these two bikes together in France proved just how poles apart they are. There’d been fears that the KTM had been tamed, sanitised, and lost some of its racing pedigree edge, but I couldn’t see any evidence of that. It’s a killer bike. Tightly focused. Hardcore. The GS, perhaps, needs another HP2 to compete.

As for France, I’d personally never ridden this southern region before, but was blown away by the quality of the roads, the quietness of them, the scenery, the food, the coffee, the people, and the sun, which never stopped shining, even in early April.

Monaco I was less keen on, a place to flaunt your wealth, and not much else, but, I’m glad I’ve seen it, though I was heading back to the South of France I’d do another lap around the Verdon Gorge. Nigh on 200 miles of twisty roads, starting in Nice and finishing in Nice. There’s barely been a better day’s riding. And we don’t even have to ride the bikes back to England either…

Tool kit – when things go wrong

Tool Kit

The slight spot of bother with the coolant leak on the KTM gave us a good chance to get to grips with the tool kit on the 1190 and we have to say it’s a real good bit of kit, with everything you’d need to carry out basic repairs and maintenance on the road.

A tool kit like this is essential, especially as all the fasteners on the KTM are the special Torx screw type, requiring special tools to remove, all included in the tool kit.

Conversely, the GSA also uses the same type of fasteners, the difference being the BMW doesn’t come with a tool kit, so you either have to take it to a main dealer or spend over £100 on one from the internet or the Adventure Bike Shop.

An adventure bike requiring special tools and no tools provided; that’s not quite right.

Alun’s Verdict

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Riding the new BMW GSA and KTM Adventure 1190 R back to back on roads that would make a serpentine appear linear, through scenery that induces ‘oooh’s’ and ‘aaarrh’s’ by the second, is certainly right up there when describing my version of La Dolce Vita.

Riding out on the GSA it never ceases to amaze me how a bike so huge in dimensions (and it is monstrous, think half a car width) behaves so impeccably.

Never mind all the gizmos and gadgets this hi-tech leviathan just does the basics superbly.

The power delivery from the water-cooled boxer is impressive, with its smooth, linear torque and its ability to rifle right up the tailpipe of the sports bike boys should you wish so.

Conversely, it’s just as happy and stress-free bimbling along as you take in the scenery, and, whilst not being a nippy street bike, it’s not such a handful as it would appear to be when battling the traffic in the Mediterranean hot-spots of Nice and Monte Carlo.

The ride comfort and protection from the elements are at the top of the adventure league and the on-road handling hard to fault. Throw in the huge tank and corresponding range and you have a touring machine that is just plain and simply hard to beat.

Taking a bike of the size of the GSA on anything more than a level gravel track is probably best left to the experts, but in the right hands, it’ll traverse terrain you’d have thought unlikely on a smaller trail bike.

That said, the sheer bulk of the bike caused a permanent state of apprehension on our off-road excursions, for which the same could not be said for the KTM Adventure 1190 R.

Moving off the GSA and onto the KTM felt like trading in a comfy old armchair and replacing it with a high stool at the bar.

Where there was a feeling of apprehension with the BM there was a desire to go off-road and explore with the KTM. It just felt more built for the job and far less intimidating.

Surprisingly, it’s harder to get your feet down on the KTM than on the GSA. This, I reckon, is more to do with the wider seat than the actual seat height, the consequence of such is that I actually preferred riding the smoother powered BMW in busy city traffic.

Out on the mountain roads, the difference between the two bikes is huge. Whilst you have a smooth, powerful progression through the revs on the GSA, the KTM, whilst no slouch at lower rpm goes ballistic with a heavy right hand at the 4,000rpm mark where you get to appreciate the full 148bhp on tap.

I found that my riding style changed significantly to the point where I’d be finding a gear to hold the revs just under 4k on a bend in preparation for unleashing the beast at the first opportunity on the exit. Exciting? Hell yes.

Would I still have a licence by the end of the month? Only with massive self-control. If pressed I’d choose the GSA for long-distance touring and the KTM for going out to play both on and off the tarmac.

France's very own Grand Canyon
France’s very own Grand Canyon, lurking below the bridge

Fly bike fly

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How we got there…

 

It might sound like cheating, and it probably is, but to get the bikes to France we used the FlyBikeFly service, the company that effectively hauls your bike from England to Nice, and takes it back again at the end, leaving you to fly in and fly out. It’s a service designed for people who might have the bike and the desire to ride it in sunnier climates, but not necessarily the time or the inclination to ride it there themselves.

It’s a simple process. You drop your bike off at one of the company’s depots around the country the week before it’s due to go, the bike gets loaded on to a haulage truck and the following week you fly down to Nice to where you’re bike is already waiting at a depot just outside of the town. You take a taxi over, hand them your paperwork, offload the bikes from the metal pallets and away you go, straight on to the beautiful mountain roads just south of the Verdon Gorge.

The bikes arriving in Nice
The bikes arriving at the depot in Nice, like gifts being delivered at Christmas. Half an hour later we were on the road and riding

At the end of your time in Nice, you simply drop the bike back at the depot, taxi back into the town and to the airport, fly home and a week later your bike’s ready to collect at the same UK depot you dropped it off at.

There is also a service whereby the company will collect your bike and drop it off at your home or office address. That costs extra, but it does save you the hassle of having to get your bike over to your nearest depot.

In our case, we flew out to Nice on a Wednesday evening, rode all day Thursday, rode all day Friday, before dropping the bikes off at the depot Friday afternoon and catching the flight home from Nice that evening.

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So two solid days of riding in the South of France with just two and a half days out of your schedule, meaning that you could spend a weekend riding in the South of France and Monaco – on your own bike – and be back in at work on Monday morning.

Alternatively, you could book a week’s holiday in the South of France and have your bike shipped down there so that you have something to ride around on. Or you could ship it down and spend a week or a fortnight exploring the Alps, or down into Italy and not have the hassle of the 1,000-mile slog back at the end.

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You can book the bike one way, either there or back, or, as we did, do a return trip. There’s also a service down to Malaga at the southern end of Spain, again, allowing you to skip the mammoth (and costly) ride down there, flying instead and being fresh to explore the Sierra Nevada.

Or, if you plan on riding a trail bike to Morocco and are daunted by the thought of 1,500 miles of bum-splitting tarmac, then why not ship it down with FlyBikeFly and then make the short ride to catch the ferry over to Morocco?

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Chris Hathaway, the owner and operator of FlyBikeFly, comes from a family of hauliers and knows his stuff

In transit the bikes are moored in the same metal stocks as Triumph use to move bikes around their factories. The bikes are then strapped down at four points, extruding parts wrapped in bubble wrap, a sheet marked off to note any existing damage, and then a dust sheet thrown over the top, and cling film wrapped around the cage.

The cost of the service to Nice would be £395 per bike return (£295 single). That’s if dropped off at their main depot in Swindon. A return service to an outlying depot such as Kettering or Manchester would be £495 return and £395 single.

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Chris explained that the majority of bikes being taken to Nice and Malaga were BMWs, mainly GSs, but also Ducati superbikes and other touring bikes

To have the bike picked up and collected from your home address would be an additional £90 at each end. Plus the flights on top.

For the service, we received it would have cost £575 per bike as we had the bikes picked up and dropped off at the office.

Arguably not cheap, but for the opportunity to ride your bike in such a place as the South of France and not have the hassle of the two or three-day transit stage at either end was a real blessing, allowing us to enjoy two good solid days of riding without having to take a week out of the schedule.

And when you add in the costs associated with tyre wear, fuel, ferries, hotels and snacks along the way, the cost is pretty much the same as riding down. I trust them with the bikes as well, which is important.

For more information visit their website; www.flybikefly.com, or give Chris a call on 0808 1780831.