This BMW, while not the biggest two-wheeled SUV on the block, still makes something like 85 horsepower and weighs a scale-crushing 455 pounds. That’s average by street standards, but compared to even a big fat Honda XR650L or KTM 640 Adventure single-cylinder dual-sport bike, it seems huge.
We think exploring on mega dualies is a riot, and apparently many people agree, since the F800GS is one of BMWs top-selling motorcycles. But riding overstuffed dualies does require a level of maturity not generally associated with hardcore dirt bikers...
The 800GS is equipped with tires that are barely more aggressive than street tires, although with a 21-inch front and a 17-inch rear hoop, real knobbies wouldn't be hard to track down. Anyway, in stock form we took it easy in the dirt at first. The non-adjustable inverted fork is good for 9 inches of travel, while the adjustable, non-linkage single-shock rear suspension has 8.5 inches of travel. That's not much by dirt bike standards, but compared to a street bike it sure is!
The trade-off with long wheel travel and a big, tall engine is a tall seat height of 34.6 inches. The bike has adequate ground clearance, and if it were any taller we’d probably fall over in the parking lot. The height is a little awkward on the street, but gives you great visibility and street cred, and it makes the 800GS surprisingly capable on rough terrain.
The handlebar looks like an oversized motocross unit, with a width and bend similar to those used on KTM dirt bikes. The motocross-style footpegs have removable rubber inserts stuck into the top to reduce vibration on the street and to keep you from tearing up your fancy dress shoes. Those inserts are removable easily for off-road use.
Aggressive 'Attack position" standing ergonomics on the trail are surprisingly much like any other dirt bike. We've heard other opinions, but on our test bike the clutch was light and easy to modulate, and the transmission shifted great, with tight gear ratios that were surprisingly appropriate for easy trail conditions. In fact, if we were on the highway all the time we’d want to gear it up to reduce revs by installing a bigger front sprocket.
With the street tires you can’t get crazy off-road, but jeep or ATV trails and gravel roads are a blast if they are dry! The ABS can be switched off for dirt riding, but with the street tires we preferred it left active. In fact, the ABS saved us a few times when we overcooked turns and would have otherwise locked the wheels up. When a bike this heavy and tall suddenly loses traction in the dirt, it's no easy manner to recover with a little weight shift or blast of throttle! Like we suggested earlier, learning to ride this bike in the dirt was like learning to ride all over again. Old habits were re-learned and old limits were re-evaluated.
The 800GS turns okay, all things considered, and is surprisingly stable at speed in the dirt. We even took on some whooped-out sections of an old gravel railway bed... on a dare. The suspension worked surprisingly well and the bike went straight, so in the name of ummm…science…we did it a few more times at progressively higher speeds. The Beemer was never intended to be ridden this aggressively in the dirt, but it made out pretty well!
The fork was a little too soft, but the back-end worked just fine, bottoming very gently with no harsh clanging and banging and zero swapping. Traction and weight aside, the biggest issue we had off-road was the BMW’s butt width. The bike is pretty top heavy, so you can’t really cut and thrust your way through tight trails. Since you can't lean much, sometimes you aren’t able to turn sharply enough and end up catching the passenger pegs and muffler on trailside objects and coming to a very abrupt stop. Yanking this tall, heavy bike back out of a jam is not easy!
Forgetting about traction for a moment, we can say the BMW has more than enough power and throttle response to wheelie over trail junk in the first couple gears. We even did some 'fan the clutch and pin-it panic wheelies' in third. It was fun surprising other riders with just where this bike can go! And therein lies the rub; after a while the F800GS feels enough like a normal dirt bike that it tricks you into taking it places it can’t go. When that happens, and believe me it did, the results are ugly.
As your saddle time on the F800GS grows you begin to discover how cool this bike is to play ride on. We jumped over all sorts of little things on the trail and did about 246,000 wheelies during our test. The bike is strong and reliable too. We put about 600 miles of very spirited 50/50 street/dirt riding on the bike during our test and nothing came loose, broke or even needed adjustment. The parallel-Twin's exhaust note sounds really cool too, especially when you are smoking up behind a novice rider on a fast section of two-track dirt road!
Things that bothered us the most about the F800GS were the wide rear end, the non-adjustable brake pedal height and the tricky-to-use turnsignal controls. At highway speeds of 75 mph, wind buffeting gets gnarly, especially if you're wearing motocross gear. Ridden on the street, the firm saddle, motocross footpegs and motocross handlebars might even be too dirt-bikey to be truly comfortable for long trips.
But if we had to choose a bike to ride from coast to coast, using only dirt roads, an F800GS with a few simple mods and some non-essential items trimmed off to reduce weight would be totally up to the task!
Our feelings for the F800GS are obvious. Despite our initial misunderstandings, we came to really like this bike! This motorcycle has fun doing stuff no other streetbike would dream of doing, yet will run down the highway with a level of comfort, speed and fuel range a dirt-based 600cc single cylinder dual-sport bike can’t possibly approach.
The F800GS may not suit hardcore adventure riders, and it retails at a fairly lofty $11,395. But if you’re looking for a very capable street bike that rides and feels like a dirt bike, you'll love the F800GS.