Building the ultimate R1200GS: modifications and upgrades.

The Return of Triple Black Beauty: CityBike R1200GS Project Bike Part 1

We reviewed BMW’s water-cooled R1200GS a few months back (“Triple Black Beauty 2016 BMW R1200GS” – October 2016) and then in December teased an upcoming long-term blacked-out GS project. At the Dirtbag Challenge, one of our supremely astute readers asked me, “So… is this project bike really just your bike?” Busted.

This is how long-term project bikes work for us. We’ve tried—believe me—to get the OEMs to just give us long-termers, but have been consistently unsuccessful thus far. S’ok—we worry a lot less when every little scratch isn’t another black mark on our already questionable record. And anyway, we need motorcycles, we like to do cool shit to motorcycles, so why not?

Why an R1200GS? Well, I’m a fan of modern Boxers. My previous main squeeze was an R1200R I’d transformed into something like a latter-day Rockster. I like the Telelever, too, at least in part because it gives me something to argue with Fish about. As we’ve been vocal about the utility of adventure bikes, whether said bikes ever see dirt beyond the occasional roadside stop, I figured we’d see about creating the ultimate tall-rounder, starting with one of the class leaders.

That was the plan, but I’ve since been invited to a pretty damn serious big-bike no-shit ADV ride in Colorado later this year, so the project is necessarily shifting from unapologetic street-oriented tall-rounder, to more a flexible, truly do-it-all—including dirt—bike. It’ll be my commuter, my touring mount, and everything in between—and the Wrecking Crew will continue to take turns on it in a village bicycle sort of way.

I’ll get more into how the bike is holding up and long-term impressions as we get further along, but the first couple entries in the project journal for this thing are gonna be about addressing weaknesses, and of course, cool shit.

Wait… this here $20k+ motorcycle has weaknesses? Yep. Sure, it’s not some busted-ass, missing-a-sidecover, mixed-tires Nighthawk 650 with half the paint gone, to be sure—but the GrasS can always be greener, right?

Boxer Boxes

I learned pretty quickly that the BMW Vario sidecases, which are sweet for urban riding because they’re positively svelte when collapsed but offer lots of storage space when expanded, or as Fish puts it, provide the ability to lock a helmet in the left sidecase “without having to split lanes with box vans attached to each side of the motorcycle,” are unlikely to last long if I keep tossing the bike on its side, which is about as certain as Donald Trump lying in the next 30 minutes. Oh, ok, I’ll give him an hour.

Anyway, the Varios are about in line with typical plastic OEM sidecases, but the size-changing mechanism seems ripe for an unintentional and tragically final size adjustment in the middle of nowhere. They’ll be fine if you’re primarily riding on the street and keeping the bike upright, but if you’re riding off-road, you know the bike is gonna get keelhauled now and then.

There are two options—hard cases and soft bags—and I’ll eventually explore both. Because I value locking storage, I wanted to start with hard cases. What I didn’t want was typical Touratech boxes, because I’m a natural contrarian, and because Fish keeps asking if the BMW tank bag that says “GS” on it was made specifically for a GS. In other words, no standard ADV stuff, please.

My research ultimately led me to Bulgarian box builders Bumot, partly thanks to the whackjobs at the Adventure Bike TV YouTube channel, who’ve tested various hard cases by chucking them off buildings and shooting them with a crossbow. The Bumots did well in these torture tests and are apparently quite waterproof—good enough for me. Granted, the layperson won’t be able to tell the difference between these and any other alumi-boxes, but I feel better about my choice. Think different and all that.

I ordered a set of black Bumot Defender cases—45 liter on the left, 41 liter on the right—from Bumot’s US distributor, who were very helpful and shipped quickly. The Defenders are top-loading boxes with lids that fold outward on friction hinges. They’re serious business—well-constructed and tough, with stainless steel hardware on powder-coated aluminum. Time will tell how they hold up to my abuse, but the boxes are beefy as Harris Ranch and the frame is reminiscent of old Ford trucks, back when trucks were about strength, not efficiency.

Installation was stupid-simple, easy and fast. One of the cool features of the Bumot setup is the nifty locking toolbox that can be mounted on the left side of the frame. Since I ordered it with my cases, ADV Motorrad sent a toolbox keyed alike to my cases, and even pre-mounted it to the rack. The toolbox is big enough to hold a useful complement of tools—for example, the stock “tool kit” and an actual tool kit, like the Cruz Tools RoadTech B1—with space left for a shop rag and a couple Rok Straps, and it’s hypothetically waterproof too. I know there are other pannier-mount toolboxes, but they all say “GS” on them, and I just can’t give Fish any more ammo for his smirking “is that specifically made for a GS?” reminders.

Pricing is good, just under $1,500 before shipping. That’s a bit less than it’d cost to get a similar setup—with toolbox and internal bags—from Touratech or Jesse.

Downsides? They’re wide—the Varios were 36 ½” across when expanded, and the Bumots are bigger, at 38 ½” across. The width isn’t a big deal in day-to-day riding—like most smart Bay Area moto-commuters, I long ago adopted the oh-so-sexy topcase-only setup for my daily commute. For now, that means the stock Vario topcase, likely replaced with something larger soon.

The soft bags option is considered by some to be a superior solution for serious off-roading, so I’ve got the shop staff working overtime on an alternate setup using Mosko Moto bags on the Bumot racks—stay tuned for more on that. I’ll say right now that the Mosko bags are very impressive—thoughtfully designed, stout, and cool.

Crashing Bars Down In Skid Row

Another weakness of the GS is the exposed valve covers. I’d picked up an AltRider rear rack from the ADVRider flea market and been so impressed with it that I decided to go with their skid plate/crash bar combo and radiator guards, in hopes of keeping the various fluids in their proper places.

The AltRider (not to be confused with alt-right-er) bash plate is almost ridiculously burly; it makes the stock BMW unit—admittedly beefier than the aluminum foil-looking crap that comes on some “adventure” motorcycles—look like a soggy paper plate. Not only is the AltRider unit way thicker at 3/16”, it covers the entire underside of the bike, from front of the engine to the rear tire. Serious. But what really sold me on it is the mounting—it does not attach to the engine, thus isolating it from transferred impacts.

At the front, the skid plate mounts to husky carriers on either side which also serve as the lower mounting point for the equally super-toughskins crash bars. In the rear, the centerstand pivots are used. Fun fact: the BMW centerstand pivots are made from what appears to be recycled plastic water bottles, thankfully replaced with proper metal during install of the AltRider skid plate.

Like the skid plate, AltRider’s crash bars define overbuilt. They use 1 1/4″ tubing for more stiffness than typical 1” bars, meaning they can be tucked in closer to the heads. Three mounting points are used on each side: the carriers that also hold the skid plate, a high-up front bolt, and a custom engine bolt replacement that goes all the way through the engine and frame. Again, this stuff is serious. Between the bars’ Dwayne Johnson toughness and the skid plate’s Nicki Menaj thickness I’m pretty sure, come the revolution, that I can throw the GS on its side to take shelter from gunfire behind the skid plate; and if we end up with a damn-the-torpedoes madman with his hand on The Button in the Oval Office (oh shit!), at least the crash bars and skid plate will survive the apocalypse to make a nice crib for the cockroaches.

This beefy protecto-combo, while not as easy to install as the Bumot boxes, goes on without too much knuckle-busting, even for this misalignment-prone, habitually-overtightening duh-chanic. The instructions, which I read purely for journalistic purposes, are reasonably clear and include helpful tips—I’m paraphrasing here—like “hey stupid, use a Sharpie to mark this so you can get it straight.” The bars go on first, followed by the skid plate, and the only glitch I encountered was a couple rounds of loosen / jiggle / re-tighten to get everything lined up—standard procedure for such items.

The radiator guards, while not as bombproof as the crash bars and skid plate, are precision-cut out of 1/16” anodized aluminum. Installation took about one Metallica song (the later, shorter ones, not Justice-era epics) and was so easy I feared I’d done it wrong. They use existing hardware and unlike other guards that I’ve left in pieces on the side of the trail, seem likely to retain their structural integrity, thus remaining on the bike, protecting the radiators.

The AltRider stuff is first-rate, utilizing smart, innovative designs and top-notch materials, and is US-made. My only complaint is that some of the smaller fasteners included weren’t similarly impressive quality as the parts themselves—I rounded a couple of the smaller hex bolts a bit, even after switching to another hex key to make sure I wasn’t just using a shitty tool. Or being a shitty tool.

Mishmash & Miscellany

This is the just because, “cool shit” part. You know how it is—you get a bike and immediately get the urge to start replacing seemingly trivial bits and bobs.

We reviewed Inertia LED’s CAN Bus-compliant bulb replacements last year (“Sweetness & Light: Inertia LED CAN-BUS Signal Bulb Replacements” – New Stuff, January 2016) and loved them: cheaper than BMW’s LED signals and super bright. I replaced the standard bulbs with Inertias and now can be seen from outer space when signaling.

Bike manufacturers must be in cahoots with the accessory guys—that’s the only reason I can see that explains why the “foot” on most side stands is so small. I seem to end up in quicksand-y shit more than most, so I always add an aftermarket sidestand foot—at least since some son of a bitch stole the hammered-flat soup can I carried for this purpose. Along with the super-burly crash protection pieces, I got a toothy, tough-looking side stand enlarger from AltRider. It does a nice job of keeping the bike from getting all narcoleptic on me, without adding too much height to the stand. It’s currently installed without the riser, which I may add once I install knobbly tires.

Finally, the plastic mirrors that come on the GS are… well, fine, but boring. I’m considering moving the bars back a little to make the riding position a little more dirt-y, so I acquired a set of Rizoma’s forward-curving Drift mirrors with the assumption that moving the mirrors forward would give me a little more flexibility in my rearward view.

The Drifts are gorgeous, a classical oval shape with gracefully curving arms and optically luxurious glass. They seem to say “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” the way I imagine a genteel Coach salesjerk might, if I were to wander in and inquire about the cost of a bag.

But I can’t quite find the right position for the Drifts on the GS. They want to be a bit more forward, but then they hit the windscreen at full lock. They want to be a bit further out, but when I adjust the arm to get ‘em there, the mirror hits the edge of adjustment before getting perfectly positioned. This isn’t a problem with the mirrors—they’re seriously good—but simply that they might be on the wrong bike. I’m still working on getting ‘em because they’re so goddamn sexy, but they may ultimately end up on another bike. Or I’ll leave one on my desk so I can occasionally caress it lovingly, whispering, “My preciousss…”


What’s next? I need to get some more lights, partly because that’s de rigueur for true adventure, partly because I want to be able to see well at night, and partly because Fish just loves riders with overly bright lights and I can’t wait to tail him with some cranked-up LEDs burning a hole in the back of his helmet as he wonders “are those lights specifically made for a GS?”

I also need to do something about the controls. I fucking hate the clutch lever, and the footpegs are pretty sorry at anything other than making me wish for bigger, grippier pegs. What else? Tune in next time to find out!

Surj puts “Editor” in front of his name to remind him that he needs to at the very least spellcheck shit before he hands it off to Master of Puppets Angelica. He sometimes regrets letting go of his R1200R—a nearly perfect motorcycle—even though it does seem to break more now that it belongs to someone else.

Cost of Our R1200gs Mods so Far

This is the ugly part, but I can’t really tell you about all this cool stuff I’m doing to our ultimate tall-rounder without adding up what’d it cost you to do the same, can I? I’m gonna leave the price of the bike out of the equation for now, partly because it’s a little obscene. Maybe I’ll add it all up at the end, and then cry. Anyway, this month’s upgrades add up like so:

Bumot Defender panniers with rack, toolbox, lid organizers and internal bags (black) $1,474.92
AltRider luggage rack system (silver, front & rear, bought used for $190) $438.97
AltRider skid plate and crash bars (Triple Black – gray bars / silver plate) $936.97
AltRider radiator guards (silver) $171.97
Inertia LED CAN Bus turn signal bulb replacements (two pairs) $119.90
AltRider side stand enlarger foot (with riser, black) $90.97
Total OUCH!

This story originally appeared in our February 2017 issue, which you can read in all its high-res glory here.