The One Bike to Rule Them All

My good friend, Rich Marin, in a situation where one bit of bad news was followed by another, flipped it around and came out smelling like a rose and the owner of a like-new BMW 1200GSA at a smokin’ deal. Rich appears as enthralled with his new GS as I am with my Tesla (Falling in Love: With a Tesla). However, my route to owning and becoming a committed fan of the BMW 1200GS was more circuitous than his.

Rich and I are long-term riders, starting as kids, and after only a few pauses, have kept it as lifelong pursuits. My love and involvement with motorcycle’s evolved into an avocation. Rich wrote a book about his riding life, The Ride is All. While it is true we’re discriminating to the point of opinionated about various brands and models, in the end, our focus is mostly about how these machines enhance our journey and where they take us.

I’ve extolled the advantages of the BMW 1200GS and recommended it to others for years. My friend, Roger Hansen, was urged by me to buy a GS, which he did, and then proceeded to ride it all over the world. My first long ride on one was in the fall of 2005, when I picked up a brand new GS in Istanbul, Turkey before a 12-day circumnavigation of the country, led by the famous Turkey tour guide, Kazim Uzunoglu. BMW had just replaced their venerable R1150GS with a new model weighing 66 lbs. less and increasing its horsepower to 100 bhp. The BMW faithful were livid. “It has too much plastic and feels like a Japanese bike,” they said, the ultimate put down from this circle of enthusiasts. I agree the R1100 and R1150GS had stability and tractability like no other mounts. But after spending two weeks riding it, my reaction was quite the opposite: I thought to myself, “they need to get over themselves, this is a fantastic motorcycle.” A moto-journalist colleague of mine, Fred Rau, also liked the new GS. He began his print review by saying “While vastly improved, the big GS remains so ugly bugs won’t hit it.” I recall Fred and MCN getting a good bit of complaints about Fred’s motorcycle aesthetics. Fred, however, made a great point: The GS is all about performance and the purity of riding, more than appearance.

After returning from the Dakar Rally in South America (also aboard a 1200GS) in 2011 and its painful pre-trip dismount on my Crown King tune-up ride, I grudgingly knew it was time to get rid of a bunch of motorcycles. The dirt bikes had to go and soon they were. My garage was suddenly down to only 2 motorcycles: the Honda Goldwing and Suzuki V-Strom. A Honda Grom was on its way, but I did not know that yet. At first loath to give up any of my motorcycles, my rationale for losing the off-road bikes was sound. The Dakar trip brought center stage a point about off-road riding I had forgotten. It is imperative to keep one’s speed up. In the dirt, speed, and staying pointed in the general direction you wish to go, often saves your butt. You don’t need to go 100 mph, but staying above 40 mph (45-50 mph is better) when travel surfaces loosen is critical. And here is the deal, in the dirt, you are going to occasionally go down. Assuming you wear all the appropriate riding gear, you are unlikely to get seriously hurt. However, after 60 years old, as I learned, you don’t heal as fast as 20-year-olds, who still seem to be made partly of rubber.

Loving my new extra garage space I decided it was time to go all the way and merge the Goldwing and V-Strom into one machine. You now have the background for my multi-year, epic quest, to do just that, to find “The One Bike to Rule them all.” (My apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”)

You cannot imagine how difficult this change in attitude was for me. For my entire motorcycling career I had strenuously argued that MBD (Multiple Bike Disorder) was not a disease, but in fact, the only proper way to approach motorcycle ownership. The correct answer to the question “How many motorcycles should one rider have?” is always, “One more than you have now.” Motorcycling only made sense in this context. Stick with me for a moment and allow me to explain: First of all, everyone knows you need a different motorcycle to ride off-road than riding on pavement. Right? No arguments here. But for pavement, there are many variations of riding. I found it took 3 machines to cover my street riding. These were: First, a Honda Goldwing for long-distance cruising, second, the Suzuki V-Strom for shorter sportier rides but still capable of carrying luggage, and lastly, a Ducati 750 Monster for carving the canyons around my place in the bay area. Understand, this still leaves out several important categories, such as a pure weekend cruising, represented by Harley and Indian models, (although other manufacturers have models in this category, too). In my list, you may notice there is no pure sport bike on the list, a motorcycle you could respectably take to a track day. You get the idea: to adequately cover the needs of an all-around street-only rider, you’ll need at least 5 motorcycles. And this is before getting to off-road bikes, where the choices are even more plentiful.

If you wish to ride off-road and go any significant distance, you need an adventure-oriented machine to handle luggage, spare parts, maybe even camping gear. If you want to go over jumps and whoops, you need a motocross bike and tons of suspension travel. If you want to go desert riding, you need a lighter, single-thumper model. A Trials Bike is dissimilar to all other off-road motorcycles – its first 3 gears are designed for less than 10 mph. I defy you to ride a typical Trial’s route on anything other than a Trials bike. You get the idea. A well-rounded off-road rider needs at least 5 different motorcycles, and before adding in any extras if you want to bring friends.

Do you see how this adds up, boys and girls? This is the vehement stance I defended each and every time someone asked to explain why I had 9 (yes, NINE) motorcycles. Over the years I watched countless riding friends search unsuccessfully for the one magic motorcycle that would do it all. And now here I was, attempting to try it myself. God help me!

After very little work, I found 9 initial candidates to be my one and only, including:

  • KTM 1190 (now the 1290)
  • BMW 1200GS (now 1250)
  • Triumph Tiger
  • Ducati 1200 Multistrada (now 1260)
  • Honda Africa Twin
  • Suzuki V-Strom 1000
  • Honda ST1200
  • Yamaha FJR1300
  • Kawasaki Concours

Although wonderful machines that I loved to ride, the Yamaha FJR, Honda ST1200, and Kawasaki Concours (“Connie”) were quickly eliminated as too road-oriented and why the BMW RT never made the list. The ultimate bike for me had to be up for some off-road duties. Now the list was six and after participating in a press shoot-out between the 650 cc and 1000 cc V-Strom and owning the 650 “Wee-Strom” for several years, I knew all-to-well its suspension limitations. The V-Strom’s elimination cut the list to now only five.

One great benefit of writing for motorcycle magazines is being able to try out any particular motorcycles for a week or two. The PR departments for most top brands are happy to find something for you to test. So, for the next few years, I “tested” these top 5 motorcycles. I read reviews, shoot-outs and comparisons of these specific models. Of the five, I had vestigial prejudices towards two of them which needed addressing. On the plus side, the Triumph Tiger: I’d ridden it in New Zealand for two weeks and was blown away by its handling on the tarmac and it prowess off-road when venturing into spots like Skipper’s Canyon. It was always well-planted, predictable and did everything right. On the other hand, the BMW 1200GS had negative issues: I’d ridden them a good deal and was greatly put off by its ubiquity. “You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a 1200GS,” I’d often said. It is BMW’s biggest seller and outsells all other brands and models. I credit much of its popularity to Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman riding and filming of their trips documented in TV specials, Long Way Round and Long Way Down, which I hated. So, I began by not giving the BMW much of a chance. Honda’s Africa Twin was also difficult, although not because I was predisposed for or against it. The problem was the Africa Twin was hard to get in the US. I’d seen it several times on foreign trips, and it looked positively brilliant, but I was right to suspect difficulty in getting one to test.

Ducati has always been very good to me. I’ve become friends with several people in their PR department. They graciously provided me a 1200 Multistrada Touring model for use on a two week trip over the top of Italy and down the Dalmatian coast in the fall of 2013. This exquisite trip was in the company of a bevy of BMW riders and a KTM 990 EFI (precursor to the 1190), ridden down from Turkey by my friend, Kaz Uzunoglu. Not only did I get long days on the Ducati, I was able to swap with Kaz to test the KTM and some of the BMW riders to verify my riding impressions. The Ducati went from a starting point in the middle of the pack to now being my first choice after this trip, especially given its performance in the wet – which was simply amazing. The computerized “sky hook” automated, on-the-fly adjustments to suspension and ABS are nothing short of incredible. At the beginning of 2015, my list in order looked like this, the top 3 in a near dead heat: 1) Ducati 1200 Multistrada, 2) KTM 1190 (now the 1290), 3) BMW 1200GS, 4) Triumph Tiger and 5) Honda Africa Twin.

I am aware of the ultimate futility in detailed comparisons like the one here. I’ve participated in evaluating and writing motorcycle shootouts. Most readers of motorcycle magazine have no idea how difficult it is finding and highlighting differences between models in a single category. It is almost impossible. Motorcycles today have all gotten so damn good and so very similar. Here is how these reviews trips generally go: The first day of the trip/review, rides are frequently swapped so all writers in the group get at least one ride on each bike. At dinner the first night, we’d desperately try to find any real differences. The general feeling, from every tester/writer was “For this purpose, all of these are the same. It won’t matter which one a reader picks to buy, they’re going to be perfectly happy on any of them. They’re all priced within $500 of each other, weigh within a few lbs., have the same warranty, seating position, handling, acceleration, braking, etc.” Of course the lead writer for the piece is panicking. Somehow, publishing an article about five disparate 650 cc: sport bikes and saying “They’re all pretty much the same, any one of them will do,” isn’t going to make readers or advertisers happy. So, the task over the next two days is to tease out each tiny, superficial, insignificant difference and exaggerate them enough to make a story. Trust me, auto journalists have the same problem.

Given my experience above, I worked hard to focus attention only on things that would really matter. In reviewing my notes as I worked to a decision, two things stuck out: The first was that the Ducati did not have cruise control. For long rides where cranking out miles is paramount, cruise control was something I’d begun to rely upon. The second was the fact the KTM was chain-driven (as was the Ducati). While aware of the superiority of chains for performance reasons, having adjusted and cared for motorcycle chains my entire motorcycle life, I was done with them. Now the BMW 1200GS moved into first place, eliminating the rest. While it made total sense analytically, I struggled with the idea of owning the same bike as every other Tom, Dick, and Harry owned – or in this case, add in every Bob, Jim, Jane, Kevin (he has 3), and Roger (has two), etc. “Steve Larsen is highly discriminating and does not ride what everyone else rides. Period.”

Two years went by. A friend finally took my V-Strom and I added a Honda Grom to the garage, so I was down to two — or, 1½ if you don’t consider the Grom a full-size motorcycle, which it is not.

Late in 2016, I wandered through GoAZ in Scottsdale, my favorite dealer. They are always well-stocked and represent all major brands including Aprilla, BMW, Ducati, Husqvarna, Honda, Indian, Kawasaki and Royal Enfield. Don Reiff is the sales manager and a friend of mine from his days at North Valley Honda. I mentioned the possibility of trading in my Goldwing and Grom if I could find the right deal on a BMW 1200GS. The 2017 models had begun to arrive and Don had two brand new 2017 1200GS’s. He quickly went through the various features on both of them. One had everything I wanted and as it turns out, Don really wanted to get his hands on my super low mileage Grom. Before I knew it, the deal was done and a few days later I delivered my Goldwing and Grom to GoAZ and they sent me home on a new BMW, festooned with about $4K in accessories – which any GS owner can tell you, is only a drop in the bucket.

During the first couple of years, there were no performance or handling surprises. It was sublime. I gave it good workouts on the pavement and love how it dances around curves like something half its weight. Shod with off-road only knobby tires and other accessories for tackling dirt, I took it to Moab, UT for a couple of off-road adventures and once down to the Copper Canyon in Mexico. Before spending much time on a big bike like the GS in rough terrain, be sure to acquire the specific skills for this. RawHyde Adventures or Bill Dragoo’s DART classes are two of the best.

It still bothers me it is so incredibly popular and there are so many of them. My remedy was to configure my GS differently than others. I’ve made it unique to me, a bit on appearance but more significantly, on how it rides. The handlebars and foot pegs are customized for me and make a huge difference. Lighting is very unlike the stock version and my tires and wheels are interchangeable for the sorts of riding I do. So, after a few years of getting used to the commonness of the 1200GS, it’s grown on me and has become “The One Bike to Rule Them All.”

Me on my GS, outfitted for the dirt, near Moab, UT

Epic car trade-off: BMW M5 vs. Acura NSX

My BMW M5 in Arizona driveway.

Early in 2000, stories circulated in the automobile universe about an extraordinary new car from BMW called the M5. Journalists and car nuts nicknamed it “the Beast.” At 400 HP and 398 lbs. of torque, it was a rocket ship. With scary 0-60 times and a top speed of 180 mph (with the limiter removed), it was the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, as its outer skin was a generic-looking 4-door sedan. Think about it: here is a “family car” faster from zero to 60 than a Corvette, quicker in a quarter-mile than an Aston Martin DB7, better than a Ferrari F355 Spider in cornering (measured on a 300’ skidpad) and faster through the slalom than a Lamborghini Diablo. Throw in a manual gearbox and brilliant handling and what’s not to love? I had to have one.

In my friend Philip Richter’s most recent blog post, he wrote about this car, known by BMW and car people as the E39. You can read Philip’s report on this amazing car, here. In addition to Turtle Garage, Philip also writes for the king of all collector car publications, Keith Martin’s Sports Car Market Magazine. If you like reading about cars, I recommend you subscribe to Philip’s Turtle Garage and Sports Car Market.

Back in 2000, I rushed to my local BMW dealer (Motorwerks BMW in Bloomington, MN) to place my order. Soon I’d “configured” a new M5, chose its color (Titanium Silver), interior (red leather), and a host of options. I went whole hog on the extras and recall the car pricing out around $80K, a staggering amount of money in 2000. Adjusted for inflation, $80k is roughly $122k in 2020 dollars. But as it was 2000 and the pinnacle of the dot.com boom and I was on the founding team of a successful Internet company, what could go wrong? After I’d signed the papers and paid my deposit, I learned there was a 14-month wait for the car. Huh? This was something I’d never experienced. I was livid. I threatened to cancel the deal but learned this would only move me further down the list for one of these most-coveted icons.

Okay, okay, I finally agreed. “But what am I going to drive between now and then?” I pitifully wailed. The new car manager (Alan Krutsch) introduced me to his used-car guy (Paul Kline), who put me together with Troy Chamberlain, and we began to talk. Now here was an interesting young man. He was thrilled to find I owned a Lotus Elan, which he had raced. It turned out Troy was a talented and experienced race car driver currently piloting a BMW set up entirely for racing which he campaigned, with sponsors, at tracks throughout the Midwest. We spent hours talking about different cars and how they handled and the best ones for the road.

My final question to him was: “What is the best handling, most amazing streetcar you’ve ever driven?” He replied, “Easy question. That would be an Acura NSX.” It turns out he’d owned one for a year when he’d lived in Europe, and both he and his wife had loved it. An NSX had parked near my office building when I worked in New York, so I was familiar with the spectacular look of the car, if not its performance. But it sure sounded good. As Troy described the remarkable attributes of the NSX, I was soon hooked. Because the NSX was rather rare, they had none on the lot. But as promised by the new car guy, they’d find me a car at auction, which I would purchase from them and they’d take it back in trade for my BMW M5 when it arrived, with zero markup, provided I kept the car in good condition. No charge for miles added.

Before my next visit to the dealer, I’d done my research and knew the precise NSX I wanted: a red car, black interior with a removable Targa top (NSX-T). It had to be a manual transmission, low miles, and a 1995 model year or newer, as Acura had added a Targa top in ’95 as well as upgrading the engine to 295 HP and 298 lbs. feet of torque. With that firmed up, I began the wait. The first prospective NSX popping up a couple of weeks later wasn’t perfect, and after some coaching from the used car manager and Troy, we decided not to bid on that car. Two weeks after, I got a breathless long-distance call from Paul Kline. He was at an auction and had seen and inspected the perfect car. It met everything on my wish list, but he said, given it had the carbon fiber interior kit and CompTech factory exhaust upgrades, it would likely be bid up over what we’d agreed I was willing to pay. Would I go higher? Then he said, “Tell you what, I’m so convinced you’ll love this car, if you don’t want it for what I buy it for, I’ll buy it.” So, I told him to go ahead and I increased my maximum bid amount by $5,000.

Red 1995 NSX-T
My interim car – a 1995 NSX-T. Who knew I’d fall in love.

A few days later I was at my BMW dealership, looking at a freshly detailed 1995 red Acura NSX-T, VIN: JH4NA1186ST000274. It was gorgeous. I couldn’t believe it. And then I drove it. Sublime! It handled like my Lotus Elan, but it was much faster – and it had air conditioning, a working radio, cruise control, and more creature comforts. Put the windows up, it was as quiet as, well, a Honda. Roll them down, electric windows of course, and the exhaust note of the engine was symphonic. I was in love.

For my 50th birthday party, Maggie rented a paddle-wheel boat for a night and invited a hundred or so of our closest friends. Parked outside the boarding plank was my red NSX with a huge ribbon and bow around it. While I’d had the car for a few weeks, few of my friends had seen it yet. We pulled it over on them that Maggie had got it for me as a birthday gift. Someday I’ll tell you the story of that party.

Fourteen months flew by. I loved the NSX. Maggie loved it. Ginger even learned how to drive a stick shift in the NSX, after failing to learn on our Toyota 4Runner. Like many girls her age, Ginger was oblivious to car brands and had no idea what was in our garage. One day I dropped her off at her high school in the red NSX vs. the Toyota daily driver. When I got home from work that night, she started asking me some very uncharacteristic questions: “Dad, what kind of car is the red car? How many “horsepowers’s” does it have? How fast will it go?” It turns out some of the boys at her school had seen her being dropped off and she had now piqued their interest.

Then BMW called to say my new M5 was in and ready to be picked up. At the dealership the next day, I spent an hour or so on paperwork, got briefed on the new car, which was very cool, and gave them the keys to the NSX.

Then I drove the new M5 home. It was less than a dozen miles. The first drive in the M5 was amazing, even though it was in its break-in period. I came into the kitchen, tossed the keys on the counter, and said to Maggie, “I think I may have just made a big mistake.”

Don’t get me wrong, the M5 was an awesomely wonderful car. It would hold four adults. It was blindingly fast. It was as solid as a tank. You could cruise at 80-90 mph and it felt no more than 40 mph. The sound system was incredible. But it scared Maggie to death. Ultimately, she refused to drive it. “It’s frightening; it goes 40 mph in neutral,” she said. “I just look somewhere and before I know it, the car is there.” And then there was the gas mileage. It averaged between 10 and 14 miles per gallon, no matter how you drove it. That pissed me off. And it burned a quart of oil every few thousand miles. Now, I could tolerate that on my Elan or other older cars, but weren’t new cars not supposed to do that? We found ourselves driving it less and less.

And this whole “wolf in sheep’s clothing” concept echoing in the head of every car nut turned out not to be as compelling as I thought. Sure, you can pull up at a stoplight next to a new Corvette or some other hot car, and the M5 would just smoke them. But who cares? Who were these people in the other car and did they even know you were racing with them? It turns out pulling up to a stoplight with the NSX and have other drivers drool over it, was just as satisfying.

Then we moved to Arizona. The M5 made the trip in the back of a moving van but made even less sense for me in Arizona. I no longer needed a backseat. Arizona had not improved the M5’s gas mileage. The NSX siren songs began. It occurred to me one nice January day in Arizona in 2003 that Acura dealerships in the northern part of the country might have an unsold NSX. How many people there were walking into Acura dealerships asking if snow chains could be fitted on an NSX? So I started calling, and sure enough, in Libertyville, Illinois, I found a dealership with a brand new NSX. It was last year’s model (a 2002), so they were willing to deal. And it was yellow. My knees went weak.

My new yellow NSX arriving in AZ from Illinois, February 2004

Explaining I had a slightly used BMW M5 with just 9,000 miles on it, I suggested to Brian Cole in Libertyville that we should trade them even-up. I reasoned the M5 was something that could be driven (and sold) in winter. It took several days of haggling and ultimately I needed to pay about $10K, but we agreed to trade cars. I shipped them the M5 and they shipped me the NSX. I still have this 2002 NSX. It has over 40,000 very happy miles on it, and looks new and runs perfectly. Maggie loves driving it, although finds she is occasionally followed by young men driving Asian tuner cars.

As Philip explains in his article, the BMW M5 was an iconic car. On the one hand, it was the end of an era, given its manual transmission, an actual key to start the car, and a real dipstick. While not as rare as an NSX, almost 10,000 M5’s were produced; it remains a truly wonderful car to drive and a high-water mark in modern BMW automotive history. But would I trade an NSX for one? Not me. Never again!

You can read more about my car collection and see more pictures here.

When the M5 came out, I captured some of what the press said about it:

“The fastest production sedan on the planet.”
Road and Track, March 2000

“… the M5 is as close to faultless as any car I’ve driven. Set the bar as high as you like, this thing will clear it. Unbelievable!”
–Jeff Karr, Motor Trend

“The M5’s performance, compared to any production vehicle, is nothing short of stunning. Compared to any other 4 door sedan in the world, it is simply unmatched.”
Car and Driver Magazine