Sunday, July 22

The BMW F800ST--Ride Review

The “F” in F800ST should stand for “Fun,” which is exactly my experience with the bike yesterday morning when I road tested one. I arrived early at Chicago BMW, hoping to beat any chance of the bike being checked out as a loaner for a service work agreement. I had planned also to test ride the one R1200ST in the shop but it was spit-shined and waiting to be retrieved by someone who had promised to purchase it that day. Sigh…I could only gaze at it a lot. I did get a detailed review of the bike from Ken at Chicago BMW. Thanks!!

I spoke with General Manager, Mike Abt and deeply appreciate the time he spent with me. He was patient, attentive and listened to my ramblings about what I needed and wanted, which really are two different things. Mike could give lessons to other salespersons, some of whom slight women buyers and worst, fail to listen to them when they explain their needs—don’t even get me started!

After taking the requisite driver’s license info and signing the waiver to eliminate any liability on BMW’s part, Mike rolled out the "gun-metal" F800ST to the side entrance with me at his heels trying to look calm as if I do this sort of thing everyday (inside I was downright giddy!). Mike gave me a mini intro on the bike’s functions and button locations. Immediately, I liked the instrument panel. It packs all the info one wants, some of which I currently lack, such as gear indicator and fuel gauge. The F800ST is liquid cooled and fuel injection so there is no need to fiddle with a choke. Yet, the bike, according to Mike, still requires a “couple of minutes” to warm up. On the coldest days, my choke only demands counting from 1-Mississippi to 30-Mississippi to awaken the engine. I know the pros and cons of EFI and carbureted bikes and air and liquid cools engines. It's all about tradeoff.

A little twist of the F800ST key fired the engine, and it purred instantly.

The turn signals are extending tabs on the F800ST, perfectly located at thumb’s reach on the right and left side slightly below the handlebar grip. The turn signal cancellation button is directly above the right turn signal. This placement seemed intuitive and never gave me pause! The cancellation button, however, did give me fits a few times, as I repeatedly and inadvertently opened the throttle while attempting to reach up for the cancellation button. This mistake gave me a chance to experience the F800ST’s responsiveness. It’s quick but still tamer than Queenie, who behaves more rocket-like at the start, whereas, the F800ST exhibited such responsiveness most in the higher gears? I may be explaining this all wrong. I’m trying to capture the feeling I got.

The kill switch is a little red lever that pokes out above an alternate ignition switch. A no-frills instrument panel is easy to read and fun to refer to for information. I have, on more occasions than I care to admit, forgotten what gear I’m in and have tried to shift to 6th only to discover I’m already in 6th . I’ve also downshifted and miscalculated the bottom gear. Fortunately, I’ve outgrown this newbie habit—well, for the most part. Still, knowing what gear I’m in, having my tire pressure and fuel monitored is not a luxury. It might be good stats to compare the bike’s tire pressure with my digital tire pressure gauge. For similar reasons, I’ve been fascinated at my record keeping of how my bike’s odometer varies from the GPS reading.

Before mounting the bike, an observant BMW worker placed huge strips of blue tape along the lower tank of the bike to preclude scratches from the metal of my jacket zipper. Several spectators were hanging around the garage waiting and inside the shop I saw other (men) watching the instructions I was being given on the bike. Now, I’m certain they were watching the bike. Still, this made me a tad self-conscious in that I’m always feeling that I don’t have the freedom to make mistakes around men, particularly men I don’t know. I don’t know why I even care. I assume that they are waiting for me to make an error, do something stupid and attribute that to gender. This is probably TMI but it’s how I feel. I do a lot of self-talking to let this kind of stuff go. I feel similarly about race too. Oh, the crosses I bear!

I mount the bike and my goal is a smooth take off without bucking or killing the engine. Mike gives me some suggestions of where to ride and states, “Take your time.” I wiggle onto the seat. I am not flat-footed but three-quarters is enough to feel confident. The bike feels narrow and my knees hug the tank with a familiarity that makes me feel as one with the bike. I slowly ease out the clutch and feel for the friction zone. I find it and pull slowly to the stop sign. I feel eyes on me. As I wait for the road to clear, I glance toward the showroom and see about three males watching. I wiggle the bike side to side. It feels light. When I see a respite in the busy Western Avenue traffic, I visualize the sharp right turn, pull easily out and I’m off.

At the next light, I make a right turn onto Pratt. The bike feels amazingly agile even though a fairing surrounds me. I deliberately left out the earplugs, as I wanted to hear the parallel twin engine and compare it to the pleasing sound of my V-twin. The F800ST has a distinct sound and seemed slightly louder, but perhaps it wasn’t louder--just different. I did hear a clear “clunk” sound when shifting gears, particularly downshifting. Yet, gearing was smooth and precise, taking far less foot pressure than my SV. The bike accelerated unexpectedly several times but that’s my fault from trying to reach the turn signal cancellation button while maintaining a steady throttle. Once I became cognizant of my hand movement, I was more precise and that solved the surprise accelerations. Speaking of acceleration, I noticed that the throttle was not as sensitive as my SV. I’m not sure how to explain this well. With just a bit more flex of the wrist than necessary, my gal-pal bike will take flight! The F800ST appeared not to be as sensitive--at least in the lower gears. However, I felt its responsiveness in fourth and fifth gear. I think this might be what people mean about low end versus midrange or high-end torque—but I don’t know for sure. I just know how it felt.

Turning the F800ST is a breeze. How a bike that weights nearly 50 lbs more than mine can feel at least that much lighter, is beyond me! But it did. Perhaps the location of the gas tank accounts for some of this. On the F800ST, the gas tank is behind the rider seat, which is huge plus for me! I detest wasting time tampering with my tank bag to get at the gas tank. Imagined the minutes saved on a timed ride if you never had to tinker with the tank bag. Locating it behind the seat is an idea I love.

Leaning the F800ST is easy fun. Getting onto Kedzie Avenue required a nice wide turn, which I take in third gear and the bike leans with ease. One moment of puzzlement occurred when I looked down at the bike’s front and witnessed that the fairing doesn’t move (Duh). Of course, the front wheel moves but it is encompassed by the fairing, preventing me from watching the tire's movement. (Yeah, I know I'm not supposed to be looking there, but I'm test riding, so I'm excused this time). In my peripheral vision, on my bike, I can see my front wheel turn. When I stole a glance at the F800ST and watched the fairing remain straight when I pressed on the handlebars, it was a strange sensation. I wondered why the bike didn’t seem to be moving in the direction of the turn. The wheel was simply harder to see. It reminded me of my transition from a VW beetle (a hundred years ago) to a VW Sirocco. In that first car, I could see the ground beyond the car’s hood, which I couldn’t in the second car. Looking through the Sirocco’s windshield only allowed me to see its hood! It took some getting used to before I fully trusted that the wheels were responding to my turn directions. It took a few turns to ignore the fairing and once I did, I sat back and let the bike do its job, which it did beautifully. Finally, I made a deliberate quick-stop to see if the ABS would kick in; unfortunately, I can’t say I noticed since I’ve never ridden an ABS bike. Nonetheless, the F800ST definitively and smoothly executed an exclamation point stop.

The Beemer took about two minutes to feel comfortable on. I felt on intimate ground with the bike--almost instantly. While riding I continued to think of my SV. The F800ST feels like its tamer sibling. It is a fun, flickable bike thanks to a slim, narrow frame that made me want to hug it. Does it have the SV fun factor? I’d need to put on far more miles on it to answerr that but I will say it’s not a bike easily dismissed. I tried to imagine the bike after 300 miles of riding and I smiled at the thought.

The distance from my knees to my feet on the pegs felt right—a tad roomier and perhaps bent back a bit more than my SV. The seating position was back-friendly and I liked the handlebars, which are wide like the SV. The windscreen was tall enough to provide protection on the open road. Tucking low and leaning forward, if necessary, on the ample tank will be comfortable on those breezy head wind days.

Well, I’ve rambled on long enough to say, there are many things I like about the F800ST and a lot of things I loved. Is it the bike for me? I don’t know. I did get a little “Wow” out of the ride. That it has ways similar to my SV gives me reason to pause before fully embracing it as my next bike. Do I need more of a challenge when I move up? Or is staying almost where I am but having a few more toys at my finger tips sufficient? I could live with it as my next bike if I decided to. But what is it I really want?

I am struggling with wrapping my brain around owning any bike over a certain cc. Perhaps I shouldn’t focus so much energy on displacement. I can’t help it, though. I’m not convinced that I need anything over 650cc; thus, even an 800cc will be a stretch-even if just mental. Nor am I convinced that I need major bhp. More than 20 years ago, when I first learned to ride on a Honda CB360—before specialization—people rode smaller displacement bikes that had no problem taking them where they wanted to go.

As I go through the process of deciding what to purchase, I am reminded of Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig’s long trip with his young son as a passenger was on a 1964 Honda Superhawk CB77—a 350cc motorcycle! Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s legendary adventure (with a passenger) from Argentina to North America, was launched on a 1939, 500cc Norton.
I’m looking forward to riding more bikes. The more I research and test ride, the more I’ll learn what I will or will not live without on a motorcycle. No matter what I purchase, the choice will be a tradeoff and I’ll live with those limitations. Happily, I hope. This time next season, this will all be a memory.