Written by Kelly Callan
Photos by Don Williams
2012 BMW G650GS Sertao Touring Review
I feel like a dog with his head out the window of the car, drinking in the rushing air and thrill of the speed. There is nothing separating me from this vast empty prairie that I’m riding through; it is in my face, my nose, I want to soak it up, savor it, wrap the elemental rush of the moment around me.
I am flying down a dirt road across a treeless plain on the new 2012 BMW G 650 GS Sertao. I learned to ride motorcycles on a dual sport bike over 25 years ago, but in the last few years I have spent most of my time on pure street and dirt bikes. I didn’t realize how much I missed being able to ride from my garage in busy Southern California suburbia, out to places where one can get off the asphalt and into the dirt – and keep going.
Right now, I’m going through the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument, the largest native grassland remaining in California. The Sertao speeds along the wide straight road, the front end hunting a bit on the sand-scattered hardpack, though not enough to distract me from clicking off mental pictures of the landscape.
The spring palette is dusty shades of purple, green, and yellow. I am talking loudly to myself over the air rushing through my helmet about how beautiful this is, and how my sister and her kids should come see it. My cubicle-bound workmates need to get out and experience this empty landscape that stretches for miles, but none of them will likely venture three hours out of Los Angeles to check it out.
Soda Lake Road drifts between the Temblor and Caliente mountain ranges, and California Highways 58 and 166/33. The Temblor Range is well named – Spanish for “earthquake” – as the infamous San Andreas Fault runs through it.
I fill the Sertao’s 3.7-gallon tank at the modern Shell station in Maricopa, an historic oil town in the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley. I won’t be seeing a gas station again for hours, except for the long-closed Union 76 at the southern entrance to the Carrizo Plain area.
Stock, the Sertao comes with strongly street-oriented Metzeler Tourance EXP tires, but I will be doing most of my ride off-pavement, so I have slipped on a pair of Pirelli MT 21 Rallycross tires. The carcass is stiff, which allows me to safely air the tires down to 16 psi once I get onto the dirt without worrying about pinching a tube. The MT 21s are outstanding tires for this sort of adventure riding – running fast across desert terrain with rocks, gravel, and sand mixing it up with hardpack.
My first stop is a planned one. Traver Ranch has an interesting display of vintage farm equipment that was used to grow wheat and barley. The 800-acre ranch was started in the 1940s, though all that remains is a large blockhouse that now provides habitat for several wildlife species, including the pallid bat and western small-footed bat. Birds were plentiful at this stop – the Audubon has designated it an Important Bird Area – though the bats have made themselves scarce.
After checking out the KCL Campground, which is filled with various birdwatchers – one armed with an enormous Canon telephoto lens – I make my way down the road at freeway speeds to the Goodwin Education Center. My high speeds may signal an intent to rush, but that is not the case. The scale of the Carrizo Plain is so large that running at 70 mph seems natural, and the Sertao happily obliges. The 21-inch front and beefy 17-inch rear Rallycross tires are a stable combination.
I had planned on checking out Painted Rock, a sandstone rock formation and Native American pictograph site. Unfortunately, I discover it is bird-nesting season and visitation is only available via the just-missed BLM guided tour. I can sit and wait, or come back after July 15 for a self-guided tour (permit required). Instead, I chat with Carrizo Plain Volunteer Coordinator Jackie Czapla about things to check out. She points north toward the mountains and Wallace Creek, where she says there is a marked spot to view the San Andreas Fault.
Heading north on Soda Lake Road for a mile or so, I turn right onto talcy, unmarked Simmler Road and to the west I see my first glimpse of Soda Lake – a bright white seasonally wet salt lake that stretches over seven miles toward the northwestern edge of the Monument. Its crystal whiteness is dazzling in the sunlight and the wispy grasses framing its shore blow gently in the breeze. The compelling picture is not wholly unlike many desertscapes – desolate, though not as harsh.
To the east is one of the many small lakes that make up the Soda Lake Sink. Being springtime, it is filled with water (though likely no more than a foot deep) and teeming with birds. There is a reason the Wilderness Society has nominated this area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I run into a handful of other adventure riders when I reach Elkhorn Road – a road that links Maricopa and Highway 58. Not wanting to interrupt the flow of my ride, I simply slow and wave before heading east. These are the first riders I have seen today, and I feel the camaraderie of sharing this large empty playground with them.
They are mostly on larger bikes and running more street-oriented tires and clothing. I’m not jealous. I have chosen Thor off-road apparel for this adventure, along with walkable Sidi Discovery boots. It is a warm day, and the airy riding gear turns out to be a perfect choice.
Heading east on Elkhorn Road, I come to the Wallace Creek Interpretive Trail parking lot. To get to the San Andreas Fault, you have to hike. I’m not quite prepared for that, so it is back on the Sertao.
Having the capability to venture off the hardpack for further exploration is freedom for adventure, and I make a few forays down unmarked truck trails in my quest for a rideable close up view of the San Andreas Fault. As I passed through the Panorama Hills into the Temblor Range, I am invariably met with a locked gate.
The Sertao sure-footedly picks through the crunchy, pockmarked grassy terrain on the knobby Pirellis. The 650 single is easy to handle at slow speeds with its friendly power (44 ft/lbs at 5000 rpm) and reasonably low gearing. Yes, its off-road tall, almost 34-inch seat height is a bit of a challenge to my 32-inch inseam, especially with the wide, supportive seat.
BMW offers a shorter seat, but that cramps the footpeg-seat relationship and raises the effective height of the bars; I’ll stick with the standard seat, thank you. The seat height is the trade-off for 8.3 inches of wheel travel (both ends) and increased ground clearance when riding off-road – an unavoidable compromise.
The 425-pound weight (claimed wet) is in the same range as the competing Kawasaki KLR650. Happily, the Sertao is well-balanced, slender and the underseat tank keeps the weight centralized. Oddly, low speed riding is better done sitting down than standing up. While slim, the tank bulges out near the pegs when standing, requiring a bowlegged stance on the tiny footnubs (they are not quite footpegs). Fortunately, IMS and Touratech offer the needed full-size footrests.
The suspension is not overly firm, but neither is it sloppy. The bike doesn’t wallow on or off-road. The Sertao is not about jumping or flying across whoops, so ride it according to its intended use and you will be fully satisfied.
I feel a bit embarrassed as I stall the bike a number of times while creeping slowly on technical trails and feathering the clutch. This brings up an inexcusably weak clutch design on the Sertao. It never truly disengages, and no amount of adjustment makes the problem go away.
While the electric start makes stalling no big deal, it requires finding neutral before hitting the start button; the clutch drags and repeated starting in gear quickly drains the battery – a troubling flaw in what is supposed to be an adventure bike that should be capable of reliably taking me to the ends of the Earth.
The oversquare 652cc DOHC motor is made in China, and there do seem to be some quality control issues. In addition to the clutch, shifting the five-speed transmission is occasionally frustrating. False neutrals appear unexpectedly, and the gearbox sometimes refuses to shift down during deceleration. These are significant problems BMW needs to address.
Back on the beaten path, I ride along Elkhorn and Seven-Mile Roads, periodically passing the street signs standing incongruously in the tall grasses and tumbleweeds, marking some long-forgotten sub-division that never happened. Graded once and now being reclaimed by the grasslands, I feel like I’m riding through a lost time – Alpine, Allegheny, Ambrosia, a string of A-named streets, then the Bs and Cs. What would this place look like all paved over and developed, here at the grassy intersection of Seven-Mile Road and Chlorine Trail?
It reminds me of the many stories I’ve heard from my husband and some of his riding buddies, about places they grew up riding that are long gone – many to housing sub-divisions, and others to environmental restrictions. With a National Monument designation, the Carrizo Plain will not be developed, yet access by motorized vehicles is always tenuous on public land. I’m glad I am experiencing these dirt roads and grassy plain now, and I promise myself I’ll be back next year, which might be a good wildflower year if enough rain falls.
I head down straight-as-a-rail Belmont Trail from the aptly named Panorama Hills. It seems to stretch for miles across the plain before heading up into the Caliente Foothills. I click up a few gears and get the wind whistling through my off-road helmet. I picked a perfect day; at stops I was a bit warm, but racing down the hard pack at 65 mph is sublime.
Once into the Caliente Range, I check out Sprague Mountain Road – a long dead-end dirt road though the rolling hills. At the end, another locked gate at a bucolic setting with windmills and livestock – well worth the ride. On the way back to Soda Lake Road, I hit 85 mph on the deserted two-track road, and the Sertao continues to impress at speed.
Exiting on Highway 58 near a small, unnamed hamlet, it is time to check out the street cred of the Sertao and Pirelli Rallycross tires. To prepare, I pulled out my Progressive Suspension tire kit and aired up the tires to 32 psi, checking it with the BikeMaster 2-In-1 Tire Gauge I had curled up in a small locking storage space behind the seat.
Heading east toward Highway 33, there are miles of nicely banked tight turns and fast sweepers. With a mostly empty road ahead of me I twist the throttle and find the Sertao completely stable well above the posted speed limit.
The Pirelli knobbies are surprisingly secure and do not waver when heeled over in turns. The upright riding position and wide handlebars afford comfort in tighter turns that have me nearly dragging the pegs, something I don’t expect to be doing on dirt-aimed tires. I haven’t ridden the Sertao with the stock Metzelers, but the bike was reviewed with that rubber in our April issue.
The brakes reassuringly slow the Sertao with smooth, predictable control. The ABS further adds confidence to pavement riding, especially with knobbies. While the ABS can be disengaged when riding on dirt, it returns to the default on-position each time the bike is re-started. This can be tiresome when making frequent stops off-road.
The Sertao’s tank offers just enough fuel to get me from Maricopa, into the Carrizo Plain for a variety of exploratory side trips, then to Taft via Highways 58 and 33. The G 650 GS is not the camel that the R 1200 GS Adventure is, but it is miserly with gas and 150 miles can be squeezed out of a tank, even with a lot of off-road riding and twisting mountain roads. Do keep in mind that there is not a drop of gas to be had anywhere in the vicinity of the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
There is a growing discussion in the adventure community about the ideal size of an adventure bike. The liter-plus bikes have an ardent following, but there is much to be said for simple thumpers in the 650cc range. It’s a bit rough around the edges, and not a full-fledged adventure bike without some work, yet the 2012 BMW G 650 GS Sertao is a good starting point for those who find the advantages of a smaller, lighter, more manageable bike irresistible.