I know these roads. I have ridden them for as long as I have ridden a motorcycle. They are the asphalt capillaries away from the highways that link Southern to Northern California, the two-lane roads that offer an escape from the beaten path.
For decades now, I’ve ridden them for weekend getaways, for motorcycle road evaluations, and every spring for a visit to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to watch the world’s best road racers on one of the most iconic circuits in the world.
They offer everything that the roads can throw at a rider. There are wide-open spaces that test the ultimate power of the fastest machines; there is a reason that BMW brought us here, years ago, to sample the K 1300 S, at the time the most powerful motorcycle BMW ever had produced. There are tight, twisty sections, long, open sweepers, and if you are so inclined, you can escape these roads and jump onto long stretches of freeway to get you between Point A and Point B in as little time as possible.
Jordi Torres on the Althea World Superbike S1000RR. Torres has just crested the hill after the short straight at Laguna, is traveling approximately 160 miles an hour, is knee-down, the bike touching the pavement so lightly after the crest that you can hear the traction control modulating the throttle to provide maximum power and speed for the grip available. Standing at this spot, watching and knowing what is happening on the bike is powerful proof of how well modern electronic rider aids work.
At the end of a day on these roads, you are deeply immersed in the experience of riding. Your vision is tuned in to the images at speed. Your skills are sharper, your knowledge of your machine more intimate, and your appreciation for the art of motorcycling never greater.
For the 27th year since we first made this ride, the same group of friends joined me for the annual ride up to Laguna, this time to watch the Superbike World Championship and MotoAmerica races. This year, I wanted to do the ride on a machine that would, at first glance, seem to be out of its element.
It’s easy to focus on the sporting elements of the BMW S 1000 RR. Hard to overlook 190 or so horsepower at the rear wheel, semi-active suspension, massive disc brakes, dynamic traction control, and a riding position that looks like something off a Superbike grid.
The fact is that more than nine out of ten Supersport machines sold in the U.S. never are taken onto the track. They are used on the streets as weekend sport riding machines, as commuters, and even as long-distance touring bikes. Look at the parking lot at the WorldSBK races, and there are lots and lots of sport bikes with soft luggage attached.
I have Ian Falloon’s book on the history of the iconic BMW R 90 S. The machine was praised for its ability to compete with the best on the track and perform the role of gentleman’s express on the highway. The question here is simple: Can the finely-honed blade of the S 1000 RR cut it in the role of touring bike? From the saddle of BMW’s most advanced, most powerful and fastest motorcycle ever, can you hear the whispers of the ghosts of the R 90 S?
Fire up the 101 in heavy traffic out of the Los Angeles basin. Overnight at a friend’s house, where each year dinner gets a little longer and the boots-up time the next morning gets a little later.
First up is the two-lane Highway 33 past Ojai, away from the coast and up over the mountains toward the great central plains of the state. This road has everything: blind, tight switchbacks with the occasional rock and shale on the verges, long, sweeping turns with clear lines of sight for half a mile, and long, long stretches of straights that look like they were drawn on a map with a ruler.
Drop down onto Highway 166, where the temperature is soaring. More two-lane highways get you over a high-speed mountain pass with broad, wide-open corners clearly drafted by a sport bike rider who had infiltrated the state highway department. Into Taft for fuel, with temperatures well into triple-digits. Back onto Highway 33 and onto a long, straight two-lane highway populated by big trucks and farming equipment, bisecting vast expanses of oil drilling rigs and empty land.
Up to Highway 58: more tight, twisting two-lane asphalt with dramatic elevation changes thrown in. One stretch of straight pavement is just a series of blind crests, so steep that the other side is hidden. Even after riding that same road for so many years, the experience never fails to amaze me. A few more fast sweepers, up to Paso Robles for lunch, then a straight shot up the Highway 101 to Monterey, battling the vicious crosswinds through the vast agricultural tracts north of Greenfield. By the time the side stands go down in Monterey, it’s been more than 278 miles since Ventura.
This portion of the ride tested both the sporting and touring capabilities of the machine. Loaded with a camera, a computer, running gear and everything else I’d need on a long weekend, the S 1000 RR carried a full complement of tank bag, passenger seat bag and saddlebags. The machine didn’t seem to notice the load while riding at a pace that was appropriate for public roads, but quite far toward the enthusiastic end of that range!
The Metzeler Racetec RRs provided more than enough grip for anything I care to do in a corner, and the electronic rider aids really prove their value in real-world riding. I left everything on Sport mode, where the ABS just sort of sits in the corner and lets you get on with the task of braking (which is really just setting your corner entry speed). I was comfortable in the knowledge that if the unexpected occurs, the machine has your back. In addition, the anti-wheelie and anti-slip allow you to get on the throttle enthusiastically, and if you cross the line, the machine once again keeps you out of trouble. This allowed me to more thoroughly enjoy the ride, accelerating harder out of corners with less worry. It really is amazing how unobtrusive the system is in street riding. When I’d dial in too much throttle for the available grip at the lean angle I was at, the machine just sort of gathered speed a little more slowly than the right hand wanted, then when all was well, picked up its skirts and flat flew.
Clutchless shifting is one of those things that once you experience it, you’re thinking, why did it take them so long? Accelerating out of fast corners, grabbing gears as you go, is seamless and doesn’t upset the chassis when leaned over, the power on hard. Clutchless downshifting means one less thing to think about when entering a corner. That is, really, the advantage of clutchless downshifting to racers: More of their brain is available to slice ever closer to the limits of braking, turning and leaning. The more brain available for that, the better (read: the faster, safer and more accurately) it can be done.
In short, the bike is a missile. The electronic rider aids make all of that capability accessible to you; the technology incorporated into the bike for the purposes of getting it around a racetrack more quickly pay big dividends while touring on the bike.
TOURING WITH AN RR
As on most long rides, comfort becomes a major factor on the way home. For me, that meant 371 miles straight, almost all on the 101, from Monterey to the far eastern corner of Los Angeles County.
After two days of watching the races at Laguna, we chose to head home on Sunday night to try to avoid the worst of the heat. It was only partly successful, as it was still well over 100 degrees at 5 pm. I recall thinking, as we rode south and the sun sank, that it couldn’t possibly get any hotter, that eventually it was bound to cool down, and then rounding a corner past a foothill, I found that yes, actually, it could get hotter. #thankyouverymuch After fueling at Atascadero, the temperature plummeted more than 40 degrees and then rose into the high 50s as we approached Pismo Beach and the Pacific Ocean. It shot back into the 90s a few moments later as our route brought us back inland toward Santa Maria and stayed there nearly the entire way home. It was still almost 90 degrees when I pulled into my garage at 10:45 pm.
Little things normally associated with reducing lap times made such a mile-eating grind far, far less unpleasant. Clutchless shifting made dealing with traffic a one-handed affair, not that you needed to do a lot of shifting with the torque and flexibility of the S 1000 RR motor. I first experienced an S 1000 RR on a test ride when the machine first was introduced, and all these years later the engine still thrills, every time. ABS took even more stress out of traffic. While ABS isn’t normally associated with racetrack use, the fact is that modern ABS systems would likely get most club racers around a circuit more quickly. Old superstitions die hard.
Add in a couple of touring-oriented features like the heated grips and cruise control, and the bike becomes a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours without stopping. The electronic cruise control on the S1000RR is nice and accurate, and gave me peace of mind while stretching my right hand for a moment or two.
My wrists, back or legs didn’t ache much. On a modern sport bike, the bars are low, but the machine is so short (for agility on the track) that the reach to them is not far. The S 1000 RR’s seat is well-padded, the pegs high but not cramped for my 5′ 10” frame, and the fairing does a decent job of deflecting the wind.
Six hours straight on a cutting-edge sport bike platform capable of winning national-level Superbike races (see Jordan Szoke, the dominant rider in the CSBK Canadian Superbike Championship on the Mopar Express Lane BMW Superbike Team S 1000 RR) was a lot more pleasant than it had any right to be. The proof was that when I got home after that six-hour, 371-mile ride, I just got off the bike, unloaded it, took off the luggage, wiped it down, showered and went to bed. The next morning, I felt like I could do it again—and wanted to.
There was a moment on the ride up, in one of those big, fast, wide-open sweepers. My friend Kevin was ahead of me on his 2015 S 1000 RR, Chuck behind on his 2016 S 1000 RR. I was following Kevin closely enough that I could feel the turbulence left behind by his machine slicing through the air. Leaned over, knee out, upper body cranked into the wind for a proper cornering position, the wind noise and exhaust note provided the final sensory elements of a symphony of speed. The S 1000 RR was in its element; loaded with luggage and hundreds of miles into the trip, perfectly settled and stable, power pouring through the rear tire, giving me everything a sport-touring rider could want, and I thought, I wish I could live right here in this moment – forever.