Photos by BMW and Costa Mouzouris
“It’s going to be fun,” we were told.
My right hand is firmly grasped around the throttle of the BMW R1200GS, gently feeding just enough power to keep me moving forward along a track just barely wider than its tires. To my immediate left is a steep drop, down which I dare not look to see just how far I’d fall if I were to put a wheel wrong. The track follows the contours of a hillside so steep that the right footpeg sometimes scrapes along the wall-like ascent to my right. Once in a while the right crash bar bunts a tree trunk, thrusting the bike to the left; occasionally an overgrown tree root nudges at the front wheel trying to coax it over the edge.
“There’re trees to stop me,” I think as I duck to avoid being bopped on the helmet by a low-hanging branch. It seems that nature is telling me motorcycles don’t belong here.
But I carry on in the 34-degree heat and humidity that feels like a sweltering sauna. Sweat pours over my eyebrows and burns into my eyes; several days of this heat and humidity have made the inside of my helmet smell like a bag of fermented socks.
Preparing for survival
That was day six of the 2016 edition of the BMW GS Trophy, the toughest day in a week of extremely challenging riding. The day’s 10 km stretch of single-track trail took about an hour and a half to negotiate. Route organiser Tomm Wolf wasn’t kidding when he said at the beginning of the rally that we’d probably hate him by then.
BMW hosted the first GS Trophy in Tunisia in 2008, and the biennial event has since travelled to South Africa, Chile, western Canada, and this year to northern Thailand. Each year the event gets larger and the routes get tougher.
Anyone who rides can qualify for the event by taking part in their respective country’s GS Challenge qualifiers, which in Canada were held in 2014 and 2015 in Ontario and Quebec. This year’s Team Canada included Danick Cyr, a 40-year-old paramedic (a reassuring profession, I found) from St-Calixte, QC, Scott McDonald, 40, who works as an auto technician in Regina, and Cory Villeneuve, 44, from Ottawa, who’s in insurance. All of them are highly skilled riders, each rider having proven his abilities by winning a GS Challenge.
Adding to the difficulty two years ago, the bigger, heavier R1200GS replaced the F800GS as the chosen rally bike. I had participated in the 2010 GS Trophy in South Africa, so I knew it was a challenging prospect, but this year’s pre-rally communications declared the 2016 edition in Thailand would be the toughest yet, with a slower pace, much more technical riding in high heat, and daily routes varying in length from 140 to 280 km.
Having no intention of returning home from the Trophy in a casket, I began training as soon as I got the call to attend as Team Canada’s media guy from BMW Canada’s Rob Dexter two months before the start of the event. My daily regimen included cardio exercises, spinning on my bike, and a revised diet that cut out a bunch of fat, gluten, sugars, and other tasty stuff. It worked, as I lost 12 pounds before leaving for the Trophy and felt great.
In all there were 57 competitors from 25 countries making up 19 teams, plus 19 journalists (one per team), as well as some VIPs, BMW media, medics and other staff. Oh, and there were two other Canadians present, handling marshalling duties: Brian Kiely and Patrick Horan, both of whom I’d previously ridden with when they were part of Team Canada during the 2010 GS Trophy. And for the first time in GS Trophy history there was a women’s team.
The weakest and strongest links
Realistically, the weakest links in this travelling community of off-road riders were the members of the media, who didn’t actually qualify for the event, but were rather selected for their storytelling abilities. Because of this BMW scheduled two “media training days” ahead of the GS Trophy to both limber up rusty journos (like me), and to see if they could, you know, actually ride.
It was during the rainy and slippery second media day that rally organisers had determined that a few of the less-skilled journalists would have to bypass the most difficult sections of the route (like day six’s single-track trail of torture). I wasn’t that lucky.
BMW prepared 114 bikes for this weeklong adventure and equipped them with spoke wheels, a large skid plate, crash bars and other protective covers, and Metzeler Karoo II tires. BMW also provided all participants with riding gear, and partnered with Marmot for tents, sleeping bags, various other camping trinkets, and an equipment bag to carry it all. Unlike the press launches with which I’m accustomed, there were no shmancy five-star resorts along this trek. And that was just dandy.
Thailand: Adventure bike paradise
From the first day our team’s natural running order was established: Cyr would ride first, followed by Villeneuve, McDonald, and I’d ride tail, which gave me a chance to see my team mates’ different riding styles: Cyr rode with brute force, handling the big GS like a motocrosser; McDonald was calculating and cautious but fast, while Villeneuve – the insurance guy – gassed first and asked questions later. Despite these different riding styles the team gelled instantly and rode like they’d been riding together for years.
California has nothing on twisty roads compared to Thailand! We learnt quickly that Thai road engineers, whether they’re building highways or unpaved backcountry trails, don’t care much for taking the easy route through mountains, rather preferring the shortest route over the top – in other words: switchbacks galore, and steep. So steep, in fact, that if you don’t stop parallel to the road you’re almost sure to fall over.
Main roads in northern Thailand are pristinely paved and smooth, with fast, flowing sweepers, while all other roads are either dirt, or concrete, or were once paved with only spotty patches of asphalt remaining. Or they are simply cow trails. And if you think the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina is twisty – all roads here are dragon’s tails! We took paved roads for the liaison sections, where we had to be wary of Thai drivers, who paid very little attention to lines painted on the road, often taking the racing line though curves, moving entire into the opposing lane.
Of course, on the worst of the trails, where we’d be standing up, focused, and doing our best Cyril Despres imitations, we’d often come upon locals riding 150 cc step-through motorbikes, sometimes three-up – on bald tires.
It’s a wrap
The 2016 BMW Trophy was a week-long roller coaster ride, with incredibly challenging off-road riding on the R1200GS that should have really been done on 250 cc enduro bikes.
Confounding my difficulty was a bike that initially struggled to find grip on steep, rocky uphills, wagging its tail wildly while other machines just climbed effortlessly and without drama. It took me three days and a severely worn rear tire to realize that maybe something was amiss. It turned out that the rear tire had been inflated to 42 psi, double what the other bikes were running. A new rear tire was installed on day four, and the resulting improvement in handling felt like I’d jumped onto an entirely new bike.
Teams encountered daily points-scoring special stages along the route. Some were physically demanding, like carrying the bikes across a broken concrete bridge or over a four-foot tall tree stump, some tested riding skills, like a timed race that zigzagged along a river, or actually riding in a river while trying to spot messages left on trees; some tests included skill-testing questions, and one GPS challenge tested navigational skills.
The special stages culminated in a final test, a trials-type challenge on a motocross course that included several sharp hairpin turns, obstacles, and steep climbs and descents. Team Canada rode hard and gave it their best shot, ultimately placing 14th overall.
This event was a gruelling test of rider and machine, neither of which suffered any casualties – well, except for one unfortunate GS that tumbled end-over-end at speed during the final test. Despite being bent like a banana and missing most of its switchgear, its Chinese rider nonetheless picked it up and rode it to finish the course.
The 2016 GS Trophy ended all too soon, with competitors riding their bikes straight into their shipping crates! Team South Africa came out on top with Team UK and Team Germany tied for second. The Canadians might not be taking home a trophy, but the memories and friendships they formed will last a lifetime.