Army of Darkness

Army of Darkness

Nordschleife Über Alles
Written by Sam Fleming   

BMW prototypes an Edelweiss tour of the Nurburgring North Course

 

BMWs have long been motorcycles for old guys. This is a pretty good customer base to have because, as a rule, old guys tend to have more money (or at least better credit ratings) than young guys. The old guys of today, however, were the young guys of yesterday.

 

In 1983 a forty-year-old who had been riding motorcycles for twenty years would have suffered first through English singles and twins and then, regardless of the country of origin, flexible steel frames, heavy but weak forks, narrow bias plied tubed tires, spoke wheels, points ignitions, brakes that barely worked in the dry and failed completely in the wet. These riders had generally accepted that as the status quo of motorcycle performance.

Kawasaki and Honda radically shifted the paradigm with the first Ninja 900 and Interceptor 750. Although both of those bikes would now be considered sensible tame sport touring bikes suitable for commuting or lending to your grandmother, at the time they set dramatic performance benchmarks. Those bikes not only raised the standard of performance for motorcycles, they also raised the expectation of rider expertise.

Much of the tour crisscrossed the German equivalent of the Mississippi: the Rhine. An important commercial waterway since the time of the Romans, many castles used to string chains across the river to demand tolls. This calls into question the fine line between banditry and government.

In 2007 a forty-year-old motorcyclist who has been riding for twenty years has never known crappy motorcycles unless they rode the intentional retro technological throwbacks. Having matured with sport bikes, the modern forty-year-old is just not going to accept the R80RT as an acceptable replacement for his GSX-R or CBR. Thus, perhaps because their own designers rode proper sport bikes for a bit as well, BMW has slowly been adopting a sportier image for their motorcycle clients. Such an image revision is tricky business because it has to be done in such a way as to welcome a more performance oriented customer base without alienating the traditional easy-riding, pot-bellied, rally-going, beer-chugging ludite demographic. When BMW was briefly on the forefront of the mid-eighties performance revolution with its aluminum tanked, liquid cooled K-series there was almost open revolt from the traditionalists.

BMW North America arranged a trip to Germany for the American press core to sample two motorcycles in the most ideal sport touring setting possible. BMW had arranged with Edelweiss tours (one of Europe’s premier full service motorcycle tour groups) to guide our contingent for three days throughout central Germany. At the end of our third day we would arrive at the Nurburgring race track and be handed over to the BMW Rider Training staff for a two day introduction to the Nordschleife using the same motorcycles.

The Nordschleife is not just another racetrack. The Nordschleife is 12.5 miles long. It was cut through a dark pine forest in the mountains of Germany. Built only a handful of years after the country willingly marching an entire generation of German young men into machine gun fire in World War I, the consideration of ‘racer safety’ never even made it onto the drawing board. Barely two lanes wide, there is virtually no run off in any turn before one would encounter either Armco or trees. Due to the trees and topography almost every turn is either blind, cresting, uphill, downhill, cambered (either positive or negative) and going from bright sunlight to shadow. Sometimes all of these characteristics can be found within two consecutive turns. Think Road Atlanta that is six times longer wi th six times more turns, less run off and surrounded by forty foot high pine trees and you would be close.

I was offered one of two models to be my principle motorcycle for the week: an R1200S or a K1200RS. The R1200S is an air-cooled twin with a claimed 122bhp and 420lb dry weight while the four cylindered K1200S has 167 bhp but hefts an extra 80 pounds. Since the tire sizes are the same on both bikes and the R was fitted with the factory option of Ohlins suspension I opted for the twin with the Nordschleife portion of the trip in mind. I figured that San Jose BMW seems to be doing well enough on the R1200S in the Special Olympics of endurance racing so it had to have some racetrack capabilities.

BMW NA was touchingly concerned with the safety of jet-lagged journalist hurtling around blind cresting corners and had arranged with Edelweiss (www.edelweissbike.com) to give us a tour of central Germany while our internal clocks reset to something approximating European time. Edelweiss has a wide variety of trips available for visitors with sumptuous accommodations and leather shrinking restaurants. Typically a tour of Germany would occur in the south of the country to take advantage of the relative lack of people and the relative abundance of curvy alpine roads.

With the collapse of the Roman empire and its building codes many villages in the 1200s built wooden framed buildings with straw walls close together. Also known as “tinderboxes”, not many of these villages remain today.

Given that our tour had to be in the North Central region of Germany to remain close to the racetrack where there are lots of towns and few unused back roads, our tour guides (Olli and Manuel) did an excellent job. Contrary to the popular notion of the lack of speed limits in Germany all of the secondary roads and most of the Autobahn are limited, policed and filmed.

I am one that typically bridles at being on an organized tour or worse, being lead around on a motorcycle. Within our group we were not to pass each other or to pass our lead guide Olli. Given the limits imposed by geography and civilization Olli did a great job of finding roads which either had interesting sights, entertaining riding or both. The riding stints were appropriately timed to always involve a stop for kaffee about five minutes after I started thinking about wanting one. Although much of the riding seemed to involve twenty mile an hour crawls through the tiny streets of small towns, each day ended with a spirited dash.

Edelweiss Guide Olli was disappointing as a German as he never said “schnell” or “achtung”. He often ran ten to fifteen minutes late and was laid back about philosophic and cultural differences. Despite his appreciation for Italian food and espresso he could not completely conceal his Teutonic heritage which revealed itself in an unsightly display of affinity for meat chunks congealed in gelatin.

On these sprints through the German countryside I would stop thinking about the long term influence that the Romans left on Germania in terms of architecture, art, gardens, building techniques, water management, agriculture, use of eagles as a political/military symbol, language (for example the etymology of ‘kaiser’ is ‘ceasar’) and town planning to allow me to begin to feel how my R1200S was going to behave at the Nordschleife.

Germans are not known to communicate their feelings and this quality is engineered into their motorcycles. Thrashing down a country lane with patchy pavement that has a sickly shiny look to the tarmac and no run off, the Michelins were gripping but I had absolutely no feedback from the bike. The telelever forks are such that there is no dive on the brakes leaving me no option but to trust in the anti-lock braking system and no options to tighten the steering with the front brake. Olli, our fearless guide, would be hauling ass through the turns on an R1200GS with worn out tires (I checked) with Manuel on the back lighting cigarettes for him so I knew intellectually that the bike and tires could handle the pace I was asking with aplomb. My pace was, therefore, unwisely dictated not from the bike giving a reassuring tenacious gripping feeling but more my pride not allowing me to get gapped by someone with a passenger and knobbies.

“I hope you brought your rucksack because I am taking you to school.” –BMW Instruktor

That said, the bike turned pretty well and never got out of shape over bumps or crests. It did what it was told but never gave any feedback. Either the edge was far far away or I was in the safe cocoon of a somnambulist. The chassis would move a fair amount up and down from an off to on throttle condition but the action did not seem to adversely effect the steering or stability.

The 1200cc engine would power lift the bike (which would then start to walk to the right presumably from the crank forces) without too much drama but the front end would bottom painfully if the landing wasn’t done with skill and talent; two qualities which I unfortunately lack. Otherwise the power delivery was perfectly flat but lagged the throttle by a tenth of a second or so. Many modern fuel injected bikes are mapped painfully lean for emissions but the 1200 did not lurch or burble excessively at steady throttle settings through the mainly little, and Roman inspired, towns.

One of the hotel bars at the Nurburgring.

The ABS did not allow rear wheel lock ups with the brake so downshifting fast and popping out the clutch generated the best tire chirps. These antics did not upset the chassis and I took that to be a good sign for the upcoming track adventure. The BMW transmission was light, positive and secure.

The most surprising thing about the BMW was that it was not comfortable for long periods of time. BMWs have always been reliable mounts for repetitious five hundred mile days but the R1200S placed a significant amount of weight onto thinly padded (although heated) grips. The seat is thin and shaped to allow shorter inseams an easy reach to the ground at stops. That seat shape also reduced support while in a riding position. It is not any worse than a GSX-R and far better than an R-1 but this is supposed to be a sport-touring bike, not a super sport replica. The under seat muffler exit puts the passenger seat high above the rider’s seat which doesn’t allow much in the way of repositioning.

The integral hard saddlebags, were, of course, excellent.

The bike felt a little large and a little heavy rolling around but chasing Olli down a back road I could forget my sore thighs and tired hands and wrists and just trust that the bike was going to work, and it always did.

After three days of the Rhine valley, castles, ferries, espresso doppios, scenic farms, grape vineyards, Lutheran churches, castles, small towns, hay farms, flowers, more castles, long dinners, beautiful hotels, and spirited processional riding, we arrived at the Nurburgring complex.

There are two tracks. The short course (modern and safer) which is a traditional European racecourse, and the Nordschleife which is probably the most complicated road course in the world. There is a four star hotel between the two tracks with, of course, racing memorabilia galore. There is a decent museum with historic racecars and lots of engines from BMW and Mercedes. There is a pretty decent indoor go-cart track where your Austrian Edelweiss assistant guide Manuel can lap the entire field of contestants…yes, the entire field.

The entire complex is built up in the mountains so the weather is unpredictable and the mornings are cool. It was an unseasonably cool August in Germany. This put morning temperatures in the mid-40s in the mornings; pretty nippy for vented leathers, making the heated grips a welcome option. BMW has rider training courses for a variety of styles of riding including off road, on-road and super motard. The event we attended is called the Race Track Training Nürburgring Nordschleife and is offered only a few times a year. It is basically a two-day fancy track day for BMW riders although there was a small assortment of other brands represented. Although billed as a riding school the majority of the instruction is guiding riders around the track, not skills improvement. This class includes two nights lodging in the aforementioned four-star hotel, all meals, and currently costs 995 euro which puts it at a cool $1,400 for those of us unfortunate enough to be on the dollar economy. More information is available about the track day here: http://www1.bmw.de/bmwlive/fahrertraining/en/motorradTraining/roadTraining/circuitTraining/circuitTraining_03.html

n="center">Every shiny piece of guardrail in the Green Hell has a tale to tell. Racers are charged for repairs to the guardrail. This is like when China charges your family for the cost of the execution bullet.

The orientation session was conducted in both German and English on the night before our first track outing. Most of the participants were not regular track riders and many even sported textile-riding gear, not leathers. Most of them seemed to be in their forties or older. Many of the BMWs were not really sports models and included touring bikes, hyper-motards and off-road models. The riding tips given in the orientation session were pretty basic including things like not exceeding the available traction of the front tire and drinking water. I asked the instructor how I would know when I was about to exceed the traction limits of the front tire but the question was ultimately left unanswered.

The Nordschleife is unique in the world not only for its history and complexity as a race circuit but in that it is a public one-way toll road when not reserved for races or private events such as car tests or our BMW track day. Anyone can lap the track after paying a toll of 19 euro ($26.50). Lapping on a public day introduces the inherent risks of any fast riding on a public road as it is quite likely that one will crest a turn only to find a Dutch mini car towing a camping caravan about to take your same line but at 1/5 the speed. A study of the fresh shiny Armco replacements amply distributed around the track suggested that accidents are frequent and if you dent the Armco you are liable for the substantial costs to repair it to its Teutonic perfection.

We began our first day by standing around on the track surface clustered around motorbikes like any other gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts. We were fortunate that there was no precipitation (as determining the dampness level of the shadowy parts of the track would be treacherous), the sun was poking through the clouds and the temperature was forecasted to lift from its morning 42 to a high of 60.

The track day began with two guided laps of the track. Not having a video game console with which to practice before arriving, I was lost after the first four turns. The second lap looked no more familiar than the first. At the slow pace it was taking over twelve minutes to complete a lap of the track. Comparing that to learning a typical GP track, I would get the same number of laps on a GP track in the first practice session as I would turn on the Nordschleife in an entire day. Instead of seeing the same turn every 90 seconds you see the turns once every ten minutes. And, in between, you have seen eighty other corners.

The scale on the track maps is so warped that many of the sweepers don’t even appear. The course used to be taught with a textbook that identified the proper line through each turn.

The BMW approach was to run smaller sections of the track repeatedly. This approach allowed me to learn distinct parts of the track very well but, of course, the rest of the track remained a mystery. Of the allotted time we spent half of each session riding backwards on the track to repeat that portion. This seemed to me to be wasting half of our riding time experiencing the turns in reverse.

Our instructor had rapidly determined that American moto-journalists are not the typical BMW track day participants and was delighted that we would be able to run at whatever pace he chose. We ran our three sections for about 45 minutes each with ample breaks for water and general shivering. For many participants the two-day event is part track riding and part pageantry so the instructors periodically pull everyone over to the side of the track to park the bikes and watch the rest of the participants. Also, since virtually all of Europe still smokes there are biochemical imperatives that must be obeyed by participants and instructors alike.

Pay attention, Fuchs is going to test you on this later.

After a nice hot lunch at a trackside eatery we returned to the circuit to begin turning laps. Due to the length of the track we would typically turn two laps before returning to the pits for a break. There were some restrictions that at first struck me as onerous but, due to the generally high skill level in our group, mostly worked out. The first restriction was no passing within the group. We would wave each other by to take turns riding at the front and, in general, everyone in our group was fast. Due to unfamiliarity with the track and the low level of performance of the bikes it was not very often that I found myself clenching my teeth in low velocity frustration.

The restriction that became more of an issue was that groups could only pass other groups as a unit. Our group would catch another group and we would all activate our left turn indicators, and the group we were overtaking was supposed to put on their right indicators and pull over. We were then supposed to overtake on the left. Since our group was significantly faster than any other group on the track this led us to catch groups on every lap. If we caught a group in a curvy section of the track (and they are all curvy sections) it could take many teeth grinding minutes before we could get by them. This was much more tedious. On the other hand, over two days of riding with eighty participants, a fair amount of inappropriate machinery and a general lack of experience there were only three or four crashes and no significant injuries.

After turning about six laps in the afternoon our instructor invited Jurgen Fuchs to lead our group for a couple laps. Fuchs is not only a GP veteran but has also turned countless laps around the Nordschleife. After being lulled into a false sense of security by noodling around the track all day playing follow the leader we were now going to have to take our mid-term exam.

Sport Rider editor (and all around fast/nice guy) Kent Kunitsugu and I lined up at the front of the pack behind Fuchs.

“Hey Kent,” I inquired before snapping my visor shut, “how well do you know the track now?”

“I know 90% of it.”

Okay then.

In the orientation session the night before our lecturer had said that on the street we must all never ride using more than 80% of our riding skill so that we have 20% left as extra in case something unexpected were to occur. I asked how much of our riding skill we should us at the Nordschleife. This question was met with some derision by some of the ignorant in the class and an uncomfortable look from the instructor. “Do you have a gauge?” one neophyte quipped.

Paint on the track is a harbinger of some turn of note.

Of course we have a gauge to how hard we are riding. I get various physical reactions depending on how hard I am riding that start somewhere with boredom and end with the electrical sensation on my skin when my body kicks into the adrenaline fueled flight or fight reflex. Having ridden with Kent in a variety of circumstances for the past ten years I can watch his body language to know how hard he is riding. In our morning follow the leader sessions he was riding in the upright-no-knee-out-body-in-line sport rider posture. As we rolled out behind Jurgen I counted the turns before Kent abandoned sport rider posture for racer posture. Two.

This is looking back through one of the turns. Can you imagine coming up that hill full tilt on a GSX-R 750 with the back end stepped out about twelve inches into those shadows where the pavement temperature is going to change about twenty degrees all with six feet of run off to certain death? No. Me neither. The gummikuh was just fine.

Chasing Kent and Jurgen the Nordschleife became an entirely different animal. The named turns are memorable and some have visual reference points. Spectators at races paint graffiti on the track where the cameras will pick it up for the few car races which are still held on the track. Therefore Paint=Notable corner. The difficult ones are the myriad of blind sweepers that are largely visually indistinguishable. At the slower morning pace they were not that big a deal. Chasing Jurgen I would have to force myself to open the throttle wider and wider well before I could see the exit (or even the apex) of these sweepers and well before knowing if I was heading into a sweeper that tightened, opened or fed into another one. This is, of course, when you also start to really experience the capacities of a motorcycle.

You know you are starting to ride harder when you don’t notice the walls anymore.

My impression of the BMW largely remained unchanged. I had adjusted the Ohlins suspension to tighten up the action for the track but the bike has a very removed feel to it. There is very little feedback from the tires or brakes and the throttle response is pretty lazy. All that said it handled the line corrections I was throwing at it and, in a guilty part of my brain, I was glad that I was riding a docile bike that wasn’t going to step out climbing out of an off camber up hill turn or headshake across one of the numerous track crests.

Sam plays follow the leader on the incredibly rough and infamous Karussell. He wasn’t knee down through here until the last lap of the last day chasing Jurgen.

The first part of each lap was refreshingly brisk. Whereas our instructor would chill a little between sets of turns to allow the group to tighten up, Jurgen would keep his twin on the stop. We performed a choreographed dance around the track until we would inevitably catch the next group ahead of us. After the customary two laps Fuchs gave us some ego bolstering feedback with a “Who are you guys and where have you raced before?” and “We would have been under 9:00 minutes if we had not slowed down for those other guys.”

Chasing Jurgen

The second day at the track proceeded in a similar fashion to the first, only by the time we got to the Fuchs laps I felt that I had achieved a level of understanding with the track that Kent had hit the day before. I was able to hang with the sandbagging Fuchs (we don’t know how much he was sandbagging but I am confident that he was sandbagging to some extent) without my ‘riding effort meter’ getting over 90% and I was confident in my throttle points in about 90% of the track, and the last 10% was not a complete mystery. I was still far from being able to draw the course on a lunch napkin, which is my usual trick for testing my recall.

As we came up to pit in at the end of the second lap of the last session of the day I checked the on board clock and determined that we had green track for at least another fifteen minutes. Relishing the perfect weather and new found track knowledge I pulled up along side Fuchs and hand signaled for an unprecedented third lap. Half of our group retired to the pits but Fuchs gave me a nod, a thumbs up and we tried to squeeze the last drops of joy out of a perfect day at the track.

How to do it:

This track day is very well run and an excellent way to experience the Nordschleife, particularly if one is predisposed to things BMW. I would start by contacting Edelweiss and see if they have set anything up for a tour and Nordschleife class. If so, just give them the credit card number and let them handle everything. It allows you to just enjoy the trip without any travel related stress. Do fax or email them your own travel itinerary though to ensure they have a copy. If not, find a place to rent a bike in Germany (BMW in Munich apparently rents them) and sign up for the BMW rider training class. Get the full coverage insurance and rent the sportiest thing you can.

 
 
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