by Graham Pryce
PART 1 – PROLOGUE
Followers of the Internet BMW Riders (IBMWR) mailing list may recall recent pleas from “Bikeless in Mexico” requesting information about the R11GS – as an English ex-patriot living and working in Mexico since the start of the year I had come to the conclusion that it seemed the ideal tool for the roads over here. At the time of posting those requests I had the intention of buying one – in fact on my last visit to the UK even secured the funds after a visit to my friendly bank manager.
Relationships with Bank Managers are easy to understand. If you have a decent sized salary cheque coming in every month and you can prove that you don’t need the money, they fall over to help and offer half the interest rate if you borrow twice as much as you actually want. We all know what the response would have been had I been in reduced circumstances and really needed financial help. If only other relationships were so easily defined. Ready and more than willing to part with the new found cash I receive a call from the UK head office to be told that my Mexican adventure will end in December and, at the time of writing, am unsure what next year will bring – more overseas adventures or “extended gardening leave”.
So, what to do? Obviously the funds will remain in the bank until I know what the future has in store but in the meantime I had worked up such an appetite for the GS I really needed a fix. All the very helpful responses I got from the list were so enthusiastic and were re-enforced by my own contacts in the UK – “Best bike I have ever had”, “For the first time in my life I know what the next bike will be…..another GS” and most surprisingly from Keith Dixon, my UK BMW dealer, “The best bike BMW have EVER produced” – surprising because I have never seen one for sale in his shop!
At this desperate hour help arrived from an unlikely source via my UK BMW Club magazine which carried an advert for “Mototour” of Cuernavaca (an hours drive from my home in Mexico City) who hire out F650’s and R11GS’s! It seems they supply the bikes, route planning and tour guides for one of the Bike Tour companies and hire out the bikes in between organised trips – a quick call secured a GS for the following weekend for what was going to be an extended 3 day test ride.
As a recent recruit to the IBMWR list I had received much needed technical information and owner/rider opinions about the bike. Another pleasant benefit has been the quality and entertainment value of members touring stories including Sam Lepor’s “Permanent Vacation” and Dan Arnold’s “7,000 Miles” which both describe their love of the Baja California region in the north of Mexico. Perhaps it will be of interest to members if I attempt to give a flavour of Central Mexico based on my 10 months stay here – in addition to the 3 day ride – for I feel this is a biking paradise which is accessible to all.
Mexico City with a population of 20 million is not the best place in the world to ride but represents a great starting point for a tour – located on the dividing line between the arid north of the country and the lush green south. At an altitude of 7,300 ft the City enjoys a very comfortable climate with average temperatures of around 75 degrees, little humidity and seasonal variations of only 5 degrees – head south and these increase by a further 5 degrees as you break free of the pollution. The City is located on a plateau which runs through the centre of the country with Accapulco the nearest westerly resort some 450 kms away and Veracruz a similar distance away to the east. In both cases, as you drop off the plateau onto the coastal plains you will find yourself in 90 degrees of humid heat. For my 3 day roadtest I planned to head south and then east of the city.
PART 2 – SUNDAY
I had planned a route from Cuernavaca to Veracruz on the eastern Gulf Coast for day one, down the coast (and maybe a little swimming) for day two, with an alternative route back to the start. Like most of my well laid plans the end result bore little resemblance to the itinerary but this time I would be able to blame the elements rather than my incompetence as a map reader. In fact the elements had played a part in my choice of routes in the first place. Hurricane Pauline had recently wiped out most of the Western coast roads so I would not have the pleasure of re-visiting routes taken by hire car to Acapulco and Manzanillo with thoughts of what glorious roads these would be for a bike. No matter, one of the delights of solo touring for me is to follow the front wheel without a timetable in the knowledge that I will inevitably end up somewhere new come nightfall.
As the time approached to collect the bike and head for the great blue yonder I have to admit to a little trepidation. I had not ridden any bike for over 2 years after having sold my R11RS following overseas postings, had never ridden a bike in what appear to be the chaotic traffic conditions which prevail here, had never seen the roads I planned to travel and would have to master what looked to be an evil monster of a bike. At 5 feet 9 would I be able to even touch the floor? My riding equipment included a pair of recently purchased Frankinstein built-up boots which added a vital inch, complemented by a BMW summer suit purchased 5 years ago (hardly used due to the absence of UK summers) and a new Shoei XV helmet bought three weeks ago. And of course, being British, the bikers equivalent of the umbrella, a full rain suit…..just in case.
I arose on the appointed day at seven and drove the 85km from home to Cuernavaca to be introduced to the bike (a nice looking black model with side cases and 30K km’s on the clock) and was on my way by ten – wobbling down the all too short side road before plunging into the traffic and my first roundabout. Now a word about chaotic Mexican traffic. From my experiences behind a wheel I have found it is “organised chaos” without too many rules – so it is to the advantage of learner drivers, strangers to the neighbourhood and novice bikers as everyone expects the unexpected. In the right lane on a 4 lane city highway and you see the road sign which says you should have been in the left? – no es un problema – just carve up the middle lanes – everyone else does!
As I approached the roundabout where no right of way seems to apply, I knew that if I metaphorically closed my eyes and ignored oncoming traffic I would be OK – at this stage in our relationship I did not want to stop, grope for the floor and find neutral all in one go – so around I went with only a few honking horns and headed for the autopista where I would feel more at ease.
The roads in Mexico come in two very distinct flavours – cuota (toll roads) which are usually beautifully paved and often deserted, and libre (freebies) which are normally clogged with traffic, in unbelievably bad states of repair and liberally sprinkled with giant pot holes and “topes” (speed humps). Hence the choice of the GS as the tool for the job. The past Salinas government encouraged a very extensive privatised road building programme and the end result is very impressive. In what is the most mountainous of countries the engineering feats have to be seen to be believed with roads either winding their way around 15,000 feet obstacles or tunnelling through them. Sounds like biking heaven? You bet! The cost must have been enormous and toll prices were not helped with the peso collapse a few years ago which coincided with completion of the programme. As a consequence of the builders having to repay twice as many loan dollars as they had anticipated, toll prices, even by European or USA standards are high and for most of the locals, prohibitive.
I immediately felt at home on the bike now that I was on the move and outside the city limits. The GS has such a natural upright riding position once you get used to the wide bars and provides a commanding view of the highway and traffic conditions. Within 5 minutes I am on the cuota road heading south east for Cuautla and am immediately reminded why I am addicted to this mode of transport and why the central Mexico region is the place to be. The road out of the City drops into a valley via a series of smooth surfaced bends which reveal breathtaking views around every corner – palm trees, lush vegetation, wild flowers and in every direction for as far as you can see, mountain ranges. In the distance I can just make out the snow capped peak of Popocatepetl – Mexico’s second highest at 17,800 ft. and perhaps the most famous. A still very active volcano, it erupted this summer distributing ash over Mexico City 60 kms away.
With blue skies, no wind and 80 degree temperatures these are perfect riding conditions which give me the confidence to turn up the wick on the straights. Unfortunately I am totally incompetent on the twisties, slowing down too much and changing down when I don’t need (the torque available from the motor will easily pull me out of a turn in top) and the angle of lean attained is about 10 percent of that available to me. I hope I will soon improve – these roads are too good to waste.
I press on passing exits to Tejalpa and Yautepec and leave the cuota road at Cuautla heading for Izucar de Matamores, Atlixa and Cholula. Having problems pronouncing the place names? They pre date the Spanish occupation of course and my theory is that when the Aztecs saw the approaching invasion they quickly changed all the town names, maps and road signs to confuse the enemy. They also confuse the natives and in many cases only the locals can correctly pronounce the name of the town where they live – you can imagine what fun I have asking for directions in Spanglish.
My first libre road on the bike really impresses. As expected I come across large pot holes, lumps and bumps which the bike totally ignores! Instead of the crash bang wallop which I would experience on a normal road bike, the GS provides a silky smooth ride and sails over the topes which I come across in every town and village. One golden rule when riding on these roads is to remember “if you have seen one tope you haven’t seen them all”. You will almost always see a warning sign of these approaching speed humps as you enter a village and many are clearly visible and brightly painted. However, beware of the hidden ones that have blended into the colour scheme of the rest of the road surface and keep your hand over the brake lever until after you have cleared the village. Forewarned with this knowledge I still had to test the braking power of the GS to the limit on more than one occasion.
I am basically following a dog leg route heading south to Izucar before turning north to Cholula where I join the cuota road to Puebla heading due east to Orizaba, Cordoba and Veracruz. On route I get a great view of the highest peak in Mexico, the 18,700 ft. Pico de Orizaba and am soon starting a 10 km climb through the mountains. With around 300 kms completed I am beginning to feel at home on the twisty bits and am able to throw the bike around the hairpins and fast sweepers – I never experience that feeling of satisfaction when you get one exactly right, but it is improvement enough to bring a few smiles to the face. Down the other side and I am in the coffee and tobacco growing area of Cordoba, have left the mountains behind and have arrived on the coastal plain which will take me to Veracruz.
The road is a little boring now – too straight and too flat. There is very little traffic about and I consequently go into mental shutdown mode. I fail to notice that the wind has picked up considerably, I have been winding up the throttle to compensate and am soon to run out of petrol. I feel sure that there were 3 bars showing on the instrument panel when I last looked a few minutes ago but now the bars have disappeared and the warning light is on. After having passed service stations at regular 30km intervals I cannot find one now – is it not always the case? 20, 30 and 40 kilometres pass and I have visions of a long walk ahead. At last I reach the outskirts of Veracruz and after 55kms with the warning light on find a station. Phew!
The wind is really blowing and the skies are quite overcast – not being an expert in these matters I have visions of an approaching hurricane and feel thankful that I can soon bed down for the night. The big lump below me gets tossed around as I pass side streets looking for a hotel for the night and we are both being sand blasted as the gale whips over the dunes. I stop at the first decent looking hostelry and book in for the night.
First part of the test ride completed with 460 kms on the clock. Great day!
PART 3 – MONDAY
I awake to find no change in the weather with the wind whistling around my fourth story bedroom window, so it is downstairs with map in hand to plot an alternative route. I had planned a trip south of Veracruz taking in some small coastal resorts with the possibility of a swim before lunch and a return journey through the interesting looking Lakeland of the area. The on shore gale would mean I would be riding sideways for 60 kms and swimming was certainly out of the question.
The Hotel breakfast was of the modest variety with juice, coffee and cold toast on offer and as this is not the kind of fare suitable for the sustained ride over the mountains which I had in mind, it was off to Sanbourns for “huevos rancheros”. I can’t say I was sorry to see the last of Veracruz as I headed north out of town – other than the lively Zocalo (central town square) which I visited on the previous evening, it has few features to recommend it. As I hit the coastal road it was sand blast time again and I kept a wary eye on the horizontal palm trees as a thought struck me that a flying coconut would put a considerable dent in my new helmet!
At last I can turn inland when I reach Cardel and with the gale on my back fairly fly up the mountain bends heading for Jalapa, the capital of Veracruz state. My guide book says this is a very pretty Spanish colonial city but as I approach I am enveloped in mist and it has started to rain. On with the wet suit and through 5 kms of roadworks as I discover a major highway building programme underway with many diversions accompanied by mucho waving of red flags.
Nobody is really unemployed in Mexico although many jobs pay a pittance. The flag wavers are young lads employed for the duration as they come much cheaper than mobile traffic lights with generators. Similarly in the cities, the man with a red flag guards vacant parking spots on the street and will wave you in and watch the car for a few pesos. Some of the diversions are really hairy through narrow temporary roads which have been badly pounded by the heavy trucks. Again the GS shines, never giving a moments anxiety as we bounce up and down over the ruts. As for the “pretty colonial city”, I never see it as the mist is thick now and I am somewhat preoccupied keeping the bike upright.
The road climbs ever upwards out of the city and I am stuck behind a long line of buses and trucks with no opportunity to overtake as we are still in the roadwork zone with oncoming traffic sharing our lane. The heavies in front of me churn out clouds of black filth and every bikers nightmare in the wet, I see the road is covered in diesel spillage.
Perhaps you have never thought about what happens to the Greyhound buses when they have completed their serviceable life in the U.S. – no, they are not sent to that great scrap yard in the sky, they get shipped to Mexico be thrashed to death for another 20 years. The same applies to trucks and cars of course, which explains the pollution problems we experience in Mexico City. Maintenance on these vehicles seems to be restricted to the polishing of hub caps and it is a common sight to see the most decrepit heap with immaculate chrome plated and highly polished wheel nuts.
To combat the serious health problem in a city which has around 10 million commuters per day, the authorities have introduced strict exhaust emission controls which the truck and bus operators overcome in the traditional way, by slipping a few hundred pesos into influential hands. The car driver has to suffer a day or sometimes two days without a car as pollution levels are monitored and announcements published which ban cars from the street according to registration number. To get around this most people buy a second car, which of course, is older and more polluting than the first.
The real problem in Mexico City is geographical and again we have to blame the Aztecs for choosing a site on a plateau surrounded by mountains which block off the wind. Over the years there have been some wonderful schemes published to overcome the Aztecs’ lax planning laws. These have ranged from blowing up the surrounding mountains to building giant fans around the city to create the breeze that nature cannot provide. This sounded like a winner until someone calculated that the amount of energy which needed to be generated would cause more pollution than the fans could remove!
At last I am out of Jalapa city limits with many opportunities for overtaking even though it is raining harder and the mist has reduced visibility to 200 metres. The GS has successfully completed another test and proved itself a capable enduro mount through the building site. As I continue the long climb it is becoming quite cool and I am grateful that I learned to ride in England – I feel quite at home in these conditions and am really enjoying myself as I squirt past the lines of heavies before diving over for the next corner which suddenly appears out the mist. I have to say I am really impressed with these Bridgestone Trail tyres which look like off-road knobblies but behave like quality sport tyres in the wet or dry. Technology has certainly improved over the years as I recall the knobblies fitted to a Bultaco Sherpa I had in the early seventies. Used on the road they induced a severe weave over 40 mph and off road they were not much more effective – at least not with this incompetent pilot on board.
I think I have reached the top of the climb now but can only imagine the surrounding views. Then at last I am in the clear, back to eye popping scenery and blue skies which enable me to savour the prospect of completing the descent which spreads out below. As I head for Haumantla, Apizago and Tlexcala I get another view of Popocatepetl and its smaller brother (at a mere 17.300 ft), Iztaccihautl ( don’t these names just roll off the tongue?). The rain suit has dried out and is back on the luggage rack as I head for the cuota road 100 kms away.
On route my senses force me to stop and goggle at the most extraordinary landscape I have seen in this wonderful country. I am on a narrow road which bisects a salt lake surrounded by volcanoes. I feel totally alone in this desolate place and even though mesmerised by the scene, am relieved when the camera has been packed and I can be on my way.
In retrospect I wonder at the effect it had on me, for 5 minutes later I took the decision to make for the apartment. At the time I recall thinking about the hassle of looking for a hotel, unpacking and repacking etc. but perhaps it was the comfort and security of home I needed. Mexico City was perhaps 200 kms. away and I hoped I could be on the Periferico ring road before it turns into a mobile parking lot at 6.00pm. Pressing on I eventually reach the cuota road between Puebla and the City. What a stunner it turns out to be – practically on my doorstep for these past ten months and I had never been on it!
One of the engineering masterpieces of which I spoke, this six lane highway snakes over yet another mountain pass and brings out the hooligan in me. I really give the GS some welly on the climb, streak past comparatively underpowered four wheelers and am soon descending into the smog of the City. But where am I? I have never approached the City from this direction before and get hopelessly lost looking for a recognisable direction sign. By the time this is accomplished it is 6.15 and I am stuck in the quagmire I desperately wanted to avoid. One hot, smelly hour later and I am home.
What can I say about the bike after today? My conclusion is that it is really four bikes in one – not a compromise, but a bike that is a very capable enduro, commuter, tourer and scatcher. Totally unique.
470 varied kms completed in the day.
PART FOUR – TUESDAY
A much needed lie in is followed by a ginormous, leisurely breakfast allowing time for the Periferico to disgorge the morning rush hour traffic. The plan is to ride south out of the city, past Cuernavaca, take in the old silver mining town of Taxco, on to Iguala and return the bike to Cuernavaca.
Down in the basement garage it so much more satisfying to see the GS in the spot usually occupied by a hire car. Both the bike and Biggles are ready to roll so off we go! Who is this Biggles character you ask? Well, back in the fifties when I was a lad, the first serious reading I undertook followed the adventures of a (mythical) first world war fighter pilot called Biggles, a dashing hero resplendent in leather helmet, flying jacket and white silk scarf. Without him we would never have defeated the dreaded Hun and later, in the 20’s and 30’s when these books were written, the government of the day would not have been able to call upon him to prop up our crumbling Empire. In this most “politically incorrect” of times, he single-handedly sorted out the Chinks, Japs, Wogs and any other Johnny Foreigner who dared to threaten our shores. Quality reading.
In the 80’s they made a film about my hero which subsequently bombed due to the unappreciative philistine public who stayed away in droves. The movie starts with a first world war fight scene featuring Biggles thrashing the enemy as only he knows how. He disappears in a cloud and emerges to find himself in present day England – sounds a perfectly plausible plot to me. Only I in the sparsely populated audience knew that he had actually been reincarnated as a small bear, complete with fighter pilot uniform. Biggles now gets his kicks riding shotgun on the back of my bike.
We head out around 11.00 am confident in the knowledge that the Periferico will now be on the move. Wrong! What should have been a 15 minute journey takes 45 and by the time I reach the autopista am desperately in need of a breeze to cool me down. This is soon provided as I engage warp drive to start the climb out of the City on the highway which eventually ends in Acapulco. Immediately the twisties start again and I throw the bike from side to side as one fast sweeper after another is despatched on this familiar 20km ascent. We are now in an area that always looks to me to be so very English with rolling green hills, distant farm buildings and wooded slopes – if it wasn’t for the odd volcano on the skyline I could be in the Yorkshire dales. Soon the curvas peligrosas (dangerous bend) signs reappear as the road starts to descend past the outskirts of Cuernavaca and along what for this part of Mexico is a featureless valley bottom.
This 30 km stretch of relative boredom is somewhat relieved by the flower growers at the side of the road who try to wave me down. These people really are optimists, for while I greatly admire their beautiful, multi coloured displays, do they really expect me to strap a couple of bunches on to the handle bars? The autopista now divides, I take the right fork for Taxco and am soon back on pleasant biking roads which meander through sleepy villages where the major preoccupation for the locals seems to be to keep out of the sunlight.
Another series of hairpin bends would have taken me up to the old mining town but the highway crews are out again and have decided to close the road. I press on a further 80 kms to Iguala and enjoy yet another spectacular mountain ascent/descent before a mid afternoon lunch stop. With time running out I retrace my tyre tracks and reluctantly return the bike to Cuernavaca.
350 kms completed today – around 1300 test kms over the three days – and enough to form a few impressions. As you will have gathered this bike does everything well and nothing badly – I loved it! For the road conditions in Mexico there cannot be a better bike and I struggle to recall anything that I would want to change – a retractable handle to get the bike on the centre stand maybe and two criticisms that apply to all R bikes – a duff seat that results in a numb bum after a few hours and for me, an overlong reach to pull in the clutch. Some points which may be of interest to list subscribers judging by the amount of recent email devoted to the topics:
– No transmission problems on what is a hire bike with 30kms on the clock. Not one missed gear change on the journey – even with the very thick new boots which I had never used before. I really am amazed at the stories of lousy BMW gearboxes and this one performed just as well as my previous K75, K1 and R11RS. After also owning a couple of Japanese bikes I have found BM boxes to be just as user friendly.
– No surging problems, in common with my experience of two years with the RS.
– No altitude problems and no noticeable difference in performance at sea level or 14,000 feet.
– The GS performed OK on the basic unleaded available here but was noticeably smoother on the higher octane premium available at the Pemex red pump. Although this is generally advertised as available in most stations, I found it to be unobtainable at half my refuel stops.
In summary, I hope you enjoyed the ride. If you are reading this as you contemplate the winter ahead and are thinking of maybe trying it yourself, I would recommend:
– Doing it on the R11GS. It was designed for these roads, for whilst the average crutch rocket will perform well on the cuota roads, it will destroy itself on the libres. This bike really is remarkable and does everything well – it is the only bike I have ever ridden that is totally unfazed by hitting a pothole while cranked well over on a mountain descent. I admitted to being intimidated by its looks before riding the bike but never had one moments anxiety in what were sometimes demanding conditions.
– If you are riding in Mexico for the first time, do it in a group or go on an organised tour. Edelweiss Bike Tours can be used for the latter – although I have never been with them, the bike mags give them a good press and they have 4-15 day tours of Mexico all of which start with a pick-up at Mexico City airport. If you want to organise your own tour in a small group, contact Mototour (email firstname.lastname@example.org) – they also collect you from the airport. Ricardo at Mototour is an obvious enthusiast and can provide routes and guides if necessary – he also plans to add 5 more GS’s to the stable in the coming months. I had never used them before seeing the advert in my UK club magazine but as a happy customer, hope to see them again.
– If you are familiar with Mexico and have a smattering of Spanish (and as a brain dead language student, believe me that is all I have), do as I did and go solo, you will already know that the natives are very friendly!
– Come here in winter if you want to avoid the rain. Whilst in the central Mexico region there is not much of a variation in temperature, winters are dry and it is unusual to see any rain between November and April. If you have a choice, go for Nov/December when the vegetation is at its best. If you come from the UK like me, you may prefer the cooling effects of a good downpour so come in summer!
Best Regards to all,
After a quick fix, still “Bikeless in Mexico”.