The Motorbike – BMW F650 GS Dakar

Get the flash player here:
Notes for caption • Link to go to FlickR • > for Slideshow
Click & drag image to move it around

The question of how to choose the 'right' motorbike is discussed in detail on various adventure motorcycling forums. A little bit of research sure isn't a bad thing, and forums can help to identify a bike's weakpoints. Then again, there probably isn't such a thing like the "perfect bike. (Same as there isn't the perfect luggage system either). Choice of motorcycle is a personal thing & also depends on how someone travels: highway? main roads? gravel?

Chris Scott's "Adventure Motorcycling Handbook" was a good starting point for looking into travel-worthy motorbike options.

After some basic research & trying a few motorbikes I decided to go for BMW's F650 GS Dakar. This chain-driven single cylinder enduro/dual-sports motorcycle has been around for quite a while now. It is mechanically simple & easy to fix, very economical, doesn't lose power/torque in high altitude areas (thanks to the fuel injection) and very comfortable to ride. Compared to the standard BMW F650 GS, the 'Dakar' version has slightly more emphasis on off-road riding, with a thinner & larger 21" front wheel, a slightly better rear shock and a higher seat.

Most of the F650's known issues can be overcome whilst prepping the bike for the journey and by taking the appropriate spare parts (water pump repair kit, for example).

Trip-Update: Generally, I'm happy with the motorbike. The only reoccuring problem I've had was the rear shock absorber, which apparently has to do with the bike's triple linkage (as I was told my WP Suspension when they sponsered me with a new rear shock absorber).
If I had to do it again, I'd go for a more lightweight motorcycle – something like the Suzuki DR350 – and use soft luggage instead of aluminium panniers: much more fun for off-road riding!


Luggage – Aluminium Panniers & Tangbag with Side Bags

Luggage rack on a BMW F650 GS Dakar motorcycleAluminium luggage on a BMW F650 GS Dakar motorcycle

I went for aluminium panniers from Overland Solutions. Waterproof, safe against theft, easy to take off, and sturdy enough so it stays on the bike in case of an accident/off.
One downside of hard luggage: it's potentially dangerous in an accident, as the legs might get caught in the panniers. (That said, on two quite harsh accidents the bike did a 180 degree turn, yet I managed to keep the feet on the pegs – and the panniers actually saved my legs).

Overland Solutions provided a really sturdy pannier system: 3mm waterproof aluminium panniers (32l each), lockable with replaceable padlocks, and a (slightly over-engineered) metal frame with a 'shelf-style' system to place the panniers securely. The frame has plenty of space to attach tie-down straps and bungee-cords to hold extra fuel & water when necessary. On the inside of the frame (below the exhausts) are 2 small additional boxes to hold tools, spares and everything else I don't need on a daily basis (which makes packing a bit easier.

The tankbag is from Touratech: expandable and with 2 soft side panniers (optional/zip-on). It was only water-repellant, so I made up a waterproof insert from an old sleeping mat. The tank-bag will hold my camera equipment for easy access.

Trip-Update: Although a bit heavy, I've been quite happy with the whole luggage system. So far, I dropped the bike twice whilst offroading and the pannier corner only has a small dent (about 2mm, so not even worth mentioning). As I found out in a deep water crossing in Australia's Kakadu National Park: everything's still waterproof.
Only nuisance: I had several broken/sheared sub-frame bolts (the ones behind the engine). The pannier frame is attached to those bolts, and I think it'd be a lot(!) better if they were attached to the foot-pegs.


Bike Modifications


Upgraded rear suspension

I started the trip with the original rear shock absorber. It started leaking oil in Tajikistan & was completely 'dry' by the time I got to Kyrgyzstan, where I received the replacement I had ordered from 'Hagon Shocks' in the UK. The Hagon replacement lasted until Australia, where I got it replaced on warranty. That 3rd shock started loosing oil again after only 4000 km.
In March 2010, I got sponsored by WP-Suspension, who kindly sent out a rear shock to Argentina. This one now has a heavy-duty spring, set up for my travel weight/luggage.
From other around-the-world travellers, I've heard of quite a lot of rear shock problems with their F650's. WP's suspension experts told me that this particular bike is prone to problems with the triple linkage / lowering links. If these wear out, it can put a lot of stress on the rear shock & cause seals to leak or even the shock's shaft to break.

Sheep Skin

My parents kindly 'sponsored' the sheep skin that's been lying in their bedroom for as long as I can think. Half-way through the trip, it fell into pieces. My second sheep-sking I got in Buenos Aires / Argentina.
Especially on long riding-days, the sheep-skin is pure bliss. For camping, I use it as a sleeping-mat for my legs (together with a short Exped DownMat).

Handle-bar raisers & Cruise Control

Raising the handle-bars improves comfort, especially for tall people (I'm 1.86m). Due to working with computers for a long time, I suffer from RSI / carpal tunnel syndrome in my wrists. Handle-bar raisers help me to maintain a healthy riding position, with a comfortable angle between lower arm and hand. Also, when standing in the foot-pegs (offroad), the handle-bars are easier to reach.
Trip-Update: I binned the old 'throttle rocker' and replaced it with a bit of inner tube, wrapped around the mirror and handlebar. This creates enough friction & works a treat as a DIY cruise control.

Progressive Fork Springs

The F650's original front suspension is quite soft, and a fully-laden bike can 'dive in' quite a lot when breaking hard (or in off-road use). I fitted progressive fork springs in conjunction with thicker suspension oil (10W).

Metal chain guard

Not really necessary, but: The original chain guard was broken anyway,giving a rattling noise when hitting the swingarm.
Trip-Update: The bike's screw-mount for the chain guard broke off in Tajikistan, and I've since been riding without it without any problems. The Australian MOT in Darwin was pretty relaxed about it as well, although they mentioned I should get a replacement.

Chain Oiler

Another cheap but very good option: the Loobman chain oiler (£18 inc postage). I picked it up in London from the guy who makes them (a London motorbike courier rider). The system feeds through gravity and works with anything from engine oil to olive oil. A good squeeze on the oil container bottle prior to setting off – sorted. At 4-5x the price "Scottoilers" might look more professional, but I heard it can be a problem to adjust the correct oil flow. Whenever possible, I try to fill up with some ATF (Automatic Transmission Fluid for cars), as it's said to be a good chain oil.
Trip-Update: The chain oiler's been very good, and ATF is readily available everywhere. Only downside of the Loobman: the cable ties (which act as leads for the lubricant) need replacing every now & then. They're standard size and I always carry some spare ones with me anyway.
Whilst cleaning the bike in East Timor (for Australian Quarantine Inspection), I threw the Loobman away. Once I've got some bucks spare, I'll upgrade to a Scott Oiler for convenience.

Aluminium front sprocket cover, Rallye foot-pegs, Engine crash guard

Front sprocket cover, foot-pegs, engine crash guard on a BMW F650 GS Dakar motorcycleThe new cover (Touratech) makes it easier to clean the front sprocket, and in case of an extremely worn-out (and snapped) chain it helps to protect the engine housing.
The foot-pegs had been fitted by the previous owner. Overland Solutions added a more stable mounting (the black bit in the photograph), which also protects the brake pedal.

Additional Auxiliary Power Socket

The F650 already comes with a power socket (on the left hand side near the engine). I put an additional one near the dashboard, so I can easily run a cable into the tankbag for charging my mobile phone/camera batteries/AA batteries, or the GPS.

Dry Cell Battery

I replaced the original battery with an 'Odyssey PC310' or 'Hawker' dry cell battery . It provides a higher cranking power, doesn't leak in an off – and it's smaller than the original battery. This leaves some extra space underneath the battery, to carry some spares such as brake pads. Cheapest supplier I could find in the UK were "Knight Batteries".
Trip-Update: I've been running the Odyssey/Hawker battery for nearly two years now. Worst conditions so far were in Tajikistan, when a combination of cold temperature and bad engine oil (fake 'Shell Super Helix' made in China) 'glued up' the clutch and the engine wouldn't turn over for quite a while. No problem for the battery.

F650 Brake Cylinder Protection
Brake Cylinder Protection on a BMW F650 GS Dakar motorcycle

The rear brake cylinder is fairly exposed, so I made up a protector from a 3mm aluminium sheet & bent it so it fits snuggly and doesn't touch the right foot's heel. The protector simply screws on top of the brake cylinder (using the original bolts).
(A friend told me afterwards that the brake cyclinder from one of the bigger BMW bikes (1150 or 1200 GS I think) is very cheap & fits perfectly).