The BMW Performance Center in South Carolina is a magical place for motor enthusiasts. It’s a sprawling campus where drivers can improve proficiency on road tracks, off road courses, skills courses and in the classroom. It’s also a phenomenal place to improve your motorcycling skills too, as the facility dedicates a large portion of its space to two-wheel training.
We had the chance to sample the curriculum of the BMW Performance Center Rider Academy as part of an event with Continental Tire, a single day on course doing both on road and off road drills. Typically, participants will spend an entire day either on road or off road, so getting a taste of both in one day was a unique experience.
For our group, we had a fleet of R 1200 GS, F 800 GS and F 700 GS bikes at our disposal, all shod in Continental’s TKC 80 tires. So after a bit of classroom and parking lot introduction, we chose our bikes and were off.
I opted for the F 700 GS because it’s a bike I’ve thought long and hard about owning, but I’d not yet been able to take one for a spin. I’d come to find that the power delivery in the low rpms on the 700 puts you at quite a disadvantage over the R 1200, which pulls like a tractor just off idle, so I got a lot of practice working the clutch. That’s really the only bad thing I can say about it. For technical off road use, something with more torque down low would be nice but it’s a great bike otherwise.
Riders that want to take the Academy for themselves can either bring their own BMW motorcycle or for an additional charge, use one of the bikes on site.
After the morning brief, we headed out to the road course for our first set of drills. These were primarily road safety and slow speed handling exercises. So we did things like weave in and out of cones as slowly as possible, brought the bike to a stop without pulling our feet from the pegs, practiced evasive maneuvers and emergency braking and got quite a bit of time to just turn laps on the small course.
Our instructors, Gary Hardin and Aaron Rankin were professional, insightful, highly skilled and friendly. It was a warm atmosphere, supportive and informative, exactly what you need to learn and improve as a rider.
And as for the 700, it was a blast on the track. It didn’t feel too tall, handled nimbly and without major effort and had decent power delivery in the mid-range.
The TKC 80 tires were particularly surprising. Even though they’re knobby, grip was excellent on track. Turn in and corner exit were smooth, the profile of the tires making for seamless transitions. There was no hint of slippage and you were dragging the pegs well before you ran out of grip. Since it’s a go-kart sized course, we didn’t reach break-neck speeds, but braking hard from third to first gear into a tight, off camber corner was never an issue. I have to imagine you could ride the TKC 80’s a lot harder on track before finding the limit, which is remarkable for a knobby and more than enough for a normal to slightly spirited pace on the road.
The morning drills on track allowed us all to get comfortable on the bikes before heading out to the off-road section, where subtle control and balance became much more critical.
Our first drill mimicked the slow speed maneuvering we did previously out on the road, but this time was staged in a gravel pit, with the cones spread out wide. The task was to stand on the pegs and feel how shifting body weight and focusing on the line ahead makes turning tight corners simpler and more stable. It was a challenging prospect, but as with all the drills we did during the day, once we figured out the inputs and got a good flow, it became much easier. Another nice point about this particular drill, and a few others off road, is that the instructors set up two different courses, one a bit easier for the less experienced and another that was more difficult.
The next obstacle was a man-made rut, complete with long logs on either side that forced you to keep your tires in line to the exit, eliminating any opportunity to bail if things went wrong. So we got up on the pegs, kept our eyes forward and did the best we could to stay loose on the bike. It was a fairly deep rut, so we could easily drop our feet on either side if it felt like we were going to go down.
From there, we rode on to a washboard section that was designed to really bounce the bike as you rolled through. The front and rear would compress and rebound simultaneously, and to top it off it was wet and muddy. The washboard and the mud did a great job affecting the stability of the bike, but again it was all about keeping momentum, staying loose and looking ahead. As with the slow speed maneuvering drill, there were two options to choose from, a shallower version and a deeper version for more experienced riders.
After completing this set, we were led out to portions of the Enduro course BMW have laid out through the surrounding forest. This incorporated a lot of the skills we’d already practiced from tight turns on single track, dealing with ruts and other imperfections in the trail along with some other items we hadn’t encountered like going up and down hills, crossing bridges and dealing with off camber dirt. The staff keeps a close eye on everyone and speeds are low so if you do go down, there’s someone there quick to help you pick the bike up and keep going. This was my favorite part of the entire day, either on road or off. A real scenario where the bike’s prowess off road was able to shine and an opportunity to feel some real confidence in putting the skills we developed in controlled exercises to use. If I got the chance to go back, I’d definitely sign on for a full day off road.
There’s no getting around the fact that these bikes are big and heavy. But as we exited the course on the way to lunch I couldn’t help but be impressed with how maneuverable they were on the trail. Even the F 700, which required a lot of clutch work and higher revs than the 1200, is a fantastic dual sport machine. For really gnarly terrain, I’d still want a more dirt-bike styled bike, but it became crystal clear why BMW have had such success with its GS line among adventure riders. These bikes, in the right hands, are truly capable of doing it all.
Continental’s TKC 80 tires were also phenomenal. They hooked up in the loose stuff, were stable and smooth at slow speeds as well as when the pace got a little higher. These tires on these bikes is an adventurer’s dream as far as I’m concerned, two pieces of equipment that take a beating and don’t do anything but ask for more.
After lunch it was back to the off road course for some body position drills going up and down hills. These were small obstacles, so the exercise wasn’t as taxing as some of the others, but it provided a good chance to focus in on getting your body in the right spot.
On the way back to the road course, we took a route round the outside of the center and came on a deep water route that allowed us to roll through a water obstacle that submerged us up to our shins on the pegs.
Then, back on the tarmac, we practiced more emergency braking. The speeds were low to start but increased with every pass, finishing with us getting up to third gear and close to 60 mph before jamming on the brakes. We also did a pass with ABS turned off to allow us to lock up the rear tire as we came to a stop. It was an eye opening experience, showing just how long it takes to haul the bike down to zero when you’re cruising at near freeway speeds.
We finished the drills with another evasive maneuver and braking drill, simulating coming on a crash or obstacle which we’d need to avoid. There were two directions we could choose to take to avoid the obstacle, so we got the chance to dodge left and right, and the final challenge was to see which way was blocked off by a cone before making our move. As with the emergency braking, we gradually increased speed until we were up into third gear by the end. The technique demonstrated the proper way to brake as hard as possible in a straight line as you approached the obstacle, release the brakes as you swerved, then pull the binders in hard again once back upright to complete the stop.
To finish the day, we got some free time to just turn laps on track. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic day.
The BMW Performance Center is a remarkable place, and our experience there was extremely gratifying. It’s well worth the travel and cost to experience it for yourself.
We’d like to thank Continental Tire and BMW Performance Center for hosting us. We can’t wait to come back!