2024 will mark the 20th anniversary of perhaps the most iconic tale of motorcycle adventure to reach our TV screens. For in 2004 two actors, both riding a BMW R1150GS Adventure set out from London to reach New York, via The Long Way Round. They went over land, east to west. An epic trip, spanning much of Russia, Mongolia, Alaska.
Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Other One
One was Ewan McGreggor, a world-famous Scottish Hollywood ‘A’ list celebrity of ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Star Wars’ fame. The other Charlie Boorman, a much lesser-known English bit part actor. They had met on the set of a film production some years earlier and became friends through a shared passion for motorcycles.
Charlie Boorman at the Festival of Speed in 2005
Many of us enjoyed the TV series and book that accompanied this adventure and another they subsequently undertook together. There was a lot of chat on various forums (remember those?), that they enjoyed more logistical support than the D-Day landings. But at the end of the day, I found it enjoyable viewing. They have ridden the notorious ‘Road-of-Bones’ and I haven’t, so fair play to them.
Famously KTM turned them down a request to supply bikes for the trip. They were their first preference. They felt the comparatively light, tough and well suspended machines would be perfect for the trip. In the end BMW stepped in with a matching pair of R1150GS Adventures. OK they are somewhat portly in comparison with the lithe Austrian offering, but they are sturdy old tubs. They would need to be…
Massive Sales Boost
In the years that have followed since the show was aired, sales of the GS spec R series BMW have mushroomed. To such an extent that often top the sales charts in many countries. They have spawned a mass of similar bikes from rival brands. The ‘Ewan & Charlie Effect’ has been credited with this explosion of the genre. Many magazine articles have sniggered at ‘Ewan & Charlie wannabies’ in their full-gear riding a fully tricked out GS-Adventure. Then only riding as far as the local golf club. I’ve done it myself.
This is the crux of the argument. The accepted narrative is that the this explosion in sales is a direct result of their adventures and the exposure it granted BMW. But does this do a dis-service to BMW and the GS range? Did they in fact just have the right bike on the market just as the demographic of bikers shifted?
The old model of a spotty 16-year-old first buying a moped and then coming through the ranks of 250,550,750, 1000cc bikes etc before rounding it off with the latest mega sorts-bike such as a R1, is no more. A fraction of numbers that used to are coming into biking as youngsters.
We have aged as a group. Both the nature of the riding we undertake and the speeds we ride has changed. We go out less often but love a tour and our pace has dropped. We literally want to take it in and smell the coffee. Before you all scream at me, about you being a 60 year old, riding a Gixxer and you can still go like you’re in MotoGP: I am talking as a general sweep here. Look about on a bike trip or at a café. Lines of adventure bikes (and retro-nakeds), and just the odd sports-bike. Grey haired owners nearby sipping coffee at a handy cafe. Virtually nobody uses a bike for day-to-day transport anymore either.
The GS (and it’s RS and R cousins) are perfectly placed to surf this wave of creaking aging bikers. Hence it became the best-selling large capacity bike range across Europe. Seeing these sales numbers has prompted rivals to launch their take on the theme. The Tenere, The VStrom, The Tiger, Stelvio, Multistrada and Tracer to name but a few. The rejected KTM range is thriving too.
So while Ewan and Charlie did sales no harm, I do wonder if they are truly the start of it all. In fact have they actually undermined it slightly? It can be seen to be uncool to be seen on a GS, but if you ride a KTM you’re somehow more on the edge. Or if your ride a Multistrada you are saying ‘I am quick-rider, I just need to take some kit ok?’
Perhaps it sold well because its the right bike at the right time?
So there you go, We’re just getting older and slower. The GS is in reality, a sophisticated Zimmer frame…You heard it here first!
Words and Pictures: Tony Donnelly