California has two seasons – green and brown. Green is short, typically lasting only a couple months after winter rains. Come springtime, the rain stops, and the grass and wildflowers enjoy a brief moment of glory before they wither and lose their color. Brown is dry, dusty, and interminable, usually lasting from spring until after the new year. Brown is also the season of wildfires, which have become more intense and widespread in recent years.
The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the American West’s megadrought – now in its 22nd year – is the driest in 1,200 years. The last time it was this dry was in the early Middle Ages, only a few hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Here in California, the only appreciable amount of precipitation within the past year fell in December, after which the spigot simply turned off. Warm, dry conditions in January and February encouraged green shoots of grass to emerge and wildflowers to bloom earlier than usual.
After eight or nine months of brown, it’s uplifting to see hillsides and fields carpeted with bright green vegetation. Last year was so dry that nothing turned green, so the brown season lasted for the better part of two years. When the green season arrived last year, I knew I had to take advantage of it.
Since its debut in late 2020, BMW’s R 18 lineup has grown to include four models: the R 18 cruiser; the R 18 Classic, which adds a windshield, saddlebags, a passenger seat, cruise control, and driving lights; the R 18 B bagger, which has a handlebar-mounted fairing and hard saddlebags; and the R 18 Transcontinental full-dress tourer. The Classic is the only model we haven’t tested, and it was the perfect choice for a leisurely cruise north through the green hills of California’s Central Coast.
Getting into and loading/unloading the Classic’s 15.5-liter saddlebags is easy thanks to quick-release buckles for the straps and form-fitting drop-in liners, which are open-top tote bags with carry-handles as well as snaps to secure them inside the saddlebags. For those who sometimes prefer a minimalist look, the saddlebags, small passenger seat, and windshield are removeable.
The day before my ride, an erratic winter storm dusted the mountains with snow but brought no rain. On the morning of my departure, it was a frosty 39 degrees, so I dressed in multiple layers and switched the Classic’s heated grips to high. With photographer Kevin Wing in my rearview mirrors aboard our Yamaha Tracer 9 GT long-term test bike, we cruised north on U.S. Route 101 along the coast from Ventura to Santa Barbara. The Classic’s small windshield parts the air smoothly around the rider’s head and torso, but the rider’s hands and lower body remain exposed.
Rush-hour traffic compounded by highway construction motivated us to turn inland and try our luck on State Route 192 through well-to-do residential areas nestled in the foothills of the coast-facing Santa Ynez Mountains. We finally escaped the soccer moms and work trucks on State Route 154, a scenic byway that follows an old stagecoach route up and over San Marcos Pass. We took a break to warm up at Cold Spring Tavern, a former stagecoach relay station that dates back to 1865. Though too early for lunch, it’s a favorite spot for delicious tri-tip sandwiches, chili, and other fare. The rustic stone tavern holds special memories for me. Kevin and I ate there before my very first photo shoot – on a Buell XB12XT – back in 2008.
Strong as an Oak
After crossing the Santa Ynez Valley, we reconnected with U.S. 101 and continued north, riding through the rolling hills of Santa Barbara County’s wine country. The grapevines were still bare, but grass grew between the evenly spaced rows – sometimes kept in check by grazing sheep – and gnarled California oaks stood like giant sentries.
All R 18 models are built on BMW’s Big Boxer platform, with an air-cooled 1,802cc opposed flat-Twin mounted within a tubular-steel double-cradle frame. When we tested the standard R 18, it sent 80 horsepower and 109 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheel on Jett Tuning’s dyno, with all that grunt working through a 6-speed transmission mated to a single-plate dry slipper clutch and shaft final drive. Like many heavyweight cruisers, the clutch requires a firm pull (both levers are adjustable for reach). My boot didn’t easily fit under the shift lever, so for upshifts I used the heel shifter.
Throttle-by-wire enables three ride modes – Rock, Roll, and Rain – that alter throttle response, idle character, engine-drag torque control, and traction-control intervention. As the mode names imply, Rock offers more assertive throttle response and a lumpier feel at idle, whereas Roll is more relaxed, and Rain dials things back even further for sketchy conditions.
The R 18 Classic is a long machine, stretching 68 inches between the axles. Add in lazy rake and long trail figures, and the result is a motorcycle that’s happier on straight roads than tight curves. The wide pullback handlebar provides plenty of steering leverage, and the Classic is stable and obedient, but limited cornering clearance and a rear shock with 3.5 inches of firmly damped travel necessitate a modest pace on backroads. Broken, patched, and potholed pavement can be jarring.
After warming up with hot coffee and stuffing ourselves with giant burritos at a Mexican restaurant off State Route 1 near Morro Bay, we wound along Old Creek Road, passing Whale Rock Reservoir and groves of avocado trees before climbing out of a tight canyon and riding through ranchland. Crossing State Route 41, the narrow byway becomes Santa Rosa Creek Road, a narrow, neglected 16-mile stretch of pavement that’s perfect for a BMW GS but a rough ride on the Classic. The road cuts through more ranchland and follows its namesake creek toward the coast.
We spent the night in Cambria, a charming seaside village that’s one of the last places to find food or lodging before riding Route 1 north to Big Sur. Our home for the night was the Bluebird Inn, which for many years was a gathering place for Rider staffers and contributors during the annual summer pilgrimage up to Laguna Seca for the Superbike races. Back then, the Bluebird was owned by the Cooper family, and they’d provide a cooler of beer and snacks for our motley crew. We’d share laughs and stories on the Bluebird’s shaded patio before walking to dinner. The Coopers retired a few years ago, but the family that bought the place has retained the motel’s cozy vibe and friendly atmosphere.
Don’t Feed the Elephant Seals
Kevin and I woke up dark and early to find the seats of our bikes covered in frost. There was no coffee in our rooms, and nothing in Cambria opened until 7 a.m., so we grumbled as we quietly started the bikes and rode north to a parking area right on the coast for some sunrise photos. As we polished the BMW’s chrome and positioned the bike just so, we heard the distinctive barking and fart-like noises of elephant seals.
We walked a few yards to a small bluff to find a pair of juvenile male seals fighting each other on the beach. With no females nearby, this was merely practice for when the males got older and would need to fight full-grown alpha males – which can be up to 16 feet long and weigh 5,000 lbs – to compete for mates.
A little further north, within sight of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse, is a dedicated parking area and elevated boardwalk where visitors can view an elephant seal haul-out area. A population of 25,000 elephant seals gathers at various times of the year along an eight-mile stretch of coast. Pups are born in December and January, and in the early months of the year you can see enormous alphas protecting their harem and exhausted mothers feeding their black-furred pups. The adults go months without food or water while on land during breeding season, so mostly they just lie about like giant sausages on the beach.
Backroads & Byways
California Route 1 is world famous, and for good reason. It hugs the rugged coast for hundreds of miles, and the section from San Simeon up to Big Sur and Monterey is as beautiful and challenging as roads get. But in the shadows of well-known scenic roads are hidden gems like Santa Rosa Creek Road.
As we headed south, past the iconic Morro Rock, we left Route 1 and took South Bay Boulevard past the marshy Morro Bay Estuary, and then Turri Road along Los Osos Creek and through rolling ranchland. My favorite road in the area, which I discovered just a few years ago, is Prefumo Canyon Road. It climbs up and over the northern side of the coastal range, briefly turns to hard-packed dirt as it winds through a tunnel of trees, and then becomes See Canyon Road, which twists its way among apple farms and vineyards. It ends at San Luis Bay Road, which soon connects to Avila Beach Road for a short ride to Port San Luis, where an old wooden pier juts into San Luis Obispo Bay.
This ride was about visiting old favorite backroads and byways, and refamiliarizing ourselves with newer ones. You can find our route on REVER in the Rider Magazine Community. Download the free app or visit rever.co.
Chrome & Pinstripes
Our 2021 R 18 Classic test bike is outfitted with a few extras. It has the First Edition Package ($2,150), which includes Black Storm Metallic paint with white pinstripes and chrome-plated levers, covers, fittings, and calipers. It has the Premium Package ($1,450), which includes BMW’s Adaptive Headlight, Headlight Pro, Reverse Assist, and Hill Start Control. And it has the Select Package ($225), which adds heated grips, a locking fuel filler cap, and an anti-theft alarm.
Instrumentation is limited to a single gauge that includes an analog speedometer and an inset LCD, which displays ride mode, gear position, and an info screen that can be scrolled through various functions: tachometer, tripmeters, odometer, voltmeter, fuel economy, average speed, clock, and date. A touring bike in this price range should also provide fuel level and ambient temperature. We averaged 38 mpg from the 4.2-gallon tank, for a range of about 160 miles. The low-fuel light comes on with one gallon remaining.
End of the Road
Two full days in the saddle gave me an appreciation for what the R 18 Classic offers. Its traditional styling, especially the black-and-white-pinstripes First Edition version inspired by BMW’s 1930s-era R 5, fits well within the expectations of many heavyweight cruiser buyers. But with the opposed cylinders of its Big Boxer jutting out to the sides, the R 18 does not conform to the usual V-Twin formula.
The engine has the right sound and feel, and it produces plenty of low-end torque, but the cylinders create a barrier that prevents riders from stretching out their legs. On long rides, there’s limited space for changing hip and knee angle. Due to the placement of the heel-toe shifter, brake pedal, and dual exhaust pipes, the small footboards are also somewhat cramped (at least for size-11 boots). The firm seat is supportive, but there isn’t much room to move around.
Beneath the R 18 Classic’s throwback aesthetic is a fully modern motorcycle with ride modes, cruise control, linked ABS, traction control, and other electronic rider aids. The rhythmic lope of its big Twin, especially in Roll mode, encourages a relaxed, unhurried pace, to slow down and appreciate the view. Enjoy the season of green – and the ride – while you can.
2021 BMW R 18 Classic Specs
Base Price: $19,495 ($18,995 in 2022)
Price as Tested: $23,320 (First Edition Package, Premium Package, Select Package)
Warranty: 3 yrs., 36,000 miles
Type: Air-/oil-cooled, longitudinal opposed flat-Twin, OHV w/ 4 valves per cyl.
Displacement: 1,802cc (110ci)
Bore x Stroke: 107.1 x 100.0mm
Compression Ratio: 9.6:1
Valve Insp. Interval: 6,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: BMS-O EFI w/ 48mm throttle body
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 4.2 qt cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, hydraulically actuated single-plate dry slipper clutch
Final Drive: Shaft
Frame: Tubular-steel double cradle w/ tubular-steel double-sided swingarm
Wheelbase: 68.1 in.
Rake/Trail: 32.7 degrees/5.9 in.
Seat Height: 28.0 in.
Suspension, Front: 49mm telescopic fork, no adj., 4.7 in. travel
Rear: Single cantilever shock, adj. for spring preload, 3.5 in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 300mm discs w/ 4-piston opposed calipers & ABS
Rear: Single 300mm disc w/ 4-piston opposed caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Spoked, 3.0 x 16 in.
Rear: Spoked, 5.0 x 16 in.
Tires, Front: Tube-type, 130/90-B16
Rear: Tube-type, 180/65-B16
Wet Weight: 805 lbs.
Load Capacity: 430 lbs.
GVWR: 1,235 lbs.
Horsepower: 80 hp @ 4,500 rpm (2021 R 18, rear-wheel dyno)
Torque: 109 lb-ft @ 2,900 rpm (2021 R 18, rear-wheel dyno)
Fuel Capacity: 4.2 gals.
Fuel Consumption: 38 mpg
Estimated Range: 160 miles