F650 Power on the Highway

My ’97 BMW F650 will supposedly put out 48 horsepower at 7500 rpm, but in practice I don’t cruise much over 5000 rpm (75 mph in 5th gear). Why? Vibration, engine sound, intuition and fear. Mainly fear.

Significantly, 5000 rpm is the smooth, high-power sweet spot for the F650 Rotax engine.

At 5000 rpm I can go up the hills typically found on the interstate or roll on more power to get past a truck. I can slow down a bit and then speed up without shifting. And the bike will keep it up all day long.

That said, I am usually more comfortable riding around 65 mph at about 4300 rpm. Everything feels more relaxed. I don’t have as much horsepower to work with but it is manageable.

But if I have to slow down to 55 mph for some reason, I will have to down shift to go up a hill or accelerate. At 3600 rpm, the engine isn’t putting out enough power to do those things in high gear. After all, the bike weighs about 430 lbs. and I’m 170 armored up plus about 60 lbs. of luggage. So about 660 lbs. total. And I have a big windshield pushing the air off me.

I do have stock sprockets, so if I changed the front 16 tooth for a 15, I would be running 5000 rpm at 70 mph. That might give me a machine that is better matched to my style of riding.  Some of the guys on the F650 Chain Gang recommend the 15 tooth sprocket. I may try it.

I’m basing my thinking on a recent 6500 mile trip with much of it over 60 mph on a loaded bike.

If you are going to ride the interstate or the high speed two lane roads in the West, especially with a load, the kind of power I get from the F650 is probably a minimum. Otherwise, you will be shifting all day long and constantly reminded that you are on the wrong bike.

Even on the F650, the Road Kings rocket by me, their riders seemingly carefree with their feet stretched way out in front. They look like they’re watching TV.




2018 Trail of Tears

7:30 AM September 15

The F650 and I lined up in Bridgeport, Alabama at the start of the 2018 Trail of Tears Commemorative Ride:



Better shot of the trike in the foreground:



The trike rider:


73rd birthday. He was riding for Native Americans and friends lost in Viet Nam. But it was also “Adventure Before Dementia.” Right on.

More riders behind us. And still more kept joining all along the 220 mile route through Huntsville to Waterloo:


Police with their cruisers manned all the intersections, letting the bikes through. Farmers parked their big equipment at the edges of fields along the route. Local fire trucks turned out.

People in cars, on motorcycles, bicycles, tractors and trucks waved. The police waved. Fire people waved. Old couples waved. Families with young children waved.

Respect for those who sacrificed much more than their share.


By the time the lead motorcycles got to the Cherokee encampment and commemorative powwow at Waterloo, the bikes stretched out for 25 miles.

Staying Dry

On September 10, 2018 I left Gilford, NH on the F650 bound for Alabama. I put on my rain gear west of Hartford, CT just before the patch of blue and green and yellow (yes, yellow heavy rain!) on the radar.

Boot covers, rain pants and jacket. The handlebar muffs and 20″ Clearview windshield were already on the bike.


I could see on the radar that I would have to ride through a band of rain. Couple of hours. No problem.

Except I didn’t realize what was going to happen on the 11th. It doesn’t really show up on the radar, but you can get a dense, foggy mist with the air saturated with water. Not much of it hits the roadway. The road is wet, but there are no standing layers of water on it. No hydroplaning worries. But riding through that wet air will soak you just as much as a light rain. And it lasted most of the day.

I had a bunch of ink-jet printed maps in my tank bag. They were right where the water dripped off my helmet onto the front of my jacket and then onto the bag. Totally ruined. Threw them out. The maps were gone before they were ever used. I didn’t even get into unknown territory.

Quite a bit of other stuff in the tank bag was in plastic bags and was okay.

I had a few new rags to use to clean up things but they got soaked before I could use them. I knew I wouldn’t get them dry so I tossed them. Brand new.

Most of my clothes in the rear bag were in plastic bags and were fine.

My top box will admit water also, so really all three of my storage spaces got wet and only the secondary waterproofing saved things.

The boot covers worked well enough except the soles were slippery on wet pavement (you could drop the bike) and they are a bit awkward to wear into a convenience store to buy something or use the restroom after fueling the bike. But they are cheap, don’t take up much room and will keep your feet dry.


Boot Covers from Amazon. $18

So I learned a few things:

  1. If you don’t want something to get wet, keep it in a plastic bag.
  2. Your feet are the first thing to get soaked. Spray off the front wheel, I guess. Boot covers take care of it.
  3. The bottom of your helmet liner is going to absorb water and you will be  sliding this cold, wet thing over your head when you put the helmet on.
  4. Rain jacket and pants help, but where the water continually hits the fabric, it will saturate and pass some water through.
  5. The Oxford RainSeal Handlebar Muffs help, but some water is still going to get on your gloves or mittens. Enough to eventually soak through.
  6. I think $300 waterproof motorcycle boots would be better in the rain than boot covers. On the other hand, the covers will get you through a little rain just fine.
  7. A good riding suit or pants/jacket set would be ideal for extended travel in the rain.. The fewer separate items to deal with the better.
  8. A couple hours of light rain is one thing, but a whole day or multiple days of rain will get you pretty wet.
  9. The helmet clear outer faceshield gets wet, but you can see fine in the daylight. At night, the light refracts off the droplets and makes it hard to see. Don’t ride at night in the rain.
  10. Use radar to minimize your exposure.
  11. Traffic on the interstate will kick up a spray that will soak you.
  12. You have less traction in the rain, especially on the painted lines.
  13. Carrying extra weight on the bike is more dangerous in the rain.
  14. Run tires that are decent on wet pavement. Less to worry about.
  15. The windshield does generally keep the water off things behind it. The iPhone navigator is okay on the handlebars in a light rain or mist. It’s dry when moving but will get sprinkled on when stopped.
  16. Your face shield will fog up when stopped in cooler weather, but will clear out when moving. Opening the vents will help. You might need to flip it up until you get moving.
  17. How are you going to pay a toll in the rain? My EasyPass didn’t work reliably. In one case there was a bar in front of me that would’t lift until I backed up and took a ticket. Where are you going to put a ticket in the rain?

Face shield will fog when stopped

It’s possible to let the rain get you down, but an alternative attitude is to decide to get really good at it. Solve the problems. Plan better for it. Gear up for it.

And if you own a BMW, there is a de facto expectation that you are a competent rain rider. I don’t know why.




Mid Winter Ride

“Last warm day for a while. Good day for a bike ride,” says my wife, a bonafide connoisseur of weather forecasts. She was raised on a farm with real animals and crops and stuff. The BMW F650 is the closest thing to a tractor we have. So I translate, “Get out on the tractor and do something.”

Could this be a day to go around Lake Winnipesaukee? 65 miles. You betcha. I check the temperature. 40 degrees. No sun. It’s as good as it’s going to get. At noon, the temp is going to start dropping.

First things first, I install my Iron Butt credentials on the bike.


Now I’m ready. I head out on 11A towards Alton Bay and immediately get buffeted by ubiquitous frost heaves. I imagine these conditions all the way around the lake and remember smoother days last summer. I keep going.


Bob Houses on Alton Bay

The frost heaves aren’t that bad everywhere. Before I know it, I’m closing in on Wolfeboro.


Bob houses on Tuftonboro Bay

Riding up north of Wolfeboro, I realize I’m enjoying navigating my way along these bumpy roads. I slow down, stay in third gear more. After all,  I’m on an adventure bike. Good in adverse conditions. There is something satisfying about handling the obstacles.

Bumps, wet areas, patches of sand, clumps of salt, snowmobiles. A car turning and then not turning. An entertaining amount of uncertainty.

A big truck coming the other way salutes with a mighty horn blast!


The Mount Washington cruise ship in winter quarters.

On a previous ride at 45 degrees, my core had become chilled by the time I got to Center Harbor. This time, I had the Gerbing vest and at the Moultonboro Airport, about halfway, I switched it on to 25%. Hadn’t felt any chill until then. With the heat on the second half, I was comfortable all the way around.

IMG_1727 (1)

Bob Houses way out on Center Harbor Bay

Being out here in the winter, a bit cold and damp, I remember gassing up the F650 down on the Merritt Parkway on my Iron Butt run last October. A guy walks over and says, “I was following you. Before I could see what you were riding, I told my wife only BMW riders are out in the cold rain. Sure enough.” He said he owned a BMW F800.


The winter community on Meredith Bay


Let’s Dance!

Iron Butt Association

Who would want to become a member of something called the Iron Butt Association? Especially if you have to ride 1000 documented miles in under 24 hours to qualify for membership.

Well, I submitted my application about three months ago. They said it might take three months to process it. Sure enough. A nice package just came in the mail. I got a backing panel for my license plate, an official certificate, a record of finishers with my name at the top of the list, several decals and patches, a membership number and password, and a nice letter from president Michael Kneebone himself.


On the same day that I rode the BMW F650, 10/15/17, a guy named Andrii Korpusov from Lutsk, Ukraine rode a BMW R1100RT 1008 validated miles to gain membership.

The finishers almost exclusively rode big displacement motorcycles, Harley Davidson Road Kings, Goldwings, big BMW touring machines, Yamaha FJRs, Kawasaki Concours, etc. But a guy named Anastasiya Vinogradskaya from Moskow, Russia finished on a Yamaha 125 on 8/03/17. I was surprised that there weren’t more small displacement rides.

I enjoyed the challenge. It was fun. I was very careful and took most of the 24 hours to complete it. On longer rides, though, I don’t want to be limited by a tight schedule on a relatively naked, lightweight bike. The more epic Iron Butt runs (coast to coast, for example) may best be left to those with a 1200cc engine and a big fairing.

Instead, I think I would enjoy some simple, aimless wandering on the F650 when it gets warmer. But every time I get on the bike, I’ll see that Iron Butt plate holder and think about US Route 1 from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida, or Key West to Prudhoe Bay, or Lubec, Maine to Homer Alaska, or even Alaska to Terra del Fuego like Lois on the Loose.



30 Miles at 20 degrees

Time for my usual lunch outing with a friend. Wait! It’s only 20 degrees out there. It’s 15 miles to his place.

No worries. I have my new Gerbing heated vest. I’ll take the bike.

The F650 hadn’t been started in a while and it had been very cold. Wouldn’t start. My guess is a little condensation in the fuel or in the cylinder. Maybe a coating of frost on the plugs? Don’t know. Eventually I got it going with some starter fluid sprayed near the air intake.

I have left the 20W50 weight oil in it so far this winter, so that didn’t help either. Pretty stiff.

Also, I had to spread some ice melt in order to have some footing to keep the bike upright until I got out of the driveway and onto the pavement.


My $50 vest controller loops over the handlebar. You press the round button to cycle it through OFF(no light), FULL POWER(red), 3/4(blinking red),1/2(green) and 1/4(blinking green). One end connects to an SAE outlet from the battery and the other plugs into the vest.

I used some “8 hour” hand warmers between my outer mittens and the liner mittens. Over the fingers. My thumbs did get cold. Also my knees. Need to do something about the knees.

Well, I’m out there on the bike making my way in traffic. I can almost hear the thoughts, “Wait a second, it’s 20 degrees out there. What is this guy doing?”

“No woman would be so stupid!” Probably accurate.

“That’s out there!” Obviously.

“I knew it! It had to be a Beemer.” Another BMW nut.

“Captain America!” Vague admiration hidden in sarcasm.

Actually, I’m having a good time. It’s an adventure. Why? I’m the only bike in sight for one thing. Never saw another. It’s cold, but I am prepared. Also, there’s that mental magic, “It’s just not as cold on a bike as you would think”.

I don’t know why.

P.S. It turns out 20 degrees was a really warm day. Lately it’s been hovering around zero. Fahrenheit. For the time being, the bike is sitting happily on the battery tender.

Iron Butt 1000

I want one of these license plate holders. I don’t know why.


All I had to do to qualify for membership in the esteemed “Iron Butt” Association (and get my plate holder) was ride from New Hampshire near Lake Winnipesaukee down through Hartford, skirt New York City via I-287 into New Jersey, take I-78 over near Harrisburg, PA and then down 15 to the Sunoco Station on the old Baltimore Pike Road in Gettysburg. Turn around and do the same thing  in reverse. Over 1000 miles in less than 24 hours. Then send a check for $49 plus copies of the ride documentation.

How tough could that be?IronButtSaddleSoreLeg1 copy


I left home at 3:45 am on October 15 and got back at 3:32 am on the 16th, almost one day later. Interstates all the way, cruising at 60-75 mph. Why did it take me so long? Google Maps predicted a little over 8 hours each way. Let’s say 16.5 hours of riding.

The official start and end correspond to the first and last stops for gas, not at my front door. I gassed up first at 4:03 AM on the 15th and then finally at 3:06 AM on the 16th, for a total elapsed time of 23 hours and 3 minutes.

The F650 runs about 6% slower than the Google Maps estimate for cars. That’s an extra hour. I saw the main flow of car traffic doing 80 in a 55 zone, more than once. I didn’t feel safe trying to keep up with that but I also had too much company in the right hand lane in the form of semi’s, pickups towing trailers, RVs and some just inexplicably slow drivers.  I got comfortable passing people doing less than 65.

I refueled 10 times, riding for over two hours and 125-130 miles between fill-ups, plus an extra stop near the end. I averaged about 20 minutes off the bike by the time I refueled, took a photo of the receipt next to the odometer, used the restroom, ate and drank something, switched out clothing and gear, reset the odometer, etc. So maybe 3.5 hours total for stops.

I lost 30 minutes on the first leg due to very poor visibility in the dark, foggy mist. Almost turned around. Fortunately, there was no traffic and I knew that section very well. Probably another 30 minutes total for the rest of the ride for the same reason, off and on. I rode about 11 hours in the dark and there was some misting occasionally. It’s particularly hard to see when lights are hitting beads of moisture on the face shield. I could clear it somewhat by tipping the helmet down into the slipstream.

Another 30 minutes for stop and go traffic from an accident and some single lane construction zones.

I lost another 30 minutes on the way back when Google Maps re-routed me north to avoid I-287 for some reason. I wound up riding about 1040 miles, by Google measurements. My odometer total was 1078 miles.


Final Fill-up




I knew at 60 degrees and little sun the heat was going to slowly drain out of me and after two hours or more I would be too cold to continue. So I got a Gerbing heated vest but I hadn’t gotten a controller and the vest was too hot on straight 12 V so I only used it a little. I will need the controller to keep my core “temperature neutral” while riding for hours in cold weather.

I used my summer armored Revit jacket in Pennsylvania where it was warm and sunny, but wore my three-season Sedici with more layers for the cold, dark northern sections. UnderArmor thermal underwear, of course. I mostly used my summer armored riding gloves although I did use my “Randy” (from A Christmas Story) down mittens with wool mitten liners for the first few hours.

I added some red and white reflective strips on the back of my helmet. Never had any close calls. People could see me.


I rode the venerable BMW classic F650.

I had installed a new chain and sprockets for the trip and those ran fine. The Metzler Tourance tires had about 13,000 miles on them but were still okay, the rear one getting pretty close to minimum tread depth.

Installed an EZ Pass transponder on the back of the windscreen. I went through about 6 toll booths with it during the trip.

I had the USB adapter plugged in to my Battery Tender outlet and a phone holder on the handlebars, but with the mist and the simplicity of the route, I kept the phone on my belt for most of the ride.


Intense riding for distance isn’t my thing. I prefer to meander, take scenic routes, and generally make use of the bike as cheap transportation. But I did want to get a feel for extensive highway riding and I find I am comfortable with it as long as there isn’t too much traffic and the road is good, which precludes going near big cities.

Riding at night is not attractive simply because I can’t see the road well enough, not only for spotting animals, potholes and debris, but also to see the arc of the road way ahead. It’s unsettling at speed when the road begins to curve in a way that was not anticipated.

At one low point on the ride I thought about retiring to a small scooter with my poser’s “World’s Toughest Riders” plate holder. But a day after getting home I started wondering what the next big adventure might be.

Does vacillating between “I’ll never do this again” and “I can’t wait for the next time” mean you have it just about right?


Home at 3:30 AM, but I never got drowsy.