You don’t need a touring bike to travel. Robert M. Pirsig did his legendary 17-day, Minnesota-to-California journey, carrying his son and an inordinate amount of cargo, on a 28-horsepower Honda CB77, which is credited as the company’s first sportbike. When I threw a leg over the BMW R nineT Pure and fired it up, my first thought was, “Let’s go!” Something about it made me just want to hit the road, so I loaded some soft luggage with essentials, strapped on a lightweight tent and off I went. Nothing grand or epic, just a solo escape for a couple days.
Many of us believe a motorcycle ride is more about the journey than the destination—in part because the notion applies more generally to a life well lived—but how often do we set out without knowing where we’re going? As a compulsive planner, I always have a destination in mind, and this trip was no exception. I headed north, toward a secret camping spot high on a ridge overlooking the Pacific. But several hours into my ride I found out that, due to landslides, California’s Highway 1 was closed south of my planned turn off, forcing me to reevaluate my priorities. First I backtracked, then I just ambled, poking my front wheel down roads that had always piqued my curiosity when I was too busy going other places to explore them.
Turning the R nineT’s driveshaft is the air/oil-cooled version of BMW’s iconic boxer twin, not the newer, fancier water-cooled one, and its styling is unabashedly retro. The model you see here, a stripped-down variant called the Pure, is less flashy—and $3,400 less expensive—than the original. It swaps the aluminum tank for a steel one (better for magnetic bags, though capacity is down 0.3-gallon), comes with cast wheels (my preference over the optional spoked ones on our test bike, which cost $500 and require tubes), and rides on a conventional telescopic fork (rather than the upside-down unit on the standard model). To achieve a base price of $11,995—making the Pure the least expensive boxer in BMW’s lineup—other cost-saving measures include a single gauge atop the triple clamp, a 2-into-1 exhaust, a less modular frame, ring-and-locknut preload adjustment for the rear shock and just one color option: non-metallic Catalano-Grey on the tank and front fender.
Press the starter and the Pure’s perfectly tuned exhaust emits an edgy bark before settling into a rumbling burble, a resonant sound that soothes me like a mother’s heartbeat soothes a baby. The thrum of the opposed twin was a constant companion, a mechanical vibration connecting me to the 90-plus years of BMW Motorrad history the R nineT was designed to honor. I’m not a vintage bike enthusiast—the fewer carburetors in my life, the better—but I love today’s “neo retro” machines that blend classic styling with modern engineering. The Pure has throttle-by-wire, switchable ABS and optional traction control, but none of those features interfere with the ride, which feels solid and direct. There’s hardly any plastic on the bike and its single dial, an analog speedo with an inset LCD that provides only basic info, is the very definition of elegant simplicity. There’s nothing to figure out; just get on and ride.
And that’s what I did. I explored. I fell into a rhythm. I went down dead-end roads just to see where they went. Having put thousands of miles on BMW boxers, the Pure’s loping cadence felt familiar and reassuring. My relaxed pace meant that I rarely taxed the Brembo brakes, and windblast never bothered me. With no fairing or windscreen, the Pure puts you in the elements. Chilly coastal air worked its way up the sleeves of my jacket and around my neck; occasionally I’d turn on the optional heated grips to take the edge off. The low seat and high pegs kept my knees sharply bent, and toward the end of each day I grew tired of the small, firm seat. But, as Pirsig wrote, “If the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much.”
Mr. Pirsig passed away a few weeks before my ride, inspiring me to reread “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The book was in my tank bag and its ideas drifted in and out of my thoughts during my ride. Pirsig was a dyed-in-the-wool touring rider, someone who appreciated the virtues of traveling down lonely roads, the kind that follow the natural contours of the land, hemmed in by old trees and even older hills and rocks, and that invite contemplation. As he wrote: “You spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them…thinking about things at great leisure and length without being hurried and without feeling you’re losing time.”
I wasn’t hurried, but even on relaxed rides I enjoy blood-pumping bouts of throttle twisting, and the Pure is more than happy to oblige. It putts along amiably at cruising revs, and then, with a quick snap of the wrist, the exhaust erupts with a throaty roar and the bike lunges forward, its Metzeler Roadtec Z8 sport-touring radials digging in. The Pure weighs a modest 488 pounds and, based on our last test of the standard R nineT, it sends 99.5 horsepower to the rear wheel at 7,800 rpm and delivers ample torque—more than 60 lb-ft between 3,200 and 8,300 rpm, peaking at 73 lb-ft at 6,500 rpm. Cranking up the revs, a fair amount of vibration can be felt through the grips and pegs, which seemed to match my adrenaline-quickened pulse. With a wide handlebar, sturdy chassis and firm suspension, the Pure bends into curves obediently and changes direction easily.
After spending the night at a quiet campground, where I got to watch an orange moon rise in the east while sipping whiskey by the fire, I broke camp and wandered south again. It was a bluebird day, perfect for exploring off-the-beaten-path roads. Eventually I ended up back on Highway 1, on the unglamorous stretch between Pismo and Lompoc, which lacks the postcard views California’s coastal highway is known for. It curves gently between RV parks and agricultural fields, and where there are working farms, tacos can’t be far away. Riding into the dusty town of Guadalupe, I was greeted by the meaty aroma of carnitas wafting from several restaurants along the main drag. Like BBQ joints, the best tacos are found in the most low-key places. I put the BMW’s kickstand down in front of El Tapatio, where I was served juicy pork piled high on thick, hand-pressed tortillas by a friendly guy who asked about my ride. Those tacos made it a little better to arrive than to travel.
From the first time I started it until the last mile I rode it, the R nineT Pure reminded me of why I fell in love with motorcycling. It’s not about what brand you ride or a bike’s horsepower or specs. It’s about the freedom to get away, to be out in the world. Pirsig understood that: “You’re in the scene…the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.” When you’re thinking about the ride—the journey, the destination, it doesn’t matter—then you’re not thinking about all of the other stuff that can weigh on us. “Pure” is the perfect name for this bike, a motorcycle in its purest form: a robust engine you can see, feel and hear, a chassis that gets the job done and little else. Where you go and how you get there is up to you.
2017 BMW R nineT Pure Specs
Base Price: $11,995
Price as Tested: $13,145 (spoked wheels, heated grips, ASC)
Warranty: 3 yrs., 36,000 miles
Type: Air/oil-cooled, longitudinal opposed flat twin
Bore x Stroke: 101.0 x 73.0mm
Compression Ratio: 12.0:1
Valve Train: DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: 6,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: Fully sequential EFI, 50mm throttle bodies x 2
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 4.2-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, hydraulically actuated dry clutch
Final Drive: Shaft, 2.9:1
Ignition: Electronic (BMS-MP)
Charging Output: 720 watts max.
Battery: 12V 14AH
Frame: Tubular-steel bridge frame w/ engine as stressed member, Paralever single-sided cast aluminum swingarm
Wheelbase: 58.8 in.
Rake/Trail: 27 degrees/4.1 in.
Seat Height: 31.7 in.
Suspension, Front: 43mm stanchions, no adj., 4.9-in. travel
Rear: Single shock, adj. for spring preload & rebound damping, 4.7-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 320mm floating discs w/ radial-mount opposed 4-piston calipers
Rear: Single 265mm disc w/ floating 2-piston caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Spoked, 3.50 x 17 in. (as tested)
Rear: Spoked, 5.50 x 17 in. (as tested)
Tires, Front: Tube-type, 120/70-ZR17 (as tested)
Rear: Tube-type, 180/55-ZR17 (as tested)
Wet Weight: 488 lbs. (as tested)
Load Capacity: 460 lbs. (as tested)
GVWR: 948 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 4.5 gals., last 0.8 gal. warning light on
MPG: 91 PON min. (low/avg/high) 31.2/36.8/40.4
Estimated Range: 165 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 3,400 (2016 R nineT)
Helmet: Nolan N87
Jacket: Joe Rocket Classic ’92
Pants: Scorpion Covert Pro
Boots: Joe Rocket Meteor FX