[Last edited December 21, 2013]
I’d rather be riding. But when I’m not riding I spend a good amount of my free time reading about motorcycles. I read informal accounts from fellow enthusiasts in motorcycle forums and blogs. I read specialized “official” articles in magazines, blogs and books. For stories with and about motorcycles, my favorite writer has been Peter Egan and his column “Leanings” that I get monthly on Cycle World (and which have been compiled on his books titled “Leanings”). For official reviews and technical articles about motorcycles one of my favorite writers was English motorcycle journalist Kevin Ash (motorcycle reviews on the Daily Telegraph, technical reviews at the Motorcycle News (MCN), and of course, his many writings in the Ash on Bikes blog).
Just recently I read Kevin Ash’s review of the 2013 Ducati Multistrada on his Ash on Bikes blog. I also read his excellent technical review of the 2013 Multistrada’s Skyhook semi-active suspension. On that technical review he used the official images provided by Ducati and he explained this technological innovation using his engineering background combining it with his excellent rider’s perspective and writing skills. If you read these two articles you get an idea about the dimension of his success as a motorcycle journalist and perhaps why he was universally liked, even if you managed to disagree with his opinion on something. If you already know about him I know I’m preaching to the choir and you know the dimension his passing represents to motorcycle journalism. And how much a loss it is to our riding community! If you have never heard about him until now, and you enjoy reading about motorcycles, check his writings on the Daily Telegraph, on the Motorcycle News (MCN) Techwatch feature, and the Ash on Bikes blog.
So it just happened that Kevin Ash was one of the selected motorcycle journalists and top adventure riders of the world that were flown to the town of George in South Africa for the long awaited water cooled 2013 BMW R1200GS launch. This was meant to be a major event, considering the changes to the motor, including water cooling, a major evolution to this important motorcycle in the adventure riding world.
This was not the first time BMW went to South Africa for a motorcycle launch. As described on a local motorcycle outfit’s website, George is a perfect location for BMW’s event:
[George is] the perfect base from which biking enthusiasts can put the new motorcycle through its paces, providing ready access to a myriad of both tarred and dirt roads. These wind curvaceously through the dusty mountains for an off-road riding experience whereas well-surfaced streets offer the perfect cruising conditions as they dissect the luscious tropical coastal countryside.
The launch was scheduled to start with a presentation of the motorcycles on the weekend of January 19-20. Journalists would ride the machines starting on January 21st. It is common practice on the motorcycle industry to set a location or a track (when is the case for sport bikes), bring a large number of bikes and let motorcycling journalists ride the bike at their own pace. Many of these journalists already know each other and have ridden with one another on previous press launch events.
As was reported to a fellow contributor to the ADVRider forum (www.advrider.com), another British journalist that was on site for the BMW launch in George in South Africa mentioned about the incident:
(…) I’ve been getting more than a little spooked lately at press intros. Or should I say “the journalist GP”. I’ve been at a point of not wanting to click into the mode needed to run with the pack. It’s been invading my confidence and I’ve spent a lot of days thinking “I don’t want to ride this fast on a public road anymore”. I’ve seen them fall before. Kevin was a great guy. Mild mannered, polite, one of the boys. Good at this job, always with a good word. He will be missed.
Kevin was riding the 2013 BMW R1200GS on a gravel road just north of George when the incident occurred. People from the group of riders who arrived at the scene were not able to see anything as the area had already been isolated. As far as I know, Kevin Ash died at the accident. BMW released an official statement indicating that in respect to Ash’s family, details of the incident would not be reported at this time. BMW did the best they could at this point, considering the circumstances, by cancelling the press release of this iconic motorcycle.
Someone from RawHide Adventures was also invited to the BMW event and was reporting his participation on the event on RawHide’s Facebook and on the ADV forum as well. Before the RawHide rider went to South Africa he reported on the forum that he had been explicitly advised to be careful and to ride at his own pace:
You will be riding with people who do this for a living. These folks are right up there with professional racers… They are extremely good at what they do, and know how to ride very, very well. You would be wise to avoid trying to keep up. Check your ego at the door, ride at your own pace and enjoy the experience.
Both these remarks serve as reminders and a lesson for all us: Always check our egos at the door, and we should always ride at our own pace! But having mentioned these thoughts, it should be clear that the circumstances of the incident remain unknown to me as I write this. Therefore, it is not fair for me to speculate the circumstances that lead to the incident, especially at this moment.
Furthermore, we should know that according to accounts from people close to Kevin Ash, he was not the type of guy to have an ego problem, or someone to blame something else for an accident where he was involved. In Kevin Ash’s view a motorcycle rider had to ride taking everything into account, had to be in tune with the surroundings, it was his/her responsibility to ride in a way to avoid incidents, with awareness to road conditions, road surface and what you may find on the road that would affect grip.
Based on these accounts, one could consider Kevin was not on a “Journalist Moto GP” mode or that some similar type of attitude was part of the contributing factors to the incident. Which could be confirmed by this account from German’s Motorrad magazine (www.motorradonline.de), translated to English:
Motorcycle journalist Ash was riding with a group of other British motorcycle journalists on the new BMW R 1200 GS on a straight gravel road. The gravel road was flat, but dusty, so that the riders had to hold a good distance from each other. Ahead of the group there was a BMW guide setting the pace. The group rode to a maximum of 100 km/h, which was perfectly adequate to the road conditions. The accident, as reported by Motorrad-chief editor Gert Thöle happened on the open road, for no apparent reason.
Apparently there were deep ruts on both sides of this flat road and Thöle stated:
Kevin, who was a careful rider, was probably inattentive for a moment, perhaps focused on something about the new bike and may have overlooked ruts that ran left and right of the road, hit them and lost control of the motorcycle.
BMW’s own accident specialists were flown to South Africa, it is clear that Kevin Ash’s bike had overturned. The 53-year-old motorcycle journalist was killed instantly.
Heavy dusty conditions were reported as well, so that may have been a factor on this as well. I will assume something really out of the ordinary caused the incident. At least that is what I want to believe at this point.
Here is more information, this time from the Oudtshoorn Courant, a local as in South Africa, on-line news site:
Known for his enthusiasm and in-depth reporting, The Telegraph motorcycling correspondent, Kevin Ash (53), lost control on the gravel road leading from Willowmore through Baviaanskloof towards Patensie and died after crashing his motorcycle last Tuesday evening. It happened too fast for the motorcyclist behind him to swerve out or stop and he collided with Ash, injuring himself as well. The second rider sustained a dislocated shoulder and minor injuries and was discharged from hospital last Friday. After the accident a team of engineers and technicians from BMW in Germany was flown in to investigate the motorcycle for any mechanical defects, the outcome of the investigation is not yet available.
This sheds some light on reasons why he could have died from an accident where the speeds were not so high. Although it is not confirmed that the description above is accurate or the interaction between the two riders really happened as the Oudtshoorn Courant reported. Alun Davies of Adventure Riding Magazine is possibly the motorcyclist who was riding behind Kevin Ash at the time of the accident.
A potential mechanical defect or design flaw is certainly something that remains on the back of people’s minds. Other journalists that were on the launch wrote about their experiences with this motorcycle and published them on their respective channels. I read several of these reviews. I did not read reports from any of them in which they made a connection between what I will present and quote now and Kevin Ash’s accident.
Four journalists reported a problem with the bike that could characterize a scenario for an unprovoked accident (a Canadian from Canada MotoGuide.com, an Italian from Motociclismo.IT, an American from Motorcycle.Com and an English journalist from Bike Magazine). Below is the account from the American journalist, Kevin Duke of Motorcycle.Com where he reports this problem at 45 mph (72 km/h). The three other journalists reported this happened at higher speeds, one reported it at around 75-85 mph (120-140km/h). Accounts indicate it was related to riding the bike while standing up, bikes that were set up on Enduro Pro mode, with tires for off-road, on straight gravel roads with washboard sections or when encountering a bump on the road or something that disturbed the front wheel.
However, the GS did disappoint me during a casual ride down an open dirt road. I was standing up to get cool air through my riding gear, traveling about 45 mph, when I encountered a washboard section. In an instant and with seemingly no provocation, the bike went into a wild tankslapper that threatened to throw me from the bike. It was a very panicked second before the steering regained its composure.
We can’t yet say for certain this is a problem with the bike, but another journalist reported a similar experience when he was riding while standing. This is quite unexpected considering the chassis geometry is essentially unchanged from the previous model, plus there were no stability issues whatsoever during high-speed road riding.
Here is the account from Bike Magazine:
The only unpleasant shock during the whole 280-mile ride is a tankslapper so violent it snaps the lockstops off the frame. BMW chassis engineers seemed shocked to hear of it, claiming they never experienced anything of the sort in five long years and one million kilometers of testing. It does seem that I just happen to have stumbled on exactly the wrong combination of speed and road surface at the wrong time. Assuming it really is just a one-off – which, in all fairness, would appear to be the most likely explanation – then the new R1200GS is a remarkable machine.
Again, I did not read anywhere that these journalists connected their incidents with head shakes / tank slappers with what happened to Kevin Ash. And I’m not here establishing a connection or parallel between their reports of head-shakes leading to tank slappers and Kevin Ash’s accident. But I would not have here a complete account of the situation if I did not report these incidents as well. And I did not come across an official analysis of the crash nor heard of the results of the investigation. In other words, everything is possible and multiple reasons could be related to what caused Ash’s death. When I come across the results of the investigation, I will make sure it is posted here.
In the end the specifics will not be relevant in the context of the larger scheme of things, except for the lessons to be drawn from it. What really counts is that the worldwide community of motorcycle riders lost one of our leaders, an excellent journalist, enthusiast and a fellow rider. Someone that was liked by many. One lesson we already know when we learn that probably the most careful of all riders in the event crashed and was killed in the crash, and not at high speeds either, is that it can happen to any of us at any time. We should always be aware of the risks involved in our sport or hobby. Second, there may be a lesson here for the situations for when we ride too close to each other and something happens with the rider in front of us, making the situation more critical if because of close proximity we can’t avoid a crash. Third, well, who knows, these machines are powerful and technologically advanced. There is always something that can go wrong. Finally, we should always ride our own ride. Let us all be careful out there and enjoy our sport!
To end this post, I really like this account from Shawn, the Raw-Hide rider who was in South Africa for the press launch, he sums things up about Kevin Ash very nicely:
I have received a number of questions regarding the tragic death of Motorcycle Journalist Kevin Ash in South Africa, posted on his Facebook account. I did not know him personally, but have come to know that Kevin was a well known and loved member of the motorcycle industry. The people close to Kevin have described him as charismatically friendly, witty, and wise. Suffice to say, the feeling of loss is palpable. I am unable to find words that will appropriately describe my heartbreak for Kevin, his friends, colleagues, wife and 3 daughters. I am certain the how’s and why’s in regards to the accident are forthcoming. In the meantime, please raise a glass in homage to a great man. He will be missed.
Good on you Shawn! I didn’t know much about Kevin Ash’s personal life either. Up to now I had only paid attention to what he wrote in his excellent motorcycle reviews and technical reports. Since then I’ve learned Kevin leaves behind a wife and three daughters. I can not imagine their pain, except to think it must be enormous and at this point insurmountable. The best writing about all writings about Kevin Ash was from his older daughter:
He loved his job. But he loved his family more.
In case you are someone from his family or a close friend and you come across this post, I offer here my deepest sympathies to you.
Rest in Peace Kevin Ash.
Edit (December 21, 2013)
I’ve been researching the web, looking for a report from BMW or others regarding conclusions from examining this high profile accident and its causes. I believe such report, if it exists, it will never be available to the public. It was an accident with more than one potential contributing cause, bringing layers of liability, including the important involvement of another rider in the accident. Although a triggering point could be assigned to a technical fault on the motorcycle, even that technical fault could involve more than one issue. And these separate issues could be dependent on a dynamic interaction among themselves and a very particular riding circumstance, potentially difficult to be replicated, making it difficult to be identified as once isolated technical issue.
Irrespective of that, and aside from some evolutionary modifications to the 2013 model, the model year 2014 of the liquid cooled BMW R1200 GS is made available with a set of modifications (from a BMW press release, dated 7/11/2013):
2014 BMW R 1200 GS.
As of model year 2014 the BMW R 1200 GS will be available with the following altered standard features and options:
- The two modes “Rain” and “Road”, along with ASC as standard.
- New “Pro” mode with three additional riding modes “Dynamic”, “Enduro” and “Enduro Pro”, including harmonised ASC and ABS as an optional extra.
- Dynamic ESA can now be ordered separately, independently of the riding modes.
- The existing five modes are no longer available as an optional extra.
- Steering damper as standard.
- White-coated coil springs with the option Dynamic ESA
- Altered features for the package options “Dynamic Performance”, “Comfort” and “Touring”.
- All options can now be ordered separately except for the on-board computer Pro.
Whether BMW modified the riding modes software and added the steering damper to correct a 2013 R1200GS actual technical problem that could be associated with a steering wobble that could lead to a tank slapper as it has been speculated by some, and experienced by a few, or whether it was to simply quench the perception of a technical problem as has been speculated, we will never know, I suppose.
I tested this motorcycle and thought it is an excellent motorcycle, and that it continues to be the best of the large adventure motorcycles available in the market, a vast improvement from the previous models of this motorcycle, I believe. I did not buy it because I don’t get along with large boxer motors. That personal issue of mine doesn’t preclude me from recognizing how well built this bike is and how great it is for adventure riding. If it weren’t from how boxer motors feel to me, I would certainly buy this motorcycle. And if I bought the 2013 model year, I would install a steering damper, as a just in case safety feature. I would favor the 2014 model which comes with a factory installed steering damper and other software changes that could be critical improvements to this great motorcycle.