Last week, Motorcyclist joked that we were going to need a helicopter to get the Ural Wes crashed out of the mountains. We’re not Motorcyclist, so I headed back to the mountains on Tuesday lugging my trusty tool chest and a few parts that Ural sent over. I wasn’t sure if the parts would fix everything, but I was hell bent that I wasn’t going home unless it was aboard a Russian sidecar. Here’s the story of how I saved Hell for Leather’s reputation (and Wes’s ass) and got the Ural out of the mountains.
Photos: Sean MacDonald
Wes crashed 18 miles from the off-road camp, which itself was at least 120 miles from home. One look at the Ural was all it took to know it wasn’t rideable. A motorcycle has no problem fitting in a truck, but our truck already had two and a 900 lb Russian sidecar isn’t really a motorcycle. And besides, there was a broken arm that needed attention. I hopped on and limped it 1/4 mile down the road to a safe, out of the way, spot where I hoped it would stay until a rescue mission could be launched.
As we headed back to camp two-up on the Yamaha WR250R, I started the mental checklist of what I needed to do to fix things (Wes and I prefer mostly quiet spooning). I was certainly going to need a Ural leading-link front end, a willing and able friend with a truck, some tools (I could do it all with the factory tool kit, but real tools would make the job much quicker) and a jack (though a big log could work). Once Wes was handled, I’d go back, fix it and ride home. With the experience and mechanic skillset necessary to deal with the situation, blowing a few hundred dollars on a flat-bed to bring the Ural home just seemed wrong. The thing has a tool roll and camo paint! Being a pussy isn’t an option.
Tracking down the parts
You can’t just walk into your local Ural dealership and pick up a front end. First, Urals are more rare than limited edition MV Agustas. Second, [REDACTED NAME OF DEALER] and the last time we stopped in there the good ol’ boys inside actually threatened Wes with violence (“…if he doesn’t get off his fuckin’ high-horse, I’m gonna go out there and put him underneath that bike…”). The pirates would have lost the fight, but they’re the kind of openly racist (“…if he keeps talking to me like I’m his nigger, he’s gonna find out I ain’t!”), young-person hating (“I’ve been riding Triumphs since before he was born!”) people I never want to see again if I can avoid it. Instead, I email Ural directly, explain that there has been a minor incident and I need some parts. Ural’s tech Jason wastes no time getting a front end delivered to my door.
Getting back to the mountains
Parts in hand, my next task is pinning down the truck and the buddy. Wes is out of the question. His arm splinted and in a sling means that any truck would have to be an automatic, a rarity among our friends, and he’s also incredibly busy with work on account of his sad, slow typing. After a long go-round of brainstorming possible options, Wes and I land upon Josh. Josh, we agree, would be a perfect candidate. Turns out we aren’t talking about the same Josh. The correct Josh, as Wes informs me after the fact, works as a mechanic for Piaggio USA and is an off-road nut, and would have been a supremely good option in this case. But Josh Siler is a friend of ours and I have his contact info on Facebook, so he gets my call. Even though he couldn’t tag along for the adventure, he’s nice enough to lend us his truck. Awesome. Parts and truck sorted, Sean MacDonald generously gives up his day to go along with me, document the rescue mission, and drive the truck home while I head back on the (fingers crossed) fixed Ural.
We get on the road (but not as early as planned; I think we both stayed up too late the night before) and before we even make it 10 miles I realize I’ve forgotten my jack. We pull over, call Wes for advice, he suggests we check to see that the truck still has its factory supplied bottle jack and, finding it does, keep going. We get into Arrowbear around 12 noon, eat greasy diner food and then hold our breath as we make our way down the dirt roads to where the sidecar was left over a week prior. Miraculously, it’s still right where it was left and it hasn’t even been vandalized.
Assessing the damage
When Wes first crashed, I was more worried about his injuries than the bike. He’d told me stories of Urals’ ruggedness, even going as far as to say that Grant once rolled one into a ditch at 35mph, pushed it back over and kept on going as if nothing had ever happened. Unfortunately, Wes proved that Urals do not possess magical super-strength. They’re made out of steel and aluminum just like everything else and when you crash one, it is probably going to break and bend. I only had a split second to look at the damage before taking Wes to get medical attention. Our particular Ural Gear-Up obviously had a severely bent fork assembly so I brought those pieces back with me. But there are a laundry list of things I don’t catch until I’m back to wrench on the bike: the bent side-car drive-shaft, bent bars and at least one bent triple clamp. This is when I gave up, left the Ural for dead, drove back home in the truck and called the flat-bed.
Just kidding. This would be a lame story if I wasn’t determined to ride home on the thing. The triple clamps are only slightly bent, which is good because I wasn’t about to play with steering head bearings and grease out in the dirt. The bars I could live with and, for all I know, I could have bent them trying to muscle the bike around before Wes even got on it. The drive-shaft is the only worrisome part. I check out the beefy U-joints and the cage protecting my leg and ankle if it were to break before deciding that I would do my best to ignore it and deal with that later. Once I’m confident that I have enough stuff to make it rideable I get to work.
Commence Operation Ural Repair
The first order of business is getting setup in a good place. I choose the hard-packed dirt on the widest part of the road, hoping that I’ll be able to to find washers and tools when I drop them. I find a suitable piece of wood to cushion the motor, grab the jack from the truck and start cranking to get the front end in the air. If you plan on trying this yourself on your own broken Ural in the dirt, it’s important to note that the bike should be in gear and the real wheel secured with a large rock. Nothing bad happens if it falls off the jack while you’re raising it up, but it sure is frustrating. My plan for the front suspension repair is to remove the wheel, then the fender and finally the entire suspension assembly. However, the front axle has a reverse thread cut in it and only gets tighter if you turn it counter-clockwise. Things don’t get any easier after this.
After unsuccessfully beating on things with a hammer (that’s where all good mechanics start, right?) I decide that it’s time to try things the hard way. The axle is already loose at this point, but because the suspension is so bent, it refuses to come out. First to come off is the brake and brake arm, then the U-shaped lower link. I carry it back to the truck and then go back for the shocks, remove the six 5mm bolts that hold the fender on, note the fact that the suspension was bent badly enough that it contacted the motor and marvel at the fact that the frame (probably) managed to stay straight.
At this point it looks like actual work has been done on the bike. Most of the front end is disassembled and all that is left are the two boomerang shaped stanchions and fender. These are held on by pinch bolts on the lower triple clamp, and by a taper and large bolt on upper clamp. My plan is to loosen the pinch bolts, jam a flat-head screwdriver in the gap (to release any pressure), loosen the huge upper bolts and whack them with a rubber hammer. In theory, the stanchions should drop out without a hitch. In practice, everything is so bent up that it takes about 40 minutes worth of beating and wrestling to get them out.
I know better than to try installing the new front end fully assembled, so apart it comes and it goes in the same way the old one came out: in pieces. I figure out that one of the triple clamps is bent when I can’t get both stanchions to slide in smoothly. No worries, they’re just bent steel tubes and a little force isn’t going to break them. Hammer, wrestle, hammer, wrestle. Phew. I get close enough to use the bolts to pull them through the rest of the way. Next up: beating them into alignment so that I can install the U-shaped lower link. Just a few taps and it slides into place. Add the shocks, then the fender and brake bracket and it’s starting to look like a crazy World War II contraption again.
Now all that’s left to do is install the front wheel and brake caliper. This part should be incredibly easy. Unfortunately, the wheel is still attached to the old U-link and it’s sitting in the bed of the truck. MacDonald pitches in with some twisting, pulling and hammering and we finally get the axle out. Ok, put the wheel on the bike. Wait. Fuck. Shit. Crap. The axle threads are pretty nasty looking. All that pounding from earlier did a number on them. It’s time to sit and stroke my beard for a minute while I consider my options.
Unfortunately, I can find no alternative. I use a sharpened screwdriver (because everyone has one of those laying around in their tool box) to clean the threads up a little and in it goes. My plan was to do things real smooth and cool. No fast movements, no hammers. Just slow, smooth and forceful. Breathe in, breathe out. Remember to turn it the wrong way to tighten. Somehow, the threads straighten themselves out and disaster is avoided. Bolt the brake on, drop the bike off the jack and I’m done.
Almost. There’s a gigantic mess to clean up. MacDonald springs into action and the tools are picked up in less than 5 minutes. I was so excited I did a helmet-less brake-slide. We drop the toolbox in the sidecar (I figure the added weight certainly can’t hurt), strap it in, gear up and we’re off. The Ural doesn’t drive straight, but it didn’t before either. It handles pretty well with all that weight in the sidecar though. To go left, come in way too hot, roll off, slide and then roll back on to straighten out. To go right, pick a nice, wide arcing line, come in slow and then roll open to full-throttle to get the rig sliding. It slides better going right and with more control, but if you get it wrong, the stakes are pretty high. If you get a left hander wrong, you just slide to a stop and look like an idiot. Back on pavement, the handling is more of the same, just scarier. I make it safely to a gas station, then text Wes a photo of the running sidecar.
On the rode home
Gas up, apply chapstick to crusty burnt up lips, drink a liter of water and get on the road. The ride down 330 is fun and makes me wonder how expensive it is to keep tires on these things. All systems appear to be working well. Hop on the 210, accelerate to top speed (between 75-90 depending on wind, hills and the shape of the car I’m drafting), settle down and start paying attention to anything strange the bike is doing. This is when I remember the bent drive-shaft. Ural builds an authentic old-school machine that rattles and vibrates, but not usually this much. I decide that I’ll just ignore it and it’ll probably stay together at least until I’m home. Afterall drive-shaft is already bent, and the U-joints look like they can take the abuse. An hour later, top speed starts to drop off to 65 mph or so. Bad sign. The last time this happened is when I rode it home from Boss Hogg with a dragging sidecar brake and the outside wheel started locking up on the freeway.
I’m pretty sure that the speed drop off is resulting from something drive-shaft related, so I stop for gas and decide to check things out. The drive-shaft hasn’t straightened itself, but it’s also not any worse. The diff (that’s basically what it is) is leaking slightly from the drain plug, but so is the motor from four different places. I let it sit for 15 minutes, then touch it. Ouch. Still too hot to touch. That’s a bad sign. I text Wes and Ashlee to let them know what’s going on and twiddle my thumbs while I wait for boiling oil to cool off. Thirty minutes are used for the pit stop, then it’s back on the 210. The regular top speed has come back and traffic is light.
The sun sets and I realize that the headlight is aimed at the moon. No big deal, it’s just a round single light mounted with one bolt and some rubber pads on either side. I’ll just reach up there and pull it down. Bike dies. I almost panic before realizing that my left arm turned the key as I was reaching up to pull on the light. Turn the key, bike comes back to life, and I try for the headlight again. If adjusting your mirrors while driving is illegal, what I’m attempting to do would probably be grounds for arrest. Holding the throttle wide open to avoid getting run-down on the 105, while holding the bike straight with the same hand, I yank the headlight into place. It takes a few tries, but once there, vision through my dark shield is much better.
Now it’s just a few more miles down the 105, hang a right at the 405, three miles and I’m home. I arrange the bikes to make room for the rescued Ural and shoot a photo of it safe and sound back in the garage before hauling myself up the stairs to pass out. Job done.