Here’s the deal with sidecars

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When you first ride a Ural, it’s likely that you’ll feel equal parts giddy-excitement, fear, confusion and curiosity. Giddy-excitement from the thrill of riding something that goes sideways every time you turn left. Fear caused by steering that changes with each throttle input, gear shift, brake application or bump. Confusion after you realize you’re not going terribly fast. And, once you get used to riding a rig, you’ll be curious as to exactly what they’re good for. In the case of this Gear-Up, it’s going for two things: honest off-road capability with plenty of storage for extended camping and enough charm to make even grumpy middle-aged housewives stop to say “hi.”

Photos: Ashlee Goodwin

The most important thing you have to learn about sidecars is that they’re not just strange motorcycles. They’re also not three-wheeled cars. Or anything else for that matter. The sidecar is the platypus of the wheeled vehicle world. It doesn’t make a lot of sense and everyone stops to say “what’s that?” The addition of a third wheel to the right and slightly ahead of the rear wheel does very strange things to the handling. Instead of using lean angle and counter-steering to turn, you turn the bars in the direction you want to go like you would with a steering wheel. But it’s not like a car. Turn the bars left when accelerating away from a light and the front tire will lose traction as the rear wheel pushes the rig right. Attempt a sharp right turn after closing the throttle and you’ll find yourself trying to balance the rig on two wheels. Sidecars are very strange indeed. The Gear-Up does some things very well, others decently and some things just plain badly.


A cure for motorcycle anxiety
Though just as dangerous as a motorcycle, people who openly admit to being terrified of motorcycles will let you strap them into gear and willingly hop in the sidecar for a ride. It’s still not a motorcycle, but does make a good gateway drug. Neighbors who refuse to make eye contact will go out of their way to ask for a ride. Your passenger, if they’re not petrified by fear, won’t be able to stop grinning. There really isn’t anything in between. If they like it, there’s hope for them yet.

Riding with a passenger actually makes the rig perform better too. An aggressive monkey with a good sense of balance and enough strength to move around is the key to fun on a sidecar. Right turns become fun powerslides with the inside wheel off the ground and tire-smoking bonzai left handers are all too easy.

Looks like a military truck, hauls like one too
After riding a motorcycle everywhere, you’ll be caught off guard by the massive amount of stuff a sidecar can carry. Three days worth of camp gear for three people, off-road gear for two and plenty of room for two or three passengers. The same trunk that is great for camping is also great for hauling groceries, picnics and a spare helmet and jacket for the friend or friendly stranger that will inevitably want to go for a ride.

It’s also unquestionably cooler than that Touratech equipped R1200GS at Trader Joe’s. No way that guy’s girlfriend is getting on the back and carrying her flowers all the way home.

Cruising down the freeway
Down-hill, with a tail-wind and a strong draft from a large SUV, the official indicated top speed is approximately 95mph. At least, that’s the highest the wildly waving speedometer needle reached. On a flat road with no wind and a light load, assuming the alignment is set right and the sidecar brake isn’t dragging, you can hit 80mph. Ural’s 33mpg prediction is also pretty far off; we saw as high as 45mpg with a large load and sustained full-throttle freeway riding. You won’t get anywhere fast, but it’s not bad to put around in.

750 lbs of fun
A two-wheel drive camo sidecar doesn’t belong on the freeway though. It belongs in the dirt. On a fire road with a capable monkey (Ashlee Goodwin, as always), the Gear-Up is shockingly fast. To go left, roll off the throttle and apply some front brake to get things sliding. Once you can see the corner exit, go full throttle to straighten out and add back some of the speed you scrubbed off. On a motorcycle, throttle control is extremely important, but with a weight somewhere around 750lbs before rider, monkey and gear and only 40bhp, it’s best to use the Ural’s as an on/off switch. Besides, wheel-spin looks cool and will help you with your steering.

The original stunt bike
Sidecars are probably where the idea of a circle wheelie came from. With a little practice (and a good sense of balance) you can ride in circles all day long with the chair off the ground. Or go the other way and spin donuts. Use two-wheel drive in the dirt for even more impressive dust clouds.


Fun, but scary
Right turns are where we separate the men from the boys. Set your speed before turn-in or make damn sure you have plenty of run-off. The rig won’t turn right on the brakes; the chair will just lift off the ground. Instead, go in slow, make sure your monkey is as far off as he/she can get, whack the gas open to break the rear wheel sliding and run a smooth arcing line through the corner. Going in hot means you’ll be forced to run wide, any correction means you’ll run wide. This is why Wes crashed it.

Jumps, water-crossings and other bad ideas
There are only two rules you need pay attention to when jumping the rig: 1) make damn sure there’s enough air in the rear tire and 2) be careful of where you put the side wheel. If it’s bounced up higher than the rest of the rig by a large rock or uneven slope, you’re in for a scary landing. If you run the rear tire at less than 20psi, you’ll appreciate the on-board spare wheel and very complete tool roll. The center stand also starts to make sense. You have to remember that what you’re riding is basically a half-century old design. The guy in front of you on the KTM 450 is faster and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Water crossings should be taken as slowly as possible. First, assess whether or not the water is deeper than the air-box. If you think you can make it without drowning the motor, pop the rig into 2-wheel-drive, pick a line and go for it. You’ll have plenty of traction, so if things don’t work out the way you hope, just stop, reverse and try another way. If the water level is higher than the air-box, and you really need to get across, gather as much speed as possible, pull in the clutch and hit the kill switch just before you plunge into the water. You’ll get wet, but you won’t seize the motor (though ice water on hot cylinders can’t possibly be a good thing).


Beware of sidecar stoppies

It’s scary
In traffic, a sidecar performs similarly to a car, but with the feeling of riding a motorcycle. It’s as awkward as it sounds. Every step of the way, you’re reminded that motorcycle controls, motorcycle engine and motorcycle gear do not a motorcycle make. It’s also not a car. It doesn’t lean (unless you’re flying the chair), brake or accelerate very well. Minor traffic annoyances are terrifying in the Ural. Cars turn left and right the same way, you don’t usually have to wear a helmet, they have air conditioning, get terrible gas mileage and require a full parking space. A sidecar is its own beast and it’s impossible to compare it to anything else. Remind yourself that you’re piloting a sidecar and that the sidecar has a big wheel hanging way off to the right. You wouldn’t want to catch it on a car, pole or curb. Wes has a terrible problem with this and is constantly on the verge of running people over or tearing the sidecar completely off.

Solo right turns
Right turns with a passenger are awesome, but without that intelligent movable ballast, it’s a different story. If you think the margin for error while cornering on a bike is slim, a sidecar may not be for you. If you come in too hot for a right hander, that’s it. Game over. You’re running wide or crashing (ask Wes).

There are a few things you need to remember and regularly practice if you’re going to survive right turns. The throttle is your friend. Open it to the stop, fast, to break traction and initiate a slide. You can still fly the chair in a slide, but it won’t get as high or be as likely to tip over. If you come in way to hot and there’s no hope of saving it, you’ll have a second to decide how you’re going to crash. Wes chose wisely, set the chair back down and scrubbed off 25mph before he hit something hard. Your instinct will be to just turn the bars harder. That’s bad. You’ll flip the rig and end up underneath 750lbs of Russian steel. If you can run wide, do that. If you cant, scrub off as much speed as you can before you run into something solid. You may even want to consider bailing out.

So what is the Ural Gear-Up good for, considering all the limitations? It’s almost a car replacement if you live in sunny SoCal, but 100 degree days and traffic are pretty brutal since you can’t lane split. Plus, it can’t be used for the one thing cars are good for: hauling track bikes. It’s definitely not a motorcycle replacement either, though for a passenger it’s more fun to ride in the sidecar than it is to ride pillion on a motorcycle. Where the Ural excels, beyond almost any other vehicle, though is fun. Take it camping. Take it to the store. Be a poser and park it in front of a coffee shop. You’ll have a blast the whole time.

  • randry

    With all the talk of electric bikes, I wonder if/when anyone will put an electric motor out there on the sidecar.

    I wonder what a flat on the sidecar would be like at speed ? On that stoppie the tire looks ready to let loose.

    • Sean Smith

      On the rear wheel, it just feels like a flat in a car. You know instantly what’s wrong. The sidecar brake overheated and locked on the freeway for a second and it was bad, but less scary that I would have guessed.

      • R.Sallee (Ninja 250)

        How’d you overheat the breaks on the freeway?

        • Sean Smith

          The dealership I picked it up from, not the one in Ventura, but a more piratey type shop in Long Beach apparently didn’t check to see that everything worked properly, brake return springs specifically, so it overheated at freeway speed after 18 miles and locked up on the 405 after one application.

          I pressed down on the pedal and they worked fine, but the sidecar brake didn’t release.

          If you wan’t to buy a Ural, please, go to the dealer in Ventura.

  • HammSammich

    I need one of these and a snowmobile suit, so I can commute in the snow…

    • Sean Smith

      Roadcrafter and studded tires on an XR650?

      • HammSammich

        I’ve actually seen a masochist on a Harley with studs around here…Crazy!!! But having never ridden a Sidehack before, I’m glad to have read this, because I had no idea how different they are. I’ll definitely test ride (hopefully extensively) before I commit to buying one…

  • aristurtle

    I love the idea of a rugged, street legal 2wd sidecar rig.

    I just wish there was one on the market that was a little more modern and refined than a slightly spiffied-up World War II design.

  • Rick

    So, not quite exactly on topic, I’m curious what you think of that Nexx X60. I’ve always worn a full face helmet, but often flip the shield up at lower speeds because sometimes I just want some more wind in my face. I’m also always throwing the shield up at stop lights. I hate sitting there with my shield down when I’m not moving.

    • coredump

      Its starting to bother me to see this return to 3/4 helmets. The one place that helmet doesn’t cover on a person’s head is the first place they usually hit in an accident.

      • the (unfortunate) roomate

        now that’s science.

      • Rick

        That’s why I’ve never bought one. On 3 occasions, I’ve tested the effectiveness of my various helmets and the damage incurred was never around the lower face but that probably just means that if I get in another accident, I’ll lose my jaw….

      • HolyHandGrenade!

        Coredump – Here is the best solution for you. Dont buy a 3/4 helmet. Problem solved.

  • jason McCrash

    “So what is the Ural Gear-Up good for”; Rolling through Poland and Russia…… obviously.

    • Gregory

      На Берлин!

  • John

    Entertaining write-up.
    Seems like owning one would be fun.
    Like you said, to the store or coffee shop.
    Hang out, meet people, enjoy yourself.

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1100]

      Sounds like what cruiser owners do.

      • Sean Smith

        It’s the same thing cruiser owners do. Just substitute the pirate look with hipster hitler and the poorly performing motorcycle with something entirely different.

        • John

          Does Ural offer an audio package? You are going to need Benny Hill music for your fast paced goose stepping.

          • Jesse

            I suppose one could fill some of that convenient sidehack trunk with an amp, speakers and an iPod jack.

  • stempere

    I don’t know about owning one, living in the city and all, but that sure looks like fun.

    Regarding “it can’t be used for the one thing cars are good for: hauling track bikes”, Ural can, and should, make it happen. I see those almost everyday in paris…

    • Edward

      That is an awesome picture. Is there a company that makes them or is it a home-brew?

      • stempere

        It’s home made i think, that company also has huge vans that are highly modified to haul as many motorcycles as possible…

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1100]

      Wow, that has awesome written all over it.

    • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1100]
      • jason McCrash

        Hey that’s you? I’ve seen your hack on AdvRider.

        • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1100]

          Nope, not me. I’m nowhere near that crafty!

          • jason McCrash

            Misread it as “my home-made sidecar”. Or maybe that is what I wanted it to read. I’ve seen a few “cargo” hacks on AdvRider, only a couple hauling bikes, but the pics are out there. Cheers for posting it either way!

  • Joe

    I once saw a Goldwing pulling a dirtbike on a trailer. One of the many strange things I saw in Phoenix.

  • Thom

    The problem with this article is you’re basing all your conclusions and evaluations of SideCars based on the review of a design , albeit somewhat updated over the years , that dates from the Thirties

    One ride on a Vincent outfit , which is from the 50′s will show you how dated the Ural in fact really is .

    So how about an up to date Sidecar review , with modern machinery with a modern hack attached ?

    e.g. lets bring things into the 21st century before coming to any conclusions here .

    • jason McCrash

      Now that HD stopped selling hacks Ural is the only factory outfit available in the States. Anything else is something put together on a bike not designed for a sidecar or is a very heavily modified bike with a sidecar added. So it’s an apples to nothing thing as in there isn’t anything else to compare it with as far as I know. Maybe doing a comparison of the 2wd Ural vs the single wheel drive model they offer would be good.
      If you know of another factory sidecar available in the US then I would love a review of it too.

      • Sean Smith

        Single is probably a little faster due to the lack of driveshaft. Other than that, I don’t think there is any difference.

      • Brian

        I know this isn’t a factory side car, but it’s got to be pretty damn close for the prices they are charging.

        I used to drive past this shop on my commute daily. It’s the only place still in business in 2 block stretch of a rough section of town. Looks like they have quite a name for themselves.

        • jason McCrash

          I’ve been researching hacks for a few years and there are still more than a few companies making them and ones like Motorvation will set your bike up with their chair but the thing that I keep coming back to is that you are hanging a chair on a bike that wasn’t purposefully designed for it. That is why there are Earl’s forks kits available (ones like on Urals) to help with handling and to reduce steering effort, subframes for mounting (since all bikes weren’t designed to support the load of a chair on their frame) that weld onto the bikes frame, various formulas for where to place the wheel of the chair in relation to the cycle’s rear wheel and a bunch of other stuff.
          I think most guys have seen a Velorex hung off of some old UJM like a GS or Ascot but if they aren’t set up correctly they are just dangerous. I never thought about any of that until I started reading up on it. I hate to plug AdvRider again, but the hacks section has a TON of info for guys considering adding a chair or looking at a Ural. Plus it’s guys from all over the world so you get a lot of perspectives from guys with hacks that aren’t available here (like some of those ones that look like friggin sports cars).

  • mugget

    Wow, I never knew it was 2WD…

    I like the idea of being able to just plug along anywhere with a good deal of gear onboard (an additional person, even!)

    But the big thing for me is that you do lose the maneuverability and lane-splitting ability. Then again I’ve never taken a motorcycle camping and haven’t done much off-road so I probably underestimate how good it is…

    • Sean Smith

      It’s really really good. Then again, a GSX-R does pretty damn good on gravel, sand and dirt covered roads as long as they’re basically flat. Soft bags and a back pack add camping stuff and if you wear your leathers, you can have fun on the way there.

  • Ray

    Good intro.

    I saw a knuckle with flatbed sidecar hauling a dirt tracker to races in the late 80s. I’ve always wanted to haul a kayak and do combo trips.

    Rider’s body position is crucial too – right handers less scary if you’re sitting half in the car.

    I think they are more dangerous than motorcycles, though they are less intimidating to non riders: they seem stable, but only are at a dead stop. I explain it thus: half the power, half the braking, less than half the handling of a motorbike. The car represents drag on acceleration, the whole rig pulls to the right shoulder. When slowing or stopping, the sidecar represents momentum: the rig pulls into incoming traffic, sometimes terrifyingly so in emergency braking situations, but you quickly learn to compensate. It’s more busy than riding a motorcycle, you’re constantly compensating for something or another.

    And donuts and powerslides are controllable and effortless…

    I do love having a totally different experience with the same basic equipment and control interface. Somehow, I never confuse whether I’m riding a bike or the sidecar rig, it just takes a little experience…

  • rohorn

    A sidecar, especially with some little kids in the hack, is the closest thing to a one vehicle parade one can operate. People will wave, smile, and act in a completely different way than they would around a motorcycle.

    The only other bike that has a serious effect on the traffic around you is an operational police bike, but for different reasons.

  • Ray

    Enfield offers the Cozy sidecar.

  • Devin

    My friend and his Dad just put together a CJ750 Chinese sidecar, but they broke the clutch less than 60 miles in and it wasn’t working when I was there. I just really really really want to ride in the sidecar.

    I also want a leather helmet and goggles.

  • the_doctor

    I am sure I could look it up, but I will ask, what is the damage for this model?

    This Ural looks like a tremendous amount of fun, and I could see owning one in rural Colorado versus big city Austin.

    • aristurtle

      1WD version (Ural T) starts at $10K. 2WD version (Ural Patrol T) starts at $12.6K. Version pictured (Ural Gear-Up) is at least $14K.

      • Devin

        I was like “Holy sticker shock batman!” the first time I found out how much these are.

        • aristurtle

          They’re low-production-run replicas of a WWII bike, basically. I mean, I wish they were cheaper too but I can see why they’re expensive.

        • the_doctor

          It’s the sidecar where they get you.

  • smoke4ndmears

    I see a Tool Time dynamic starting here…

    • Kirill

      I don’t think so, Tim

  • kidchampion

    Sidecars fit so well in that bearded/graying Aerostich suit demographic HFL just mocked in another post. There was a NYT article a few weeks ago about Urals with sidecars and the charming senior citizens and their pets who travel in them. How do you keep that beard so neat? Do you use the Miami DeVice?

    • Sean Smith

      Ironically, I have a beard, a Roadcrafter and a Ural in my garage.

      • kidchampion

        Old soul.

        • HolyHandGrenade!

          Or major douche nozzle?

      • aristurtle

        I understand the other two, but why do you keep your beard in your garage?

        • Brendan

          Someone gives a fuck about an Oxford comma.

          • Sean Smith

            Maybe this will be the thing that convinces Wes that Oxford commas are sometimes a good idea.

            • Miles Prower [690 Duke, MTS 1100]

              Funny NPR blog post from earlier this year about the Oxford Comma after all that overblown interwebs commotion about University of Oxford dropping their own comma.

              Oxford commas are always a good idea for tech writing; but for non-tech writing, I think they’re useful whenever there’s potential for ambiguity.

        • HolyHandGrenade!

          Because she is an ugly woman.

          • Sean Smith

            I keep her chained to the sidecar. Easily the best comment of the day.

    • Brian
      • jason McCrash

        What a shit article. They could’ve driven 4 hours north towards Lake Placid and interviewed the guy that sells them instead of going to the AMA with it’s whopping 200000+ members or just using the telephone and email to “interview” people. If anything is growing by leaps and bounds it is the scooter market.
        Fluff piece by a writer who was looking for a easy way to make a deadline.

  • hooligan317

    “You may even want to consider bailing out.” – adds a certain level of excitement to the ride.

  • Jason

    I got my Gear-Up a few months back and feel like I’ve been experiencing/learning about them at the same rate you guys have. I even got mine from the same dealer in LBC and had similar set up issues! My 8 year old and I just got back from a camping trip to Big Bear and had a blast! It’s slow and handles really wierd, but my BMW, my Ducati, and my ’65 Triumph have all been collecting a lot of dust lately.

  • Jason