How I learned to stop worrying and love the sidecar

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Back in July, I rolled a Ural sidecar into a ditch off road and pretty much snapped my left wrist in half. Today, I rode one for the first time since that accident. In Siberia. In the Snow. In sub-zero temperatures. Was it scary? Holy shit yes. But no other vehicle could have gotten me here.

Since that accident, I’ve developed a pretty solid fear of three-wheel contraptions. It might have been completely my fault (I was going too fast), but that hasn’t stopped my brain from convincing itself that all a sidecar wants to do is flip over. This fear is both unreasonable and overwhelming; even sitting on the Ural inside the factory before going on this ride, my palms were getting sweaty as I white knuckled the bars. Sitting there while the lost key was found, I felt like I was inexplicably and suddenly going to find myself upside down with a sidecar on top of me. Imagine the poor factory test rider’s face in such a situation; he walks back into the room, proudly displaying key in hand, only to find his charge trapped helplessly underneath an overturned vehicle.

Setting out through the frozen factory grounds, I wasn’t exactly a model of confidence. Taking the 90-degree right corner to turn through the gate, I climbed all the way out over the car to steady it with my body weight. In 1st gear. At about 1mph.

Shortly thereafter, I got an impromptu demonstration of 2WD’s ability when I ended up in a snow drift after a little front end slide. I got there because I was too scared to steer right to correct. Once again, utterly convinced that if I did, I’d end up with the sidecar on top of me.

A quick and private pep talk to myself later and I was determined to make this work. I didn’t spend 48 hours flying to Siberia to give up inside Ural’s factory grounds.

Siberia? Oh yeah, I’m in Irbit this week, home to Ural’s sprawling square-mile, Soviet-era production facility. It once produced hundreds of thousands of bikes a year in the kind of imposing structures you’ll be familiar with from movies like The Hunt for Red October. Back then, everyone in the Soviet Union wanted a Ural and, despite massive production figures, not everyone could have one; there was a waiting list. Now, its biggest markets are Europe and America, where aging adventurers buy 900 or so a year. Production has been consolidated into one building while the rest have long since begun to decay. But more on that in the next few days.

They don’t sell many of them because the sidecar configuration has a lot of inherent problems; a predisposition to Wes murder least among them. Unlike a motorcycle, they can’t lane split, they’re difficult to park and fuel economy is impacted by the added weight of all that metal and the extra wheel off to the right. Like a motorcycle, you still get wet when it rains, cold in a Siberian winter and you’re the main crumple zone in a crash. Utterly uniquely, they oversteer with incredible control in left hand corners, but understeer to the right before lifting the sidecar off the ground and, if you’re an idiot, losing control and rolling.

They are able to carve out a viable niche because there’s also a lot of inherent advantages to the Ural configuration. Check out that picture up top. There’s literally no other street-legal, wheeled production vehicle on the planet that you could bury, in stock form, up to its axles in fresh powder without worrying about getting stuck. How’d I get out of that snow field? I just climbed back on board, put it in 2WD and rode out like normal. No, the front wheel doesn’t have much grip, instead acting like the rudder on a boat as you steer. But the locking differential on the rear does. Enough anyways. The narrow tires are able to dig deeply into the snow and what little grip they do find as they spin up is enough to drive the relatively light vehicle through pretty much anything. Narrow, short and lightweight, there’s absolutely no obstacle this side of a vertical cliff capable of stopping a Ural sidecar. They’ll go through deep snow, mud, water, anything you can think to throw at them.

Today I was able to ride on ice on what passes for a highway here, through a town, onto snow-covered dirt roads, off those roads into the forest, then out of that forest and into a deep snow field. No other vehicle on earth, no Hummer or quad or snowmobile or jet ski has that breadth of ability. The trees would have stopped the Hummer, the highway would have stopped the quad and the roads would have stopped the snowmobile. That I was able to do that without even the faintest pass at training in temperatures hovering around zero degrees fahrenheit just drives that point home further. If you really want to leave the beaten path behind, it’s not a BMW GS or a KTM or an expedition truck that you need, it’s a Ural sidecar. Remember when I cracked the F800GS’s frame in half in Labrador? Remember when Sean was able to replace the Ural’s front end out in the wilderness, then ride it home?

Despite the inherent motorcycleness of the handlebars and the saddle and the straddling, riding a sidecar actually has very little in common with riding a bike. That’s why I’ve always struggled. You steer towards a corner, not away from it. But, it has very little in common with a car or a quad bike either. Unlike either of those, you do have to figure lean into the operating equation. Despite the heart palpitations the merest thought of this gives me, to operate a sidecar proficiently, you do need to get used to flying the chair. The relatively narrow track makes that an inevitability in fast right hand corners or during tight maneuvers off-road or over uneven bumps or while sliding around in the snow. What I need to get used to is that the side wheel coming up a few inches doesn’t equal flip. Think of it like pulling a wheelie, there’s a whole lotta lift before the point of no return — probably 60 degrees or so — but unlike a wheelie, you’re also fighting for side grip from the tires as the entire mass leans on the narrow front wheel.

So what you’ve got is a vehicle that uses handlebars to steer towards corners. You shift with your left foot, clutch with your left hand and speed up with your right. Of course there’s no ABS and brakes are separated motorcycle-style; the right bar lever is the single front brake while the right foot lever operates both rear drums. You’ll keep it in 1WD pretty much everywhere, but through deep snow or similar you can lock the rear differential using a little lever down by the drive shaft. Approaching left handers, you gas it to initiate a slide, then counter steer to keep things pointed around the corner. Right handers you approach much more carefully, planning a calculated mix of lift and understeer and the right wheel lifts and the front wheel pushes. A careful mix of throttle, front and rear brakes can help balance all that. In short, a Ural isn’t a motorcycle, it’s a completely unique vehicle that you’re going to have to spend as much time learning to operate as you did learning to ride a bike or drive a car. It’s hard, but that work is rewarded with unique ability.

Was I terrified riding the Ural today? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. And, one day, I might even be good at it.

  • Dumptruckfoxtrot

    This article is excellent! HFL is still the finest motorcycle publication around. It looks like a Ural is more and more likely to be in my future.

  • http://www.TroyRank.com Troy R

    These photos are amazing. Ural is the only way to go for winter motorcycling. Who needs a car?

    • http://themotolady.com MotoLady

      Hell to the yes. I’m with you.

  • Beale

    Man, oh man, do I want one!

  • Steven

    I am the proud owner of a 2001 H-D XL1200C/Velorex. Lots of fun, my wife loves it. Previous bike was a B.M.W.R60/2 with a Steib hack-wish I had it now. Sidecars are overlooked when purchasing a fun vehicle-try it, they are habit forming

  • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

    Great title for the article! Watch out for the Ural’s built-in Doomsday Device.

  • Thom

    If you’re going down the SideCar route , do yourself a favor , no matter how long you’ve ridden a Motorcycle

    Take one of the many available Sidecar Schools riding classes in your area and grab the book Whitehorse has in stock first .

    http://www.whitehorsegear.com/driving-a-sidecar-outfit-2nd-edition

    Sidecar vs Motorcycle – Somewhat similar in looks . Completely different in riding skills needed .

    But do em right and like a couple others here have said ;

    Side Hacks are a Hoot and a Half .

    More articles on Side Hacks please there Wes

  • oldblue

    Always a good read.

    Regarding the sidecar riding technique thing. I bet if you speak with anyone who has spent a good amount of time on a trike, you’ll find they have no trouble at all adapting to a side hack.

    I grew up riding farm trikes as well as the odd MX trike. In certain situations ‘flying a wheel’ is the only way to go, and it’s a lot like ‘flying the chair’…you can get that thing way up in the air with no risk at all.

    The first time I rode a sidecar, my trike experience made it all feel very familiar.

    I doubt there’s a side car my future, but I do love reading about stuff like the Ural, despite the fact that in Australia, a Ural is medication that women take for urinary tract infections…

  • Devin

    Ural’s look so cool. I got to try out a Chang Jiang after three attempts (my friend’s is broken more than it isn’t) and it was a hoot for a while. The Ural’s attracion is the offroad ability. I could see getting my snowmobile gear on, hitting the highway on the Ural and then getting off at the lake and bike up to the ice hut.

    The big problem I have is their reputation as a bike you don’t own if you can’t wrench on it pretty well yourself. Whether that is deserved or not, I don’t know. I’ve never met anyone who owned one personally.

    • Sean Smith

      I don’t own one but when it was my job to fix the one Wes broke, all the bolts were still righty tighty/lefty loosey. They’re pretty simple machines and the included tool kit and owners manual is enough to get you through damn near anything. Well, maybe that and some JB weld.

      • The other Joe

        Good to hear that you don’t have to learn Russian to read the manual.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Reputations are silly, especially in motorcycling where lots of people are still convinced that Jap bikes are cheap crap and Brits have electrical problems.

      Urals are as simple as simple can be. Like all bikes, something might break, unlike other bikes, the chances that you’ll be able to effect a permanent repair by the side of the road are very good.

      • Thom

        +1

        The Ural ‘ might ‘ break a little more often , but just try repairing your GS1200 in the middle of say Siberia or Baja . A little duct tape . Bit of bailing wire . Tin can or two and some tubing , glue and tools and more often than not with an M/C like the Ural you’re back up and running .

  • DavidMG

    Fraking awesome! I <3 HFL

    It's amazing how much confidence you can lose after a crash eh? Glad you got back on the saddle quickly, and what a place to do it in!

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Yeah, talk about getting back on the horse. Doing that in snow gear without armor and a shitty non-dot open face just made it all the more interesting.

      • Denzel

        How’s the wind chill in Siberia with no gloves? :-)

      • The other Joe

        I would have thought that after crashing the other Ural you would be wearing every piece of armor you own. Congrats on getting back on the horse though, it had to be done.

  • http://www.firstgenerationmotors.blogspot.com Emmet

    there was a Ural w/sidecar outfit at the shop here last winter. Owner wanted an engine rebuild since it had a lot of miles-can’t remember how many:X It was covered in travel stickers and looked the part of a distance touring bike.

  • Peter Ha

    What gear are you wearing, Wes?

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Hunting camo, wool mittens and the factory manager’s non-dot open face…

      • dux

        Sounds like Russian protective gear. Did you do a shot of vodka before going for your ride?

        • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

          The Russians at Ural are self professed bad Russians, the vodka came after.

      • http://www.amarokconsultants.com michael uhlarik

        You look like a kot, or Russian pimp Wes. In that last image, it looks as though you are wearing a fur lined coat. The helmet with hearts on it completes the deal.

        You ought to fly to Duxworth next, and test drive the original BMW outfit for comparison.

      • Thom

        Next ‘ winter ‘ off road M/C adventure , grab yourself some snowmobile togs . You won’t regret it

      • Campisi

        Did the mittens keep the wind out? I find wool to be useless on a bike without a shell layer.

        • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

          They had like a waxed canvas shell or something along those lines. Mittens are great for keeping your hands warm, but aren’t so hot at facilitating minute control.

  • Denzel

    Those are some nice snow tires on the red…

  • Thom

    Here’s a school that’ll train you specifically on the riding/driving of the Ural or any other ‘ off road ‘ sidecar outfit ;

    http://adventuresidecar.com/

    Seriously , if you’re considering a side hack of any sort , get yourself some training from a pro . Spare yourself your own personal ‘ Wes -ism ‘ Even a Trike doesn’t come close to the riding/driving techniques of a side hack .

    Bet you an even hundred , had Wes ‘ gone to school ‘ the man wouldn’t of flipped the Ural

    Learn from his mistake . Do it right !

    • windmill

      +1 for adventure sidecar.

      Great folks.

  • aristurtle

    I want one, I want one so badly. I was saving up to get one, in fact, and then money problems struck suddenly and my Ural fund vanished. But I will get one someday. The thing is genuinely bad-ass in a way that, e.g., Harley wishes it was.

  • Kevin

    A factory ride test, and they don’t have a color-matched fairing?

    “Yuri, is no red fairing. Here is vite von. Dat shood do for thin-blooded Americanyetz.”

    I kid. These guys sound cool.

  • Kevin

    Random memory: I’m walking into Lenin’s tomb in 1986 past these rather stern-looking Kremlin guards, and right as I’m passing them one notices my university sweatshirt and says, “Kellyfornya!” That was a fun moment.

    Even though it was the Gorbachev era, you still had to go to the American Embassy to read a Time Magazine. They also pumped patriotic music into our hotel rooms first thing in the morning, so I’d unplug the speaker. Then I’d come back to the hotel room to find the speaker plugged in and my electric razor unplugged.

    I should go back and see how things have changed.

  • Justin

    looks chilly

  • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

    Hell yeah – that’s some dedication, going to Siberia for an article!

    Nice work! All this coverage of the Ural really makes me want one…

  • Lawrences

    Great article. Slippery roads = more fun.

  • Scott-jay

    Car nose looks dinged. Ural wisely selected its loaner; or hard things lurk in Russian snow drifts. : )
    Genuine Ural accessory faring?
    Car-cover an upgrade over the military canvas with leather fasteners?

  • Gene

    The latest Aerostich flyer has a white Ural on the cover, with a big American flag on the sidecar that looks really out of place.

  • Shalev

    I just renewed my subscription for a year, and this article is an example of one reason why I did that… I learn things hear that I’d never learn anywhere else.

    The scenery shots are beautiful, but I’d love to see pictures of the factory, too, if any were taken.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      Oh, I’ve got loads, expect multiple stories across this week.

      • Ilya

        “How I ate all pelmeni in Irbit and got away with it” by Wes Siler

        • Mike Brooklyn

          lulz

  • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

    I was saving this article for a rainy day. Superior work.