FROM Russia with love, we sample old school charm and breath-taking south coast scenery
AS we pulled onto the bitumen road for the first time, there was a moment — just a moment — when I thought my wife and I were going to die.
I had been riding the Ural outfit around a short dirt circuit for 20 minutes or so, having previously had some one-on-one training from our host for the day, Peter Grobler, and was starting to feel just a tiny bit competent behind the bars on this, my first ever crack at riding a sidecar.
But I quickly discovered one major difference between riding a sidecar solo on the dirt and riding one pillion-aboard on the road — traction.
Riding solo in the dirt, the rear motorcycle wheel and the wheel on the chair were willing to slip and slide, so it’s possible (and fun) to drift as you turn.
But there’s no drifting on the bitumen. Not at my level of competence, anyway.
So when I opened the throttle on the road for the first time, the tyre grabbed the tarmac and the bike veered to the left. Instinctively I throttled off and the bike veered to the right — straight onto the wrong side of the road.
The truck coming towards us was still a good 200 metres away (but closing in) as I gingerly steered the Ural back onto its intended path. Gulp. This might be a long and scary day …
To understand the peculiarity of riding a sidecar, it’s useful to get a basic understanding of the physics.
What we have here is a motorcycle with a dead weight bolted to the left-hand side.
When you accelerate, the motorcycle wants to leap forward in a straight line — but the chair is not particularly interested in moving. Instead it acts like a sea anchor, dragging the bike left-ward.
When you decelerate, the motorcycle wants to slow down in a straight line but the chair is not particularly interested in slowing down. The chair maintains its go-forwards momentum, therefore pushing the bike right-ward.
We’ve seen quite a lot of sidecar motocross and sidecar road racing over the years and have often wondered why the bikes seem to wander all over the place at the entry to the first corner.
Well, now we know.
The absurd shenanigans of the sidecar take some getting used to, but they are consistent and predictable and can be used to your advantage. Want to veer right? Just back off a tad. Want to veer left? Nail it.
My opportunity to taste the utterly improbable joy of motorcycling on three wheels came through an advertisement on The Bike Shed Times. A reader in New South Wales was selling a vintage Ural outfit and, after doing a little research and Googling, I found myself in conversation with the folks who import modern-day Urals to Australia.
They were keen to have The Bike Shed Times sample the joys of the Ural, but they were in the improbably-named NSW town of Uralla (yes, really) and I was in Kalamunda, Western Australia. There was a Ural dealer in WA (Classic Motorcycle WA) but he didn’t have any demonstrators that I could ride.
It was all starting to look too hard.
Enter Peter Grobler, an expat South African and one-time New Zealander who these days runs a West Australian tourism business (4U We Do Sidecar Tours) which happens to have a small fleet of Ural sidecars. Peter takes tourists on short, medium and longer tours around the Esperance region, and is also a competent trainer on sidecar riding technique. (Visit his website here for more info.)
Not only was Peter willing to let me sample one or two (or three, as it turned out) of his Urals, he was also willing to let me bring my own pillion and show us the sights along one of Australia’s most beautiful stretches of coastline.
And so it was that we made the 1,400km round trip from Kalamunda to Esperance and back, discovering along the way that the pastries at the Hyden Bakery are magnificent, that sometimes the power goes out in Ravensthorpe and when it does all the petrol bowsers go out too, and that some time over winter the air-conditioner in our Jeep had stopped conditioning air.
Ural motorcycles have been made in Russia since World War II when the Russians apparently copied an R71 BMW for use in hostilities with Nazi Germany. (There’s a comprehensive article on Wikipedia about the history of Ural motorcycles. One of our readers has told us the article has lots of factual errors, but it’s still a good read. See it here.)
The early bikes were robust and capable of carrying people and cargo long distances over poor terrain — just the thing if your country is tied up in a war and, as it happens, pretty good for exploring pristine West Australian beaches on a cold but sunny day in September, 75 years later.
Indeed, the modern Urals are not very modern at all. The latest models are fuel-injected and boast disc brakes (Brembo at that), but if you ignore the discs the bikes could have been made in the 1970s. Or the ’40s.
The Urals come with a reverse gear, a spare wheel, a comprehensive tool kit and a two year warranty. Peter told us he’d had no problem with spare parts which generally come from the USA, not Russia, but he’d not really had much need. The bikes have been low-fuss and reliable.
They are also very, very comfortable. I’ll leave The Pillion to make her own report (below), but I was delighted at how the bikes treated my body. We had a long day and I didn’t even have a sore bum when we pulled in to the Gibson Soak Hotel for dinner. The seat was well designed, thick and well-padded, and the seating position was neutral. Long days in the saddle would not be a problem.
The Ural’s old-school look is not marketing trickery. While modern retro bikes like Triumph’s Bonnevilles are thoroughly modern machines cloaked in old-fashioned styling, the Urals truly are sheep in sheep’s clothing.
Power is adequate for the job (Ural says 41 horsepower which feels about right), suspension is low tech (twin shocks at the rear, leading link at the front on two of the three models), the wheels have big fat spokes, and the engine is a low-stressed air-cooled flat twin that has to drag around a machine that tips the scales somewhere north of 310kg. Little wonder that Ural recommends a maximum cruising speed of 115kmh.
We found the bikes happiest sitting around 95kmh, but a little faster was okay. We didn’t get a chance to overtake on the open road and, to be honest, we’re glad. There isn’t much power in reserve at highway speeds.
Of course, high-speed manoeuvres are not the point of these machines. They are a quirky low-stress high-comfort machine, perfectly suited for exploring the countryside. We could imagine riding around Australia on one, provided you weren’t planning to break any speed records.
And if you just want to go exploring the coast, we can hardly imagine a more suitable piece of kit.
The pillion report
By The Pillion
THERE is something very civilised about being able to move your legs.
When you’re on the back of a motorbike, you can shift your bum forwards and back, you can move your arms freely, and you can look left or right (although not straight ahead, mostly). But you can’t move your legs.
You can in a sidecar. You can stretch them out, bring them up, lean them left, lean them right — just like in a car.
Being behind a windscreen gave me plenty of protection from suicidal grasshoppers, although there was still plenty of wind.
I was able to look straight ahead but there wasn’t much point looking to the right (just Peter’s left hip which isn’t very interesting, although I did notice his Levi’s were dirty. Honestly, how hard is it to find the washing basket?) Theoretically I should have been able to look to the left, but I found the wind got in under my goggles, so I tended to mostly look ahead. There would have been no such problem if I’d been wearing a full face helmet, of course.
Our day on the road was sunny but cold. Really cold. I have since seen photos of other Urals fitted with canvas covers to keep the wind at bay. If we were buying a sidecar, a canvas cover would be on the list. It occurred to me that I could have worn my ugg boots and brought a bunny rug to put over my legs. At one stage, with the sun going down and the temperature heading for Antarctica, I found myself wondering whether it would be possible to hook up a 12-volt heater and put it in the footwell. Like, now.
Getting in and out of the chair was harder than I expected, although I did get the hang of it as the day wore on. I also saw a lady who I suspect was in her 70s getting in and out without much fuss. I learned later that much more elderly folks have been accommodated as well. What a great way to take granny down to the beach!
All up, a very comfortable and funky way to travel.
More details? Visit the Ural Australia website here.
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