They’re like the weird uncle of the motorcycle world, those that get all the attention with goofy looks and crass sounds at the Thanksgiving dinner table. You don’t see a lot of sidecar motorcycles around these days but, when you do, you can’t miss them. What’s the appeal of these three-wheeled oddities?
The why is easy. If you like attention, nothing gets more of it than riding a sidecar motorcycle around town. They look fun and quirky, and amid heads turning and fingers pointing, sidecar riders need to plan a little more time into their trips, just to talk with the inevitable gawkers.
The more pertinent question might be: how? With three wheels instead of two and no leaning into the curves, riding a motorcycle with a sidecar uses very different skills than a normal bike. Which is why the good folks at Old Vintage Cranks (OVC) in Acton, Ontario, southern Ontario’s official supplier of Ural sidecar motorcycles, give an hour’s riding lesson for every buyer.
OVC is a quaint little shop in this quaint little town, an hour north-west of Toronto. The dusty workshop is open to the small showroom, which is full of quirky models from Royal Enfield, SWM, CCM and, of course, Ural. The company sells about a dozen each year of these retro Russian bikes, which were originally based on BMWs from the 1940s but have been modernized with electric start, fuel injection and, well, not much else. Their 749-cc boxer-twin engines pump out a leisurely yet useful 41 horsepower, and they come in both conventional single-wheel drive ($17,499) and a more off-road-biased two-wheel-drive setup for an extra $2,000.
Getting on, and in, the bike
And right outside the door is a matte grey Ural cT, the single-drive, waiting opportunistically in the sunlight, and Scott Strachan of OVC is zipping up his jacket in the crisp autumn air. “Let’s go,” he says. The lesson will begin in a nearby parking lot, but I start the experience in the sidecar itself, climbing in awkwardly before resting comfortably inside.
The ride there is like no other experience I’ve had with a bike: I’m mesmerized watching the mechanicals – the jiggling front suspension, the spinning wheels, the rotating prop shaft. It’s a unique perspective into the true workings of a motorcycle. It’s also weird being so low to the ground. “Some people say it’s like riding in a boat,” says Scott, and I can see why.
After a short ride, we get to the parking lot, and Scott pulls out a crinkled piece of paper. “It’s my cheat sheet,” he laughs. On it is a list of little “exercises” every new Ural owner goes through, and I can see why from the start: the four-gear transmission shifts with a Harley-style push-push two-pronged shifter on the left, and neutral is activated with another shifter on the right side that also activates a reverse gear, so getting this all in takes some practice. I start just going forward, braking, forward, braking; hey, this is easy!
Riding the thing
Oh, not so fast. Now I start the turning lessons with wide circles, and here is where the fun begins, if fun to you means a torturing arm workout. At low speed in first gear, it’s like wrestling a bear. Turning left is easier: the sidecar’s third wheel gives the bike stability. But forget that going the opposite way, and without a passenger, the sidecar lifts constantly, bringing with it a lump in my throat. All I can think of is, “For God sakes, man, don’t tip the bike over.”
As I progress through tighter figure-8s and at higher speeds in second gear, turning right is a constant battle of balance, speed control and burning biceps; I’m leaning my body so far into the turn that I might as well be sitting in the sidecar itself. But what makes it even worse is that your wrist has to be light and sensitive on the throttle while pulling or pushing hard on the handlebars. At times, I feel like an outright motorcycle newbie, gunning the engine and bucking forward uncontrollably. So, yes, add embarrassment to a list that includes physical exertion and mild terror.
There’s another lesson, and it’s an important one: remembering you have a sidecar beside you in the first place. Scott has me ride with the sidecar’s wheel on a line in the pavement, and then skirt the curbs around the lot to give me a sense of where it is at all times. Yeah, I can see why this is important: with it sitting so low, it’s easy for a motorcycle rider to forget the sidecar is there, and no one wants the harsh lesson of crashing it into a parked car or hitting a curb.
But as the hour progresses, I’m getting more comfortable. Turning both ways is becoming both easier and more intuitive, and I’m actually getting a feel for this crazy setup. I’m also seeing the appeal of this Ural bike: it feels mechanical, basic, a pure motorcycle experience, with a guttural sound from the boxer twin. The sidecar just adds a throwback feel to it all, not to mention some utility.
And then the final lesson. Scott climbs into the sidecar, and I start off back to the shop on public roads; he’s brave, this guy. Turning onto a side street and making my way to a small country road, the steering gets much lighter with higher speed. I feel the torque of the engine pulling the bike right as I upshift, and I’m making corrections along the way.
As we ride lazily through the fall colours, waving at passing motorists, I’m sure Scott is hoping I’ve learned my lessons. Especially the one about remembering he’s down there.