Riding sidecars in the frozen Siberian winter

Back in July, I rolled a Ural sidecar into a ditch off road and pretty much snapped my left wrist in half. Last week, I rode one for the first time since that accident. In Siberia. In the snow. In sub-zero temperatures. Was it scary? Absolutely. 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.

What's a sidecar? Well, as you can see, it's a motorcycle with a third wheel and a little compartment for an extra passenger and some luggage. But, it's not quite that simple. This Ural hack isn't so much a motorcycle with a sidecar bolted on, as a purpose-built vehicle designed from the ground up as a three wheeler. That gives it certain unique advantages over any other vehicle, especially from it's two-wheel drive with locking differential.

How the Ural came to be is an interesting story all its own. The condensed version is that, back in WWII, the Soviet military stole a couple BMW R71s from ze Germans. They then engineered their own vehicle loosely based on that Bimmer. The factory was located all the way out east of the Ural Mountains due to its strategic importance, out there is was just too damn far to bomb. It was used to beat said Germans in the war, then entered production as a civilian utility vehicle. Because it was was cheaper than a car and because Russians are a hardy folk, the sidecar proved an enormously successful product. At its peak, the Irbit Motorcycle Factory kicked out something like 140,000 of them a year, but there was still a two-year waiting list. They're still a common sight, flying down country roads in the middle of nowhere through sub-zero temperatures.

Setting out on this modern update to a Soviet version of a German design, 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.

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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.

Siberia? Oh yeah, I was in Irbit last 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. Now, its biggest markets are Europe and America, where aging adventurers buy 1,000 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 murder of people named Wes being 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, the resistance from the extra wheel off to the right, and the increase in wind resistance. 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.

At the risk of sounding crash prone, two of my biggest offs had very different results. Last year, I looped a BMW F800GS in Labrador, cracking the frame in half. No broken arms that time, so I was able to nurse the bike back to NY. Well, once the concussion wore off anyways. This summer, after flipping the Ural into a ditch at about 50 MPH, my intern was able to swap out the front suspension with new parts, then ride it four hours home to LA. The BMW was totaled, the Ural was repairable, in the field, by an intern.

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. It's impossible to convey how alien it feels to be understeering even as you're lifting the third wheel into the sky.

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 last week? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. And, one day, I might even be good at it.

A similar version of this article appeared in Hell For Leather.