The Ural Tourist - Stalin's Revenge

The AK47 Of Adventure Touring

By: Shasta Willson, Jack Lewis

Power is expected now, and the Ural has...some. Chrome cylinder liners and 8.6:1 compression pound out 40 raging bhp on 91-octane fuel. Sporting only two fewer ponies than a '54 Triumph Tiger Cub 110, the Patrol model's recommended top speed is 62 mph-actually pretty good for a military vehicle. This is your grandfather's Oldsmobile. Urals are clunky, low-tech, retro...and delightful, with externals that belie their modernized innards.

The spare tire shows Model-A Ford charm, and leading-link front suspension is more steampunk than reruns of The Wild Wild West. It's agricultural as a Massey-Ferguson and frivolous as a parade float, guaranteeing more social intercourse than 30 grand worth of turbo Haya-blinga. Squids, soccer moms and O.C. Chopper wannabes all grin at Stalin's Revenge. Feel free to just amble along. People will smile and wave. Compared to a '67 Vanagon, the tech sheet is awe-inspiring. There's a real disc brake on the front wheel and it's likely the world's fastest motorcycle in reverse.

Reverse isn't the only lever mounted alongside the exposed driveshaft and its truck-like U-joint. On Ural's Patrol, Gear-Up and Sahara models, a lever near the rear drive engages a driveshaft to the sidecar wheel for solid-axle, 2WD traction. Surprisingly effective off-road, 2WD should be rigorously avoided on the pavement. Still, the motorcycles remain rough, ready and cobblestone-simple.

Some bikes are made to be worked on at the dealership with specialty tools. Others you tackle in the garage. A Ural is meant to be repaired in a bar pit, using only its onboard toolkit: a cornucopia of canvas-wrapped chrome including every wrench you need to get down to the base gaskets, plus full-scale tire irons, touch-up paint, tire pump and work gloves. Despite recently extended service intervals, Urals still ask that level of commitment. A factory maintenance manual-happily available in English-is strongly recommended, but chores are straightforward. If you can cold-start your own lawn mower, you're golden. If you report to your dealership for tire pressure checks, try a different bike.

The Tourist we rode lit right off with the choke plungers drawn out, but only after brandishing a nut driver to reinstall the left-side intake manifold that fell off at 53 miles. Regular attention to fasteners can reduce such inconvenient back-outs. On the upside, nearly every bolt on the rig can be duplicated at any decent hardware store-or from that rusty coffee can on your garage shelf.

The Gear-Up option package will bring a smile to anyone who remembers Rat Patrol. Shun drab camo for the carousel colorations available to the Tourist buyer or the tuxedo-sharp Retro in pinstriped black. IMZ even had one done up by Svetlana Zyryanova in gzhel paint, a Russian folk art reminiscent of Delft ceramics from Nederland. Town or countryside, the Ural is a full-immersion experience-somewhere between riding a motorcycle and steering a light truck until the third wheel flies and you're countersteering all over again.

Sidecar inertia makes the rig pull right on acceleration and dart into oncoming traffic under braking. "Pull away, come together" is a useful mnemonic. Like any flavor of motorcycling, it's best to practice until muscle memory becomes reliable. Pretty soon, you're automatically fudging the bars to the right with every upshift. Our Ural toddled along cheerfully, cheating slightly to one side or the other whenever the road crown shifted, frisking a bit in right turns and asking little more of its rider than hanging off in turns like a Columbia Gorge windsurfer. I sustained semi-permanent marks on my butt from negotiating right-handers with an empty sidecar.

The gearbox, orders of magnitude improved over a few years back, shifts about as well as a '78 Kawasaki Z-1 ridden by a little old lady and only drag-raced on Sundays. Neutral is easy to find-sometimes well north of second gear-but the neutral indicator is elusive. Massive front suspension felt immune to side loads, allowing us to spin along with the sidecar flying at its balance point of around 40 degrees, wheel cocked up in the air like the hind leg of an insouciant hound. It's easier than wheelying, though the neighbors look at you funny.

Tipping the sidecar's windshield forward raises the chrome grab rail out of your way. Once you enter, the rail drops across your lap like the safety bar at Six Flags over Siberia and off you scoot, chair monkey for a day. Throwing your mitts into the air and squealing like an eight-year-old girl just adds to the experience. When I did that, ride wrangler Sergei admonished me firmly in Russian to "keep your hands and arms inside the car at all times."

By Shasta Willson, Jack Lewis
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