Touring California on a 2012 Ural Sidecar | Side By Side

A Father-Daughter Foray Into Three-Wheeled Travel

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kiva Carman-Frank

The Gear-Up comes equipped with the most complete toolkit I’ve seen on any vehicle, regardless of wheel count. I have the opportunity to tell Bekefy just how impressed I am with the tool roll less than five minutes after leaving SFO, when I’m forced to call him from the shoulder of I-280. The cap over the oil-filter housing vibrated loose and dumped nearly a quart of 20W-50 on the hot exhaust crossover, creating a James Bond-quality smokescreen across the highway and more than a slight panic in my passenger’s mind. Bekefy isn’t alarmed. “Tighten it up and top it off,” he advises. “It’ll be fine. It’s hard to hurt a Ural. Also, congratulations: You’re an honorary Russian now.”

Kiva, anxiety-prone by nature, isn’t amused. “Dad, maybe we should rent a car. A convertible.” I’m not so confident, either. There’s what sounds like a terminal rod-knock coming from the left crankcase, and the machine struggles to maintain 65 mph over the Golden Gate Bridge. I call Bekefy again from our photo opportunity high in the Marin headlands, holding my phone up to the engine like some hapless housewife calling “Car Talk” on NPR. “Sounds perfectly normal,” Bekefy says. “And 65 mph is pretty good with a passenger and luggage. Try 55 mph and you might be happier.”

Riding the Ural requires recalibrating every expectation you have regarding motorcycle travel, starting with the vocabulary. I despise it when people talk about “driving” a motorcycle, but in the parlance of sidecardom, this is the correct term. Because it doesn’t lean, a sidecar doesn’t countersteer like a conventional bike. You have to turn the bars right to go right, which is counterintuitive at first. Even going straight isn’t as simple as it should be. Because the sidecar is asymmetrical and driving and braking forces aren’t centered, the rig veers right when accelerating and left when decelerating. This is why Ural rebates up to $125 for any buyer who completes sidecar training, and delivers each outfit with a 99-page riding guide.

I familiarize myself with these concepts the next morning when Kiva and I depart San Francisco at o’dark-thirty and head down Skyline Drive with a bead drawn on huevos rancheros at the famed Alice’s Restaurant. Although we’re traveling roughly one-third the speed I usually maintain down this stretch, I’m working twice as hard. Piloting the sidecar is a constant upper-body workout, like some piece of Soviet-era gymnastic equipment. A hard left-hander feels like you’re pushing the entire weight of the loaded sidecar around the corner, especially if it’s uphill and you’re on the gas. Right-handers are slightly easier, especially on-throttle. If you’re not afraid to “fly the chair” and lift that third wheel off the ground, the Ural can cut a surprisingly tight line. But say a prayer if you find yourself entering a tight left-hander too fast, and braking so hard that the rear drive wheel lifts off the ground.

After a quick breakfast at Alice’s, we drop down Highway 236 into Big Basin Redwoods State Park for a little off-road exploring. Awed by the giant, 300-foot coastal redwoods, Kiva finally puts down her book and picks up her camera. I pull over and kick down the steel lever on the rear drive housing that engages the driven sidecar wheel (two-wheel-drive is recommended only for low-speed, off-road travel) and we head down a neglected two-track in search of an off-the-beaten-path rest stop. There’s no other way to describe the Gear-Up’s off-road progress than unstoppable. It’s not fast or fleet, but the Gear-Up will plow over—or through—anything in its path with the tenacity of a feral badger.

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