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

“So? What do you think?” I ask my daughter, Kiva, as she slips on her Shoei and settles into the Ural sidecar.

“I like him,” she says. “He was very stylish.”

“No, not Jon.” As in Jon Bekefy, Ural Motorcycles’ marketing czar, who just handed us the key to this 2012 Ural Gear-Up sidecar. “What do you think of this? The sidecar you’re sitting in.”

“Oh, this,” she says. “It’s okay. It looks like an army tank. Where are my iPod and my book?”

While my fashion-forward 12-year-old seems nonplussed by Ural’s Iron Curtain aesthetic, I’m smitten. The chunky, pre-war styling, blocky tires, mil-spec “Forest Fog” powdercoat finish and all that metal ignites my imagination. This vehicle looks like it can—and will—take you anywhere. It’s impossible to stare at the Ural and not envision adventuring to the tip of South America, or some remote Alaskan outpost. The Ural takes you places before you even turn the key.

Where it’s taking us first, however, is from our current location, on the lower level of San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 3 parking structure, to the Motorcyclist offices in Los Angeles, 500 miles to the south, for our MC100 centennial celebration held last summer. An event like that only comes around once a century so I wasn’t about to miss it. The only problem was that the party conflicted with another special occasion—Kiva’s 12th birthday—and I wasn’t missing that, either. The only solution was to make her my “plus-one.” She’s wanted to visit Los Angeles since forever so she accepted the invitation, but balked when I tell her about our mode of transport: “A sidecar, Dad? Really?”

Kiva isn’t unfamiliar with sidecars. We’ve ridden all over our hometown of Milwaukee on a borrowed Harley-Davidson sidecar, and she enjoys these short trips. Still, she’s typically pre-teen, and the idea of spending four days side by side with me gives her pause. She isn’t the only one. Bekefy seems slightly uncertain too, especially after I refuse to complete the “strongly recommended” sidecar-driving course. Still, he patiently explains all the Gear-Up’s archaic features like how to manually engage two-wheel-drive and the reverse gear, and then cheerfully waves us off.

The Ural clatters to life with the mechanical presence of an industrial compressor. I stomp on the heel/toe shifter to “persuade” the non-synchronized, four-speed transmission into gear and engage the dry, dual-disc clutch, making the machine shudder away like a Russian T54 tank. We don’t travel 50 yards before we’re introduced to what is commonly called UDF—Ural Delay Factor—the inevitable Q&A sessions we were warned would spontaneously occur anytime we stopped within five feet of another human being.

This time it’s the elderly Chinese immigrant stationed in the parking booth. “I haven’t seen one of those in 50 years,” he says, incredulously. He refuses to believe it’s brand new, even after I show him there are just 41 kilometers on the odometer. “Not for 50 years…”

Sidecars like the Ural (and the closely related Chang Jiang and Dnepr) were a frequent sight in Communist China and Russia a half-century ago. There are two stories about how the Ural was born, and even the folks at Irbit MotorWorks in Irbit, Russia, where Urals are made, can’t say which is true. The romantic story says that on Stalin’s orders five 1939 BMW R71 sidecar outfits were purchased in Sweden then smuggled into Russia, where they were reverse engineered to create the first Ural M-72 that Red Army forces debuted in 1942. The more likely story is that R71 drawings and perhaps even tooling were supplied to Russia directly from BMW as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a treaty of non-aggression between Russia and Germany. Russian engineers worked forward from there.

Either way, the R71 was already obsolete in 1939 (BMW had begun developing the R75 that replaced it), and not much has changed since then. There have been many updates to the Ural recently, especially since the company was privatized in 1998 and focus shifted from providing state-sanctioned employment to actually selling motorcycles. Look closely and you’ll see modern Brembo brakes, Sachs shocks, and Keihin carburetors, which, even if they aren’t cutting edge, at least represent late-20th-century technology. But the basic design—the double cradle frame, the leading-link fork, the 750cc, air-cooled flat twin and the all-steel sidecar—are essentially unchanged. Nearly every piece of the bike—even the wheel weights—is manufactured inside a massive factory in Irbit, 1000 miles east of Moscow on the edge of the Siberian steppe. The machines are built almost entirely by hand, each receiving more personal attention than even the most exclusive Bimota, which partly explains their near-$14,000 price tag. Once you recognize Ural’s old-world authenticity, it’s hard not to fall in love.

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.

After a few hours spent standing among giants, we chug the rest of the way down the mountain into Santa Cruz, and follow the signs to the world famous “Mystery Spot.” One of the great joys of traveling with child is that I now have a reason to pull over and explore roadside wonders that I’ve always rushed past before. We spend an hour tripping out on the weird effects of this so-called “gravitational anomaly,” walking on walls and rolling balls uphill, before continuing along to our overnight spot in Monterey—but not before Kiva slaps the iconic Mystery Spot bumper sticker on the back of the sidecar. We believe.

Day two, which takes us down the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur, is an all-day epiphany. It turns out that Iron Butt-type “touring” like I usually practice, racing the odometer and stopping only for gas, is doing it all wrong. PCH is even more remarkable at 50 mph. At this pace, you don’t spend the entire time cursing RVs, making dodgy double-yellow passes, and glancing over your shoulder looking for the CHP pursuit plane. Of course, it helps to have an endlessly curious 12-year-old along for the ride. She falls in love with the elephant seals beached at Piedras Blancas—a spot I typically blow right by—and I enjoy careening down Nacimiento-Fergusson Road like some runaway carnival ride, engine turned off so I can hear the block-tread tires squealing and Kiva’s terrified screams as she peers over the sheer cliff drops just inches away. Later, heading south on the 101, I pause from worrying the mirrors and look down to see that Kiva has fallen asleep in the chair, her helmet gently bouncing against the side rail.

Day three starts slowly in Solvang, when UDF strikes three times before we even leave the hotel parking lot: a scruffy Deadhead-type, a bicycle tourist headed to the Mexican border, and an elderly military history buff who wants to know if I “restored it” myself. We finally sneak away and shoot down the 1 from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, hogging the right lane all the way. Our only distraction now is the constant stream of cars pulling up beside us to snap cell-phone pictures with the shimmering blue Pacific Ocean in the background.

We make it to LA just in time for Kiva, a militant vegetarian, to have her birthday lunch at a vegan café near Venice Beach. We wander down to the waterfront in search of dessert, dodging medical-marijuana hawkers, transvestites on roller skates, and underground hip-hop promoters. She’s thrilled to watch for a few minutes while Shaun White films a television commercial at the skate park, and she decides a dish from Yogurtland is a fine substitute for birthday cake.

Then it’s time to head to El Segundo for our anniversary event. We merge onto Venice Boulevard just as afternoon traffic peaks, and what’s usually a 20-minute trip with lane splitting becomes an hour-long odyssey on the two-track Ural. I feel like I’ve just wrestled a bear when we finally arrive at the office, my arms are worn out from working the bars just to keep the bike going straight in all the stop-and-go traffic. A convenient urban commuter the Ural is not.

That night’s event lived up to its “party of the century” promise. “Just don’t say ‘um’ a lot, and please don’t tell any jokes,” Kiva advises, before I climb the podium to announce Honda’s CB750 as our choice for Motorcycle of the Century. We stick around the MC shop until almost midnight, while Kiva entertains herself collecting autographs from Kevin Schwantz and our Motorcyclist of the Century, Malcolm Smith. The Ural sits at the center of the garage all evening, looking right at home alongside the antique motorcycles assembled for display. At one point I see Dan Gurney posing for a photo in the sidecar, no doubt making mental notes of the chair’s comfortable, recumbent seating position.

Our only remaining three-wheeled task before returning to Wisconsin is an early-morning photo shoot in the Palos Verdes hills. “I don’t know how to say this,” photographer Andrea Wilson says, “but can you try to look less bored, Kiva?” Welcome to my world... I fly the chair a few times to wake her up, but that just makes Kiva look angry and leaves me with a bruised right thigh from her punches.

I make one last phone call before we catch our flight home, dialing Bekefy again and begging to keep the Ural a few days longer. Our adventure is over, but there’s a long line of other MC staffers who want to experience sidecar life. Our publisher, Dave Sonsky, borrows it to ferry his wife and their small herd of Italian Greyhounds around; Ari Henning and his wife explore the dirt roads crisscrossing the Santa Monica mountains; then Ari and his brother-from-another-mother, Zack Courts, ride it to Bakersfield to retrieve a Honda MB5 purchased off Craigslist.

Everyone who rides the Ural is utterly charmed—especially Kiva and me. I recently showed her photos of the new Ural Yamal Limited-Edition, resplendent in its icebreaker-inspired flat-orange paint, with shark’s teeth painted on the side and an oar to replace the shovel.

“We need that, Dad. Seriously.”

I totally agree. But only if we take delivery in at Irbit America’s offices in Seattle and ride it back to Wisconsin via the Arctic Circle. She says she’s in if I am.

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