Setting out on a motorcycle trip can change a person – I’m sure some of you probably already know that. Many of us take long trips on our motorcycles for that exact reason. We need to refresh our outlook. To remind ourselves of the simple and beautiful parts of life that all too often get overlooked. When I left my home on a sweltering Tuesday in late October, I knew I wouldn’t be the same upon my return. I welcomed that fact wholeheartedly. With a full tank of gas and a friend by my side, I left the person I was at that moment behind and focused on the road ahead.
It was 105° F on October 24, 2017, a mere 29 degrees warmer than the historical average, as one of my best friends and I took delivery of a new Ural Gear Up, brilliantly colored in what they call burgundy satin. It was unfortunate the rest of our party wasn’t there to behold this example of modern Russian engineering, ha! The Ural isn’t the most technologically advanced motorcycle on the market, but it would make up for that in character, quirks, and smiles for miles.
The rest of our five-man group had already hit the road nearly six hours earlier to reach our destination in time to hopefully secure a campsite. The destination? The glacier-carved valleys and towering granite monoliths of Yosemite National Park. We were headed out on a kind of boy’s trip. Two of my closest friends had traveled more than 2,500 miles to be there for it, as had my brother. The final member of our five-man team needed to travel only a few blocks.
Yosemite wasn’t our ultimate destination, that would be much more important. The final destination was the rest of my life. My entire life, you could say.
As Joey and I packed the Ural, we decided to take it for a quick (slow) spin just up and down the street to get acquainted with the controls and quirks of piloting a motorcycle with a sidecar. One of the few things my boss said to me after accepting my pitch for this story was: Don’t kill yourself on that thing. It resonated in between my ears. I didn’t want to kill myself or any of my dearest friends. I forced myself to shove all of that I know how to ride a motorcycle bravado down deep into the back of my mind and kept things nice and slow until I thought I had figured it out.
Nearly an entire two minutes later the Ural was loaded down and ready to go. With the trunk stuffed to the lid, full of camping supplies and gear, my great friend and co-pilot Joey and I hit the road to make our way 330 miles north from my home in Long Beach, CA.
Joey is one of my closest friends, and we are nearly inseparable when together. Our combined sense of adventure has been the driving factor in many experiences that have turned into life-long memories. Our friendship is drama-free and easy.
Due to our delayed departure, we had to get to Yosemite the fastest way possible; droning freeways. Pounding out mile after mile on the super slab. However, it turned out that we wouldn’t be making our way anywhere all that fast on the Ural. Its 749cc Flat-Twin engine really isn’t designed for high speed on the freeway. We soon learned we would have to get comfortable riding in the far right lane with the gargantuan semis, hauling goods around the country, to keep us company.
For a motorcyclist who enjoys the modern technology of current-day motorcycles, it was a lesson in patience. The Ural taught me, moreover, the Ural forced me, to take my time and slow down. And slow down we did. The engine began to sputter and die as we came to a rolling stop on the side of the 5 freeway. Thankfully, we were in the right lane, which made it easy to pull over. Were we out of gas? Surely not. We had only traveled 96 miles. As a precaution to running out of fuel, I had planned to stop near Gorman, CA, just 4 miles up the road, because I was unsure what kind of mileage we would be getting with the Ural fully loaded.
The manual states 155-185 mile range for its five-gallon tank. Being that I do what I do for a living, I can only assume this kind of fuel economy is the result of being tested downhill in neutral with the wind at your back and with the lightest load possible. That is, if they are even close to being realistic at all. Which is why I thought I would be safe getting gas exactly 100 miles in.
Turns out the Ural had given us all it had, delivering a lowly 19 mpg when fully loaded with 345 pounds of men and another 50 lbs or so of gear, uphill, WFO, on Interstate 5. We opted to call AAA to get a gas delivery. At only four miles away, the Gorman gas station was so close, yet so far.
A nice fella in a beat up old white Chevy came to our rescue after we waited 40 minutes. As he bounced the four-wheel drive vehicle over the side curb and came to a stop, we were able to breathe a sigh of relief that we would finally be back on the road shortly. We walked up to him and said hello as he handed me a dirty old coolant bottle presumably full of gasoline. It was a gallon-sized container, which would be plenty enough to get us to the Gorman station to fill up. Pouring gas into the Ural’s tank in gusting wind is no easy endeavor.
Our knight in shining overalls yet again saved the day as he flipped open his pocket knife and cut the top off of an old two-liter bottle found on his floorboard, to use as a funnel. Our savior was pretty excited about the Ural and took pictures of it from nearly every angle. He wanted to show his friends, who were “really gonna get a kick out of this.” We thanked him and made our way up the road toward the gas station we had so narrowly missed an hour earlier. Our friend followed behind us in the right lane to the gas station’s exit. As we turned off, we gave him a wave and he went about his way. I pumped just over four gallons of gas into the five-gallon tank on the Ural, which made it clear that 96 miles would be our absolute max range with the current load.
We would stop every 70 to 80 miles after that point. It was nice to get up and stretch and chat a bit, but it really wasn’t needed. The Ural is pretty comfy, with a long single seat for rider and passenger and a rather comfortable sidecar seat. We both could have endured plenty more miles before needing to stretch, but I wasn’t complaining, as I enjoyed hopping off for quick fill-ups just to break up the monotony of the freeway.
At one of our many gas stops we were able to contact the rest of our group (cell service is spotty in Yosemite Valley) and found that they had been given two campsite options in Yosemite Valley; Upper and Lower Pines. I was only going to feel completely at ease once they had secured a campsite. Part of the reason we were gathering was to enjoy a fun camping trip in Yosemite together, so I was hesitant to be relaxed until we had confirmation. Not long after speaking with the guys I received confirmation from the infallible, Kiyoji.
Kiyoji is the kind of guy you can count on for just about anything. A quote from one of the greatest movies of all time comes to mind, “You’re gonna like this guy. He’s all right. He’s a good fella.” While Kiyoji and I have known each other for the shortest amount of time out of this crew, he has quickly become one of my closest friends since working together more than two years ago. It helps that he lives a few blocks away and is a passionate motorcycle enthusiast.
With confirmation of a piece of dirt, fire ring, and picnic table that was ours for the next few days, we set out with new wind under our sidecar to meet with our friends in Upper Pines campground in Yosemite Valley. It almost felt as though we were going faster after receiving that news; however, as Hwy 41 began to twist and turn as it ascended into the Sierra, it was clear we weren’t going faster. Some of the steeper hills caused us to quickly lose momentum as the Russian Boxer motor gave us all she had not to roll backwards.
On our way through the twistier sections of road, Joey and I experimented with lifting the sidecar’s tire off of the ground on sharp right-hand turns. We became pretty adept at leaning (or hanging out of the sidecar, in Joey’s case) to counter balance the big three-wheeled vehicle.
After the sun had long disappeared behind the mountains, we three rolled into the campsite feeling like heroes. I say three because at this point, the Ural had become just as much of a character in this story as anyone else. From the excitement, smiles, and waves it attracted, to the strange handling nuances, the Ural was one of us now. The sixth imperfect addition to our party.
We would spend the next three days and nights in Yosemite, taking in the beauty of this jewel of the Sierra. We spent our days hiking and scrambling over boulders on the great granite mountain sides while generally enjoying each other’s company. Evenings were spent preparing and cooking food on the campfire. In the morning, Kiyoji would begin heating up water for coffee as we all rose from our tents. I’m not sure there was anything else I could have asked for during this camping trip.
The crew even agreed to a 16-mile hike on our last full day without hesitation. Starting at Glacier Point we hiked eight miles via the Panorama Trail into the valley floor, turned around, and hiked the same eight miles back to Glacier Point. According to my brother’s fitness app, we climbed the equivalent of 409 floors, and walked 38,003 steps. Not bad if I do say so myself. It took us most of the day, and while we were tired by the end, the views and camaraderie had been so fantastic that I’m sure the memories will live on with all of us for the rest of our lives.
After pillaging the nearest grocery store on the way back to camp in a blind fit of calorie consumption, we drove back to our campsite as we stuffed our faces with gas station five-layer dip, chips, and pre-made sandwiches. We hit the sleeping bags fairly early that night, content with our day’s expedition and in preparation of the next day’s travel. We were going to be making our way to the coast the following morning, so we needed our rest.
The next day, as the sun shone through the pines, we all packed up camp and made our way out of the national park. We traveled south on Hwy 41 to grab breakfast and make our way to the coast. Since the Ural Gear Up comes equipped with a lockable rear axle, making the three-wheeled vehicle two-wheel drive, I had been keeping a close eye out for any sign of trails or fire roads.
My prayers were answered just before Oakhurst. I noticed a dirt road with trail markers off to my right and quickly got on the brakes to get turned around and check out our possible dirty detour. Breakfast could wait. As the SUV with the rest of our group came near, I motioned for them to follow me for a quick exploration of what I had found.
Once we made it to the trailhead, Joey and I decided to go ahead and check out what we were getting ourselves into and made our way up into the dirt trail. We came across two other riders on an intersecting trail, one on a dirtbike, the other riding an ATV. Judging by the pause and right of way they gave us, I think they may have been rather surprised to see a WWII-era-stylized sidecar being ridden down the same trails they were enjoying.
Each of my friends took turns in the sidecar as we went for short jaunts up and into the trail system we just discovered. We never bothered with two-wheel drive as we never really needed it. This would end up being some of the most fun I had on the Ural the entire time I had it. It’s truly a blast off-road.
Our unexpected excursion took a chunk out of our time which would have otherwise been a leisurely ride to our next destination. We still planned to grab breakfast, which meant we needed to make our way down the mountain posthaste.
This time around, Joey and I were coming at each turn as seasoned veterans – a pilot with his monkey hanging dangerously far off of the sidecar to balance the Gear Up around the curves. It was about the time Joey was hanging his body out, basically dragging ass, that I noticed a police officer up ahead stopped on the shoulder. I yelled at Joey to get his ass back in the sidecar, literally, and once he finally understood what I was saying, we were uncomfortably close to the officer’s patrol car. Thankfully he was working on something more important at the time and paid us no attention.
We stopped for breakfast shortly after our near miss with Johnny Law and regrouped with the rest of our team. Once our stomachs were filled with breakfast burritos and coffee, we continued southwest. Kiyoji would ride in the sidecar with me for the following 180 miles as we made our way through California’s central valley to the coastal town of Cambria.
It continuously got warmer as we made our way down in elevation from the Sierra. Almost to the point of feeling like we were in a blast furnace while traveling through the center of the state. Gas stops were rather uncomfortable in full riding gear.
The two-lane highway we found ourselves on for approximately 100 miles was a through road to the coast which intersected all of the major highways and byways across the state. The road had straightened out, and with all of the semi traffic, cars would get backed up five or more deep. Each driver would take turns making passes between oncoming traffic with the same problem.
Passing semi-trucks on the Ural can be an exhilarating experience. At highway speed, 55 or 60 mph, the little 750 doesn’t have much left to give. As Kiyoji and I made passes on 60 ft-long semis we would duck down as low as we could to help with aerodynamics. All three of us were in this together.
After a couple of passes which didn’t seem dangerous to me, but maybe were a little nerve-wracking for Kiyoji, having no control over the situation, I looked over at him and pretended to wipe my brow as if saying, that was a close one.
We made our way up into the hills surrounding Paso Robles just as the sun began to start its descent, bathing the rolling landscape in a golden hue. It was truly magnificent as far as the eye could see. After coming upon a particularly stunning vista, we stopped to snap some pictures, taking advantage of the warm lighting and our first sighting of the Pacific Ocean during this journey.
Just before we had stopped, a white van had honked and waved. We really thought nothing of it, as the Ural has garnered plenty of this over the past 450 miles. As we were stopped taking pictures, the same large white passenger van pulled into the turnout. As it would turn out, the friendly driver of that van was my fiancée’s father and with him, the rest of their family from North Carolina, as well as my own father who had traveled from Illinois.
While we were all chatting about the views and the crazy random happenstance of running into each other out on the side of the highway, my brother and the rest of our sextet arrived in his SUV. All of a sudden there were 11 of us convened in this scenic turnout overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Of course, it wasn’t really all that crazy or random at all. We were all there for the same reason. We were converging upon the quaint coastal town of Cambria so I could marry the girl I have loved for the past 13 years of my life.
We chatted for a bit longer before making our way toward the sleepy coastal town and our hotels. Dinner was in a seaside park for everyone who was in town the night before the wedding. The entire coast was shrouded in a thick fog that evening. It gave the park an eerie yet cozy atmosphere. It was as though our few picnic tables and the surrounding family and friends were all that was important in the world as the scenery around us faded into the mist.
The next morning was slightly stressful as is typical of wedding days (or so I hear, this has been my only one). We were all running around taking care of last-minute errands. You know, things like, choosing the actual location of the wedding just hours before the ceremony. We had planned to have the wedding on the beach just north of Cambria but hadn’t chosen a specific location.
The entire wedding party, excluding my fiancée, joined me on the beach to choose an exact spot for the wedding to take place. The approximate location we had considered previously was less appealing than I had remembered. I walked up and down the beach in search of the perfect spot, which I found about 100 yards north from where we had originally planned to be.
It was perfect. A massive rock jutting out of the sandy seaside, 12 feet above the ocean, with a somewhat long but relatively easy walk from the road. The final section of the trail to our new location was, admittedly, a bit treacherous with loose rock and a steep descent to the final area. One wedding guest would later describe it as, “Beautiful but very dangerous”.
Once we had finalized everything at the ceremony location, I made my way back to our Airbnb to finish getting myself and my groomsman ready. Time somehow got away from us, and I was left rushing to get everything taken care of.
My stress had become apparent at some point, prompting Adam, part of the original five of this adventure, to pull me aside to make sure I was okay. He assured me he would take care of anything I needed.
Of course, I knew this. Adam is the most reliable guy I know. We have been friends for a long time, and I have watched him grow as a person from a friend to a husband and a father. He’s one of the most genuine, kind-hearted, and caring people I have ever been fortunate enough to have in my life.
With the renewed sense of knowing everything would be okay, I set off to pick up my uncle who would be officiating the wedding. Joey rode in the sidecar to the hotel that our guests and wedding party were assembling at prior to heading to the ceremony.
At this point, I would like to note that I hadn’t spent any time piloting the Ural without a body in the sidecar. Once Joey and I pulled up to the hotel and Joey had hopped out of the sidecar, I noticed my uncle in the back of the parking lot. I thought, I’ll just reverse back to him so I don’t have to wait for him to walk across the entire parking lot. We were strapped for time you see…
As I reversed with the sidecar unladen, up an off-cambered hill, the sidecar started to come off the ground. I had reversed too quickly for the incline I was heading up backwards, and the entire contraption tipped up, throwing me, in my suit, to the ground. The fun wasn’t over yet. The Ural continued to tip toward me, and I pushed it away with both feet so as to not be crushed by its 700-plus-lb curb weight.
The Gear Up fell back onto its tires and slowly rolled into a bush where it came to a stop. Nearly the entire wedding party and all of our guests had witnessed the spectacle. My future father-in-law and a few others had joined me in grabbing the Ural and shutting it off. They checked me over as I inspected the Ural for damage. The suit was okay, the motorcycle was okay, we were okay. A close friend and mentor of mine put his arm around me and said, “Well it’s not going to get any worse than that.” We both laughed and it settled my nerves.
I had an especially difficult time convincing my uncle, who was already reluctant to ride in the sidecar, to get into the Ural after that. Fortunately for me, we didn’t have time for him to think about it any further. He got in and we rode north to the ceremony location to welcome our guests and wedding party.
After that mishap, the wedding went off beautifully. We (I mean my wife) had put the entire thing together ourselves, and it was exactly as we had hoped it would be. Thankfully one of the most embarrassing moments of my life was vastly overshadowed by one of the best days of my life.
My new bride and I set off from the wedding aboard the satin burgundy Russian motorcycle that had been a crucial component in the last two weeks of my life. The next morning, we rode together as husband and wife the 250 miles south back to our home.
For those of you looking for a Ural Gear Up review, if you’re still reading, this story was never meant to be that. I could talk about the motorcycle’s claimed 41 hp and 42 lb-ft of torque or tell you about the IMZ leading-link fork which suspends the motorcycle’s front end. Perhaps I could tell you about how major upgrades came in 2014 by way of disc brakes on all three wheels, as well as fuel injection, but apart from that, not much has changed. For potential buyers; we got dismal gas mileage out of the thing most of the time, and it had developed a fair amount of oil leaking from where the alternator connects to the engine – things to keep an eye out for.
What the Ural Gear Up offers is a different perspective. Not only for you, but for others around you. People are nicer, they want to talk to you about it, they wave and take pictures. As the rider or passenger, you get to experience the fun of motorcycling in an entirely different manner. At one point I had my wife on the back and her friend in the sidecar. No other motorcycle will offer you that kind of passenger capacity comfortably (though we saw more people than that on scooters in Thailand during our honeymoon).
The Gear Up became my wife’s favorite motorcycle in the stable, and it will always hold a warm spot in my heart for the adventure of a lifetime it took me on. I rode that Ural into the rest of my life with the biggest and best parts of it as passengers along the way.