2011 Ural Gear-Up Sidecar Review [Video]
The original two-wheel-drive motorcycle
Riding a Ural with its attached sidecar among the aggressive, distracted drivers populating SoCal’s highways and byways had me feeling I was learning a new X-Box game using a vintage Atari joystick. The rules of motorcycling don’t apply and, although the procedures are familiar, a unique skill set is required to master the bike’s operation.
Engage the clutch, roll the twistgrip and the Ural Gear-Up either lurches or meanders to the right depending on the amount of go-juice you administer. Disengaging the clutch and/or rolling off the throttle causes the inverse reaction. This left to right or, depending on the order of engagement, right to left oscillation occurs with each gear change no matter the speed you’re traveling; It’s motorcycling’s sidehack adaptation of Newton’s Third Law.
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Applying the front brake also promotes a leftward jog, but, if properly adjusted, the twin rear brakes, one on the bike and one on the hack, conspire to maintain the desired direction of travel — straight — one of the few functions on the Ural to act thusly. Learning to counteract the sidehack’s directional influences is necessary and beneficial until you catch a false neutral and suddenly you’re over-compensating for a ghost effect. The adventure never grows old.
After enough time these idiosyncrasies become the endearing characteristics that charm the long-term owners of this modern-day relic. For new Ural riders it’s a three-wheel ride straight into funky town.
|What’s a Ural?|
How smart was Hitler’s Germany? According to Ural lore, Germany supplied the U.S.S.R. with the blueprints and castings to BMW’s R71 motorcycle upon which the Russian M-72 was constructed. Not long after, Hitler invaded Russia. Fearing Blitzkrieg destruction, Stalin had moved the motorcycle plant away from the front lines to the town of Irbitz in the Ural Mountains. The Ural and its sidecar took form in a renovated brewery. By the time Hitler was defeated, nearly 10,000 Ural sidecar motorcycles had been delivered to the front lines.
Following the war Irbit Motorcycle Works (IMZ) began producing commercial Urals mainly for the domestic market, with minimal exports to developing nations beginning in 1953. With the fall of the Soviet Union the enterprise became a privately-owned company and sales were refocused on international markets.
Today, utilizing a network of 48 dealers, the U.S. accounts for 60% of Ural sales. Of the 1,100 Urals to be produced this year, approximately 650 are scheduled for sale in America. Since the first M-72 Urals were sent into battle in 1942, more than 3.2 million Urals have been produced.
Leave everything you know about motorcycle performance and handling at the door when entering the world according to Ural. Obviously a large, metal object mounted to the side of any vehicle is going to change its handling characteristics, and in the case of motorcycles, that translates to an inability to lean... or does it?
Finding the sweet spot between speed, weight balance and centrifugal force when navigating a right turn and elevating the sidecar skyward is akin to learning to wheelie. It’s a trick that’s easy to accomplish, or a frightening unplanned occurrence, hence the warning sticker located on the Ural’s fuel tank.
Unlike a normal two-wheeler, where the rearward weight of a passenger helps lift the front wheel, a sidecar passenger acts as ballast, keeping the hack on the ground and able to navigate right-handers at higher speeds. Sidecar ballast is recommended by Ural for newbie sidehack pilots during the familiarization process.
When performing left turns the sidecar wheel becomes an outrigger, digging into the pavement or dirt so tenaciously you can push the front end without concern of losing control.
Aggressively riding the Ural, however, isn’t easy. It takes a level of physicality equal to, if not greater than, the same amount of time spent transitioning a sportbike around a racetrack. A lot of upper body strength, especially shoulder strength, is required to push the Ural to its limits. For more complacent riding styles, the Ural’s vintage, utilitarian appeal, ease of operation and, of course, the sidecar make it the perfect alternative vehicle when going golfing, running errands or Sunday afternoon lollygagging.
And then there’s that 2WD emblem on the trunk area of the hack. With a rearward throw of a lever, power is distributed from the bike’s rear wheel, via a driveshaft, to the sidehack’s wheel. But the 2WD system is useful only in the dirt. On pavement and anywhere else there’s traction, the 2WD wants to continue pushing forward whether you want to turn or not. No matter what input you give the handlebars, the Gear-Up will continue traveling in the same direction in which it was originally pointed.
In the dirt, or especially the mud, however, the traction provided by that second wheel is incomparable. If you have any familiarity with off-road vehicles, it’s the equivalent increase in performance when switching a Jeep from two- to four-wheel drive. Engaging the sidehack wheel helps power through deep mud and over craggy, loose obstacles. If more help is required, a passenger or any other ballast in the sidecar helps obtain better grip.
The sidecar has a payload of up to 400 pounds. So, even with a 200-pound passenger there’s another 200 pounds that can be stored in the 2.9 cu. ft. trunk or strapped onto the rack atop the trunk. At 5-feet-11-inches I was able to completely stretch my legs when sitting inside the hack. The vinyl seat (which gets hot in the sun so keep it covered when stopped if you’re carrying a passenger) is removable, and its absence allowed me to haul a wheelbarrow’s worth of firewood to our camping destination. The trunk lid is conveniently lockable, allowing for safe storage of valuables when traversing the urban jungle.
The sidecar is removable — four mounts, an electrical connection and on 2WDs there’s a driveshaft to disconnect —but it’s not recommended as the bike comes set-up from the factory to optimally function with the hack attached. “You wouldn't want to ride the bike solo because it is set up for sidecar handling starting from the front suspension,” says Ural’s U.S. representative, Madina Merzhoeva.
The Gear-Up is a combination of antiquated construction garnished with modern components such as the front disc brake and Brembo caliper. Twin Keihin carburetors feed the 749cc horizontally opposed twin-cylinder engine, Sachs hydraulic shocks suspend both the front and rear of the Ural, while spent gases exit through stainless steel mufflers.
Below the single analog gauge, whose odometer counts only kilometers but the speedometer displays both MPH as well as KMH, you’ll find an old-school friction-type steering damper that twists to increase or decrease pressure on the steering column. After a couple days riding the Ural I found an optimal setting by rotating the damper a full counter-clockwise turn to decrease pressure.
The speed at which you’re traveling is the median number between the +/- 10mph of the bouncing speedo indicator, and the idiot lights resemble glued-on buttons — but both function with some degree of accuracy. The seat is of the tractor-style variety, and while adding another layer of comfort by being independently suspended, the seat’s padding is thin and the back of the seat is too short by an inch or so, leaving my derriere forever searching for additional support.
These foibles are inconsequential, but those handlebars... Argh! While comfortable for weekend spins around the park or slow-touring the Blue Ridge Parkway, the bend in the bars pinch a rider’s wrists, especially the right wrist when attempting to lean into the sidecar. My suggestion, rattle-can some Renthal bars black, mount, then reinstall grips and controls for more comfortable, aggressive operation.
Finding neutral after the engine’s running hot is another problematic attribute. The inability to find neutral at a stoplight is frustrating enough, but when you’re in a situation that requires utilizing the Ural’s reverse gear, which cannot be engaged until neutral is found, it can incite offensive verbal abuse of the Ural’s straight-cut-gears transmission.
Like 2WD, reverse is engaged by a mechanical lever on the right side of the bike. On the left you’ll find a kickstarter, and with only an 8.6:1 compression ratio you can nearly kickstart the Ural with your tongue (there is an electric starter, but it’s much cooler to kickstart a bike of this nature).
The Ural Gear-Up, with its Gobi Desert-inspired camouflaged paint scheme, externally attached shovel and fuel canister, and overall vintage WWII presence is an attention magnet for both motorcyclists and pedestrians. Unlike the quizzical looks and “what the heck is that?” line of questioning bikes such as the Can-Am Spyder or Aprilia MP3 inspire, the Ural incites Mayberry friendliness in the form of smiles, waves and thumb-ups from everyone with some modicum of perception.
The Ural’s as genteel as a camel, and as lovable as a panda bear. It’s a unique, fun quirky Sunday afternoon ride, camping companion or, believe it or not, chick magnet. The aforementioned left/right, right/left reflexes require constant vigilance, but otherwise it’s as simple in its operation as it is in its technology.
And with a price range beginning at $10,000 for the standard, non-2WD Ural T model to $13,950 for desert camo 2WD Gear-Up model, it’s an affordable alternative to other uncommon motorcycles with more than two wheels.
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