Lois on the Loose

The Story

How I fell in love with a Russian bit on the side… 

‘Now this is where the reverse gear really comes in handy!’ declared Austin as we skidded to an emergency stop with the front wheel hanging over the edge of a precipice. We were on a remote trail somewhere in the Utah desert, it was 110 degrees and we had half a bottle of water and a packet of Oreos between us. Anyone would think we were new to this motorcycle travel business. As Austin throttled backwards in a cloud of dust, I clung on to the sidecar, hoping that it would be my turn to drive soon, perchance in a more ladylike fashion.

It was just another day of our six-thousand mile ride across America in a Ural sidecar outfit and today we were discovering the vagaries of driving one of these beasts off-road, an experience akin to a wrestling match. But the mighty Ural, being made of sterner stuff than its riders soaked up every rock, bump and pothole with ease. ‘This is the ultimate couples overland machine!’ Austin announced romantically as I narrowly missed a tree. You heard it here first folks!

I’d always wanted to drive a sidecar outfit, mainly because they look like a lotta fun. After a quick spin on a friend’s Ural outfit last year, I was hooked, and it struck me as the perfect vehicle for a back-roads traverse of the USA. Their vintage good looks, solid build (the Russians make their bikes like they make their lady shot-putters) and rugged 2WD capability is the very embodiment of ‘Good Old-Fashioned Adventure’ and the thought of rumbling from coast-to-coast on America’s two-lane highways, dirt roads, and desert trails in one of these outfits seemed like the most fun you could have on three wheels. Urals have not always enjoyed a reputation for reliability but recently they’ve undergone some serious upgrades and I was keen to put their improvements to the test.

My dream became a reality when we arrived in Richmond, Virginia to pick up a 750cc 2WD ‘Patrol’ from Ural dealer and all-round super vintage bike store, Velocity Motorcycles. Ready and waiting in its army-green livery and camouflage sidecar cover, it looked like something from Where Eagles Dare. On closer inspection it did actually appear that it had engaged in active service, judging from its dented, scraped-up bodywork. As it turned out, this was the result of an over-enthusiastic test-ride rather than any frontline action; the previous day a member of staff had flipped the outfit while taking a corner, resulting in some hasty last-minute repairs and a dislocated shoulder for his passenger. Yikes.

Wondering what kind of death-trap we were getting involved with here, we packed our gear and prepared for the off. Now all we had to do was drive it across the country to Ural HQ in Seattle. Easy! Or so I thought as I carefully reversed it out of the workshop, shifted into first and inched my way into the street, mowing down a few traffic cones with the sidecar in the process. Oops! Yep, having a giant lump of metal attached to the side of my bike was going to take some getting used to.

It took us a few days to get the hang of our novelty transport, with only the occasional near-death foray into the path of oncoming traffic, but maybe starting our trip in the twisties of the Appalachian Mountains wasn’t the most sensible idea. To be honest, not an awful lot of sense had gone into this whole venture, borne as it was from a romantic notion of the Great American Road Trip and our penchant for vintage iron. The actual practicalities and techniques of driving a sidecar outfit had barely been discussed. Being accustomed to travelling on minimalist trail bikes, we were far too excited about the capacity for carrying loads of clobber (‘It’s got a boot!’) to consider the more practical issues that might arise. Like going round corners.

Driving a sidecar outfit is nothing like riding a motorcycle and nothing like driving a car. It’s not even somewhere in between. Once you get the hang of it, it’s tremendous fun but in the beginning it can be positively terrifying, as if all your years of motorcycling experience count for nothing. The physical nature of it is exhilarating but the faster you’re going, the harder it is to steer. Just travelling in a forward direction at 50mph constitutes a serious upper body workout and hauling it round the corners requires an act of superhuman strength.

We followed the Blue Ridge Parkway, a fabulously twisty road along the crest of the Appalachians into Tennessee and North Carolina. The South often gets a bad press but one fine southern tradition that is alive and well is the famous hospitality and politeness of the locals. It took a little while to get used to being called ‘Ma’am’ but I soon became rather fond of it and when I heard a man attempting to attract my attention in a Nashville parking lot, calling out in a Tennessee drawl, ‘Ma’am, d’you have a light?’ I turned around expecting to find a dapper southern gent complete with seersucker suit and jaunty hat, waving an unlit cigar in my direction. My charming stereotype was immediately busted when my eyes fell upon a dishevelled old guy with his flies undone, waving not a cigar, but his meat ‘n’ two veg at me. ‘Ma’am,’ he said politely, ‘would you please take a look at this’. I shall refrain from including my response here but you’ve got to hand it to Tennessee, even their flashers are gentlemen.

Leaving the South, our route took us through the barren plains and alternating hail and sunshine of the Mid-West until we spied the jagged horizon of the Rockies, rising up in the distance into a bright blue sky. Having stuck to mainly paved roads so far, and being dirt-bikers at heart, we were both itching to put the Ural through its paces off-road and test out its 2WD capability. Where better than the Rocky Mountains? Spying a rock-strewn river running alongside the road, Austin veered off down a trail and with a quick flip of the lever that engages the sidecar wheel, plunged down the bank into the water and proceeded to drive upstream, crashing over boulders, the sidecar bouncing up and down as the bow waves washed over us, soaking us from head to foot. I clung on for dear life, worrying not so much about my own peril but how the poor bike (that doesn’t belong to us!) would cope with this onslaught. But I underestimated the Ural and it ploughed onwards, undaunted by any obstacle in its path until we reached a low bridge and were forced to abandon our amphibious adventure. Austin swung a sharp left-hander up the steep gravel bank and with a roar of pure Soviet power and a distinct whiff of eau de clutch we were back on dry land.

Of course an American road-trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Bonneville. We weren’t kidding ourselves though; there we would be no land speed records broken by our overloaded rig, unless there’s a record for a Ural sidecar outfit with excessive luggage driven by two people who have spent six weeks eating burgers and pancakes. In which case, I would like to bet that we now hold that record. But whatever you’re riding, tearing it up across the Bonneville Salt Flats as fast as your machine can go is something that every motorcyclist should experience once in their lives, hell, it’s even worth doing in a hire car! The most striking thing about Bonneville is that in a country where every little bit of history and heritage has been theme-parked to saturation point, here is a piece of motoring legend that has been entirely ignored. Not a sign, not a café, not even a shop selling key-rings or lumps of Genuine Bonneville Salt. Just an enormous expanse of dazzling white land beside the US15 that looks as empty and alien as the surface of the moon. You just drive off the freeway and open up the throttle!

As we made our way through the wild Western states ofColorado,NevadaandOregon, we spent our nights camping in the woods and under the vast desert sky, mingling with bears and coyotes who seemed happy to share their great wilderness with us. But our triumph on reaching the Pacific Coast was tinged with sadness, for it meant that our grand adventure was over. The Ural had become a firm and trusted friend during our cross-country ride and its old-fashioned analogue charm had attracted everyone we met along the way, proving that it’s not just a reliable steed that will take you anywhere in comfort and style, but that it’ll make you many friends in the process. What more could you want from your motorcycle?

We had clocked-up over six-thousand miles when we pulled up outside Ural HQ in Seattle but I speak for Austin, myself, and the Ural, when I say we could have happily kept going… maybe north to Canada and Alaska, or south to California, Mexico and beyond. But that will have to wait for another trip, because there’s always another trip…