Go off-road in a sidecar: We get a taste of outfit life by riding Ural’s latest three-wheeler in Portugal
How many riding situations are there in motorcycling where you effectively need to forget everything you know? Trials maybe? Ice racing perhaps? For me it’s riding a sidecar. It’s the single hardest thing I’ve done since I learned to ride a bike – but also the most rewarding.
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As I quickly found out at the Ural Experience Centre in Portugal, riding an outfit is totally different to riding a solo motorcycle. In fact it’s pretty much the complete opposite. And, worst of all, once I realised I was going the wrong way, the subconscious part of my brain took over and put me onto a collision course with a wall.
My tutor is Rob MacDonald MBE, a former commando who has also been riding and racing sidecars for decades, so if anyone can teach me how to ride with an extra wheel on the side, it’s him.
Rob says that some people click with the basics of sidecars quickly while others don’t. Just getting the thing up and down in a straight line took me many frustrating hours (not frustration with the machine but with my own brain for never quite seeming to do what I asked of it) so maybe I’m the latter.
The essential challenge of a sidecar is that it is inherently asymmetrical. Only the bike’s rear wheel is driven (except on some Urals) so when you accelerate the bike effectively tries to overtake the chair, so the whole lot turns to the right (at least, this is the case of the right-hand sidecar I’m riding in Portugal; British outfits, with left-handed sidecars due to our riding on the left, react the same but in the other direction).
Then, if you shut off, the bike tries to decelerate quicker than the chair, turning you to the left, albeit to a lesser degree.
Steering is also asymmetric. Turn right and the two wheels of the bike pivot around the single wheel of the outfit, enabling quite a tight turning circle. Turn left, however, and you’re effectively trying to drag the outfit around the bike, which it doesn’t really want to do.
Now, all this sounds mightily complicated when written down but once you start to get used to it, it does become quite natural. In fact, you begin to learn to use these reactions to your advantage. Got a tight right-hander? Get on the gas and drive the bike around the outfit to tighten up the corner. An uphill left? Slow right down and slip the clutch for control…
With the basics mastered off-road, we next headed out onto a quiet, straight bit of road to practise road positioning. The difficulty in this is not where you put the bike but where you position the third wheel – because you can’t see it while you ride along.
Rob instructed me to ride near the edge of the road and once there work out my frame of reference. For me, the kink in the mirror stalk was roughly in line with the kerb so as long as the mirror stalk didn’t veer right of the kerb, I wouldn’t be putting my passenger into a hedge…
With positioning mastered (in the loosest sense of the word) we spent more time on some twisty roads before heading to a challenging off-road climb. The track used is simple enough but with plenty of loose rocks, the sort that wouldn’t trouble an enduro bike but might have you sweating aboard an adventure machine.
As the track twists I have to muscle the bars round the corners, jumping on the throttle to turn as the outfit bounces and the wheels scrabble for grip. It’s exhilarating in a way I never expected and the bonus is that if you need to stop, you can. There’s no ‘where will I put my foot’ drama, no risk of toppling over.
The same goes for descents, take them nice and easy to avoid the risk of the front wheel washing out in some gravel.
Feeling on top of the world, I did the classic thing of making a mistake while tired – so called it quits and made haste for a beer. I left comfortable with the thought that I’d crammed in as much new knowledge as I could but with a desperate thirst to go back and get the skill truly licked.
Jordan’s advice for riding a sidecar outfit
Go slow and steady: We probably all know someone who jumped in a sidecar and headed out onto the open road – but most of us can’t – or certainly shouldn’t. Proper training is essential.
Know your limits: Once you’ve got a few small manoeuvres under your belt it’s tempting to start going quicker but that’s often when things begin to unravel. Get the basics of steering, braking and road positioning nailed first.
Take time in the chair: Unlike a regular bike, you can just sit in the chair and watch what a seasoned operator is doing. Not only does it help what you’ve learned to sink in, it’s also a fun demonstration of how capable the machines are.
Don’t give up too soon: Did you learn to ride a motorcycle in just one day? Of course you didn’t and you probably won’t master riding outfits in a single day either. There’s nothing wrong with returning a few times to really get the hang of things.
You can do it too
The Ural Experience Centre runs year-round in Pombal, Portugal, with basic instruction starting from €100 (approx. £85) per day. You can choose between on-road, off-road or a mixture of the two. Pombal is roughly equidistant from both Porto and Lisbon, with return flights starting from £75 per person. There are also plans for a UK-based Ural Experience run by The Sidecar Guys later this year.