My friend Jason drives a Ural.
A Russian-designed sidecar motorcycle. That he commutes to the city in.
I think it’s badass, and therefore a fine candidate for Full-Assed Friday.
Jason was kind enough to meet me between shows on a Wednesday and for the small bribe of a grande triple-shot iced vanilla latté, talk to me about his Full-Assed commuter vehicle.
So. Why a Ural?
Well, first of all it’s cool. But when my wife and I moved to New Jersey we thought we were going to need a second car. I knew it would be a beater and I was going to end up being the one who drove it, so I suggested this instead, because you can pretty much drive them year-round.
What’s the history of the Ural?
Supposedly in about 1940, before the Nazi invasion of Russia, Stalin’s engineers got ahold of five BMW R71’s from Swiss intermediaries. They reverse engineered them and made the Ural. They were manufactured in Leningrad until the mid 1940’s, when production was moved to a town called Irbit, in the Ural mountains. They were purely for military use until the 1950’s and then they began making consumer models, but still only for sale in the Soviet Union. They gradually began to export them to European countries, but it wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Union- somewhere around ’91 or ’92- that they began to export them to the US. Today the US is the largest importer of them in the world.
How has the design changed over time?
The only significant change is they upgraded the electrical system on the newer models. It has an electric start now, which it didn’t used to have, but it still has the old kick start. It has an Italian alternator now- a Denso- and a disc brake on the front. The metallurgy is better, just from the evolution of metallurgy. Other than that it’s the same bike.
What model do you have?
Mine is a 2007, which I bought at Adirondack Ural. There aren’t very many of these around, and so not many people that deal with them. It’s more like an ATV that you can ride on the street than a motorcycle. Because they’re so unique and uncommon, it tends to be a pretty eccentric group of people who ride them. There’s an online community of Ural owners who are a wealth of information. They’re the ones who made it possible for me to get the bike back on the road after my accident.
Tell me about your accident.
I was stopped, facing a van in a turn lane. We were both making opposite left turns. Everything looked clear and I went but a car came flying from behind the van right at me. The car hit my sidecar side, I flew off, and then the bike flipped. I wasn’t hurt.
I got zero help from my insurance company, but everybody on site was great. The guy that hit me and another witness got out and helped me right the bike and move it off the road, out of the spewing gasoline.
How did the people in the online community help?
They basically made it possible for me to do the repairs. There just aren’t many people who know how to service Urals, so you really rely on the community. I didn’t have the mechanical knowledge before this, and with their help I did everything except the body work.
It is normally a high maintenance kind of bike?
Definitely. It will run pretty much all the time, but in order for it to run well you have to do a lot of tinkering. The good thing is that you can fix it. A Ural comes with a set of tools and you can do just about any mechanical repairs or tweaking on it that you need to with these tools. That’s a big draw to a Ural. It was designed for soldiers to ride, and they needed to be able to fix it in the field while being shot at. It’s so simple it’s like a giant lawnmower.
What’s the draw to motorcycles for you?
I grew up with them. My grandpa was a biker. I rode a motorcycle before I rode a bicycle. I started on motorcycles at age five and didn’t ride a bicycle until I was about thirteen.
What kind of motorcycle did you have at age five?
It was a Suzuki RM50 that belonged to my neighbor. We were in Detroit and moved out to the country when I was five, and my neighbor was a big Motocross guy. He was sponsored by Honda and placed 8th nationally in the AMA one year. A farmer near us let him set up a track in a corner of a field he wasn’t using, and he taught me how to ride.
Your grandpa was a biker- was he affiliated?
There was a big biker war across the Detroit River with Canada that he was somehow involved in. I think he may have been in and out of clubs, but he was mostly done with that by the time I can remember. He and my grandma still had the lifestyle though. He was covered in tattoos and had this really long ZZ Top beard. I didn’t even know his real name until I was in my teens. It was just “we’re going to Nana and The Beard’s house.”
What kind of bikes did he have?
The one constant that he had up until he passed away was a 1947 mint condition original Indian Chief.
Nice! What happened to it?
He willed it to me, but they didn’t have any savings because, you know, they were bikers. So we sold it so my grandma could get the proceeds. He also had a Road King for a while, a Goldwing, a BMW. The Indian Chief was the constant though, and it only came out on special occaisions. Like they would go for rides on Memorial Day.
How did your grandpa influence you?
He took away the taboo on motorcycles for me. There’s a stigma attached to them which I see past- it’s just a way of life to me. I feel more comfortable on a motorcycle than I do in a car. The first time I ever went fast I was six years old and sitting on his gas tank. He took me screaming past my house at over a hundred miles an hour and as my dad tells the story, he could hear me wailing away over the engine having the time of my life, and my mother started crying. Dad knew I was doomed to ride from then on.
From my dad’s whole side of the family I get that independence thing: be your own person, and if you don’t think something is right, don’t do it. Speak up.
The Ural isn’t a very fast bike, is it?
No. The fastest I’ve ever had it going is 63 miles per hour. It’s kind of like a Jeep in that it may not go very fast, but you can take it anywhere. The frame is all one piece, the side car doesn’t come off. That makes it very sturdy. Then the sidecar has an engageable drive. Most sidecars are just passive, but with this, you can flip a lever, engage the drive, and then it’s like a three-wheeler. You can take it over sand, dirt, rocks, snow, anything.
Who rides in the side car?
My dog will get in it happily up until the point that I start the engine. My wife rides in it and also my friend Emile when we commute in together.
Does your wife like it?
She likes it better now since the accident, because it looks cooler. When I had the body work done I got a custom paint job, put more chrome on it, got to trick it out a little bit. Before the accident, she said she felt like an old person in a bathtub, because it kind of looked like an old man’s bike. But now she says she feels like an eccentric person in a bathtub.
Do you have any trips planned for it?
I want to take it up Mount Washington. I’ve also had a lifelong dream to ride a motorcycle across the country- I probably get that from my grandpa. He had taken the Indian cross-country four or five times.
Through my friend Jake I found out that there’s a network of back roads and two-tracks called the Trans American Trail. It goes from Tennessee to Oregon and barely ever hits pavement. I’ve been planning that trip for a while but it keeps getting pushed back because of life and work. There’s a similar network of roads called the Puppy Dog Route that runs through Vermont, and I’m planning a four day trip there in October. That will be the test. If I can make it through that, I have no concerns about doing the Trans American Trail.
Are all those back roads still there in Vermont since the hurricane?
I guess I’m going to find out! I’m confident that I’ll be able to get through- or around- anything in the Ural. And if I start running out of time, I can just bail and head back.
How about all y’all- do you have a favorite motorcycle story to share? Ever ridden in a side car? What’s your ideal commuter vehicle?
Full-assed Friday is a regular feature on this blog. It’s where I share something interesting, funny, or just plain different. I take suggestions and do guest posts. If you’re interested, contact me at accidentalstepmom at g mail dot com.