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Expats with camaraderie at their side

The sidecar motorcycle is a signature of Beijing's foreign residents. It's an instant community on three madcap wheels.

November 26, 2006|Robin Fields | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Each Sunday, weather and fussy engines permitting, the Beijing Dragons Motorcycle Club roars out of Starbucks and onto the open road, riding three-wheeled bikes that look like they were stolen from the frames of "The Great Escape" or a Laurel and Hardy reel.

Aboard retro sidecar motorcycles reminiscent of those on the road in Chairman Mao's day, the riders usually head for the mountains north of the city, where the fishing is good and the stone ribbon of the Great Wall stretches across the hillsides.

"Working and living in Beijing isn't the easiest thing," said Jim Bryant, the group's semiofficial leader. "There's stress and traffic.

"But this is one of the great upsides. You can see sights you only see in Chinese paintings."

The sidecars have become a signature feature of expatriate life here, binding together the growing numbers of transplanted Americans and Europeans who call China's sprawling capital home.

Expats own about 500 of the 2,000 sidecar cycles in Beijing, according to informal estimates. Some aficionados say they bought them for practical reasons: They cost far less than cars, use less gas, are maneuverable through the city's much-cursed traffic and have room for the family.

Mainly though, they look cool and give owners with an instant community far from home.

"I've met the most interesting, fantastic people," said Nick May, a photographer from New York, who got his three-wheeler a few months after moving to Beijing in the spring of 2004. "And it's a cross-section -- I've met English teachers and I've met CEOs."

Rebecca Kogan initially was displeased when her boyfriend bought a sidecar, but on her first ride with the Dragons, she met the man who helped get her a job at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide.

"It's like a little club I never knew existed," she said.

There is something undeniably madcap about riding in a sidecar.

Head vibrating 3 feet above the pavement, you are eye to eye with truck bumpers and bicycle wheels and sheep. Wind whistles in your ears. Pebbles ping off your helmet. Each bump in the asphalt sends your knees crashing into the metal torpedo's roof.

Still, there may be no better way to see the craggy terrain outside Beijing, curving up mountain roads, suspended -- or so it seems -- in air.

Most expats ride Chang Jiang 750s, often called CJs. Their designs are late-1950s Chinese variations on the 1940s Russian Ural, itself a copy of the BMW R71 introduced in 1938.

The motorcycle has a wide, flat seat. A spare tire perches atop the sidecar's rump.

"Designed for Hitler, modified by Stalin and finally manufactured for Mao," a website for Chang Jiang enthusiasts notes wryly. "Can any other machine in the world boast such a sinister pedigree?"

Authorities have cracked down on motorcycle traffic in an effort to curtail accidents, pollution and road congestion. About 170 Chinese cities restrict motorcycles and some, including Shanghai, have banned them.

Beijing, though increasingly stingy about issuing motorcycle license plates, has been somewhat more accommodating, perhaps because of its large foreign presence.

Last month, Harley-Davidson launched the Beijing chapter of the Harley Owners Group, and the company is now selling directly to the mainland market.

The Dragons were founded in the mid-1990s by an American businessman.

The wrench eventually passed to Bryant, whose wife bought him a sidecar in 1997, about three years after they moved to Beijing.

"She saw me drooling over them," he said.

Although Bryant is a selfdescribed grease monkey who used to race Indy-500-style cars, his initiation to CJ ownership was bumpy.

"By the third day the motor had seized up," he recalled. It was out of oil. "I hadn't checked because I didn't know where it was."

Until recently, Bryant was Subway's representative in Beijing, owning and selling the sandwich chain's first Chinese franchises.

He sold the business last year and went on a round-the-world sidecar ride to celebrate his retirement.

Then he returned to Beijing and, with two partners, started Frank's Classic Sidecars, a shop that sells and repairs bikes.

He typically organizes the Dragons' Sunday rides, which sometimes draw more than 30 cycles, most of them sidecars. Each outing feels like a goodwill tour.

Chinese villagers smile and wave as the Dragons streak by. Even in the city, club members say, police are inclined to give them a pass when they make strategic use of sidewalks or buzz down one-way streets in the wrong direction.

Of course, most sidecar owners also have tales of accidents or hair-raising near-misses. They say Beijingers are regrettably inclined to steal manhole covers, a constant worry for motorcyclists.

Terry Crossman, an American who owns a Beijing-based executive search firm, crashed his cherry-red three-wheeler last year on the way to a cocktail party. He swerved to avoid loose rocks and hit a pile of corn, breaking his leg.

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