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Side order to go

Hop on, hop in, the laughs begin. It's conspicuous commuting with Ural's Gear-Up.

October 04, 2006|SUSAN CARPENTER

IF you want to get friends on your good side, just take them for a spin in a sidecar. They won't stop smiling no matter how long they're in there, and after you're parked, they won't stop talking about it. That's how I spent the past week: solidifying friendships as I whipped through L.A. streets on a 2006 Ural Gear-Up with a rotating cast of giggling passengers.

When it comes to modern So Cal riding, it would be hard to find a brand-new bike with fewer practical amenities. Sure, L.A. streets are a battlefield, but the machine-gun mount is a bit excessive. And who needs a cigarette lighter when smoking can get you a ticket faster than speeding?

As for the shovel and spotlight on this 745 cc military throwback, I'd take GPS and ABS over them any day if the Gear-Up was my daily driver. But that would be missing the point. The Gear-Up isn't about practical. It's about fun.

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was actually a purpose to the bells and whistles that come standard issue on the Gear-Up. It was war. Specifically WWII when, as Ural legend has it, the Russians got their hands on the Germans' BMW R71 flat twin and reverse engineered it. In 64 years, Ural's burgled design -- complete with shaft drive and reverse -- has not only evolved, it's spawned multiple models and upgrades.

Until 2001, when the company nearly closed its city-sized factory in Siberia's Ural mountains, almost everything, from the bolts and pistons to the tires and paint, was made in Russia. Since the company restructured five years ago, the Russian twin carburetors have been swapped for Japanese Keihins, the front brake has evolved from a drum to an Italian Brembo disc, and the alternator is a Denso, also Japanese.

That still doesn't make the Gear-Up a modern ride. It just makes this air-cooled four-stroke a little less likely to break down in the middle of nowhere, forcing you to swap a wrecked wheel with the 19-inch, steel-spoked spare that's strapped to the sidecar or to wrench parts with the tool kit that fits in a compartment on the tank.

Despite the recent improvements, handling the Gear-Up is still a workout. Even keeping it in a straight line is a challenge because the three wheels are lopsided. The motorcycle's rear wheel and the sidecar's are not on the same axle. They are not directly aligned, and only the rear wheel of the motorcycle has power. So when accelerating, the Gear-Up pulls slightly to the right due to the inertia and drag of the sidecar. Likewise, rolling off the throttle pulls the bike slightly to the left.

The result is a bike that doesn't play well with traffic. I might have been moving forward, but I also looked like I'd been pounding shots of Stoli, weaving around in my lane as I up- and down-shifted. On two wheels, I make a practice of protecting my lane and riding in the middle, but do that on a three-wheel bike and you're straddling the next lane over.

At 5 feet, 7 inches across, the Gear Up is almost as wide as a car and harder to handle. Cornering, I had more than a few cars nipping at my mud flaps as I heeded the warning sticker that "left-hand and right-hand turns may be dangerous ... at excessive speeds" and steered my way through like a granny.

There is no counter steering on a sidecar bike, like there is on a traditional two-wheeled motorcycle. Turning is a matter of muscling the bars in the direction you want to go. Left-hand turns are easier than right. Take a right turn too fast and you'll "fly the chair," i.e. lift the sidecar's wheel off the ground, because centrifugal force pushes the weight of the sidecar toward the bike, rather than leaning it right. That's why newbies to Ural's lopsided three-wheeler are counseled to put a 100-pound ballast in the sidecar.

My ballasts were a bit heavier. They also tended to laugh a lot.

Usually there was only one. But on one chilly night in Echo Park, I had two gigglers on board -- one to my right and one out back. Riding a bike has never felt so much like a party.

Together, the three of us added about 480 pounds to the Gear-Up's 739. According to Ural, our three-wheeled comrade could have taken on at least another 260. I just couldn't find anyone game for a ride in the 2.9-cubic-foot trunk.

As far as who can hitch a ride in the sidecar, the same laws apply to passengers of sidecars as to passengers of motorcycles. Though there is no age, height or weight restriction, the California Vehicle Code requires each passenger to wear a properly fitting, DOT-approved helmet.

The code also requires that child passengers under 6 years old or 60 pounds be seated in an approved child seat. Because child seats must be secured with a seat belt, and the Ural sidecar doesn't have one, by extension, children under 6 or 60 pounds aren't allowed.

As for who can operate a sidecar motorcycle, a motorcycle license isn't necessary. The Governator's crash proved that earlier this year. A standard driver's license (class C) is all you need.

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