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First Times Ride: Ural Gear-Up from Russia

August 05, 2013|By Charles Fleming

The Ural Gear-Up is a Russian-made motorcycle with a sidecar. It looks like a survivor of the siege of Stalingrad, because it is. The design dates from World War II, when the Russians were confronted on the battlefield by a German sidecar machine built by BMW, and decided to build one of their own.

The BMW spawned decades of improvements, and now results in sleek street machines such as the F800GT.

The Ural … no. Despite improvements in braking, suspension and electronics, it’s still very much the motorcycle the Russians fielded 70 years ago.

It's absurdly fun to ride, or drive, or ride around in.

But it's also a brute -- durable, heavy, difficult to steer. The handling is stiff, and requires some muscle. The engine is noisy, and the gearbox makes a sound like a bag of golf clubs being dropped down an elevator shaft.

But it's also the most attention-getting motorcycle I've ever ridden.

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The Gear-Up, one of several models the Russian company builds and exports to the United States, has many helpful appointments. The storage compartment will hold two helmets and two jackets plus some luggage. There’s also a tank-top storage area big enough for sunglasses and a wallet. A side jug could be useful for carrying extra gas or water, except for the label that says, “Not for gasoline or water.” So … vodka?

The bike feels so much like Soviet-era farm equipment that you expect to learn that it also can plow a furrow for planting beets, or can make its own fertilizer.

It doesn't. But it does come with its own shovel.

The sidecar is extremely comfortable, my passengers all said. It's also what draws all the attention. And there’s a lot of that. I have been out and about on some exotic machines, but I’ve never ridden anything that attracted more people than this one.

Riding the Ural is like being on parade. Everywhere I went people stopped me to ask questions and take pictures. A lot of them also asked me if they could have a ride. Oh, to be single and riding a Ural!

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The engine, modeled on the BMW boxer twin, is crude and clunky -- like a steam locomotive from early in the Industrial Revolution. It's attached to an equally clunky four-speed transmission, and to a shaft-driven rear wheel.

Or wheels. One lever, recommended for off-road only, throws the Gear-Up into two-wheel drive.

And because it's a three-wheel vehicle, and incredibly wide, it also has a very useful lever that throws it into reverse.

The bike clunks around town, and on the freeway too. Unlike some big motorcycles, there’s no speed at which it suddenly starts to feel breezy and smooth. It never feels like that. At any speed, the handling is stiff and athletic, and requires a lot of muscle.

And riding around town with no one in the sidecar presents real challenges. Ural veterans joke about the “fun” of making a sharp right turn and having the sidecar lift up off the ground. This is called “flying the chair.” 

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If motorcycles were sold by the pound, this would be one of the great bike bargains. The Gear-Up weighs in at 739 pounds, dry -- pretty heavy for a 749cc machine.

But no one buys this bike for its performance stats. They buy it for a special Ural appeal, and the chance to be the first and last on their blocks to own one. 

The Gear-Up retails for just over $14,000. Other Urals are cheaper. In fact, the Ural Solo, which does not feature a sidecar, costs $7,999.

But what's the point of that? The sidecar is what makes this motorcycle an unusual and exciting ride.

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