Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My experience with riding a Ural - much better now....

Someone emailed me the other day and asked for my thoughts on Ural ownership.  It seems he was in the initial stages of the same affliction which led to my trading a perfectly well running BMW 1150RT with a mere 80,000+ miles on the odometer for my '96 Ural Sportsman Sidecar Rig!

Snow?  Not a problem usually on a Ural!
This photo was on the way up to Loveland Pass

Six months and a bit over 10,000 kilometers on the Ural's odometer, I give you the results of my riding, wrenching and exploring experiences for those amongst you who wonder about these beasts.

One of his questions was on the differences in the handling and control of two wheels vs three wheeled vehicles.  Well, that's a lengthy discourse all by itself.  They are basically night and day in terms of handling.  First time I rode a motorcycle with an outrigger wheel (not a sidecar), I damn near took out a neighbor's mailbox.  Damn thing wouldn't lean into the turn I was trying to force it into!  : )  You have to steer it into a turn, kind of like a car but it just feels wrong the first time.  I also had to stop myself from putting my feet down when stopping.  Very weird.

If you can get training on a sidecar rig, I highly recommend you do so.  I'll be writing soon about the training I am currently going through.  At the very least, put 80-100 lbs of ballast (I used sandbags) in the sidecar and practice the maneuvers in the Sidecar Owner's Manual in following link:  LINK

Tight right turns, done too fast, will cause your sidecar to lift and possibly overturn if you don't react correctly.  This is called "flying the chair".  Some guys make it look fun and easy.  I briefly "flew the chair" during training and it was "interesting".

The days of zipping through tight curvy mountain roads will be replaced by occasional moments of sheer terror when that right handed curve turns out tighter than you thought.  Don't get me wrong, still a lot of fun but you really have to slow down for right turns.  Left turns I hear are somewhat easier but can be tricky for one wheel drive (1WD) outfits.  2WDs like mine make left turns easier apparently.  This is important, you have to shift your weight in the direction of the turn!  Not lean, shift, as in move your butt so part of it hangs off the side of the seat closest to the inside of the turn!

Once you get used to it though, it's a blast to ride!  By the way, long distance touring is possible on a Ural, given certain conditions:

Service intervals are short, and you have to like working on your motorcycle.  Nothing mysterious, just a willingness to get greasy and turn a wrench or three (a BFH is a required tool).  Its recommended you change out the oil every 3000 Km, not miles, kilometers......it's easy, and you might as well change out the transmission (same as engine oil) and final drive fluid (80w90 oil) while you're at it, it usually takes me an hour, moving slow.

I've learned, via Bill Glaser's myural.com, how to service wheel bearings, work on sidecar drive shafts, replace wheels, replaced u-joints, changed fluids, oil filter, air filter and soon will be servicing my shocks.  There's nothing inherently complex about a Ural, really.  You have to consider, these were machines originally designed to be worked on in the middle of nowhere, with minimal tools, by an uneducated Soviet Army private, probably while under fire!

If you want to get there fast, don't take the Ural.  Even the new ones are more comfortable at 60-65mph for hours on end but no faster. Oh, and that 60mph drops by a bit when climbing hills, get used to being on the right hand lane and being passed by damn near everybody.  (off pavement though, you'll zip by most everyone else).

Passenger comfort:  I've only ridden very short distances in the sidecar, it was comfy enough and you can get a windshield to keep the wind off your passenger.  That windshield though will direct rain right into your right leg, just be prepared.  Mileage by the way, suffers with the windshield on in the sidecar.  I've seen shorter version from third party but don't know much more about them.  My wife has gone on short rides with me, she says she enjoys the riding.  She definitely is not up for two-up riding.  I also feel better about my two sons riding with me as well.

Ural Sidecar Weaknesses?  Where do I start?

It's basically 50 year old design,  I hear the newer models are leagues ahead of mine in terms of quality and newer non-Russian components, and they do look nice, the ones I've seen and ridden with.  My 1996 model, required more "attention", but now seems to be all sorted out.

The welding is rough, but they use really thick steel.  The speedometer is not exactly accurate and cold weather tends to send it into "windshield wiper" mode.  Running lights are "weak", I ended up replacing mine with brighter LED lights.  Rust is something that you have to watch for and treat, especially if you ride in the winter like I do.

Most everything on the motorcycle is exposed to the elements, dielectric grease will become your electrical connections' friend and protector.  

I've had the throttle cables freeze at the junction where the one cable from the throttle grip splits off to the two carburetors, resulting in the throttle stuck on high....very disconcerting.  The fix is easy, deice and/or lubricate that split and you're good to go.

If you keep your rig outside in freezing weather, you may get water in the carburetor float bowls, simply drain off the water and ride off.  Good old Ivan provided drain holes at the bottom of the float bowls on the carburetors that are not too hard to get to.

The stock seats are flat hunks of rubber, I imagine tractor seats to be the same.  Mine came with a Harley Davidson Solo seat, very comfy.

Not the smoothest or quietest ride in the world, but it's definitely got character!  You will draw attention wherever you go, it's called the UDF or Ural Delay Factor.  If you don't like complete strangers walking up to you and asking questions about the rig, the Ural is not for you.

Urals are the tractors of the motorcycle world, slow, gobs of low range torque, go anywhere kind of motorcycles.  Snow is no longer a concern for me, well snow no deeper than 6 inches anyways!  Hell, they even come with a kick start!  Being on three wheels, they're easier to push as well.  Done plenty of that in the beginning of my ownership period.

When you get stuck on snow though, you can usually pull them around in another direction easily enough and get unstuck that way. 

The stock air box is a known weakness, basically air flows into the middle of the donut shaped filter and then out to the plenum box and thence to the carburetors.  It can get wet easy or oily since the drain tube from the engine's front cover goes into the air box too.  Once the filter is compromised, the engine starves for air and performance suffers.    Some Uralisti have crafted their own air boxes or "adapted" air boxes from other vehicles with differing degrees of success.  Others use oil-impregnated K&N filters.  I carry a spare air filter.  They're cheap, and its saved me from one incidence of almost being stranded by a fouled air filter.

That is one thing about replacement parts for Urals, they're cheaper than Beemer parts!  An oil filter is less than $7!  The manual says to use 20w50 oil, no synthetic stuff.  So I buy whats on sale at the local auto parts store.

The older rigs came with cheap pot metal screws and fasteners, absolute crap.  I've replaced most of mine with good steel fasteners that use Allen wrenches vice flat tip screwdrivers for removal!  Loctite is your friend and you should check your fasteners on a regular basis.  I am not kidding here.

The old design also makes them simple to work on.  When my rig's 35amp Russian alternator "grenaded itself" (they are known for that), it took out my timing gears as well.  I was able, with a little help from a friend, to tear things down, and put the new timing gears in place with no major travails. 

The newer ones comes with Nippon Denso alternators with a cushioned adapter for the gear that engages your engine timing gears.  It's supposed to be better but there's minor issues there as well.  You have to service it, make sure the bearings involved don't dry out.    They cost a bit over $500 though and are scarce.  Me?  Until someone comes out with an alternator solution as bulletproof as the Airhead Beemers, I will run a Total Loss Electrical System(TLES).  The TLES takes up a lot of space in the sidecar's trunk though. 

If you can test ride one before buying one, that would be the best thing.   Lots of guys buy one, find out its not what they thought and sell them.  It's a shame they don't invest the time, because the Ural is a fun vehicle.  Oh, and after riding mine all winter, it makes my 1987 R80 Beemer seem like a rocket!  : )

You know how they say Beemer transmissions are "klunky".  Russian transmissions make Beemer transmissions seem silky smooth.  The joke is that the final machining of the transmission gears is done by the owners!  There's a break-in period for new rigs that must be strictly followed by the way.  The more miles you put on the transmission, the better it'll get but you'll always be thinking of the phrase: "Loud Gears Save Lives" in the back of your mind.

Oh, and having a spare tire can be quite the Godsend.  Get a flat, pull the motorcycle onto its centerstand or jack it up with a small jack (not standard equipment) and with a bit of luck you're back on the road in less than 30 minutes.  Practice swapping a tire in your garage, this will pay off in dividends on the side of the road, in the dark under a pouring rain.  Trust me.

To sum it all up, a Ural Sidecar Rig will make a mechanic out of you or help put your local Ural dealer's kid through college, your choice.

Snow, rain, mud, deep gravel or loose sand?  No problem!  Though it is better to have another Uralista along for "moral support" sometimes on the more "interesting" terrain.

Your now vehicle enforced cruising speeds will allow you a closer look at your surroundings and perhaps not miss some of those sights you blew by before.  Ever wonder where that dirt trail went?  Wonder no more, just ride on down the trail and see what there is to see!

Regrets?  Not really, but if I were to do it over again, I'd probably try and get a newer Ural, say 2007 or newer.  They've really improved a lot.  I hope this posting helps someone out there thinking about getting a Ural Sidecar Rig, they really are a lot of fun but you do have to spend the time to take care of them as well.


Learning to Golf said...

Nice, honest review of the Ural. It has been interesting following along on this adventure with you.

Kelsey said...

Really great post! If you remember, I too have an older Ural - we have a 1995 Tourist. She's in the shop right now because of compression problems (we prefer to do our own wrenching, but the issue sprung up during the snowstorms here in VA and we had nowhere to work), but we're hoping to have her back in time for some spring riding.