Hammer & Sickle: USA in a sidecar

There’s no better way to socialise with a nation than by thrashing a strange device into its heartland. In this case a Soviet-built Ural combination trans-America

'What the hell is that thang?'

We were getting pretty adept at answering this question, seeing as we heard it every time we stopped. On this occasion we were in deepest Tennessee, filling up at a one-horse gas station and being accosted by a gentleman who looked like an extra in the Beverley Hillbillies, complete with chewing tobacco, straw hat and dungarees.

'It’s a Ural!'

'It’s a what?'

'A Ural, it’s Russian'

‘Russian huh?’ This was accompanied by some suspicious beard-tugging, ‘Looks like an ol’ BMW from the war’

Here was our cue to tell the tale of how back in 1939, the crafty Red Army, needing to update their ropey old bikes, liberated a BMW R71 (or two) and copied the design (albeit in a clunky Eastern Bloc style), giving birth to the Ural motorcycle. But this story of Soviet savvy was too much for our hoary old hillbilly.

‘They stole it huh?’ he muttered, shaking his head in disgust and spitting his tobacco in the dirt. ‘Them dirty Russian dawgs…’

The Cold War may still be raging in Tennessee but hopefully we were doing our bit for East-West relations by piloting a Russian Ural sidecar outfit across the USA. One thing’s for sure, we were certainly spreading some Ural luuurve around the Land of the Free. All the way across America we were set upon by curious locals, enthralled by our three-wheeled rig. In the Uralist’s lexicon this is known as UDF (Ural Delay Factor) and it’s something you have to seriously consider when planning each day’s itinerary – you need at least an extra hour to answer all the questions, pose for photos and give rides to various kids and dogs, not to mention the camouflage-clad survivalists who want to load the chair with guns and indulge their wilderness hunting fantasies.

But before we go any further, let’s get up to speed with some sidecar terminology, for it’s not just the riding technique to master, there’s a whole load of lingo too. For a start, you don’t ride a sidecar outfit, you drive it. The car itself is the ‘chair’ and the whole caboodle is the rig, or hack. And the Urals have even spawned their very own phraseology, of most importance being the mysterious acronym, WWID. This is the Uralist’s mantra that stands for ‘What Would Ivan Do?’ - the head-scratching question that all Ural drivers ask themselves when faced with a roadside breakdown. In case you’re wondering, Ivan doesn’t actually exist, except in metaphysical form as the all-knowing Russian everyman, master of all things Ural.

The Ural sidecar outfit has acquired something of a cult following over the years, especially among overlanders. I’d always fancied giving one a whirl and with the recent improvements, including Bembo brakes, an Austrian-made wiring loom and an overhauled engine, I reckoned my time for a Russian bit on the side was long overdue. Its vintage good looks, solid build (the Soviets make their motorcycles like they make their lady shot-putters) and rugged 2-wheel drive is the very embodiment of ‘Good Old-Fashioned Adventure’ and the thought of a coast-to-coast jaunt along America’s two-lane highways and desert trails in one of these outfits seemed like the most fun a couple could have on three wheels.

Continue the stateside sidecar adventure

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