But first, the heavily updated Ural was going to have to prove its mettle where past models fell farthest short: on the highway. And for a first test of newfound high-speed capability, the conditions were about as bad as could be, with a mixture of rain and sleet combining with near-freezing temperatures to send a full-body shiver through my innermost fibers.
I found myself in this predicament due to a complete set of upgrades from Ural for the 2014 model year, including a fully electronic fuel injection system replacing the previous carburetors, triple-disc brakes and a hydraulic steering damper supplanting the old screw-on friction unit that was impossible to adjust on the fly. These bits and pieces serve to bring the Ural outfit, which could otherwise be charitably thought of as 'time tested,' closer to the modern world. And that's a good thing, considering that the tough-as-nails bikes trace their heritage all the way back to World War II, when Russia "borrowed" the designs of BMW's three-wheeled German war machines and hauled the tooling to a plant near the Ural mountains deep in the Land of Rus.
Highlighting these upgrades on paper is one thing. Putting them to the test, with life and limb clinging to Ural's redesigned knee pads on the gas tank and twin handlebar grips, is another thing entirely. And so I approached my first highway on-ramp with a day's worth of riding set out ahead of me and my guide, a rider astride an earlier Ural that didn't have my model's updates. I honestly feared for both our lives... me for my inexperience and him for his old-school mount. As it turned out, I needn't have worried about either.
Before heading out into the cold and rainy climes of Seattle, I started up the bike to go practice both left and right turns in the parking lot behind Ural's parts warehouse. It fired right up with a single press of its starter button – no cantankerous carbs to mess with.
It's been three years since I last rode a sidecar outfit, and I expected my reflexes to be rusty. Unlike on their two-wheeled distant cousins, a rider doesn't countersteer a bike like this to initiate turns. The Ural does not lean, and so it must be steered like a car. I was surprised to find that this all came back to me quickly, muscle memory allowing me to loft the sidecar wheel on right-hand sweepers at will. This act, called "flying the chair," was disconcerting at first, but felt like second-nature as time passed.
It fired right up with a single press of its starter button – no cantankerous carbs to mess with.
After just a few minutes, I declare myself ready for the road, setting off a few paces behind Nick, Ural's parts manager and the leader of my day-long expedition, who happens to be riding the same 2010 Ural Patrol that I crashed into a massive log three years ago. It was still running just fine, despite my previous unintentional efforts to end its life after it had barely gotten its first chance in open air. With memories of electrical tape and bailing wire in my head, I apologized to the inanimate object (again), sympathetically resting a hand on the carburetor that I'd broken off its mounting point with my shin, and we set off.
After filling the tank and then filling the auxiliary tank mounted via bracket to the sidecar's exterior, I couldn't come up with a single good excuse not to hit the highway, so we did. I expected a slow-but-steady pace up the ramp, but was surprised with a level of sprightliness that I hadn't ever experienced or expected from a Ural. The new 2014 model's 750-cc boxer twin offers up a claimed 41 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 42 pound-feet of torque that peaks at 4,300 rpm, with power issued in basically a straight line between 2,000 and the engine's 5,500-rpm cutoff. Officially, that's a mere rounding error more than the old bike. In reality, though, the difference is like night and day.
Clanging my way through the four forward ratios of the Ural's tractor-like gearbox, I actually had to scale back the throttle to avoid passing Nick, who was riding out front. Whereas the old carb'd bike would barely sputter and wheeze its way to a 65-mph cruising speed, the injected 2014 model is a picture of calmness all the way past 70. I was shocked that the 730-pound hulk (which boasts roughly the same aerodynamic properties as a fully loaded Panamax container ship, dry docked and laid sideways in a wind tunnel) would pull right up to the speed normal traffic was flowing at. I later placed my GPS inside a Ziplock bag and taped it to the tank. As expected, the bike's wavy speedometer needle isn't terribly accurate – an indicated 60 mph is actually more like 65. In any case, keeping up with traffic is no longer an exercise in futility with the new fuel-injected engine, and, though I wasn't specifically trying to set a new Ural land-speed record, I saw a GPS-verified top speed of over 75 mph.
The injected 2014 model is a picture of calmness all the way past 70.
Hands down, though, the greatest single thing Ural has done for 2014 is fit a proper hydraulic steering damper to its sidecar motorcycles. Keeping up with traffic is great and all, but the real trick of riding a sidecar hack is learning to cope with its strange handling characteristics. The 2014 Ural still comes with a sticker on the tank that specifically says both right- and left-hand turns are dangerous, which might be true to the uninitiated. But I'm happy to report that a day's worth of Uraling no longer ends with a rider who feels like he spent a day Velcro'd into a Bowflex machine.
Getting on and off the throttle on a Ural does some strange things to the bike's sense of direction. That's still the case in 2014. More throttle makes the bike want to veer right as the sidecar takes time to get with the program, while rolling off the throttle makes the bike veer left as the sidecar decides it wants to pass the rest of the bike. But it's a more gradual process that is much easier to control on the new model, unlike the drunken stagger and counter-stagger I had experienced a few years before. The sidecar dance quickly becomes second nature, and this newfound confidence is due almost entirely to the hydraulic steering damper.
The highway off-ramp provided my first real test of the 2014 Ural's triple-disc brakes. Previously, only the front wheel was so equipped, and I honestly never felt that the old setup, with a massive Brembo caliper on that front disk, was lacking for stopping power. In any case, I have no complaints about the 2014 Gear Up's braking performance. There's plenty of stopping force and lockup is easy to avoid. I am also pleased that the revised parking brake lever is easier to use than the old bit.
The sidecar dance quickly becomes second nature, this newfound confidence due almost entirely to the hydraulic steering damper.
It was great to experience all the upgrades that make the 2014 Ural lineup more user friendly. That said, if the changes made for the new model year somehow subtracted from the Ural true calling card, which is to say its ability to go where few other wheeled vehicles dare to tread, this Russian brand would be in a world of hurt. I'm happy to report that the 2014 Gear Up is just as capable as before, climbing up steep grades, fording shallow rivers, bounding over mounds of earth and generally acting like the ass of motorcycles in any and all conditions.
There were only a few times I felt the need to click the Ural into two-wheel drive using the little lever on the right-hand side of the bike, and all of them involved snow. The ease with which those two driven rear wheels push the heavy machine through rather un-motorcycle-like terrain is astounding. Past test rides had us going through mud and muck, up and down rock-hewn trails and on groomed forest roads. This time, most of our riding happened on single-lane dirt roads pockmarked with sinkhole-like depressions. I found a steady 40-mph cruise in third gear very comfortable, and the Gear Up was nimble enough to pick a line through the cratered surface at that speed with relative ease.
The ease with which those two rear wheels push the heavy machine through un-motorcycle-like terrain is astounding.
It's important to note that putting the Ural in two-wheel-drive mode locks the rear wheel and the sidecar wheel together, which makes turning left or right a constant fight that the rider is likely to lose. Standard rear-drive is where you want to be until you find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place... or between a wintery stream and the rapidly elevating roadway. In these situations, the reverse gear is also your ally and protector. You'll see what I mean in the video below.
The seating position is upright, with your head up straight and your arms placed exactly where it's most comfortable to put them. Legs, too, fall directly below the rider in a comfortable position. The view from the two side mirrors is pretty good, though the thin stalks do allow plenty of vibration to shake them at certain engine speeds. The controls on the grips are modern and all act as expected. Heated grips and saddles aren't on the options list, but there is a plug for heated accessories wired into the sidecar.
Standard on the Gear Up model I tested is a single tractor seat, and it's not terribly uncomfortable, with a springy feel that helps absorb bumps. That said, many are likely to find some of the bench-shaped alternatives bum-friendlier options.
There aren't a lot of creature comforts included in the Gear Up's $16,000 asking price. You do get the previously mentioned external gas tank, along with a sidecar-mounted shovel, a tonneau cover for the sidecar, a jack in the trunk and a spare wheel with luggage rack. There's also an extra spotlight mounted to the front of the sidecar tub. It's these kinds of accessories that speak to the fun of owning a Ural.
The soul of this great Russian steed has survived the modernization routine entirely intact.
Riding a Ural is an adventure, more than a way to get from A to B. And, while the improvements for 2014 do indeed make for a markedly better all-around machine, I am relieved to report that the soul of this great Russian steed has survived the modernization routine entirely intact. It's still a vehicle that fits into a very small niche, and for that I'm thankful. The motorcycling world just wouldn't be the same without these rolling relics on sale.