I was still moving at a fairly good clip when I slammed into the fallen tree. I'd be more than happy to share the exact velocity that I was moving, but I can't. You see, I was kinda busy at that exact moment trying my darnedest not to plummet 50 feet down the side of a cliff in the mountains northeast of Seattle, Washington.
How and why did I end up in this harrowing predicament? For starters, I should explain that I was out in the beautiful Pacific Northwest testing out Ural's latest sidecar motorcycle, the Patrol T. Similar in concept to the standard T model that we rode not too long ago, the Patrol model differs from its sibling by featuring two-wheel drive and a deep, woodsy green paint job in place of matte black.
Having two driven wheels on a sidecar bike such as the Ural Patrol T offers a rather unique set of capabilities not seen anywhere else in the motorcycling world. We wanted to know just what the Patrol T was made of, and so sought out the most difficult terrain we could find. And we brought along two expert sidecar riders, including one that is arguably the single best Ural mechanic in the United States.
Now, getting back to nearly launching myself off the side of a cliff in the middle of nowhere...
Photos by Jeremy Korzeniewski / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
Riding a sidecar outfit is an entirely different prospect than anything else you may have experienced on a motorcycle. Regardless of how much experience you may or may not have on two wheels – your narrator has tens of thousands of such miles under his belt – adding a third wheel completely changes the game. If you've already read our previous review of the Ural T, you should have a basic idea of how to ride a Russian sidecar rig. If not, here's a brief recap:
When the rider gives a sidecar motorcycle some gas and lets out the clutch, the entire bike lists to the right, forcing a steering correction. Let off the gas suddenly or hit the brakes and the sidecar wants to pass the rest of the bike, making the entire outfit veer left. Time for another steering correction. And you truly do steer a sidecar outfit, there's no leaning or countersteering effect here. If it sounds disconcerting, it is... at first. But it didn't take long to come to grips with the odd sensation and I eventually learned to expect and even rely on the seesaw motions to set the bike up for oncoming curves.
Unlike the standard T, the Patrol T gains a driven sidecar wheel that locks in step with the bike's rear wheel. There is no differential, which means the bike really hates deviating from a straight line when locked in two-wheel drive. Click here for a video explanation of how a differential works and why you need one in your car. Motorcycles have no use for such fancy technology – unless, of course, they have two driven wheels mounted in parallel, as does the Patrol T.
Complicating matters further is the fact that a quick turn to the right will cause the sidecar and its wheel to lift up off the ground. While this stunt, known to Uralists as Flying the Chair, can actually be rather enjoyable under controlled circumstances, it can feel extremely deadly when it happens unexpectedly.
Can you see where this is headed?
Picture the scene: I was riding the Ural Patrol T down a winding dirt road with just its single rear wheel activated, since locking it in two-wheel drive would make it nearly impossible to steer. I was following an expert sidecar rider on a specially prepared bike through some absolutely breathtaking scenery, and had been doing so for the last several hours. Throughout the ride, a very light rain and snow mixture would sometimes fall before sputtering out. The road ahead took a hard turn to the right, and therefore so did I. Or at least I tried.
Too much speed. Not enough experience riding a sidecar. Put the two together and you end up with an unladen sidecar tub flying perilously off the ground. The proper reaction would be to power right through the turn, scooting your butt and leaning the rest of your body as far to the right as possible and maintaining confidence. Sadly, this is not what I did.
Instead, I stabbed at the brakes, which caused the bike to shift left and veer off my intended line through the slightly off-camber right turn and towards the sheer expanse of nothingness flanking the trail. What happened next was a split-second decision not to ditch the bike, but to aim it at an extremely fortuitous fallen tree that lie just ahead.
The bike made contact with the giant trunk front-wheel-first. Momentum halted almost immediately, the handlebars wrenched themselves out of my death-grip hold as the front wheel slid across the fallen tree and my right shin made hard contact with the jutting right cylinder. Good news: I was wearing all the appropriate riding gear, and was therefore completely unharmed... save, perhaps, for a slightly dinged ego and a suddenly reaffirmed respect for that familiar feeling of self preservation.
More good news: The bike somehow managed to survive. Amazingly, it didn't just survive, the Ural Patrol T was actually almost completely undamaged, almost as if it thrived on such abuse. In fact, the only scar the Ural Patrol T bore as a result of this mishap was a throttle lug that had broken off one of the carburetors. And that was a part purchased from Japan.
Remember that world-class Russian mechanic mentioned at the outset? His name is Sergei, and he sprang into action, reattaching the throttle lug with – get this – a small roll of bailing wire and a bit of electrical tape. Toolboxes suddenly seemed overrated. In a span of ten minutes, Sergei had the bike up and running, and a quick shakedown run proved that nothing at all was even out of alignment. Simply amazing.
Lest you think that the incident being described has been embellished, please know that the Ural was wrenched so far off the roadway and into the mud, muck and, of course, fallen trees, that it had to be towed out of its post-crash resting place against the immovable object with a Toyota 4Runner manned by three very helpful men and a winch.
Fortunately, the remainder of the ride went off without a hitch; Sergei's trail-patched carburetor never even hinted that it was malfunctioning (try repairing a fully modern electronic fuel injection system on the side of a muddy trail), and the triple pack of Urals – including my flawlessly functional Patrol T – continued to take us over hill and dale that I'd have sworn would be impossible to traverse with anything less than an ATV or modified Jeep Wrangler.
And therein lies the beauty of the Ural Patrol T. It's simple, bulletproof and impossibly durable. The added capability provided by the locking two-wheel drive, which is activated via a lever on the right side of the rider, allows this motorcycle to go places you might hesitate to tread even with a proper dirtbike. We crossed streams, climbed steep mountain grades littered with boulders and even did burnouts and power-slides through some leftover snow up at high elevations. The fact that there's a heavy steel sidecar to your right allows you to take the bike up drastically uncompromising terrain without the need to ever put a foot down. Plus, if you do happen to get yourself in a pickle, you can always throw the Ural into reverse and back it on out... and yes, the two-wheel drive works in reverse, too.
It's certainly an acquired taste and is most assuredly not for everyone. But for just the right kind of adventure-seeker who is thrilled by the idea of a week-long excursion that includes highway travel, dirt roads or just about anything else Mother Nature can put in its way, the $12,399 Ural Patrol T is truly in a class of one.
Photos by Jeremy Korzeniewski / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.