Motorcycles are well-known signals of a midlife crisis. Stereotypes dictate that men of a certain age buy shiny, powerful two-wheelers with hopes of finding adventure while leaving nagging family responsibilities – and often the family itself – behind.
But I recently road tested a bike that allowed and even encouraged me to take my family along for the ride – in a sidecar.
The Ural cT that I tried out is, at $12,999, the least-expensive model from Russian motorcycle maker IMZ Ural, which has been building big, rugged bikes with sidecars since World War II. While the bikes have trickled into the U.S. for decades the company in the past few years has gotten more serious about promoting them here. Ural’s marketing themes focus on the vehicle’s utility, practicality and toughness.
So instead of evoking images of hapless middle-age men behaving badly on bikes as in the 2007 road-trip flick “Wild Hogs,” the Ural has more of a kid-friendly “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” vibe (Peabody wheels a scooter with a sidecar in that 2014 film).
I used the rig to run errands and ferry our two sons, 11 and eight years old, from one activity to the next. With my wife on the back of the bike the Ural’s 41-horsepower two-cylinder engine carried our family of four to dinner and out for ice cream.
The older boy, in typical tween fashion, decided the sidecar was a spectacle that made it impossible to maintain his preferred low profile. It was also a tight squeeze to get him and his brother in the car together.
The 8-year-old, however, bonded with the orange machine like a new pet. He is at a stage where he relishes the extra attention the rumbling motorcycle attracts. Wherever we went during our two-week test-ride, he requested the Ural. Trips he normally tries to avoid, like grocery runs and stops at the hardware store, became prime outings.
My favorites were the 20-minute rides to his evening fencing classes. The winding local roads that make up the route over the hills and around the reservoir are ideal for the Ural. Their low speed limits suit the bike, which doesn’t really like to go fast. The Ural’s transmission has just four forward gears in an era when most bikes have six. Shifting to top gear elicits a kind mechanical whine I last heard while driving an Army cargo truck in 1991. Primitive but endearing.
As the bike chugs along at a happy 35 to 40 miles per hour, my son sits back in the padded sidecar seat enjoying the breeze, taking in the scenery and spotting deer in the woods. He pats my knee and points to the animals near the road, standing in driveways and front yards. Mostly, though, he is quiet and still. I can only imagine what he is thinking. He seems to have almost forgotten I’m there and that’s fine.
On the way home with daylight running out, the breeze growing cooler and stars popping up in the sky, there is no attempt to chat over the engine’s growl. We listen to the tires humming against the asphalt and the thud that accompanies each gear change. The deer disappear in the shadows. It is a lovely ride.
At least part of the Ural’s appeal stems from the need many parents feel to introduce a little danger into their kids’ lives as a way to prove we are not sheltering them too much. I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s when it seemed parents had things to do other than monitor their children’s activities. My friends and I got into all sorts of after-school mischief, much of which was, in the long run, harmless. Today we want to show our offspring a good time, to be part of the fun. Dealing out the potential hazards at what seems like a reasonable rate — without looking like a control freak — can be difficult, especially when motorcycling and other high-risk activities are involved. But the Ural makes it relatively easy.
Sidecar rigs are not for everyone, and I can understand why some sport-bike fans might find the Ural clunky, slow, difficult to ride and hard to love. But I find the three-wheeler engaging and satisfying. The way it vibrates, the noises it makes while laboring to accelerate and the effort required to turn the handlebars, change gears with the foot-operated shift lever and squeeze the stiff brake lever make the experience memorable and challenging enough to be rewarding when you are finally able to ride it smoothly.