Win Friends and Influence People With a 2017 Ural Sahara Motorcycle

(Bloomberg) -- These days more than ever, I like to focus on things that unite rather than divide people. Things with universal appeal: French fries, Terry Gross, big furry dogs.

And, as it happens, sidecar motorcycles.

I rode the 2017 Ural Sahara recently in New York, and more than any car or motorcycle I’ve had this year, it drew smiles, thumbs-ups, and eager inquiries into its inner workings and provenance.

The author on her Ural.
Photographer: Nemo

Don’t expect to go much faster than 70 miles per hour on it, and don’t buy one if you need something small and light. But if you want something to ride in any weather, if you want to be able to ride with your dog (or on your bum leg), or if you want to meet your neighbors without putting in too much effort, this is the bike for you.

How It Looks

This is the latest three-wheeled iteration from the Seattle-based company that bought the branding rights from the original Soviet-era company 12 years ago. It’s more expensive than its brethren ($17,999, compared to the $12,999 cT or the $15,999 MT), but it's also more capable: Buy the Sahara and you’ll get a patrol light, spare-wheel-and-storage-rack, and two-wheel drive on demand. (The sidecar wheel can also be engaged.) The locking trunk is big enough to hold two backpacks, or a lot of dog food

Cold-War Bike by Ural Sparks Sidecar Revival

Many people, according to company spokesman Matt Trigaux, use them for hunting, fishing, and camping. You can, too. In fact, I had one in the woods for a week in Washington State a few years back. But for my purposes this year, I kept the motorbike in the urban wilds: Brooklyn, N.Y.

There are lots of variations you can create with these bikes—my favorite part about them. The one I had just now used a comfortable spring-loaded single seat (others come with a bench seat), a single, round LED front headlight and LED sidecar fog lights, a sidecar nose rack, and the previously mentioned luggage rack with spare wheel. Handlebar guards, sidecar light guards, and the reverse foot pedal are all worth choosing, too; they give the bike more capability over rough terrain and—in the case of the the foot pedal—quicker mobility. I’d buy the winch, too. You’ll never need it until you need it.

Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

The sidecar is big enough to fit a tall adult or a large dog, plus it has extra room for luggage in the locking trunk.

I’d even splurge on the full $1,999 to get the upgraded, off-road “Gear Up” Sahara package, which offers a 12-volt adapter and bench seat, along with such other things as a utility shovel, tool kit, toolbox gas tank, sidecar bumper, iPhone charger, tonneau top cover, and floor mats. These are more than aesthetic enhancements, even though they look cool. Imagine being able to charge your phone while you ride with your dog along Brooklyn's Kent Street or down Bedford Avenue; a friend whom I drove along Park Avenue in Manhattan to a party one night couldn’t stop smiling. 

How It Runs

Ural motorcycles use regular gasoline; their tanks hold five gallons (plus one gallon in reserve), and they get nearly 40 miles to the gallon. Expect a range of 155 to 185 miles on one tank.

Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

The bike doesn't require choke adjustment or a difficult starting process, but it does offer a kick-start option to use when desired. 

They come with a 749-cubic centimeter, two-cylinder, four stroke boxer engine with 41 maximum horsepower and 42 pounds-feet of torque. That’s good enough to carry a load of more than 1,300 pounds cruising at 70mph. Early one evening, I had mine up to 65mph or so, back and forth on the Williamsburg Bridge and then flying up the FDR Highway.

Zero to 60mph takes five seconds or so, by my count, but again: The real delight of this motorcycle is found in using it to do fun things, rather than go fast.

How It Drives

That’s about as fast as you’ll need to go anyway on this machine, which requires some hard counter steering and a steady touch on the throttle to operate. It’s not sensitive around corners or through the gears, like a Ducati, or even an Indian. This is more a blunt-force object that you can easily flip up on its two side wheels and wheel around corners after only a few days of practice.

Photographer: Nemo

The Ural Sidecar Motorcycles can cruise easily at 70mph. 

If you can ride a motorcycle and know how to use a clutch (four speeds, plus reverse), you can ride a sidecar. If you can bend your legs, you can sit in one. I recommend a good book and a blanket over the legs for any sidecar riding from October through March.

At 32 inches from the ground, the seat height is lower than, say, that of a dirt bike, but the riding height once you’re in the sidecar gives an appreciable perspective of the road in front. You’ll want to be on the brakes early and often, and you’ll want to have a close grip on the handlebars. (That said, parking this in the thick of Manhattan was an utter delight, and it rounded through rush hour traffic down Park Avenue very well.) I’m against absolute statements about the reliability of anything manmade (Exhibit A: the Titanic), but it would take a lot to stymie the Sahara. I drove its sister Ural bike in snow, mud, and heavy rain while in the Pacific Northwest, and it never faltered. With a reverse lever that requires a near jump kick, a bike-lock lever, and an actual kick-start feature, this 730-pound apparatus felt indestructible.

Photographer: Nemo

The Ural Sahara motorcycle is suitable for both urban and wilderness driving. 

I did have one hesitation about riding the sidecar bike in New York: It looks Soviet. Heck, it is Soviet. Would anyone take offense to its communist aesthetic, even though there are no correlations between the Ural brand and that particularly strain of political theory? In a word: no.

But I did have about a dozen requests from strangers seeking rides.

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