Sidecar Class!

Yesterday was S/TEP – Sidecar/Trike Education Program – through Ironstone Ventures, a local motorcycle education school here in Massachusetts. I took my MSF class through them in 2010, so I was delighted to find they had a sidecar class, too! After some minor snafu where the website said to show up at the range at 8AM, but the group was actually meeting in the classroom 8 miles away, we got to the right place and started our education.

And BOY, was it an education.

The classroom portion was equal parts helpful and not. We’ve been reading “the yellow book” (Driving a Sidecar Outfit by David L Hough) at home to prepare for sidecar riding, so a lot of what we covered in class was stuff we’d already read about in the yellow book. But the instructor was very knowledgeable, and we talked a lot about the mechanics of how sidecars run and the physics of handling them, and that discussion helped clarify some stuff that was a bit tough to grasp from the yellow book.

We talked about many different types of rigs and handling characteristics, and the instructor walked us around his own custom rig, and then we examined the Ural Patrol that one of the other guys had ridden to class. (That was particularly helpful as it’s a Patrol that we’re getting, so the instructor was able to talk about a lot of things specific to the bike that are also going to apply to our rig.)

The real fun came when we got out on the range, though.

The first exercise was figure eights. But before I go on to describe that, I should tell you – some formats offer this class as a two-part class; a novice and an advanced class. Novice class gets range time on Day 1 carrying a passenger in the rig. Day 2 of novice – or the only day of “advanced” – is the format we had… where there’s no passenger in the rig. And no ballast, either. That distinction is important.

When we got to the range, we saw the range rigs for the first time… a couple of beat up MSF class Honda Nighthawk 250CC bikes with Velorex sidecars hacked to them. And the sidecars were basically just big empty plastic tubs. No ballast. No passengers. Just a teeny bike and a big empty tub attached to it via a rigid frame.

The first rig I sat on, the front wheel had so much camber that I watched it literally slant down and to the side when my weight settled onto it. When I started her up and tried to drive over to where the figure eights were happening… I couldn’t turn right. At all. No matter how much I wrestled the bars, the best I could get was straight… it had such a strong left yaw that I couldn’t convince it to turn right. Period. I had to limp back off the range and explain to the instructor that I needed to try the other rig.

The other rig had its own set of handling characteristics, but at least I could convince it to go relatively straight. And even go right, with a bit of work. But ZOMG was it a lot of work to wrestle those rigs around a corner! I’ve been reading a lot about sidecars in the past few months, including stories about how much more work it is to drive a sidecar rig… but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer physical force required to wrestle those sidecars around. Even going in a straight line, the handlebars were wobbling back and forth like mad and it was all you could do to convince it to putt forward. I’m hoping it’s just because these were tiny, crappy rigs that were poorly set up, and the Ural will handle better.

Yeah. From the moment I first flew the sidecar tub trying to convince the rig to take a right turn, that class was an adventure. After the first few exercises, I wasn’t sure how I felt about driving a sidecar rig. It was so much WORK!

But the more I rode it, the more it grew on me. It felt like this totally madcap, utterly ridiculous method of travel. And I’ve always had a soft spot for that. I could just see myself zooming around in a field or in the middle of nowhere somewhere, going about 30MPH on something that feels basically like a piece of farm equipment… and I was hooked! I’m definitely psyched for our Ural to come in.

As far as performance goes, Kay did best in the class on the skill evaluation, and I was the worst. (I got all my negative points for going too slow in the timed exercises… which totally doesn’t bother me, because these aren’t the types of bikes you ride fast! And I’m not exactly a speed demon on two wheels, anyway.) I was very proud of Kay, though, and got some video of him trying to fly the sidecar wheel in one of the exercises.

The class itself was INVALUABLE for anyone who intends to ride a three-wheeled rig. Having now been through the class, I cannot imagine having gotten on the Ural for the first time with zero experience and trying to ride it home. I just know I would have taken a corner WAY wide because these things handle so oddly, and ended up in oncoming traffic, and potentially gotten myself and the bike severely damaged. Even WITH the class, I probably only got a total of an hour – two tops – of range time under my belt, but at least I can now appreciate how different the rig is from a two-wheeled bike, and have some idea of the caution with which I need to approach riding these things.

There’s no question in my mind that sidecar rigs are extremely dangerous to ride. The handling characteristics dictate that these things are utterly mad. Period. And I think they’re probably particularly dangerous for someone coming from two wheels who thinks it won’t be a big deal to go from one to the other.

But I’m happy that we’ve got some skill practice under our belts, and I now have a very good idea that I’m going to fall in love with the utterly ridiculous Ural.

Can’t wait for it to be ready!

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Kay’s note:

Some might be inclined to dismiss, or diminish Dachary’s words regarding how difficult it was because “she’s a girl” so let me add my perspective on it. Driving those rigs was brutal. We’ve both got sore triceps, and my inner thighs were pretty sore too from hurling myself off the side in order to keep it from flipping in a curve. The handlebars fight you whenever you try and turn it. The more you learn about these things the more you wonder how they ever got past the first couple attempts. They are fucking dangerous, and there is no way in hell I would get in the tub with someone who hasn’t had training and practice. They will hurl you into oncoming traffic, or over a cliff if you don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t prepared to wrestle them into submission. I mean “wrestle” literally. Imagine if a wild horse had handlebars and you were attempting to ride it where it didn’t want to go.

With that said… driving a sidecar is a blast. It is far more active than riding a motorcycle, and it is totally mad (in a crazy madcap kind of way).

Even if you never intend to get a sidecar, I would strongly recommend taking a sidecar driving class just to experience it. I guarantee you it will blow your expectations out of the water and leave you smiling (and sore).

So, thanks to the sidecar we’ve now got to start doing push-ups regularly.

Regarding the bikes at the course… they were shit. Even the instructor had a hard time trying to “fly” the tub. After Dachary switched bikes I took the one she had trouble with and I (175 lbs / 79 kg) felt the suspension bottom out when I dropped down on it. After that it rode barely above that point.

We learned that every sidecar has “wobble”. The handlebars will wobble back and forth on you to varying degrees, but these crappy little bikes were so badly set up (or ill-equipped to have a sidecar tub attached to them) that thy would whip back and forth significantly whenever the mood struck them. Also, they didn’t have leading-link suspension which is supposed to make a radical difference in the handling. We’ll let you know when we get ours to compare it.

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