Central to this adventure is our fleet of heartbreakingly attractive, bottom-clenchingly temperamental vintage Ural motorcycles. Beetling along on newly smoothed ice-road, the Arctic wind at your back, your strong-jawed team-mate at your wing, really will make you feel like Hendrix at Woodstock. This euphoria is likely to be brief, however...
If it was as reliable as it is cool it would never break down and the whole world would be riding them. Fortunately it is almost as unreliable as it is cool which means you get to look good while you stub your toe kicking the shit out of it in anger. But the fact we're telling you this now means you won't be surprised when this becomes a reality.
- 12 Volt power supply (hopefully)
- Two cylinders and four stroke
- Drum brakes all round
- Fuel tank 19 ltrs 2 ltrs reserve
- Fuel range of about 200km on decent roads (ha)
- Power to weight ratio 0.16 Horses per kg
- Direct drive shaft
- No drive to sidecar
What's she like to drive?
The first thing you need to know is that riding a Ural and sidecar is not like riding a standard two-wheeled motorbike. Not only have you got an extra wheel and the weight of the sidecar, but you will be riding on an unfamiliar surface (ice) and most bikes you ride these days aren't based on a 1940's design, like these babies are.
In short, they're heavy, clunky and pretty slow. Because we are using vintage Urals, they are rather prone to grinding to a spluttering halt when you least need them to. The spark plugs stop working, the wiring has been compared to a "Russian rat's nest", things snap in the cold, they stall and won't start again.... the list of potential ailments is endless.
As for speed, well don't expect to be driving at much more than 80 km/h. At warp speed, downhill, you might hit 95 km/h. But this doesn't feel that clever on ice. The brakes aren't too good either.
The addition of the sidecar makes driving this beastie a whole different ballgame. Go round a right hand corner too fast and you'll tip her over and your team mate in the side car will have their head snapped off. She may feel a bit strange the first time you ride her, but you'll soon get used to the weight and balance of the sidecar. You will have a few sessions to try her out before you set forth but if you can get used to riding with a side car somehow before you head to Russia it will make life easier.
Have a read of this Wired article by Wes Siler to get a feel for the rueful admiration you will come to have for this uniquely infuriating vehicle. His rather excellent conclusion is that,
"In short, the Ural isn’t a motorcycle, it isn’t an ATV and it isn’t a car. It’s a completely unique vehicle that requires as much time and effort to master as a motorcycle or automobile. It’s hard, but the effort is rewarded with an utterly unique experience on a machine that can do almost anything and go almost anywhere."
Cold Weather Modification
Surprisingly, these beasts, build as they are for the Russki climate, don't need a huge amount of modification to deal with the cold. We have fitted Odyssey specialist cold weather batteries, but that doesn't mean the electrics will work well even with a great battery. The load on the electrics from heated handlebar grips and (the cheek of it!) headlamps can be overwhelming.
"The heavy duty batteries were good and changing to the more modern ignition system saved a lot of headaches." - 2013 Ice Runner Rob Northover
Even then it should be noted that the conditions were relatively 'mild' in 2013 - we haven't had the chance to try the new ignitions in the coldest temperatures this adventure could conjure up, like -40-50. So all to play for.
Our chum David Angel at F2 Motorcycles kindly gave a workshop on the main things that you need to be aware of while on your Ural. As a general rule these things are built like tanks but the electrics need a bit of know how and it's worth understanding the peculiarities of the carburettors. We filmed the training session he gave in Jan 2012 so you can get the gist of things if you weren't able to make it.
What will probably go wrong
If you know what'll go wrong you can probably know how to fix it, right? Maybe. Anyway, this is a list of common complaints from the 2013 riders, the most prominent seem to be; spark-plugs needing replacing, electrics/wiring failing, bearings failing, and lots and lots of things rattling loose.
Heated grips intermittant
Carb needed retuning
Clutch cable needed replacing
Bits falling off
"Engines will always burn oil and need to be checked and topped up, but the first time I checked ours it took over a litre to get it to show on the bottom of the dipstick!" - Rob Northover
"I think the general consensus was that they were in OK shape. They all need rewiring! For the most part the mechanics can get them running, but the electrics are a mystery and there's a great deal of crap wiring and connectors that really need replacing. This problem is most acute when the headlamps and taillights fail in the middle of the night." - Mike Northcott
"Our bike absolutely hated everything except 80 octane fuel (but it was often impossible to get). I'd assume it's possible to adjust the bike to accomodate 92 octane" - Rico Pajarola