July 1, 2015 at 10:05 am #8963
It seems sidecars are once again creeping into the mainstream, with appearances in TV ads and various other places and now even the prestigious Wall Street Journal.
Motorcycle Sidecars Make Riding a Family Affair
Buying a motorcycle may be a mid-life-crisis cliche, but with a sidecar, even your loved ones can join the journey
Illustration: MICHAEL BYERS
WHEN MICHAEL HOMSANY and his wife, Kendra Pinsker, wanted to take their 7-year-old son on a road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles two years ago, they didn’t get a minivan or RV. They bought a sidecar motorcycle.
An avid biker when he was younger, Mr. Homsany, 61, gave up on two-wheel transport years ago, but when his son turned 5—old enough for his parents to consider bringing him along on a serious adventure—Mr. Homsany was ready to get back on a motorbike. Only this time, he said, he wanted space for “the entire family.”
His ride, a Yamaha V Star 1100 Custom with a DMC Kenna Double sidecar, has since become his go-to vehicle for a range of errands, from grocery shopping to school drop-offs.
Along with impulse-buying sports cars, climbing on a motorcycle has long been a symptom of a midlife crisis. Now, baby boomers and Gen-Xers in the midst of such a crisis are using bikes to shore up family bonds—by adding a third wheel.
Motorcycles with sidecars attached—often called sidecar rigs or hacks—are growing in popularity, fueled in part by riders who want to bring their spouses, children or even the dog along for the ride.
The sidecar’s family-friendliness was a selling point for Tony Poulson, a 32-year-old cartoonist in Salt Lake City. He has two children, both under three. Until they’re old enough to ride, Mr. Poulson and his wife use the sidecar for date nights.
The idea of putting children in a sidecar might seem risky, but it is legal. In general, sidecars are regulated as motorcycles, so the same laws apply: Only five states have a minimum-age restriction for motorcycle passengers, according to the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA).
The 2015 Ural Gear-Up, in woodland camo.
Of course, children should take standard motorcycle-safety precautions. Minors are required to wear a helmet in most states. And although seat belts are not required in states that classify a sidecar as an extension of a motorcycle, owners can have them installed. According to Russ Rader, a spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a sidecar rig isn’t designed to be as crashworthy as a car, but installing a seat belt makes sense because it “mitigates the risk of passengers being ejected in a collision.”
Mr. Homsany said his son wears a full-faced helmet, armored riding jacket and gloves. And Mr. Poulson sees the sidecar as a way to introduce his daughter to “the sounds, sights and feeling of being on a bike”—a world you can’t experience inside the comfort of a car.
“We are getting younger people who bring their families,” said Al Olme, president of the United Sidecar Association, a national club for sidecar owners. Overall membership today totals about 1,000—up 8% from a year ago. And the group is keen on attracting riders with children to its ranks. “We try to make our events as family-friendly as possible by including activities for kids,” Mr. Olme said.
Later this month, the club will hold its annual rally in Sturgis, S.D., several weeks before the truly enormous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. “Ours is a much smaller event,” Mr. Olme said, “And I don’t think anyone is intimidated when a bunch of sidecars show up.”
For inexperienced riders, a motorcycle with a sidecar can be less intimidating than a two-wheeler. The sidecar’s third wheel offers a practical advantage: It keeps the vehicle upright. That’s a big attraction for riders who might find it difficult to hold up a 700-pound motorcycle at a stoplight.
Piloting a sidecar rig isn’t as straightforward as it seems, however. When accelerating, these asymmetrical machines tend to pull or “yaw” toward the sidecar (which is usually mounted on the right side of the bike), but they want to turn in the opposite direction when slowing down. More disconcerting, in sweeping turns, a lightly loaded sidecar can suddenly rise off the ground. This is known as “flying the chair” and can be unsettling for the unprepared rider.
Evenly distributing the weight of passengers and cargo can help prevent this—and is vital for maintaining comfort and good handling. But the adjusting of suspension springs, tweaking of wheel angles and other complexities of a sidecar rig can turn off even longtime motorcycle riders. Owners have to accept their rigs’ quirks and realize that driving one has little in common with riding a motorcycle.
To get a three-wheeler, riders would traditionally have to bring their motorcycle to specialist shops—like DMC Sidecars in Enumclaw, Wash., or Motorvation Engineering in Sibley, Iowa—to have the sidecars attached and set up. But there are larger sidecar-rig builders that sell the bike and sidecar assembled and ready to go. The Russian company Ural is the heavy hitter. It sells about 600 bikes a year—or half its total production—to customers in the U.S.
Price can be a hurdle for younger riders. While you can still find a nice motorcycle for a few thousand dollars, good hacks typically cost much more. Urals start at $13,000 and top out around $17,000 before adding accessories like windshields and cargo racks, and it is easy to spend $20,000 or more buying and setting up a custom motorcycle-sidecar combination.
While sidecars appear to be on the rise now, their history is marked by a fluctuating fan base. They were popular in the early days of motorized transportation, when motorcycles competed with cars as an efficient way to get around on the era’s rutted, unpaved roads. Sidecar rigs were a major step up from two-wheelers, allowing motorcyclists to carry more passengers and cargo.
“During those years we were marketing the motorcycle and sidecar as a serious alternative to the car,” said Bob Klein, a spokesman for the Milwaukee motorcycle giant Harley-Davidson. But the arrival of reliable, enclosed and relatively inexpensive cars like the Ford Model T hurt hack sales, Mr. Klein said. And while World War II and the surge of motorcycle culture through the 1960s and into the ’70s gave sidecars a boost, they have long been near or on the fringe. Harley stopped offering them in 2010.
Whether the current crop of sidecar rigs marks a major comeback will rely in part on people like Jamie Robinson, a former professional motorcycle racer who now produces cycle-centric travel films. Based in Los Angeles, Mr. Robinson, 39, and his son, Giacomo, who is 3 and a half, have been racking up miles in their Ural Gear-Up rig, which can be shifted into two-wheel drive on difficult terrain.
Not all roads are smooth. After using the rig to ferry Giacomo to and from preschool, Mr. Robinson got a stern request from school administrators: “They asked me to please stop doing that.”
But the father-and-son duo still ride off school grounds. “There is always risk in motorcycling, and the sidecar is also potentially dangerous, but the experience is worth the risk,” Mr. Robinson said. “The whole experience with Giacomo has been very rich.”
Attachments:July 3, 2015 at 10:43 am #8980Michael J BreenParticipantRank: 400cc Rider
always thought I wanted a sidecar but you have to be a special kind of person to be able to live with one. That said, I had a motorcycle courier business in the UK for a while and one of my best couriers rode a Ural outfit. It wasn’t fast but he always got the job done in good time (we were long distance only).July 3, 2015 at 10:45 am #8982
I would love a nice Ural as long as the car is on the left…July 3, 2015 at 10:46 am #8984
Ural only make right side chairs.July 3, 2015 at 10:48 am #8985
There was one on trade me late last year with left side side car. South Island some where, Christchurch i think or was it Dunedin.
I except they aren’t standard but they are out there.July 3, 2015 at 10:48 am #8986
Bugger having to look see if the seat rider turns white to know whether its safe to continue the passing maneuver, or pull back in lol.July 3, 2015 at 2:46 pm #9031
I’m actually considering selling my sidecar, with my health issues I don’t get to ride anywhere near as much as I would like to and when I do I want to take the DR as I’m not getting my fill of adventure riding
Selling it would allow give me space and funds to get the Ducati 250 out and slowly work on that, and still have space in the garage left over.
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