LA-Barstow-Vegas 2016 – Day 1

In 3 Wheels, Russia, Travel by AbhiLeave a Comment

I am not what one would call a morning person. So when my alarm started chirping at 4:30am, I was not in a good mood. Turns out, the Gear Up Sahara wasn’t either. Though Ural added fuel injection to their bikes in 2014, our little-sidecar-that-could was having a bit of trouble starting in 28 degree weather – a temperature that should have reminded the rig of its Siberian roots.

Missed the previous installment? Meet the crew and learn about our “preparation.”

Photos by Spurgeon Dunbar, Nathan May, and Aaron Schasse.

But after a workout of the starter button, the Ural eventually fired up in an quiet clatter that did not inspire confidence. An off-idle hesitation didn’t make me feel better about our vehicle choice, either.

We got suited up and made our way over to the start point – Palmdale Supercycles. And that’s where the delays started. Filming this project was quite an undertaking, and I immediately felt like we had bitten off more than we could chew. While other riders were getting in line, we were putting on microphones and trying to record the introduction. Thankfully, Spurgeon is much more comfortable in front of the camera than I am, so we were able to get shots in a couple of minutes instead of the 20 takes it normally requires when I’m the “talent.”

Brett wants a little extra light as he installs microphones in/our helmets.

If you’re trying to get through LABV as quick as possible, then you need to be in the registration line when it opens at 6am. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait through this:

This is an easy way to burn over 30 minutes – the line goes out the building.

LABV supports Toys for Tots in Palmdale, so riders either have to bring a gift worth $10 or donate a Hamilton. We came prepared with Legos:

Once you get through registration, you’re rewarded with one of the packets that I helped stuff earlier in the week. You’ll get emergency contact info, basic maps, and the all-important roll chart. Kurt Yaeger (presenter for the BMW GS Trophy) installs his roll chart holder:

I could take up the rest of your day just by featuring cool bikes that we saw at the start line, but I’ll just give a special mention to this gentleman. He was trying to complete the ride on a Yamaha DT50 and win the “Smallest Bike” Award!

He’s 50 years old – one year for every cc of displacement!

Finally, we were able to hit the road:

The sun shines brightly on our foolish attempt.

You have to cover a few miles on pavement first, and this was just about the only time we’d end up passing people all day:

Some cool cats were doing the ride on classic iron. There were a few old Triumphs and a lovely Honda that I’ll share with you later…

I started off in the captain’s chair and once we hit dirt, I was tentative. The suspension crashed over every bump and the brakes were…adequate. The average speed increased with my confidence level until I had to panic brake because of a 10-inch rut in the road. On a dirt bike you’d just stand up and let your suspension do the work, but that wasn’t an option with the Ural. That little scare kept me in check and I settled back in to a comfortable cruising speed of “very low.”

Within a few miles, I had already managed to get lost. As part of its Russian charm, the Ural shows your speed in miles but the odometer displays kilometers. This is a slight problem as the roll chart gives you distances in miles. Despite the stereotypes about brown people, I’m not quick enough with math to make the 1.6 km/mile conversion on the fly over and over again.

We got back on the right trail and were quickly rewarded with a hill climb. As with a normal dirt bike, momentum is key. So we got a run up, and…the bike bogged down to a stop. The Ural’s 749cc boxer twin engine produces just 41 horsepower and 42 pound-feet of torque, while the dry weight is 730 pounds. Add fluids, Spurgeon, myself, and gear, and that weight balloons up to about 1,150 pounds – approximately the weight of a large grizzly bear. We couldn’t do anything about the lack of power but we could try to temporarily lighten the rig, so Spurgeon hopped out and I tried to tackle the hill again. The reduced weight helped – I was able to make it up a bit further and even was able to dance around someone who had fallen over on their KTM 690 Enduro R. Things were looking good…except for that guy.

Going up…but not for long!

Then things got worse for both of us. I had the throttle pinned in first gear but it didn’t matter. The bike started to slow to a crawl and I couldn’t do anything about it. The bike stalled out and died – that didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me is that even in gear with the brakes on, I started to roll back. Shit.

I started panicking. I’m sure the entire rig was just rolling back at a couple of miles per hour but it felt like 30. I had lost control, and was just praying that the rig wouldn’t flip over as it picked up speed rolling backwards. As I was trying to figure out what my options were, I quickly came to an unceremonious halt. This would have been a relief, except the force that stopped me was not the Ural’s brakes, it was the downed KTM rider and his bike as he was trying to get off the trail.

Thankfully, he was OK. His bike was also alright, though the impact broke the mounting system of his tail bag. I was overcome by guilt but he was incredibly understanding. If he somehow finds this post – please contact me. I owe you a tail bag! Once we made sure he was OK, Spurgeon and I got the Ural off the side of the hill. We spent quite some time deliberating on how we should proceed. Turning around would put us way behind schedule, but it didn’t look like we’d be able to get up the hill.

Contemplating what to do next, alongside the unlucky KTM rider who was trying to fix his tail bag with zipties. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Nathan took off ahead on the XR650L to see if he could find an alternate route while I questioned every decision I had made about choosing the Ural in the last month. Then a guy in a Jeep Wrangler casually went up the hill and asked if we needed help. Yes, please! He had a tow strap with him, so Spurgeon hooked up the Ural and I was on top of the hill with no trouble at all.

This Jeep really saved us.

We swapped riders and I got my first shift in the hack. Spurgeon picked a good time to switch, as the terrain switched to sandy whoops and I got bounced around in the chair.

Poor Nathan was stuck behind us so he couldn’t maintain his usual blistering pace.

Spurgeon was doing great as a first time sidecar pilot in the dirt, but our troubles on the hill (and a late start in the morning) meant we were pretty behind. When you get behind in LABV, it means one thing – you have to get onto the slab. So that’s what we did, and we made up a lot of time on the road and got to Ridgecrest. The nice thing about having a support truck is that it supports! Ellen and Aaron were nice enough to grab some quick fast food sandwiches for us so that bikes and riders could fuel up.

We got back in the dirt, which meant I was having a good time again.

Even 41 horsepower can be fun when you’re on the dirt. Photo by Nathan May.

Eventually, the trail got sandier and the bike started to bog. At one point we got stuck, so it was time to engage a feature that makes the Ural stand out from other sidecar rigs – two wheel drive! Think of Ural’s 2WD as 4WD Low in a truck or SUV – you just use it when you’re stuck or going slow. To put the rig into 2WD, you just flip a lever. But there’s a catch: there’s no differential. This means both rear wheels spin at the same rate, which makes turning very difficult.

We were making good progress, which means something inevitably had to go wrong. When you accelerate in the sidecar, it pulls to the right. When you cut the throttle, the entire rig veers to the left – and trying to quickly correct to the right is unnerving because you feel like the chair is going to come off the ground. On tight trails with beginner pilots, this can be a problem. And that is why I found myself cursing as the Ural ended up going left off the trail and into a ditch. For a brief moment, I thought I was going to get flipped out of the chair.

Once the dust had cleared, we tried getting out of the ditch but the Ural got stuck just before we were able to clear the lip:


So Spurgeon got a bigger run up and tried it again. I went from pushing to ‘trying to catch up’ very quickly:

A few moments later, we got to a clearing where a few bikes were parked and waiting. Apparently there was a serious downhill up ahead and one rider said several people had gone down. He called it a ‘bike graveyard.’ Nathan went ahead to check it out, while I bemoaned the slow going:

I call this photo “Despair.”

Nathan got back (having gone down and back up the hill) within a few minutes, and his report was that it probably wasn’t worth tackling. His thought was that we might be able to do it, but if something went wrong, the angle of the downhill would turn a minor mishap into a serious problem very quickly. So we turned around and did a bit of backtracking. I was slightly disappointed, though Spurgeon’s trademark optimism was keeping overall spirits up.

For the second time today, we hit the slab. This time we weren’t alone, as plenty of other riders were also behind schedule.

Spurgeon knows how to be comfortable in the sidecar.

We made sure to get one last taste of dirt before the sun went down. Spurgeon, Baby Jack, and I enjoyed the sunset. So romantic.

Faults aside, the Ural was plugging along and it sure looked the part.

It was particularly fitting that in a day full of issues, we managed to get stuck even while setting up for the staged photo above. No matter – lightening up the Ural and giving it a push usually fixed out problems:

I would end up getting covered in dust by the time the bike was out.

The additional spotlights on the Ural helped guide us into town and the final checkpoint for the day in Barstow. We saw some new friends (the Ural gets a lot of attention), enjoyed a beer or two, and got the rollchart for Day 2. Many restaurants in Barstow don’t stay open very late, so we ended up having dinner at the same Mexican place Nathan and I ate at last year:

This photo brought to you by Dos Equis.

That night we discussed what worked and what didn’t, and planned on making some changes for the next day. Would they work? All I’ll say for now is that as we got more comfortable piloting the Ural, our fun factor went way up. The trials and tribulations of Day 2 are coming soon…

UPDATE: Here’s the story of Day 2.