2 0 0 4 urals b ik erev ie w
Albert and Ruth Menzi have put
200,000 miles on a 26' trailer, showing
Urals throughout the US. “Crowds form
wherever we go,” says Albert, especially
when he “flies the chair” (lifting the
sidecar off the ground — see page 47).
“The bikes are 500 percent improved
over the first models imported in ’94,”
he claims. The bikes travel from Russia
to Redmond, Washington, where sidecars and motorcycles are mated, testdriven, and shipped out to dealers.
By George P. Blumberg n Photos by Bob Feather
WAS A SCENE OUT OF
flag was wrong. We were charging down an airstrip
aboard what looked like 1939 BMWs. But a lot has
happened since Josef Stalin gave the go-ahead to
build imitation BMW R75s in the Soviet town of Irbit,
east of the Ural Mountains. Stalin, World War II, the
Soviet Flag, and even the Soviet Union have come and
gone, while Ural motorcycles seem here to stay.
Gary Kelsey of Irbit Motorworks of America had
shipped us three models. The bikes were delivered by
Albert and Ruth Menzi, a delightful Swiss couple
who are experts in Ural care, feeding, and riding. First
off the truck was the Gear-Up rig, a Russian military
model that’s also used by NATO countries. It comes
complete with a cammo paint job, searchlight, gas
can, entrenching tool, machine gun mounting point,
and driver-engaged driven sidecar wheel. Next up was
the Troyka sidecar rig, the most luxurious Ural with
its two-tone paint, chrome wire wheels, padded sidecar interior, and conventional drive. Finally, there was
the solo Wolf model — which Ural refers to as a
“chopper” — inspired by Moscow’s Russian Night
Wolves biker club.
With two million bikes on the roads worldwide,
over 95 percent of Ural sales are sidecar rigs.
That’s Ural’s niche: tough rigs at easy prices.
Ilya Khait, CEO of Irbit Motorworks of
America, says he divides models/buyers into
two categories. The “family recreational”
motorcycles are represented by the Troyka
sidecar rig at $8,995, and the Tourist rig with
leading links for only $8,195. Ural’s “sportutility” motorcycles include the $10,195 GearUp and the $9,695 Patrol, also with a driven
sidecar wheel but lacking a searchlight and some
amenities. The Wolf goes for only $5,375.
THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING
Looking at a Ural up close, every mechanical bit that
makes it a motorcycle is visible. Nothing hides the
carbs, in-line fuel filters, or automotive-style
Nippondenso alternator. You can even watch the shaft
drive coupling joint spin. But these are stout machines.
“This is the highest quality steel anywhere,” boasts
Albert, an ex-engineer and Swiss military motorcyclist. The company’s goal is to keep the bikes simple
and strong, not slick or sophisticated.
September 2004 RoadBike 45
To start the bikes, you pull out the choke knob on
each of the two Keihin carbs. Then you turn the key
on the headlight-mounted ignition switch, and thumb
the starter. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can
use the kickstarter. Our low-mileage testers seemed a
bit cold-blooded — according to Albert, they hadn’t
yet been broken in and retuned. The motors are noisy
but the exhausts are quiet, a combination that sounds
like the two-stroke Jawas of the 1960s.
All Urals use the same 745cc, overhead-valve,
air-cooled, four-stroke flat twin engine with a manufacturer’s rating of 45 horses and 38 ft-lbs. of
torque. This modest power, along with a square bore
and stroke, 8.6:1 compression, four-speed transmission,
739-pound weight, and slick-as-a-brick aerodynamics, results in
a top speed of 59 mph for the Gear-Up and 65 for
the Troyka. The Wolf is the road rocket, weighing in
at 551 pounds with a top speed of 81 miles per hour.
But anyone who complains about a Ural being slow
is missing the point. It’s not about speed; it’s about
having fun, seeing the countryside, and being seen.
Controls are standard fare with some additions. There’s a reverse gear on the sidecar models, engaged by a lever aft of the brake pedal. Just
push it down with your heel, and disengage by
pushing forward with your toe. The Wolf ’s reverse
is locked out, since you’d probably kill yourself
going backward on two wheels.
Another lever on the Gear-Up engages the driveshaft to the
sidecar’s driven wheel. The Wolf has forward controls, which are
linked to the regular foot controls. There’s a lot of linkage
there, but they work. The transmissions are clunky, and neutral can be hard to find. You
soon learn to shift by pushing
hard [Read: stomping — JP]
into the next gear, and that’s
just the way it is. Relax and tell
yourself, “These machines will
never break.” This is as elemental as it gets, and it’s fun.
With its leading-link front
end dedicated to rough terrain,
steering on the Gear-Up is
heavier than on the Troyka,
which has telescopic forks. You
don’t need to cinch down the
Gear-Up’s steering damper
much, because the driveshaft
that runs from the bike’s tranny
to the sidecar wheel, when
engaged, mostly keeps the rig
tracking straight ahead. Get
moving over 40 mph, and the bikes start to weave a bit. You have
to pay constant attention, but that’s also part of the fun. These
machines require a firm hand and foot.
Above all, remember that these are sidecars and therefore
require special riding techniques. As the detailed owner’s manual delicately points out, “Left-hand and right-hand turns may
be dangerous.” The manual also mentions the tendency for an
unweighted sidecar to lift in too-fast turns.
On my first ride, I headed toward the beach with the Gear-Up,
coached by Albert in the sidecar. I started out with the sidecar
wheel driveshaft engaged. On pavement, it was almost impossible to steer, because the wheels are equally driven. But when we
headed into a large, muddy puddle, I could feel the driven sidecar wheel at work, and everything lightened up. I drove out of
the mud, disengaged the driven wheel, and rode toward the
Once Upon a Time
lya Khait, CEO of Irbit Motorworks, filled us in on Ural’s origins. “There’s a
legend that five 1939 BMWs were bought through Sweden, then taken
apart and measured, and machine tools made. Another version says that
the Germans gave Stalin the blueprints. But there’s no proof. Personally, I
like the first version better.
“At its peak in 1992, the Irbit factory had 10,000 workers and produced
132,000 motorcycles. They made everything from the steel to the rubber for
the tires. The Ural was the utility vehicle for rural areas, and the majority of
Urals were purchased by the Russian domestic market. But owing to political
and economic refor ms, people were able to afford cars for the same money.
In 1993, sales dropped drastically, and five years later they dropped 60
times. Ural restructured the factory to be more specialized, shutting down or selling off the shops
that specialized in stamping, casting, and forging.
“The company lost the domestic market completely, and by the end of the ’90s sales were 90
percent export.” Overall production had dropped to 2,000 units in 1998 and 850 in 2001.
“The first Urals came to the US in the 1970s through Soviet export organizations. Serious
importation was started in 1992-93 by an independent American importer. Then, after 10 years, the
factory decided it wasn’t satisfied with an independent distributor. Today, the factory and importer/
distributor are the same. But over those 10 years, we learned a lot from the distributor and the market, about things from reliability issues to the paint and finish quality. Urals now have different,
more reliable engines. We’ve introduced electronic ignition, electric start, an alternator, and Brembo
front disc brakes, and the finish quality is much better. It’s a totally different motorcycle, though it
looks almost the same.”
Now the factory is on track to sell 400 units in the US in 2004, through about 50 dealers.
Today Ural produces about 3,500 motorcycles, and sales are climbing. As Ilya says, “A Ural is not a
time machine; it’s a new vehicle. We think 400 motorcycle sales this year in the US is just the
September 2004 RoadBike 47
It was cool the way the forward controls were linked. But it’s
not a kick-ass bike, and not really a chopper.” Terry O’Brien,
sales associate for RoadBike and AIM, agrees the Wolf is fun if
you don’t expect big performance, and you don’t have to merge
on the highway much.
While folks may stare at the Wolf, it’s the sidecars that draw
the crowds. Riding the Gear-Up, Joe K. got the right-on sign
sandy beach, where we quickly bogged down. I engaged the
driven wheel again, eased on the throttle, slipped the clutch, and
the rig clawed its way through the sand.
We swapped the bikes around. Bad boy biker Joe Knezevic,
American Iron Magazine’s associate editor, had fun zipping
around on the solo Wolf. “It’s a throwback to when motorcycling was an adventure,” he says. “But there’s no great power.
’m used to the seamless competence of my ’97 Gold Wing, and
everything on my ’02 Ural is different. Everything is honestly
mechanical and feels like it looks — cast, hammered, and welded
from Russian steel and aluminum. It leaks a little oil, and I have to
tinker with it often. It helps to repeat, “It’s Russian,” while tinkering.
But there’s the simple pleasure of riding an honest
machine. There is no insulation between me and the
mechanics of the bike, and
no filtering of the road or
environment. It reminds me of
the bikes available 32 years
ago when I started to ride.
While my Wing drills the
miles, the Ural lets me ride
more often and in more circumstances. I use it for errands and carrying stuff like groceries.
I can show off and fly the car in parking lots. The only thing I can’t
do is run with the big dogs on the freeway. I’ve seen 75 mph with
a tailwind and drafting a semi. — Alan Bond, Michigan
MFR HP Rating:
MFR Torque Rating:
Air-cooled flat twin
78 x 78 mm
Twin Keihin L22AA carburetors
45 at 5600 rpm
38 ft-lbs. at 3750 rpm
Four-speeds forward, plus reverse (except Wolf),
plus 2WD Gear-Up
99.6" (Wolf)/101.6" (Troyka, Gear-Up)
30.9" (Wolf)/33" (Troyka, Gear-Up)
551 pounds (Wolf)/736 pounds (Troyka, Gear-Up)
from kids, cops, and businessmen. I found the Troyka drew its
share of crowds also, everyone gawking at the “antique” rig.
Cars even slowed down on the highway to gape.
Assistant editor Steve Lita just couldn’t get enough of the
Gear-Up. “I’ve got it down,” he shouted to me at one point.
“Just bang it into each gear. The front end comes up in first and
second.” The bike made him smile. What did editor Jessica
have to say while riding the Troyka? Not much; she was laughing too hard.
The Ural warranty is two years parts and labor, with no
mileage limit. There are currently about 50 US dealers, but these
are simple bikes that owners can wrench on themselves. In fact,
the owner’s manual encourages it. “An owner who is qualified
and capable of doing his or her own service work is allowed to
do so, without voiding the manufacturer’s warranty, provided
that you sign the Service Coupon and date it after the work has
been performed.” Ever seen that paragraph in a Honda manual?
These bikes are in a class by themselves. They don’t have
outstanding brakes or notable performance. But most Ural owners also have modern bikes as daily riders. They love the simple
feel, straightforward technology, and ruggedness of the Urals,
which they use for relaxed touring, family fun, or off-road
camping. In an age of complex computer technology, where
else can you get your hands dirty working on a piece of machinery that you understand? Personally, I think every motorcyclist’s
garage should have a Ural. RB
For more information, contact Irbit Motorworks of America,
15411 NE 95th Street, Dept. RB, Redmond, WA 98052,
bought a new Ural with a sidecar in ’02. That was the first year for
the 750cc engine, which is totally revised and improved, along with
the transmission. Outside of the technical stuff (like an alternator
failure of the old design unit, which has been replaced with a
Nippondenso unit), this is an enjoyable motorcycle. I always get
smiles and waves. Children, especially my nephew Sam, are mesmerized by it. The Ural always
gets the Beemerphiles’ attention. Some love it, some
don’t. Ride quality is a bit like
an ATV. In Pennsylvania, the
leader of the free world in
potholes, the Russian hack
gets a little bouncy. You need
to take a break after an hour.
But I never planned on any
grand touring with my Ural;
that’s what my ’05 Triumph
Tiger is for. — Derek
bought my 2WD Ural Patrol in 2000 as a winter bike. I had
heard they were old technology and needed lots of maintenance,
but I broke it in carefully. I used it to commute to school, about
50 miles a day. It made snow days fun in up to 8". And not only
could it reach 65-70 mph, if properly maintained it could run for
hours at those speeds. Before long, my “winter bike” was my
favorite year-round bike.
I’ve ridden from
Greensboro, North Carolina,
to Daytona, Florida, (600
miles) for four consecutive
years. I went on my first Iron
Butt SaddleSore 1000 in
April ’03. After completing
over 910 miles in 18 hours,
a lean fuel condition burned
a hole in the right piston.
But on March 25, 2004, my bike became the first Ural sidecar to
complete an Iron Butt 1000 ride.” — Ed Paynter, North Carolina
September 2004 RoadBike 49