Something About Sidecars

“There’s just something about sidecars,” I thought, rattling eastward across Snoqualmie Valley. It was time to give back the hack, and I wasn’t sure I was ready.

Through the simple human kindness and superior gullibility of Jim at Motoduvall, I’d taken loan of “Brunhilde,” a brilliant three-
wheeled rig based on a BMW R1200C, and proceeded to sail its pretty little car like a kite all over King and Snohomish counties. I’ve been gimping a bit lately, but I recently agreed to herd a sidecar cross-country to Sturgis this summer, toting a passenger more gimpy than me.

1-DSC_1715A little practice was called for, and Jim was helping out like he does.

Nothing like trikes and even less like three-wheeled automobiles, sidecars accentuate the balance and ineffable grace of a single-tracker in approximately the manner and degree that crutches improve the performance of steeplechasers.

Yet, much like drunken bungee tattooing, it’s an intensely involving pursuit with significant consequences for momentary inattention. Not only are the dynamics different from literally every other vehicle on the road, they are entirely different from right to left.

Rolling off the throttle tightens a left turn; to tighten it further, stay in the throttle and tug the front brake lever. When the rig loads the outboard car wheel, the drive wheel spins, rotating the rig right snappily around its front contact patch. In other words, it veers leftward like a hyper-animate go-kart with handlebars.

Right turns have a profoundly different speed/terror ratio. First, slow down. Then slow down some more. SLOW DOWN OR DIE! Drag your rear brakes (if you’re lucky in your setup, this will also drag the car’s wheel), throw yourself bodily across your startled passenger’s heaving bosom (you can never overdo the bosom-heaving), and coax it gently into the corner. This will occasionally result in a right turn without further drama.

On other occasions, the sidecar wheel will gaily take leave of the ground. Try not to let it pass over your head, or you will DIE RIGHT NOW (no pressure). If you are “scared straight” enough to veer back to the left, the car will sit firmly back on the tarmac where it properly belongs—and you’ll be artfully dodging the oncoming traffic. Jolly fun!

In reality, once you have the hang of the car, it’s easy to, er… hang the car. Just pin it up in the air next to you, and sail, sail, sail your car, gently down the street. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily… life is pretty neat!

Unlike the loud, show-offy and socially transgressive practice of wheelstanding, a person of moderate coordination can fly a sidecar more or less indefinitely at any velocity above limping speed. I got in the habit of flying it down the four-block stretch to our cul-de-sac when no passenger was aboard. Flying is fun! Unless you need to make a sudden, hard right…

But not the most fun. Although the Teenster’s been mad for motorcycles since she was but three years old, she hasn’t so much wanted to get on a bike lately. After watching me rehabilitate—slowly—from a bike smash-up for a full year in a process that isn’t complete, she maintains her legitimate doubts.

Left not one mark on my pelt, but stirred my gizzard and frazzled the framing. She knows that. She pays attention. Teenagers can smell weakness and fear like wolverines.

The Teenster’s always relied on my promise not to dump her on the ground, even if we may have indulged in the occasional tiny wheelie about which nobody reported to their mothers. I mean, who doesn’t take an extra margin of care with their kids? She had good gear, solid pillioning experience, and confidence—but ever since the day I totaled an inattentive driver’s Subaru using nothing but my big, white ass, she’s been reduced to only gear and experience.

I don’t want to push her, but one of the things that pleased me most when some of my leg strength reappeared was that I could start riding bikes again, and share that with our kid.

She was having none of it.

For three months, the Teenster quietly started in on the dishes every time she saw me stump over to the gear closet to pull out a brain bucket. Then the ’hack followed me home and, after just a couple of days gazing out the front window at it, she smiled slightly and skipped out to the curb, tugging a custom-painted anime Arai down over her indigo-dyed hair (yes, my kids are cooler than me; hopefully yours are, too).

“Your entire job is to hold down the sidecar,” I advised her as we putted gently away from the house, heading for Bike Night down at S.U.B. and the Fuse Box. After a few blocks, I squared a right-hander and let the passenger pontoon ease up to half-mast for a block or so. Her eyes expanded to the size of boiled eggs.

At the next stop light, I leaned over and jabbed my index finger vertical. “You had one job, kid!

“One!”

And was relieved to see, behind the face shield, her eyes soften into giggle lines.

She wasn’t the only victi—er… “beneficiary” of local hacktivism. Road Captain Phil, who’s ridden all manner of bikes on every continent but Antarctica, took a bimble with me through the King-SnoCo borderlands. Turns out that even after racing and wrenching and touring since before I discovered Briggs & Stratton minibikes, Phil had never before ridden in a sidecar. We had a grand time tootling around, waving at girls, flirting clumsily with baristas, and of course delivering stern lectures: “Damn it, Phil, you had one job…”

Just before I turned Brunhilde over to her proper attendant, a friend swung by on a brief errand. Red’s storied résumé includes search-and-rescue aviation, motorcycling, emergency medicine, cowboy action shooting, and plenty of needlepoint. It also includes a laundry list of catastrophic injuries, the sum of which prevents her doing any of those things besides the needlepoint—and that only on one of the good days that involve minimal morphine sulphate. Red sold her last bike over seven years ago to the Teenster’s big sister and will never need it back which, it turns out, is a thing entirely different from not needing to ride.

“Say,” she said, dreaming out loud in Brunhilde’s general direction, “you don’t suppose…?” Because it was date night I glanced first at Pretty Wife, only to be reminded that she is a generous and open-hearted woman who’s never really taken me to task about all those wheelies when the Teenster was barely a Tweenster.

We swore a solemn pact, agreeing amongst ourselves that no one would tell Red’s husband about any, er… wheelies. Following a few moments of digging through the gear closet, we eased Red carefully into the pod, a monocoque torpedo bearing its human payload behind a tiny Brooklands screen.

“Now listen,” I heard from inside my helmet, “you have one job…”

1-DSC_1948-001I did my job with care. Red got minimal bumping, and (sadly for an aviatrix, but better for her spine) no flying whatsoever. We breezed along Olympic View Drive, stealing—just for those moments—the coastal Sound views for which Edmonds millionaires shell out their exorbitant taxes. When Red made a curious noise I pulled over quickly to make sure she wasn’t hurting, but all I could hear through the chinbar beneath her smiling eyes sounded something like, “Squeeeee!

We explored a few darkly forested roads through Woodway, maybe one or two boulevards around a Lynnwood park. Pretty sure I broke my promise to keep it short and I really hope we bruised neither Red’s thrice-rebuilt back nor Pretty Wife’s feelings but I know that Brunhilde, with her glittering outrigger charm, opened up new possibilities for three people I care about.

Before MotoDuvall’s roll-up door closed on my latest detour into sideways motorcycling, I let my eye follow her full, curving flank and thought that maybe, one of these days, I might appreciate a little comfort with my speed and maybe the more eccentric, the better. Then I popped the starter on my own hexhead, wailing out to the highway on a booming black twin that demands constant monitoring of her yaw, roll and pitch axes.

There’s something about sidecars, alright. It’s the something that there is about motorcycles and motion, friendship and life. A friend at speed is a friend indeed.

We all keep each other going.

Comments

  1. Thilled that the old girl could spread alittle giggling moto love.

  2. Tom Rogers says:

    Jack,

    I remember your article about hacking over to Idaho (?) on a Ural a few years back. AWESOME, sidecar as a gunrest… I have had a sidecar rig for about four years; specifically bought so I could drag BOTH my sons around with me. This thing is monster; a 1978 XS1100 with a Ural-esque sidecar hung on it. I have experienced the sphincter clenching too fast into the right hand turn total WTF of flying the car for the first time…fortunately it was empty…:) Sidecar rigs ROCK, they are a kick in butt and there oughtta be more. JUST BUY ONE, that way you dont have to give it back.

  3. Jim Wallis says:

    Beautiful! Please don’t wreck it!

  4. Laoch Maghouin says:

    Considering that the ‘squee’ lasted the better part of a couple of days, and that you couldn’t get the smile of her face with a sandblaster, I’m willing to ‘overlook’ any potential mischief that may or may not have occurred on Red’s ride.

    That said, Jack, I gotta say, physics and I are having a bit of a problem with this article. Namely, the fact that a right-hand sidehack is highly unlikely to attain any sort of air when turning right. Left, I understand how it’s likely. but right? If you’re turning in the direction of the sidehack, physics tells me you’re increasing the contact with the road for the side wheel. Not perzackly conducive to flight, that.

    Red agrees that there’s something hinky with the article in that regard, but she’s more trusting. I, on the other hand, have no problem with being wrong loudly and in public. In case I am, which, while I suspect that I am not, I can accept with something approaching grace if so.

    • No matter the vehicle, cornering loads the outside wheels, not the inside. That’s why you sometimes see street cars raise their inside rear wheel in a hard turn, looking for all the world like a Chihuahua pissaulting a fire hydrant.

      When you push a sidecar rightward, the outside wheels (bike’s primary wheels) are loaded. The car’s wheel is unloaded, and the bike tries to run underneath the car… which obligingly flies up out of its way.

      On a lefty, the car’s wheel is loaded down good and hard, and the bike’s primary wheels are lightened — esp. the rear, which is prone to spin up. That’s why you can pretty much snap-turn it to the left.

    • This seems like a pretty good description:

      http://redlegsrides.blogspot.com/2011/05/flying-chair.html

      Also, probably worth mentioning that the sidecar class I insisted he take before I got in one with him half a dozen years ago or so included flying practice for those as wanted to. He wasn’t flying it cold. 😉 (In case Jim and Lara are watching. 😉 )

    • Also, thanks for overlooking the mischief. 🙂

  5. There was definitely squeee! And giggles. And still smiling. And ‘fessed up to Hubby – – how else to explain the pink cheeks from smiling into the helmet pads. Wish there’d been some flying, but…

  6. My old da keeps harping at me occasionally to finish my PP-SEL… nevermind it would cost me a decent new-to-me bike’s worth – and quite a while’s worth of weekends – just to *get* it, plus the flight time runs about 20x what helmet time does…

    OTOH, the S/TEP course runs me as much as an hour of solo birdie time, and costs ONE weekend… and my sweetie has expressed interest in various three-wheelers….now, I just gotta find me a TUIT…

  7. John Weber says:

    Mr. Lewis, I need to say thank you. I should have said it long before now, but now is better than never. Thank you for your writing. Thank you for telling us stories in a way that leads us to think that we’re being entertained while instead we’re really being trained in the art of living more fulfilling lives. You are a gifted man who is willing to share his gift with the world. That’s called generosity, and we’re all thankful for it, and better for it as well.
    Heal well, ride on, and write on.

  8. Mr_Canoehead says:

    Jack, your writing always brings a smile to my face, even when things are otherwise in the crapper. “You have just one job!”

    Thanks for this blog, I really needed a smile today!

  9. Jack, Nice article. In my mis-spent youth I raced MX sidehacks for a short while in Arizona. I have always admired them on the road and maybe will have one to be my “odd bike” for fun and adventure.

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