Three wheels on my wagon

Bikes have been part of my life since I first tried a friend’s 50cc Monkeybike at the age of 11.  I couldn’t wait to get a licence.  In Frome, there was an independent BMW dealer, Difazio’s.  I’d walk the 3 miles from home to stand and gawp at the unfeasibly swoopy-faired R100RSes, RTs and – finally, macho GSes in the window, vowing I’d have one one day.

Growing up in Somerset with a bike was joy.  Perfect roads, no traffic, plenty of country pubs.

Coffee on a table near a Jupiter motorcycle combo


As soon as I was 17, I bought my first – a metallic red Suzuki A100.  Lying flat across the tank, feet on the passenger footpegs, it would just about top 60mph on the Maiden Bradley straight. For £80 I’d bought my freedom and my first fix.  That bike took me everywhere, L-plates fluttering.

Thanks to the kindness of Cyril Fuller who managed to teach me to ride without killing myself, I passed my test.  It wasn’t much of a test then.  A ride around a windswept, February housing estate with the examiner watching from the pavement, finally stepping out with his clipboard to check my emergency stop.

It's Downton, dear, but not as we know it.

It’s Downton, dear, but not as we know it.

The A100 gave way to a white X7 Suzuki 250.  The press had acclaimed it as “the first ton-up 250”.  It was true – at least, the speedo said it was.  It was also the bike that taught me how to take engines apart and, occasionally, get most of the bits back together again.

Then, a mate clearing his garage presented me with a stack of oily boxes and two instantly recognisable pieces of white, swoopy fibreglass.  An R100RS. 

OK, it was in Trex White, but it was my dream bike.  All I had to do was build it.  For the next month, I lived solely on mugs of tea as I bolted and unbolted and fettled and begged bits from anyone who’d listen.  I was at least twenty years too young for one, but that was my first BMW.

Twenty five years later, I’m still riding.  Now, an R1100GS that’s heading for 60k on the clock – and a Ural outfit.  The outfit – a bike with a sidecar – is splendid for me.  I have all the ability on a two-wheeler of a frozen chicken.  The Ural’s sidecar not only carries a huge amount of stuff, it’s like having stabilisers.

It’s an addiction, a refuge and an endless joy.

Musings, Riding

Slow Train

There’s not been a lot of time for two or three-wheeled ambling recently. Instead, a pretty solid wall of work-borne rush, stress and frustration has kept me off the bikes. So, with an unaccustomed free Sunday afternoon and some sun, I decided to stop beating my head against it, hoiked the keys off the peg and helmeted up.

The saddle of a motorcycle is not generally a place for wool-gathering.  Back lanes with no traffic and the Ural are fine though.  And soon, like most riders, in time with the clacking of the engine, I found myself humming contentedly.  All sorts of tunes seem to push themselves forwards as candidates when you’re on a bike.  There’s no knowing whether it’s going to be Bach or Bragg.

Today, it was Flanders and Swann’s Slow Train.  Fitting, with the 50th anniversary of Dr Beeching’s “The Reshaping of British Railways”No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat. Continue reading


It’s not Urals that are unreliable. It’s their owners.

It was the rain that did it. That, and me buggering off for Christmas, leaving the Ural alone, outside under its cover. By the time I’d got back, half the UK’s annual rainfall had found its way into the carburettors. The Ural has two, one for each cylinder. Most of the water was, of course, in the left carb. “So what?” ask readers unfamiliar with combos imported into the British Isles. The left carb is wedged between the sidecar and the bike. Getting to it requires the skills of a contortionist India-rubber keyhole surgeon, a long-handled screwdriver and patience. By the Law of Sod which so carefully governs our lives, this means the left carb is always the one to fill with water, go out of balance, acquire a mouse nest in the float bowl…

But, actually, it’s all my fault. And it shows precisely why Urals are not, as some believe, rolling manifestations of unreliability. Instead, it illustrates that there are only unreliable owners.

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Thing is, modern stuff and Urals are fundamentally different. Modern stuff is all about sealed units, electronics, modules and zero interaction. You get on a modern bike, thumb the starter and it goes. No fuss, no bother – and absolutely no need to interact with the machine. The mechanics powering its engine and drivetrain are as much a mystery to you as the interior of your microwave.

A Ural is different. And that means Ural owners need to be different too. Starting procedure… if you have any mechanical sympathy at all, you’ll turn the engine over a couple of times with the kick-starter, just to give the top ends a fighting chance of getting a bit of oil heading their way. Then you’ll need to open the enricheners on the nasty, cast-in-purest-cheese Pekar K68 carbs. Of course, you’ll already have checked their float bowls are free from water, remember? Then, clutch in and hit the starter. This assumes you’re not one of the significant minority of Urallists who eschew electric starting.

And that’s the point. Urals are about interaction, about knowing how, about getting involved with the machinery. And that’s why they need the right sort of owners. Anyone who thinks they can just get on and ride an older Ural like a Modern is in for a very oily, spanner-related wake-up call.

My pal Alex’s new Triumph horrified him by being supplied with just a 5mm allen key. That was it. But it has more computers powering the fuel injection system than ran the whole of the Soyuz I mission. And you’re not allowed near any of them. In fact, modern bikes discourage interaction of any sort apart from the throttle-twisting kind.

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That’s fine, although I’m old fashioned enough to think that if you’re going to trust your neck to something you should understand how it works and be able to fix it. A Ural comes with a tool kit that’s comprehensive enough to rebuild the engine, fix the cycle parts and probably construct a Bessemer converter with what’s left over.

If you jump from a Honda to a Ural, and treat it with the sort of neglect Hondas lap up, it WILL be an unreliable heap. That’s because a Ural needs maintenance in the same way a Honda needs petrol. It’s part of the ownership experience.

Maintain a Ural, tinker, fiddle, get to know it and it will be (as mine has been) stone reliable. It will get you home – always. That’s because you’ll know what to do with the countless little things that niggle on a Russian machine that defines the concept of simple mechanics.

That means you need to be a certain sort of person to own a Ural for the long term. The sort of person who has a set of metric feeler gauges and knows what they’re for. Who understands, at least broadly, how a carburettor works. But most of all, who takes to heart the WWID technique of maintenance and repair.

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WWID stands for “what would Ivan do?” Ivan being the mythical, Everyman Russian Ural owner with basic tools, no training, but a self-taught understanding of how mechanical things work. For example, Ivan would cheerfully use a strip cut from a drinks can as a shim. As Pirsig points out, it’s perfect shimstock – and Ivan knows it. He knows when to step back, put down the spanner and think. And his life is richer for it.

So when someone takes a pop at ‘unreliable’ Urals from the electrically heated saddle of their new K1600GTL, I’m happy to smile. That’s because I know that if their self-levelling headlight circuit develops a fault, their entire bike’s systems will shut down in self protection and they’ll be trailered home. If my Ural’s headlight fails, as it did a couple of years ago, there are only two options – the bulb or the fuse. Takes two minutes to sort either and get on with riding. I like simple. Simple’s best. Ask Ivan.

Musings, Riding

RAF Kelmscott and summer silence.

The airless reception area with its cheerful, exhortative corporate posters made me think of communist Russia. Dark wood. Grey, worn carpet. Grey fluorescent lights. Every so often, there would be a sharp, electronic bleep and the door would get pushed open. A grey-suited figure would scuttle past and the door, on its spring, would creak slowly shut. I thought affectionately of WD40.

Waiting on the single, plastic seat so kindly provided for visitors, I thought too of the sunshine I’d left behind as I picked up my visitors’ badge at Reception. I resolved, as soon as I got home, to get the Ural’s keys off their hook and out into the evening lanes.

By the time I’d dug under the wire and out of Stalag Corporate, the sun was thinking about a stiff G&T and putting its feet up. But, at this time of year, the shadows seem longer and richer in the evenings. And Continue reading

Musings, Riding

The kindness of strangers

The GS has been playing up for a while. Matt and Stuart at North Oxford Garage have been fantastic – and patient – trying to diagnose an intermittent but vicious electrical problem where the bike simply refuses to start. It’ll crank – for hours – but won’t fire. It’s been back three times in all, and apart from the first bill (heavily discounted I suspect, given the time Stuart spent) I’ve not paid a penny. So it was time to say thank you.

I’d raided the Oxford Wine Company for a crate of Shotover Brewery’s “Scholar” and thought the least I could do was head it Matt and Stuart’s way. The Ural needed a run, and I thought it would be suitably inappropriate to park it outside the polished temple to techno-transport that is North Oxford BMW. So I loaded the beer into the sidecar, put the key in the ignition and turned the petrol tap. Continue reading

Musings, Riding


You can tell it’s spring. All the little parking gaps in Stow that are empty in the winter now host Solvol-gleamed motorcycles. The creak of leathers is almost audible as sportsbike riders mix it with the righteous Harley brethren in the mean streets and tea shops. Today, I headed up to Stow, as ever, through the Ural-friendly backlanes. Those backlanes seem always have a habit of leading me to old airfields.

I’m pretty used to disused hangers, cracked and pocked runways with more grass than gravel. But RAF Little Rissington (‘Rissy’ to its friends) is, unusually, still at least partially, active. 637 Volunteer Gliding Squadron are based here, flying Grob 109s and training air cadets. All rather a long way from the Red Arrows, heavyweight C130 Hercules and C5 Galaxies that used to rumble down the runways. Continue reading

Musings, Riding

Hanging up your helmet

The days are, finally, lengthening. That seemed as good an excuse as any to drag the Ural from under its cover and clack-zag though the staggered web of lanes to Bibury.

At this time of year the coach loads of travel-myopic, Bath-Stonehenge-Bibury-Shakespeare n’ Stratford-inna-day tourists are still tucked up and posting acid on TripAdvisor. Instead, Bibury was free for the ducks, the cold and huddled bundles of legged scarves, hats and Barbours. And motorcyclists. Two of us.

Keith was riding an old favourite of mine. A patinated K75RT sat at the kerb, a few feet away from him as his eyes tracked the ripples in the river moving past. Busy with his thoughts. Continue reading

Musings, Watches

Old watches, old bikes and a bit of soul

It had been quite a day. We’d only ridden just over 160 miles, but through winding, high-banked lanes, over moors and finally down a flaky, clacky shale track that would have given a mountain goat vertigo. And now we’d made it. Tintagel. I climbed off the bike, helped Pip out of the sidecar and leaned back to drink in the view from the clifftop over the Atlantic. The bike ticked and pinged as it cooled in the breeze off the sea.

As I usually do on a trip like this, riding done, I unrolled the Ural’s toolkit on the ground beside the bike, opened a beer and started checking the machine over, part by part. This is therapy and my favourite part of the day. Miles covered, supper and another beer earned and in view and a chance to tinker with the bike as the sun goes down over the sea.

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Rotary Nortons, lunch and fifteenth century painting

It’s all Hugh Jaeger’s fault. As are so many things. It’s been mayhem at the office since January. The shells keep coming over. Every day we’ve climbed the fire-step, scrambled over the parapet and – bayonets fixed – charged the enemy. And now, this week, for the first time, there’s space to breathe a little. So I gave myself the day off and rode back behind friendly lines into Oxford in search of inspiration. Instead, I spotted a familiar, Rasputin-like figure astride a rotary Norton. Continue reading


Why it takes longer by Ural

You don’t buy a Ural to go fast.

Urals are Russian motorcycle combinations, built like tanks (but slightly heavier) and rather slower.  Based loosely on the 1930’s design for the BMW R71, they’re still made in Siberia.  That means they’re designed to deal with Siberian roads and weather.  Speed is not important.  Da. Continue reading