It’s well before dawn, and the temperature is below freezing. Ben’s KTM 1190 Adventure says it’s 27 F., but Kurt’s BMW R 1200 GS is somewhat more optimistic at a balmy 31. My Ural Gear-Up is silent on the matter, perhaps in indifference to these mild temperatures. After all, it was originally built to carry Russian soldiers through snow and mud as they mobilized to fight the German Blitzkrieg.
We are preparing for the start of the 33rd annual LA-Barstow-Vegas ride, an AMA-sanctioned event organized by the AMA’s District 37, a collection of clubs dedicated to preserving riders’ access to public land. The ride has roots in the Southern California desert-racing scene of the 1960s; in fact, much of the general route was run as a race from 1964-1989.
Today, the 2-day LA-Barstow-Vegas ride is a mix of paved and dirt roads and trails, and the routes are laid out in a way that allows riders to choose the difficulty of the path they take. With each day covering more than 200 miles, there are also multiple “bail out” points, where riders can exit dirt sections early, switch over to paved roads and make up time. The sun sets early in late November, and to complete the daily routes riders must keep moving. It’s a test of endurance as well as skill.
Any street-legal dual-sport bike is welcome. At the starting point in Palmdale, California, about an hour north of Los Angeles at the edge of the Mojave Desert, we see everything from KTM 450 enduros to BMW R 1200 GS Adventures. One guy is riding a Honda NC700X shod with Continental TKC80 knobby tires. There are Triumph Tigers and Honda Africa Twins…and three Ural sidecar rigs, one of which is mine. Someone from District 37 informs me that if I finish (if?), I’ll be the first woman ever to do so on a sidecar solo. No pressure.
The Ural might not seem like the optimum choice for a long-distance touring bike, with its 41-horsepower (claimed, at the crank) engine, 4-speed gearbox, complete lack of creature comforts (let alone electronic aids like ABS) and its darty steering at freeway speeds (70 mph is the recommended max, although I never got up the nerve to do more than 65). The Ural is most at home tootling along country roads at less than 50 mph, delivering you to your local coffee shop, where you’ll undoubtedly be the center of attention—or carrying you and your gear (and a passenger) well off the grid and on a real adventure tour. That’s the experience I was looking for.
Sidecar motorcycles are rather unstable with no ballast or passenger in the sidecar, so I volunteered to carry my two companions’ gear, tools and extra water. With a 595-pound claimed load capacity, acting as the Sherpa isn’t a problem.
It’s still below freezing when we pass through the official starting gate, to the cheers of the District 37 crew, and head for the desert. With no heated grips, I’m forced to stop just before we turn off onto the first dirt section and warm my hands on the Ural’s protruding cylinder heads. Those Russian soldiers must’ve been some tough dudes.
Ural loaned me a 2WD Gear-Up model for this ride, and the fact that its employees knew what I would be putting it through is a testament to their confidence in the bike’s hardiness. This is a grueling ride. The Gear-Up is equipped with thick steel tubing around the sidecar, a guard around the left cylinder head, a spare tire, a luggage rack, a tonneau cover for the passenger section, a jerry can and shovel strapped to the sidecar, a bicycle pump, a spotlight mounted to the front of the sidecar and the most comprehensive OEM toolkit I’ve ever seen. It even has tire irons. This is a bike that’s made to be ridden off-road.
As I accelerate down the first sandy dirt road, I feel the Ural settle into its element. Balance is obviously not a concern, so I’m free to just enjoy the ride. That is, until I learn that my extra width (at 63.6 inches, the Ural is nearly as wide as a small car) means I can’t dodge around the frozen mud puddles that dot the road. Every time 730-plus pounds of Ural hits one, I’m showered in frigid, muddy water and chunks of ice. Inside my helmet, I’m grinning like a little kid.
The Ural’s first test comes in the form of a steep, rocky ascent a little over an hour into the ride. Using a lever mounted on the right side of the bike, I shift into 2WD and gun the motor. The sidecar wheel is engaged via a direct driveshaft, and when in 2WD the Ural chews its way forward relentlessly, although steering becomes more of a suggestion than a real input.
I make it about halfway up before the Ural runs out of juice. The climb is too steep, too rocky and too long for the 41-horsepower machine and the load we’re carrying. As the engine sputters and dies, I desperately mash the rear brake pedal in a futile attempt to keep from sliding backwards. It doesn’t work, gravity takes over and I helplessly slip 20 feet back down, doing what I can to steer away from other riders making the ascent to my right. The guy on the knobby-shod NC700X bounces past and I sit sheepishly waiting for Kurt to run down and help me get turned around. Part of any adventure is dealing with setbacks, however, and Kurt and I find an alternate way around the hill.
After a mid-morning stop at a checkpoint, we tackle the second major challenge of the day. A miles-long jeep trail leads us to a saddleback ridge, we faced the scariest, steepest downhill section I’ve ever seen. Getting up there was hard enough—one side of the two-track trail is a wash of loose rocks, while the other side is raised hard-packed dirt. The combination forces me to ride up with the motorcycle side down in the rocky rut, and the sidecar wheel up on the raised dirt section.
With the 2WD engaged, I claw my way up the trail—but the challenge comes in keeping the Ural’s low mufflers, especially the left one, from banging off rocks. I’m doing fine until the trail suddenly tilts even farther to the left, and I hear the familiar bong! of metal striking rock, followed by a loud blatting sound. I pull to a stop to find the muffler has been knocked off the head pipe and is dangling from its rear mount. The tool kit proves its worth, and 10 minutes later we’re back in business.
There are a disconcerting number of bikes heading back down the trail, and we discover why when Kurt rides ahead to do some reconnaissance. He returns with photos of five bikes scattered along the impossibly steep descent, and we reluctantly agree to turn back as well. We manage to find another way around the mountain, but it eats up precious daylight and we’re forced to take paved roads the rest of the way to the hotel in Barstow.
Day two dawns even colder than the first, and I’ve learned that between the Ural’s slow speed and the short daylight hours, time is my greatest enemy on this ride. So we zip-tie Kurt’s spare mid-layer to my handlebars to provide some protection from the cold, and opt to take the highway to the first checkpoint in Baker, skipping miles of deep sand and saving hours of time.
It’s 65 miles of Interstate from Barstow to Baker, and the Ural purrs along smoothly at a cruising speed between 60 and 65 mph. Like all sidecars, it has a tendency to pull right when throttle is applied, and left when it’s closed. This results in some oscillating back and forth as the rider continually makes corrections. I’ve adjusted the standard steering damper to reduce those oscillations, but my arms and shoulders are still tired by the time we pull into Baker.
Leaving Baker, the dirt power-line road that we take into the desert seems easy at first, and we pick up speed, chattering away on our Sena helmet communicators. I take the lead, since I can warn the others of rocky or sandy sections that the Ural shrugs off, but that could be an unpleasant surprise for big adventure bikes. Things are going swimmingly until we hit an extended section of deep sand.
I can hear the grunts of effort and frustration of my companions behind me, as they fight to stay upright—and don’t always succeed. Even in 2WD, the chugging Ural eventually bogs down, and it takes two guys pushing to help me get moving again. Although only about a mile long, it takes us nearly an hour to clear the sandy section, and we are a hungry bunch when we roll into Sandy Valley, Nevada for lunch.
After that, we’re on the homestretch, and the excitement level spikes. The faster riders that we had leapfrogged by taking the Interstate in the morning are catching up to us by now, leaving us coughing in a perpetual cloud of dust as they pass. I’m happy I decided to wear goggles.
As we drop from the mountains into a valley, where we will pick up Nevada State Route 160 into Las Vegas, I pause to take in the view. Red rock mesas and cliffs rise from the green valley floor, and the slanting afternoon sun creates sharp vertical shadows in the mountainsides. I know I’m almost there—I’m going to finish this ride.
Not everyone was so lucky; there were a few breakdowns over the 400-plus miles. Clutches burned up in the deep sandy sections, tires went flat and one R 1200 GS suffered a broken front end. The Ural held together, though, apart from having its muffler knocked loose. It faithfully carried me (and three riders’ worth of gear) on Interstates, dirt roads, rocky trails and through sand pits. It wasn’t easy, and I was sore the next day, but by golly it was fun!
The sense of accomplishment I felt when I passed through the finish gate in Las Vegas was something I’ll never forget. Knowing that I’m the first woman to do so alone on a sidecar rig makes it all the more sweet. LA-Barstow-Vegas is a world-class event, hosted by a world-class organization. (District 37 was awarded the AMA’s Organizer of the Year for 2016.) If you’re looking for a challenge for yourself and your bike, I highly recommend it. If you choose to do it on a Ural, though, make sure to bring a friend/winch/energy bars/ballast…and a sense of adventure!