A Three Legged Dog
— Vernon Wade —
I caught the Dualsport Rally bug in 2001. I did the Rat Dog that year and did the Black Dog in 2002. If you were at those events, you probably saw me. I was on the red Triumph Tiger with the sidecar. Maybe you were a little curious about my ride.
Sidecars are an oddity amongst the general motorcycling population and they are a down right rarity at dualsport events. That’s too bad because dual sporting is a niche sidecars fill particularly well. True, their width precludes them tearing up the snaky single tracks we have in abundance in our Northwest forests, but almost everything else is fair game. That third wheel allows you to attack mud and gravel with an impunity usually reserved for the most skilled or the clinically insane solo rider. You can stay on the throttle without fear of tipping over, enjoying heart stopping slides on surfaces that cause most riders to pucker.
A sidecar’s asymmetrical quality requires some skills unique to this vehicle. Neither fish nor fowl, it looks like it should behave like a motorcycle, but handles more like a go cart one wheel fell off of. Try to counter steer like a bike and you are apt to plow straight ahead. You need to drive it like a car, steering the direction you want to go. Unlike a car (or just about anything else), right and left turns require different techniques.
In the US , sidecars are typically mounted on the right side of the bike. A sharp right turn will lift the sidecar into the air and the bike reverts to handling like a sluggish, lopsided motorcycle, counter steering and all. Sudden throttle input will cause the bike to want to steer around the sidecar. You need to scrub your speed off before entering a right hand corner. The driver and passenger shift their weight inside, to the right, and you rap the throttle open as you enter the corner, breaking the rear tire loose and power sliding right around the turn.
Grabbing the front brake will make the sidecar want to pass the bike, causing you to veer left. Entering left turns, you brake late, and drag the front brake just shy of lock up to get the bike to pivot left. On loose surfaces you can tap the rear brake to get the back tire to slide and then apply throttle as it kicks out. Too much throttle too soon will cause the front wheel to lift and you lose steerage, pushing the tire straight ahead even if you are at full lock.
Left turns are deceptive because you slide so easily and it seems so controlled. The weight transfers toward the sidecar nose as you turn; the rear tire unweights and starts to slide. The problem comes when the weight shifts too far and the bike tries to come over the sidecar. The rear wheel comes clear off the ground and the sidecar noses into the ground. Tip-overs are unusual, but they can happen very quickly. To prevent this, the passenger and the driver need to shift their weight to the left and aft. It is better to use the front brakes and throttle to slide the bike around the corner, rather than standing on the rear brake. Because an active passenger, shifting her weight all over the sidecar, is required for spirited riding, they are often referred to as “monkeys”.
In addition to lurid power slides, another advantage to sidecars becomes apparent when navigating. We set my rig up with the roll chart and GPS mounted on the grab bar in the hack. The passenger did all the navigating allowing me to concentrate on driving. Communicating via a radio headset and using the GPS for a trip meter we were able to negotiate the course at full speed, without needing to stop to check the roll chart. The GPS would occasionally lose accuracy in the forest, so I would back it up using the motorcycle odometer, setting both back to zero when the roll chart indicated a reset. I think a simple bicycle speedometer with an odometer/trip meter function would work well for this. The SIGMA BC401 is about $19 and looks like it would serve. If you use a GPS or a bike speedo be sure the trip meter function is easy to zero and your navigator is familiar with it’s use BEFORE you get out on the course (right Biscuit?;-).
There are also a few situations where a sidecar is at a disadvantage. Already mentioned, the width will keep the rig off the single tracks. When approaching water crossings, it is prudent to bear in mind all the slurry thrown up by the front wheel will land in the sidecar, inundating your monkey. A dualsport rig with adequate ground clearance will be a little slower on twisty paved sections, due primarily to its high center of gravity. Extremely steep sections can be difficult to negotiate. If you lose traction on a steep, loose incline the rig will try to slide sideways off the track. Fallen trees can’t be easily hopped; you need to build a ramp for both the sidecar wheel and the bike on both sides of the tree, cut it out of the way, or go around it.
Badly rutted roads can be hard-if all three wheels drop in you can high center and become trapped. If one wheel drops in and out it can really twist and hammer the frame. On rough roads I weave through the obstacles, taking up the entire road trying to miss the biggest rocks and holes (if you come up behind me, beep your horn and I will pull to one side to let you by). Sidecars take a lot of physical effort to drive quickly over rough terrain. After a long day on the course your arms and wrists get very tired.
Even given the above mentioned deficiencies, I find riding a sidecar through the woods one of life’s great pleasures. It is a nearly invincible vehicle in the rough and you get to share the fun with a passenger. If you are tempted to get a sidecar I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. If you have a sidecar and think you would like to enter a dualsport event, don’t hesitate, just do it! You need to have some ground clearance, an odometer which reads in tenths of miles and a roll chart holder. Contact the event’s organizer ahead of time to be sure your rig will be able to negotiate the course. I hope to see you at the Dog!