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2nd January 2004

Opinion: Chicks Dig Sidecars

This was going to be a "We go to Buntingford and admire some real classic sidecars" feature, but then Real Mart made a sudden left turn and started rambling...

Few things in life are certain. Taxes, death, numb fingers in January… We can be pretty sure, though, that no one from the Transport Research Laboratory has ever piloted a sidecar outfit.

I use the word "piloted" deliberately. To ride a vehicle implies achieving a oneness with it, operating the controls by reflex rather than through conscious thought. Driving a vehicle conjures up an image of wafting safely and effortlessly from a to b with a minimum of input, while listening to an interesting discussion programme on the radio and making the most of various heaters and cup holders.

Piloting, however, carries with it an air of unknowing risk and adventure. Pilots are brave, foolhardy or reckless, depending on where you're sitting. They wrestle with the laws of gravity and aerodynamics in order to get from a to b, and seem to revel in adversity. The Red Baron, the Battle of Britain, Kamikazes, and so on.

Note the coffe mug...

What has this got to do with sidecars? Well, apart from the risk and adventure, and the brave, foolhardy or reckless bit, which other means of transport sees the passengers breathing a sigh of relief on safe arrival at the end of every journey?

Name another vehicle with these steering characteristics: Accelerate and you go left. Brake and you go right. Travel in a straight line at the wrong speed and the bars flap madly from lock to lock. If you try and turn left too vigorously you risk overturning the vehicle, but all is not lost because it's seemingly impossible to turn right too vigorously. So that's alright then.

In the eyes of anyone responsible for road safety all of this would spell disaster. Or "immediate ban" at least. Which is why we know that no white coat wearing boffin has ever experimented with asymmetric wheel configurations. Thankfully there are so few sidecar outfits loose on the road that they barely figure in accident statistics, granting them their lopsided freedom from extinction.

So that's what happens to W650s...

Which is fantastic news for you and I. Yes, sidecar outfits do handle a bit oddly, and yes, they do give you the worst of both worlds - you get cold and wet *and* you get stuck in traffic - but piloting an outfit is something everyone should try once.

For a start, it's the two wheeled equivalent of an out-of-body experience. You're sitting on a motorcycle in the normal way, all the controls are where you left them, the noises and sensations are all familiar… yet everything is completely different. Counter steering is counter-productive, if you put your feet down you risk running yourself over when you pull away again, and bouncing along the road next to you is something that looks like it's just fallen off a nineteen-fifties fairground ride.

Never swallow anything bigger than your head. Never lug a sidecar bigger than your bike.

Then there's the challenge of control. I've covered the basics already, but let's see what happens in practise. Imagine, if you will, a roundabout. We want to take the final exit, towards Leasowe. Approaching the roundabout we'd like to slow down, and turn gently to the left. Except as we slow, the outfit pulls progressively more to the right, forcing us to pull harder on the bars to turn left, threatening to loft the sidecar…

Luckily, a gap in the traffic appears just as we need it most, and we are able to accelerate gently onto the roundabout ahead of that big lorry carrying a load of hazardous waste to Bidston. We'd like to carry on accelerating round the roundabout, but the sidecar has other ideas and is doing its best to drag us off towards Birkenhead. We could slow down - which the sidecar would love, as it would carry us smoothly round the roundabout - but the truck load of chemicals is getting closer so there's nothing for it but to open the throttle and heave the bars hard over to the right.

Feel the spokes in the rear wheel s-t-r-e-t-c-h in sympathy with the fork-legs, which are being twisted in an unnatural manner by the opposing forces of traction, pilot and gyroscopic precession. Finally, our exit looms and we can relax, add a bit more throttle and waft smoothly away into the distance - the thrashing beast of moments ago forgotten as the outfit regains equilibrium and adopts it's natural position; turning gently left while accelerating. We, meanwhile, are exhausted and already dreading the next junction - turning left at the traffic lights...

I feel both intimidated and excited looking at this picture.

The trick - and there's always a trick - is to play to the sidecar's strengths. How fast and how suddenly do you think you can turn right? Well double it, and then add a bit. Bonus points are awarded for particularly noisy tyre squeal, and for controlling the power slide with a bit of opposite lock handlebar action.

Wet roads simply add to the enjoyment, and you can laugh in the faces of your two-wheeled commuting colleagues when it suddenly starts snowing an hour before knocking-off time. You can even give them a lift home in the chair, calling in at the supermarket to pick up six weeks worth of shopping just to illustrate the load carrying benefits. In fact, forget the supermarket; why not pick up a wardrobe from Ikea while you're out…

Now tell me they're not mad...

And then there are the social benefits. Chicks dig sidecars. Women who would normally run a mile from a pillion seat will happily leap into a vinyl and wet carpet lined lump of fibreglass attached to your bike. "Bikes are dangerous, but that thing looks funky. Do I need a helmet?" Depends how far we're going… In reality, it's usually either your friends' mums or their grandchildren who queue up for a trip round the block, but a sidecar ride can do wonders for social acceptability. Everyone just assumes you're riding it for charity or as a bet or something - it's very hard to be threatening on a vehicle with such high comedy value.

Yes, I know that with a decent set of leading link forks, some wide car tyres, some careful set-up, some weight distribution management, and… Done properly, an outfit can be a rapid vehicle in its own right rather than an artificial limb bolted to the side of a perfectly good motorcycle, but carry that development to its logical conclusion and you'll end up with four symmetrically arranged wheels, which is surely completely missing the point.

If you've never ridden an outfit, get a go on one before the men in the white coats find out. And then get an experienced pilot to give you a ride in the chair. And then tell us about it...

A65Bill and an Austel owner compare A-series cooling pipe notes.


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