ONE ON THE SIDE

After a lifelong fascination with sidecar rigs, as seen from a distance, I got into them in my late 60’s because I wanted to learn something new and experience something different in this motorcycle thing that I had done since my early teenage years. Those goals have been met, in spades, though the learning process is still continuing. This asymmetrical combination of motorcycle and third-wheel device provides sensations and experiences nothing else can equal, but it is not a motorcycle and it is not a car, nor is it a “trike”. It is, as we used to say in the legal profession, “sui generis”, a creature unto itself.

I’ve now owned two different rigs and have more than 30,000 miles under my three wheels, and while not an expert by any means, I have formed some impressions.

The takeaway is that they are marvelously stable up to about 55 mph, and increasingly weird after that. Like any good companion, no matter how wonderful they may be, there are some quirks that must be taken into account.

Consider the different ways the machine encounters its environment.

The motorcycle, when not attached to the sidecar, is designed to experience the world in a particular linear manner, straight up from the contact point. Forces applied through the frame, the tires, the suspension, from the designer’s intention, should arrive and be dealt with in that line. The forks and rear suspension rise and fall with the contours of the road surface. Even when in a curve, the bike is leaned over and most of the forces it encounters still are coming up through the suspension and the frame mainly in a straight-through-the-suspension fashion, viewed from the perspective of the machine. Picture in your mind leaning into a bumpy turn and watch as the front and rear suspension reacts to the undulations of the pavement with the front tire, though in a canted position, still rolling over the bump and the forks allowing it to come up to accommodate and then the rear tire doing the same. Yes, there are side forces involved but they are minimal at this point, at real-world speeds.

Now picture the sidecar rig. The motorcycle is locked into a nearly vertical position, perpendicular to the pavement (one expert recommends “a half bubble off plumb’ but it is not clear if he means the bike or the operator). Traveling in a straight line, it still encounters the world in a linear fashion, but it is constantly experiencing a side pull from the weight and drag on one side. When it enters the bumpy curve, the wheel still rolls over the uneven parts, but with the added stress of centrifugal force, countered by the traction of the tire pulling the rig to the outside. The forks and steering stem, wheel bearings, rear swing arm and suspension all are experiencing a substantial side load in addition to the up and down motion for which they were designed. A right turn makes the car want to “fly”, placing a tremendous side-load on the motorcycle’s wheel bearings that are now carrying the weight of the car and any load it contains, at an angle that the designer never intended. A left turn side loads the front and puts mulch of the rig’s weight on the car’s suspension, causing the rear wheel of the bike to rise (particularly if braking is involved) even to the point of digging the nose of the car into the pavement if one lets it get out of hand.

In a well designed rig, driven responsibly, this all works fairly nicely, up to a point. It does remind me of Samuel Johnson’s comment, “… like a dog walking upon its hind legs, the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all”.

There are, of course, racing sidecars with specially built frames that become much more like three wheeled automobiles, designed specifically for these side loads, but that is not what most of us (EML drivers notwithstanding) operate on the streets. The variety of styles and attachments to various motorcycles means that one can tailor the characteristics to suit what you want to do.

My own experience from driving two different high-bodied “adventure” sidecar rigs is that up to about 55 mph, the combination is remarkably stable and a joy to experience. There is the relief, at my age, from any fear of falling over, slipping the front or rear wheel in a turn on uncertain surfaces, parking lot maneuvers, etc. Riding in late fall with leaf-covered roads, in winter with the prospect of ice, on backroads where gravel or sand can often be found in curves, all of these concerns are erased for the most part and one can just enjoy the motion and the scenery.

The rig is still all of these things as speeds rise, but then the feeling creeps up on the driver that the forces acting on the three wheels in asymmetrical contact with the road are not always in harmony.

At 65 or 70 mph in a straight line or in gentle bends, the rig feels perfectly comfortable, but I have the understanding that sudden evasive maneuvers can unsettle the beast and set it into motions that may be unpredictable for one such as me. In curves, as speeds rise, one must be always cognizant of the sharpness of the curve, the pitch of the road, whether the curve is ascending or descending and most importantly, is it a right or left on top of all those factors. In all motorcycle riding, we know we must look as far ahead as possible and anticipate conditions. The sidecar makes this doubly important and multiplies the cost of error.

The driver must always be aware of the effect of the sidecar. Power applied, whether by engine or gravity, will try to pivot the combination of bike and car one way or the other. When accelerating the car is a drag so the rig veers right. When decelerating, the car wants to keep going on (that whole Newtonian “a body in motion” bit), if it doesn’t have its own brake, and pulls the rig to the left. The first couple of hours driving a rig is a constant exercise in balancing these forces to keep the thing in a straight line. Soon though, it becomes second nature, receding into the background like all of those other details we had had to learn when first we started riding motorcycles. You learn to use these characteristics to ease your progress through turns, getting the thing oriented toward the desired direction by rolling on or off the throttle or applying a brake.

If the sidecar does have a brake, a lot depends on how the stopper is set up. I like mine adjusted so that the sidecar wheel is braked just a little bit before the pedal actuates the motorcycle rear brake so I can use it to begin a pivot going into a right turn, setting up the orientation of the rig.

A sidecar rig has three “tip lines”, drawn between the axles of the three wheels forming a triangle. An excess of weight or force or both on the outside of any of those lines can cause the rig to pivot over the axis of that line. Underestimating the sharpness of a right hand turn at speed can result in the car rising and, if not rolling over, the rig with its steering now compromised, going inexorably into the oncoming lane. Overcook a downhill left and brake too hard, the rear wheel rises and the rig can tumble over the front. While not common, too much acceleration on a very powerful bike can cause the front wheel to rise, but instead of a typical wheelie, the rig now wants to pivot around the unpowered sidecar wheel and lurch to the right. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)

Riding the sidecar on curvy roads becomes a very different experience from the same on two wheels. When I was young on two wheels, the curves were the thing and I was focused only on them, the lean angle and the sensation of the flow, not so much the scenery around me. Now the rig makes me slow down and at its preferred pace, I can feel more, see more (though it can be unforgiving of a lapse of attention to its place on the road) and be more calm.

There are those who tout the speed potential of sidecars, some even saying that they can maintain as quick a backroad pace on a rig as they once did on two wheels. (Remember, “the older I get, the faster I used to be”) Those boasts may be true in some cases and with some combinations of sidecar and bike, but I think it seriously misses the point. Trying to get a rig into a significant speed on a curvy road seems like teaching a hound dog to sing opera…it takes an awful lot of effort, puts a great strain on the dog and the best result you can achieve is not much improvement in performance. The driver must use body weight to counter, as best one can, the forces that are trying to upset the equilibrium of the rig, hanging out over whichever tip line is in play, hoping that it is enough for the speed selected and that he or she isn’t on the wrong side of the line when it counts. Such antics can be entertaining for a while, but are exhausting in the long run.

Sidecars, in my opinion, are not for going fast on the streets and backroads. They are for enjoying the moment, the sensations only they offer including the calm for the driver, the amusement factor for everyone else, and the conversations they start at every encounter with the non-motorcycling public. ( SDF, “Sidecar Delay Factor”, is a real thing and must be planned into any time line for a trip, long or short.)

A listing of of these quirks is not to discourage anyone from experiencing a sidecar. These are, in my experience, the reality of such an unusual device, but if we started listing the analogous characteristics of an automobile, a motorcycle, an airplane, etc, we would see that we take those things for granted because we are accustomed to them. The sidecar rig is different from our ” normal” experience, so the new things it brings seem strange and off-putting at first. For me, the unusual nature of the thing is a large part of its charm.

Everyone seems to like a sidecar. As one person put it, “when I ride my motorcycle, it makes me happy. When I drive my sidecar rig, it makes everybody happy !” A sidecar rig just touches something in most onlookers, some sort of nostalgia, I think. While two-wheeled motorcycles sometimes are seen by the non-riding public as intimidating, nearly everyone who sees a rig going by will react positively, often with a wave. On a recent trip, a lady in an SUV, turning into a grocery store mall, gave Brenda an enthusiastic head-nodding grin and a thumbs up…then went in to get her family’s groceries. I can’t help but think she had a little moment of travel fantasy while pushing the cart.

And, should I feel the need for the groceries, the sidecar is the perfect vehicle for fetching them home. There is the puzzled look on the face of the grocery checkout clerk when the guy in motorcycle clothes, carrying a helmet, leaves her cash register with ten brimming bags. For all errand running, the sidecar rig becomes the preferred mode, leaving the four-wheeled vehicles languishing in the driveway. Sixty pounds of birdseed, a ten pound bag of dog food, a few bottles of wine and an eight foot piece of trim for the door…no problem.

I haven’t touched upon the passenger’s experience here, but I’m told by Brenda that after decades as a two-wheeler pillion, it is now her preferred way to travel. Many if not most dogs seem to enjoy the experience and having a four-legged passenger definitely ramps up the smile reaction from the general public. (I have seen a video of a bear riding in a sidecar, but I wouldn’t suggest that for a first time out.)

I still have some two-wheeled bikes and I’m not quite ready to give up on them yet, but i find myself increasingly going to the rig.

The above is just a small taste of what I have found it is like to live with a sidecar rig. I recommend David Hough’s comprehensive book, “Driving a Motorcycle Sidecar Outfit” and other instructional materials which can be downloaded for free from the United Sidecar Association website, sidecar.com, for more information.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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