A Monkey For A Day (Sidecaring with Vernon), 5/8/04

By Tom Niemela

            “Come on out anytime, Tom, and I’ll be more than happy to give you a ride in my sidecar”, said Vern.  “I’ll give you a ride you won’t soon forget!”  Well being the adrenaline junky that I am, I couldn’t resist that offer.

            Vernon (Wade) and I go back a few years, due to him showing up at my events, the Black Dog and Rat Dog dualsport rides (www.blackdogdualsport.com).  He’s just a wee bit different though.  You see, while the majority of us ride with two wheels, Vern sports three.  He has this great Triumph Tiger with a sidecar, or sidehack, attached to it.  Kind of like going down the road less traveled, except he doesn’t have to worry about needing a sidestand.  In fact, his sidestand has a wheel. 

            People who ride in the hack are often times called a “monkey”.  This is because in sidecar racing, the passenger or monkey, continually has to climb and lean all over the car and bike to help place his body weight where best needed – on the inside of turns mostly.  This constant moving around is not unlike a monkey during a race.  On a casual ride though, the passenger can just sit and enjoy the road whizzing by.

            I had my first experience years ago in Southern Oregon at a roadbike rally, where some guy on a big Honda took me out for a short ride.  I’d already had a few barley sodas, so I felt fearless at the time.  This gentleman threw me in the car, his wife through a helmet on my noggin and we took off.  Going down the highway was fine, but then he said “Hang on”.  Okay, I thought, suddenly he was broad sliding the aft end of the big Honda and we caught air over a sizeable waterbar on a dirt road.  He clamped on the binders, gassed it and slid into a 360 going back over the same waterbar as I was half frightened and half exhilarated.  He then got back on the pavement and said “Hang on” again.  I’d learned my lesson the first time and hung on with a death grip.  About that time, he wiggled the bars and the sidecar started lifting into the air and he balanced me going down the highway like that for a ways.  “Cool” I thought as I looked down at him grinning.

            Sidecars have a lot of variance too.  Some are a permanent sidecar and not a motorcycle, meaning that they have a dual-wheel drive in the back.  Some, like Vern’s, have a sidecar that can be removed if desired. Some of the older BMWs had a quick disconnect, so the rider could go AC/DC.  Being that they never lean, a sidecar wears tires not unlike a car, which means in the center of the tread.  Sidecars require more effort from the pilot as the car wants to pull the vehicle to the right under acceleration.  When braking, the rig wants to pull to the left.  A popular mod for sidecars is the addition of a springer front end, like the older /2 BMWs.  Of course, driving a sidecar requires that you look for TWO lines, instead of just one.  In fact, if you hit something too hard with the sidecar’s wheel, you could actually flip the rig over on it’s side, so a retraining of the riding skills is required.  With the car, you have extra storage for camping gear, your significant other or a dog. 

            With Vern’s invite, I figured I may get that cool, feeling again.  So after a great day of trailriding in a top-secret location on the East side of the Cascades, I dropped by Vern’s digs in Hood River to cash in on the offer.  You see, Vern has been the only sidecar rig in my events, so he’s been drumming up more attendance from his three-wheeled compadres for this year’s events.  In fact, he managed to talk the North American Ural folks (www.imz-ural.com) to show up for this year’s Black Dog, so he’s thinking there may be 6-10 rigs at the event.  Anyway, Vern wanted to show me what a three-wheeler can and cannot do, since we were planning on setting up a specific route for the sidecars.  So we pulled his Triumph out of his well-stocked garage and gave me a quick nickel description of what I could and should do while riding.  With that we were off.

            He took me by a friend of his, Joel’s house, and then we headed up into some back dirt roads.  Soon he started into the powerslides around the turns and I realized that I better start leaning into the turns as much as I could.  Two major feelings were suddenly apparent, that lack of control of not being at the helm (all us riders get that, right?) and the adrenaline of a new endeavor swelled from within.  Man, this was a gas!  As we continued along, Vern kept up a conversation about the area, and the capabilities and limitations of a sidecar.  Then he asked if I wanted to go try out a gnarly two-track road.  How could I say no? 

            Soon we were ducking under limbs and crossing streams as we made our way up a very steep, boulder infested road with an awesome view. I could not believe this vehicle could traverse this terrain! After a couple quick stops for motophotos, Vern had me get out in one section, in case the hack needed to roll over one of the basketball-sized boulders.  That’s one of the immediate things I noticed, with one of these rigs, you couldn’t just steer around things, like on a normal two-wheeler.  You actually have to expect to hit many bumps, boulders, etc., so the normal expectation of seeing a rock in your hack path, where you would expect to avoid it, you actually smack it and keep on going.  A dyslexic experience indeed! 

            After that we sped up a section with huge waterbars and motored over those too.  Before long we were back on normal backcountry dirt roads and Vern was again telling me the history of his ride and what it was like touring in one.  Vern isn’t your normal cyclist, in fact he rides all year long and has taken many a ride in the snow.  Another sidecar advantage is that you are less apt to tip over, so a big boon in the snow.  Vern is so aggressive of a rider that he constantly has to re-weld the frame.  That’s about the time I noticed a mud puddle approaching and soon realized the reason his smile got bigger as we approached.  The front tire hit the puddle and proceeded to douche me like a fire hose as I frantically hid my trusty Cannon camera under the sidecar lid.  Someday I will get even with him.

            All too soon we were back at his place and I was stoked.  What a cool new way to enjoy motorcycling!  You occasionally see them on the street, but off road?  Sweet.  If you happen to show up for the Black Dog, you can probably wait in line for a ride in one, as we’ll have a sidecar-specific course option, but if you can’t show, try to check one out sometime – they’re a kick in the (three-legged) pants!