"We'll turn you into a monkey," Seattleite Steven Austin tells me as we chat on the phone about his new Ural motorcycle.
"Monkey" is the term for passengers who ride in a motorcycle sidecar, and Ural, a Russian company headquartered in Redmond since 2002, is one of the few manufacturers in the world to offer motorcycles that come standard with a sidecar.
Did I really want to be a monkey, I pondered? I feel vulnerable enough riding my bicycle around Ballard; to ride in a sidecar with a driver I knew nothing about bordered on lunacy.
Austin, 63, reassured me, saying he's been riding motorcycles since his days in the Marines. Harleys, mostly. After he had a stroke a few years ago, the retired automotive-electronics specialist began to lose his balance, and a bum leg forced him to use a cane. But he still wanted to ride. The Ural was the perfect answer, as the sidecar's third wheel took care of the balance issue.
The machine he bought, called a Gear-Up, had an appealing vintage military look, as if it were plucked from the set of a movie about the Siege of Leningrad. In fact, the Ural factory was moved from Moscow to Russia's Ural Mountain region during World War II to avoid destruction by German bombers, and the company still makes its motorcycles there.
How the corporate office came to be in Redmond is a story worthy of Tolstoy. In the early '90s, shortly after communism was overthrown, Tom Lynott, an entrepreneur from Preston, Wash., went to Russia. He discovered Ural motorcycles and arranged with the factory to start an independent distributorship in the U.S. He began operations in 1998. When three factory managers bought the company in 2000, they took over Lynott's distributorship but decided to keep Ural's headquarters in the area.
If you want to check out Ural's lineup, though, don't head to Redmond. You'll need to travel to a dealer in Fife or Ferndale (north of Bellingham) to find demos of the eight Ural models, one of which now comes without a sidecar. Prices range from $8,000 to $15,000.
That's a small price to pay if you crave attention. Gawkers have followed Austin in their cars for 20 miles, he says, and when he pulls over they besiege him with questions about the bike, which was first produced in 1941. Madina Merzhoeva, a Russian expat who is vice president of sales and marketing for Ural, says there's a name for the phenomenon: "UDF" (Ural Delay Factor).
"We say that if you're introverted and you don't like to talk to people, don't buy this bike," she says. "People are always coming up and talking to owners about their bikes."
Austin confirms this. When I met him in Ballard, a couple of pedestrians stopped to stare at his Ural and ask questions, which he politely answered.
The sheer size and girth of the bike is enough to raise eyebrows. It looks as if it were designed for a Russian bear. The sidecar alone weighs 600 pounds; when he's riding alone, Austin normally puts 100 pounds of weight in it to balance the load. On the freeway he can go 65 miles per hour, but Austin says he would tax the engine if he went faster. And the mileage suffers from the excess weight: He averages about 27 mpg.
That doesn't deter him in the least, though. He's obviously enthralled by his Ural, enough to ride from his home on Capitol Hill to Ballard to see if he can make a monkey of me. What have I got to lose? My health insurance, such as it is, is paid up. Austin doesn't seem like a thrill seeker. No way he's going to pop a wheelie with this beast.
There was even room in the sidecar for my long legs, and a windshield to keep the bugs out of my teeth. As we cruised along Shilshole Avenue toward Golden Gardens, I started to relax. "There's one gal I take to AA meetings," Austin tells me. "She knits while she's riding."
This isn't bad. I could get to like this: great views, ample ventilation, no need to concentrate on riding. Being a monkey, I decide, has its rewards.