Motorcycle Sidecar Essentials

I never really understood the draw toward a “motorcycle” that didn’t lean. My mentor, David Hough has been a sidecarist for many years, actively lobbying for the recognition of sidecars and trikes in safety programs.

He gave me my first ride in a borrowed Hannigan rig at Americade back in 1999 and later taxied me around his hometown in his beautiful BMW K1 outfit.

The ride was a lot of fun, but I wondered what the practical aspects of hack ownership were. Here is a list of the essentials you need to know before considering a hack.

Advantages

  • Three-wheelers will not fall over, making slippery surfaces and slow speed riding situations much easier.
  • The sidecar driver doesn’t need to put a foot down to support the motorcycle when stopped, making it possible for short riders and disabled riders to not fear dropping the bike.
  • Carrying a child is less risky, where you can enjoy the piece of mind that they are secure. They may also enjoy the ride more if they can read, color, or play video games.
  • The possibility of riding year-round even in northern climates,
  • The ability to carry a pet,
  • Increased carrying capacity.
  • Sidecars are fun!

Disadvantages

With all good things come some bad and this holds true with three-wheelers, too.

  • Extra weight and girth that effects acceleration, stopping and maneuverability.
  • Novice sidecar drivers fail to “remember the car”, running over various obstacles and curbs before learning to allow more space.
  • Parking may be easy as far as stability is concerned, but a sidecar or trike will take up most of a full-sized parking space.
  • More wear and tear on many of the motorcycle’s components– the frame, engine and brakes must withstand greater stresses.
  • Significant modifications are usually required to obtain a good-handling outfit, including a subframe to provide sidecar attachments, changing the front-end geometry to make steering easier and fitting wheels that will take automobile tires.
  • Converting back and forth is impractical once the motorcycle has been modified to handle well as a three-wheeler.

Hack School

With the inherit stability of a sidecar rig, it’s easy to think that riding one is easy. But attempting to drive a rig for the first time will quickly convince you that a sidecar outfit requires special skills. I decided that the best way to learn how to operate a hack would be to sign up for a sidecar course.

Hack school

The one-day sidecar course was for experienced riders. The course began with sidecar-specific information, such as motorcycle/sidecar attachments, and demonstrated the basics of sidecar operation, including body position, and throttle/ brake techniques.

I realized there was more to riding a rig than I previously imagined. The training company provided Honda 250 Nighthawks outfitted with Velorex sidecars. I learned that sidecars need to be matched by size and weight to the motorcycle to help keep the outfit stable. In general terms, the sidecar should weigh approximately 30% of the naked motorcycle.

Steering

One thing I learned right away is that a rig steers “backwards” from a two-wheeler. While a rigid sidecar outfit corners “flat” like an automobile, it has one less wheel to help resist a rollover, especially in right-hand turns when the car has a tendency to lift off the ground.

There are differences in turning techniques between two-wheelers and three-wheelers. Sidecars turn using “direct steering” (turn left to go left and turn right to go right) as opposed to countersteering for two-wheelers (turn right to go left and turn left to go right).

This 3-wheeler steering process is similar to driving a car, once you get the right messages from your brain to your hands. For an experienced rider, the sensation of cornering without leaning was odd at first, but became familiar within only a few minutes.

Even though countersteering isn’t part of normal sidecar operation, there are circumstances when a sidecar operator will countersteer. Motorcycle control reverts from direct steering to countersteering when the sidecar is “flying” and only two wheels are in contact with the ground.

Throttle

As with two-wheeled motorcycle operation, the sidecar outfit turns more easily and smoothly with some throttle application. Throttle can be tricky while cranking the handlebars from side to side, but the results are quite noticeable. I even started playing around with the throttle a bit more aggressively and spinning the rear tire to help the rig turn the corner. “Drifting” sure was fun!

We also learned some expert sidecar skills, such as simultaneously rolling on the throttle and dragging the front brake, to help control the rig and keep the car on the ground in right-handers.

Body Position

We repeated the exercise, but this time we learned to hang off the seat toward the inside of the turn to help prevent a rollover. It worked like a charm. We were able to negotiate the course with more speed and stability.

Braking

Braking technique is very similar between two and three wheelers– apply both brakes, squeeze the clutch, downshift, eyes up, no skidding– with the exception that you don’t have to put your foot down when you come to a stop.

I noticed with my first practice run into the braking area that the training rig pulled to the left under braking. The trainer I was driving didn’t have the sidecar brake connected. A brake on the car’s wheel can minimize this effect.

I also noticed how much brake pressure was needed to stop the rig. Sidecars add a lot of weight to a motorcycle and that weight adds a lot of braking distance to a stop. This is a good reason why a sidecar operator must recognize hazards early and maintain a greater following distance. Of course, the big advantage is that if you manage to skid the front tire, you don’t fall down.

When a front tire does skid, the rig will continue in the direction it is traveling even though the rider may attempt to change direction by turning the front wheel. If the front tire regained traction while the wheel is turned, the rig would suddenly follow in the direction the front wheel is pointed, possibly veering into traffic.

If you do skid the front tire you have the option of either keeping it locked­ or releasing and re-applying the front brake. If you decide to release the front brake, it’s important to make sure the wheel is pointed in the direction of travel!

Learning to Fly

One of the most fun parts of driving a sidecar is learning to “fly” the car. At first I thought this was more of a show-off technique than something useful. But it actually teaches the important skill of switching from direct steering to countersteering and back.

And there may be times when a hack driver needs to lift the car wheel over a pothole or curb. You want to be able to lift the sidecar wheel about a foot off the ground for extended periods by carefully balancing throttle and steering.

Swerving

Controlled flying is enjoyable, but uncontrolled flying when swerving can be hazardous to your health. Swerving a three-wheeler is not unlike swerving a two-wheeler– two consecutive steering inputs, one to swerve and the other to recover. However, a sidecar needs direct steering and dramatic body changes to keep the rig from flipping.

The driver needs to quickly move body weight from one side to the other just before the steering input. Initiating a right-hand swerve and recovering after a left-hand swerve caused the car to lift into the air even after hanging my body as far over the sidecar as I could reach.

The other issue with swerving a sidecar is that the operator must remember just how wide the outfit is. This requires a much more dramatic swerve so the car can clear the obstacle.

A Unique Experience

As a longtime rider, I’m always looking for more experiences with motorcycles and was glad to have experienced the world of sidecars. If you get the opportunity to drive a hack, just remember that operating a sidecar is not as easy as just throwing a leg over the seat and driving away. But ilike always, a bit of training is worth the effort.

United Side Car Association

The USCA is an enthusiast organization, publishing a bi-monthly magazine, The Sidecarist. The USCA holds an annual rally that is an excellent opportunity to view sidecars and talk with owners. Ask nicely and you’ll probably get a ride, too. www.sidecar.com

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