The Unnecessary Express

Two men, one Ural sidecar, and a nonstop, 32-hour, record-breaking ride from Seattle to Los Angeles. For no good reason whatsoever.

Astoria, Oregon, 12:54 p.m.
194.7 Miles, 03:07 Elapsed Time

It was as warm as it would be for another 20 hours, and I was cold. Not freezing. That would come at night, when the sky filled with snow. When we couldn’t stop shaking. But right then, the day was a wonder. The low clouds broke to show blue sky, the spits of rain abating. And then I nearly dumped us both into the Columbia River.

It was Smith's turn to tangle with the fuel transfer pump, this tiny, 12-volt thing we'd strapped to the sidecar's fender. He was in the tub, facing backward, body in the breeze, wrestling with long plastic fuel lines full of gas. A line torn or caught in an axle and pressurized fuel would go everywhere. After which it would be almost impossible to refuel our 2016 Ural Patrol Gear Up on the fly.

Cycle World
Not the crew you want preparing your bike for a feat such as this.Jeff Allen

And that was the whole point. We’d set off from Seattle that morning with the idiot intent of riding nonstop to Los Angeles. No getting off the bike, rider swaps at speed, and no stopping for anything but traffic.

The Ural is basically a copy of a 1930s BMW, drug into the 21st century. The frame is broomstick tube steel, but the bike has fuel injection and LED lamps. As on an old BMW, the engine drives the rear wheel via shaft; a lever on the final-drive housing engages the sidecar wheel for more drive in low traction. It's the kind of machine that makes every dash across town feel like something you survived.

"I promise, we won't even get all that cold."Jeff Allen

But that’s the fun of it. Urals are a testament to simplicity. Features like electronic stability control and twin-clutch transmissions are slowly sapping the required skill from riding new motorcycles, but no bike will ever do everything for you—that’s not why most people ride. Motorcycles are fun, unnecessary things.

And so this trip was that idea, twisted extreme: We wanted to set an irrelevant endurance record as inefficiently as possible. A tribute to purposeless purpose. So we picked a Ural, and we picked Seattle, home of Ural's American distributor, and greater Los Angeles, home of Cycle World. For a route, we settled on US-101, a mostly coastal highway that runs, unbroken, from Washington state to LA. Partly because it was somewhat direct. And partly because it was just more difficult than featureless interstate.

Which is how we found ourselves parked several hundred feet over the river, just north of Astoria. There was construction on the bridge and traffic. Smith opened the sidecar’s trunk. We’d saddled the bike with five 3-gallon fuel cans, nearly 90 pounds of gasoline dangling out behind the rear axle, plus a spare tire and a backpack full of food and water.

ural sidecar motorcycle fuel tank
A foolish thing for a foolish attempt.Jeff Allen

The transfer pump, powered by one of the Ural's accessory outlets, moved fuel from the cans to the bike's main tank. Each jerrican gave us around 100 miles of range. When the cans were empty, we handed them off to a chase car full of Cycle World staff, who then drove ahead and refilled them.

Smith opened the lid on a jerrican and started the pump. Traffic began moving again. I gave the bike a splash of throttle to compensate for the hill and slipped the clutch. Thick winter gloves and the weight aft meant I accidentally gave it too much throttle. The bike lifted its front tire a foot in the air and gunned for the guardrail.

I grabbed rear brake at the last minute, keeping us from pitching over the edge. But Smith’s voice gained an octave, a constant stream of cursing over the helmet intercom we were running. He’d almost fallen out of the car.

For the first time in hours, I was laughing. —Zach Bowman

ural sidecar motorcycle fuel transfer pump
This seems legit, right?Jeff Allen

We planned this terribly—partly because we had never done anything like this before and partly because we’re just terrible planners.

The record-chasing was my idea, and I wasn’t thinking, so I decided that we’d do it in February. The West Coast and Pacific Northwest are usually mild that month, temperatures in the 60s. But an unusually cold winter meant we saw almost constant rain and subfreezing air. We wore heated vests and Aerostich Roadcrafters—the best all-weather riding suit in the business—but otherwise dressed light. I wore a single base layer and long underwear.

Like so many things on this trip, that decision was obscenely dumb.

Bowman asked a nurse friend to develop a strict pre-trip diet. The plan was to induce multi-day constipation and thus avoid bathroom stops for 30-plus hours of riding. It worked, but it wasn’t pleasant. Just like the urinal jug we brought and didn’t practice with. Somehow, it didn’t occur to us that aiming into a jug, while bundled in motorcycle gear and sitting in a tub on the highway might be…difficult.

A couple hours out of Seattle, Zach managed to dump a nearly full urinal into his lap. It had been a rough morning—a series of complications meant we left late—and here was an adult man, in the depths of frustration, peeing on himself. He mumbled something about looking for an acorn in a stack of towels. Sitting behind the bars at the time, I tried to be kind and not laugh. I failed. —Sam Smith

Making our way south.Jeff Allen

Nemah, Washington, 12:28 p.m.
176 Miles, 03:33 Elapsed Time

I was still bent up from splashing my underoos when it came time to swap riders for the first time. We grabbed a stoplight. Smith, on the bike at the time, scooted as far forward as he could. I stood up in the tub then jumped behind him and grabbed the left bar. He half-fell into the sidecar and I grabbed the throttle, just as we’d practiced, but in my hustle, I managed to knock the bike into reverse. (Urals have a reverse gear because they’re not the easiest things to push.) When the light turned green, I launched us toward the grille of our chase van.

Smith, laughing again, got on the intercom and called the moment happy panic. He was half right. —ZB

handing gas can to passenger in ural sidecar
We thought gas handoffs would be one of the most difficult parts to execute when, in reality, it was one of the easiest.Jeff Allen

North Lincoln County, Oregon, 3:57 p.m.
320 Miles, 07:02 Elapsed Time

Riding a Ural is work. The gearbox feels like a dumber version of the cast-dog box in an early BMW airhead—every shift is an argument. The sidecar’s geometry—uneven weight distribution, two braked wheels on the left and only one on the right, one driven wheel, and a fork with crazy amounts of trail—means the bike doesn’t want to go straight. Nor does it want to turn. Maintaining a heading takes 20 pounds of pressure at each hand: You pull the bars with one and push with the other. Weight in the sidecar just makes it worse. A Ural Patrol is perhaps the only modern vehi­cle for which posted speed limits are optimistic.

Somewhere along the coast, we got detoured off the 101, routed around some landslide repair on the highway. My arms felt like mashed potatoes. I’d been wrestling the Ural through mountain corners, hustling like crazy to make an 800-pound three-wheeler keep up with minivans.

I could barely see straight. So naturally, six hours into a 30-hour trip, I risked bending a wheel for a joke. —SS

Suited up and battle ready, in a place that doesn't know it's under siege.Jeff Allen

Smith caught me staring at the pavement and took the opportunity to drop the outside wheel off the shoulder, laughing.

To hell with him. Time in the sidecar was a gift. A space to pull yourself together after unraveling for two hours. The footwell was half an inch too short to extend your legs and another half inch too low to bend your knees. But the asphalt was close enough to put a palm on.

As the road tangled itself away from the coast, I was glad to be in the tub. I could see Smith’s eyeballs popping as he muscled the Ural through the switchbacks. He kept shouting at me to lean with him. The thing kept moving around under­neath us, every half-inch slide feeling like an ass-out drift from the tub.

The forest was an impossibility. Everything so green, after one of the wettest Northwest winters in recorded history, and viciously alive. Moss and lichen wrapping every trunk and log, the air full of sweet decomposition and breathing hardwood.

It didn't last long. An hour later, we were back to the 101 and the coast. The ocean brought the rain with it. —ZB

ural sidecar motorcycle coastline action
Setting out, with Seattle at our backs.Jeff Allen

Southern coast of Oregon, 4:41 p.m.
351 Miles, 07:46 Elapsed Time

Sitting behind the bars, I could hear the engine echoing over the intercom through Zach’s helmet mic. It was both distant and rackety, as if one of your neighbors had dropped a spoon in the garbage disposal and couldn’t find the switch. Not unpleasant, just quirky. The big, wide seat was comfy as a sofa. And the exhaust was mercifully quiet.

The clouds parted long enough to shine on the breakers to our right. The light was sharp and yellow, the air that weird, contrast stillness that comes after a storm. It was that moment that happens on every ride, no matter how miserable—you look off the road for a second, see something beautiful, and don’t want to be anywhere else.

My arms eventually grew so tired that I couldn’t keep the bike in its lane. It traced this weaving path across the road, and I just let it go. The guy in the car felt it more than the guy on the bike—he was the dude on the end of the stick.

We averaged around two hours between rider swaps. When the weave showed up—and it did in every stint—you knew you had to get off the thing. Some indeterminable amount of time after, you actually did. —SS

repairing the ural sidecar wheel
There are some benefits to the three wheel design.Jeff Allen

Washburne State Park, Oregon, 5:17 p.m.
379 Miles, 08:22 Elapsed Time

I rode into dusk, and the rain picked up again about the time the sun went down, turning our Pinlock visors into refractory nightmares. The headlights from each passing car erupted our vision into stars and streaks, the dim, two-lane road vanishing for long and terrifying seconds. I did what you always do in that situation: sat perfectly still and hoped to whatever was listening that the road was still there when my vision cleared.

I was glad when I handed over the bars. The night’s first few hours were brutal. The temperature went with the sun, and the driving rain turned to an outright pour. I looked up from the car, through the spray. Smith had his visor open, his eyes slits against the weather. We were doing 40 mph, the stream of oncoming traffic erasing our universe with waves of frozen wash.

Smith came over the radio. He was talking slowly, teeth clenched, desperate. We had to layer up, he said. Add clothing. He was right—we were both losing our minds from the cold. Neither of us cared that we were killing our plan to ride nonstop. He found a pull-off on the Oregon coast, a scrap of asphalt next to a cliff, so dark I couldn't see anything beyond my breath in the headlights. I was shaking as I jogged to the van then slammed on shirt after shirt, layering. —ZB

repairing the ural sidecar in the dark
Down to one set of heated gear at a time.Jeff Allen

Rural Northern California, 1:09 a.m.
690 Miles, 16:14 Elapsed Time

The hallucinations started after midnight. Maybe an hour before I was set to hand the bike back to Zach. Wispy flashes on the edge of my vision—running men, dancing trees with legs like spiders. They disappeared when I tried to look directly at them. They worried me at first then grew comforting. If I saw them, I figured I was still alive.

I can’t describe the relief of those clothing layers. Of being merely uncomfortable for the first time in a day. Naturally, that was when the sidecar got extra loose and weavy. Even harder to keep in a straight line. I couldn’t tell if I was too tired to keep up with the machine or if something was wrong. My eyes wouldn’t focus. We had to stop again.

Ural’s American importer was kind enough to send a fixer in the chase van. Its in-house jack-of-all-trades, David George, rode along with Editor-in-Chief Mark Hoyer, a small video crew, and photographer Jeff Allen.

When we stopped, George was first out of the van, a Marlboro in his mouth, wearing a thousand-yard stare. The rear tire was maybe 20 psi low, and it was worth checking the tub’s wheel bearing. George nonchalantly hoisted the car up at a 45-degree angle, fuel tanks and all, resting the bike on its left peg and pipe. Then he started hammering on the wheel nut like it had insulted his mother. Hoyer, standing nearby, just shrugged because editing a motorcycle magazine apparently means you have seen everything.

It's impossible to prepare the mind to feel these levels of cold.Jeff Allen

The stint from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. was my worst. We were several hours north of San Francisco, on an inland, four-lane stretch of the 101, lumbering along in fog and rain. In my waterlogged gloves, my hands felt like knives.

It was 27 degrees, colder than anyone had predicted. About 30 minutes before we swapped, I woke Zach up and begged him to talk to me. I had been singing the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show for an hour. The trees wouldn’t stay put in my eyes.

We had two rules: If you were in the tub, you were sleeping. And if you were on the bike and fading, you woke up the guy in the car and demanded that he talk to you. Anything to stay awake. —SS

Desperate fatigue makes for odd conversation. We discussed condiments for 15 minutes, somehow—just mustards and ketchups. Then we talked about how I grew up. At the next rider swap, Smith was asleep before I hit fourth gear, his head lolling.

riding the ural sidecar at night through town
We were determined to never stop to change riders, but that didn't mean we couldn't use a red light to help us out.Jeff Allen

The snow showed up shortly after. Flakes the size of dimes. I was delirious, cackling at the sight of it. The road shrank down to two lanes, winding its way into the mountains again. On the first hairpin, the Ural’s headlight lit up the trees. I realized we were in the heart of the California redwoods—trunks like columns on the roadside.

The beauty of it saved me. The canopy above was so dense as to stop the snow shower completely. Flying through a universe of perfect flakes one second, a clear night the next. It woke me up to the wonder of what we were doing. The luck of living in a country where you're free to go out into nowhere and do something ridiculous. —ZB

With the sun comes rising temperatures and rising spirits.Jeff Allen

Healdsburg, California, 6:30 a.m.
860 Miles, 21:31 Elapsed Time

The temperature told us dawn was coming. And then it was there: a low glow, followed by miracle light. It was 40 degrees—warmer than we had been in 18 hours. The air was sweet with windbreak eucalyptus.

California wine country and the Golden Gate Bridge passed in a dreamy blur. We hit San Francisco at 8 in the morning, 900 miles and 19 elapsed hours. Sunlight made us drunk with morale. Maybe that’s why neither of us thought to check the odometer, to see how much range was left before a refuel. Zach, exhausted, ran the bike dry south of San Jose, where the 101 turns into a wicked stretch of six-lane pavement. Eighty-mph rush-hour traffic.

ural sidecar passing over the golden gate bridge
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge felt like accomplishing our goal, even though we still had hundreds of miles to go.Jeff Allen

The bike didn't sputter; it just went dead, engine drag slowing us like a dropped anchor. After almost 24 hours listening to the engine's racket, the sudden silence was terrifying. We pulled onto the shoulder and refueled. I wondered, briefly and illogically, if the bike would start again. Part of me hoped it wouldn't. —SS

The rest of California fell easily. After the night, everything seemed simple. I was tired. My shoulders and neck burned with the effort of keeping the bike straight. I resorted to counting down the minutes of my shift to stay awake. Smith managed to sleep through an entire shift in the tub, and when I woke him up for a rider change, he was convinced something was wrong. That the bike was broken, or we had a flat tire and I hadn't noticed. It took me 20 minutes, in rolling traffic outside Ventura, to talk him off the ledge of a freak-out. He was babbling in tongues. Just his body reacting to being ground down. —ZB

riding the ural sidecar along the california coastline
So close we can taste it.Jeff Allen

Santa Monica, California, 5:18 p.m.
1,358 Miles, 32:19 Elapsed Time

I didn’t really recover until the beach, until we stopped on the Pacific Coast Highway, just south of Malibu. We got there just as the sun was setting, melting into the ocean. The sight confirmed, somehow, that it wasn’t all a dream. There were a few other stops, fixing this or that on our gear, but we made the trip in 32 hours and 19 minutes, an average speed of 46.8 mph. A sidecar record, Seattle to LA—though anyone could beat it by simply hopping on the interstate.

There was something oddly right about setting a motorcycle record that made no sense.

Every muscle in my body was on fire from keeping the Ural on the road. But that's our fault; no one in their right mind takes a rowboat across the Atlantic. People rarely choose to make their lives harder than they have to be. —SS

ural sidecar parked in santa monica
We. Did. It.Jeff Allen

But maybe we should, from time to time. We live in an easy age. Your iPhone or Accord isn’t quicker or quieter than the next one off the line, and it doesn’t ask anything of you. Modern machines just work. Urals come from another era, and, like violins, each one is different, despite their apparent sameness. There are good ones and great ones.

I've never ridden another Ural, but I'm convinced ours was the latter. It was impossible not to feel love for that silly Russian thing, as the sun sank into the Pacific. Flaws on a motorcycle just equal personality, and that bike has a heart as wide as the water that sat behind it. It didn't quit, and it gave us a glimpse of our limits. It's easy to forget how, most days, that's all you need out of a bike. —ZB

Total Elapsed Time, Seattle to LA: 32 hours, 19 minutes
Total Distance Traveled: 1,358 miles
Moving Time: 29 hours, 1 minute
Stopped Time: 3 hours, 18 minutes
Average Speed: 46.8 mph

gps numbers on the screen
Trip logJeff Allen
ural sidecar adventure sketchbook
A map of sortsCycle World


1. 12:28 p.m., 176 miles, outside of some seaside town that ends in "walla"
Weather: Partly cloudy, drizzle, as warm as it will be for the next 24 hours.
MORALE: Bowman: Miserable. Angry. Miracle combination of wet underoos and the dawning realization of how stupid this is. Contemplating the line between manslaughter and murder. Smith: Worried Bowman wants to kill me.

2. 12:54 p.m., Astoria
MORALE: Bowman: Amused. Nearly dumped Smith out of the sidecar by popping an accidental wheelie during a refuel. Probably falls under manslaughter. Smith: Terrified.

3. 3:57 p.m., 320 miles
Detour off the 101, up into the green cliffs. Weather: spitting rain. Sun already beginning to set.
MORALE: Bowman: Terrified. Smith's trying to keep up with a panel van. The last time 45 mph felt like the ragged edge of control, I was on a pitbike. Smith: Triumphant. You can't shake us, panel van.

4. 5:17 p.m., 378.9 miles
There is no beauty like a setting sun seen through the clouds on the Oregon coast.
MORALE: Bowman: Cold but content. The broken cliffs, the golden water. It's wonderful. Smith: Warm. That feeling when you're enjoying something but you know it's about to get worse.

5. 8:40 p.m., 507 miles
On the road for 11 hours, 22 minutes. Total stop time: 12 minutes. We have to layer up. Weather: bleak. Freezing. Occasional snow, ice, fog.
MORALE: Bowman: Frantic. Miserable with cold. Fiendishly glad to be off the bike. Smith: Despondent. Disappointed to give up on the goal of going nonstop.

6. 9:30 p.m., 536 miles Smith strips to his bare chest to reorganize his layers in the tub. It takes 22 minutes. Weather: Mid-30s, constant rain/fog.
MORALE: Bowman: Amused. Smith: Triumphant. Just solved the world's most useless physics problem but is warm.

7. 10:34 p.m., 587.3 miles
Pounding snow in the California redwoods. The night has felt interminable for three hours.
MORALE: Bowman: Awestruck, giddy. The snow is amazing. Hell on morale but beautiful. So are the trees. Wired on adrenaline and a fierce desire to keep from killing Smith. To make him suffer with me. Smith: Asleep.

8. 1:09 a.m., 690 miles
Wheel bearing loose, rear tire low. Hack loose and wandering. Weather: Rain has tapered, deep fog in its place.
MORALE: Bowman: So cold. Smith: Delirious.

9. 4:54 a.m., 807.2 miles, south of Willits, CA
Second stop to check tires. Fronts, visors covered in ice. Weather: Clear, cold.
MORALE: Bowman: Low. Shaky. Smith: Low.

10. 6:30 a.m., 859.6 miles, Healdsburg, CA
Dawn. Weather: Clear. Warming. Wonderful. Californian.
MORALE: Bowman: Thrilled with having survived the night. Smith: Exuberant. So exuberant he leans off the bike for an on-ramp, ripping the 12-volt splitter from the bike, shattering it.

11. 6:31 a.m., 860 miles, Healdsburg, CA
Now, only one of us can have a heated jacket at a time.
MORALE: Bowman: Once again, considering the difference between manslaughter and murder. Smith: Warm.

12. 8 a.m., San Francisco, CA
City traffic, palm trees, sunshine. Bliss.
MORALE: Bowman: Accomplished, dazed, reverting to lizard brain. Smith: Awake. Miraculously awake.

13. 9:46 a.m., 987.3 miles, San Jose, CA
Ran out of fuel on the side of the 101. Fuel pump needs the 12-volt splitter Smith destroyed. Cannibalize Bowman's heated jacket to make it work.
MORALE: Bowman: Very awake. The excitement of dropping anchor in the middle of an eight-lane highway will do that. Smith: Alive. Mercifully alive.

14. 12 p.m., 1,088 miles, south of Salinas, CA
Gas station fuel stop. Getting sloppy. Lost contact with the chase car.
MORALE: Bowman: Run through. Tired. Slept 40 minutes in 27 hours. Smith: Anxious. Sore. Neck and shoulders on fire from keeping the thing straight.

15. 4:04 p.m., 1,308 miles, Carpinteria, CA
The ride's getting bleak. Both of us want to remove our gear with a claw hammer. Weather: Warm. So warm. Finally. Feels amazing.
MORALE: Bowman: Determined. Counting down each miserable minute. Smith: Asleep.

16. 4:33 p.m., 1,330 miles, Malibu, CA
Off the 101 and onto the 1, moving toward Santa Monica, California. It's the first real change of pace in almost 30 hours.
MORALE: Bowman: Blind with near victory. Smith: Resigned.

17. Arrival: Santa Monica, CA
MORALE: Bowman: Detached. Baffled. Oddly enamored with this machine. Smith: Tired. Sore. Glad it's done. That we did it.