5 Artists on Ural Sidecars vs. Magadan & the Kolyma River
In 2014, a two year journey on “a bitch of old Ural 650 motorcycles” with sidecars was started by a group of artists stitched together from all over the world. They began their journey from Halle Saale (East Germany) with the aim of reaching New York in 2016. Their journey was split into three stages. STAGE 1was Europe, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia. STAGE 2 was Far East Russia including the Old Road of Bones and ending up in Magadan. You might remember Magadan as the place where Ewan McGregor began incessantly whining and complaining in the Long Way Round. It was no match for our merry band of heroes.
It’s time for STAGE 3 – Traveling from Magadan on the Kolyma Challenge. 5 friends traveled 600 km, riding their floating Urals, literally on top of the Kolyma River in rural Russia. This is their story.
Last we checked in with our heroes, they and and their bitch of Ural sidecars were in North America. They were testing out their amphibious Urals. That’s right. They built platoon-like platforms to ride their Urals across rivers. How else would you get over large bodies of water on three wheels? This month, we got back in touch with Suzy, about this magnificent world-tour that began in 2014 and continues to this day.
YouMotorcycle: How did the amphibious Ural project go?
Suzy: Great! We got to test out the technicalities on the Fraser River. Our test drive did not last longer than 3 kilometers against the current before we had to get pulled out to shore by a neighbor’s Zodiac. Other than the fact that the engine was overheating the pontoons worked perfectly – our steering system was perfect – and the sense of driving a Ural on water was beyond awkward
A couple of weeks later we had our Russian visas ready and our bags jam packed with 250 kg of pontoons, custom made chains, sprockets and small propellers. Bonus: each of us was allowed to take a pair of underwear and socks!
YouMotorcycle: I can only imagine the shipping costs. Air Canada must have loved you.
Suzy: You know it. We headed out of Vancouver towards our first destination by air: Guangzhou Baiyun to Beijing (China). From there we took another flight to Vladivostok where we picked up another 3 pairs of pontoons (an addition of 100 kg to our luggage). From Vladivostok we flew out to Khabarovsk and another flight to Magadan. By the time we arrived in Magadan we all had x3 bigger biceps from carrying around all the puzzle pieces for our float…
YouMotorcycle: How did you feel about air travel after all of that?
Suzy: We all swore we’d never step in an airport again! But we reached Magadan and were eager to get things rolling. We finally got to meet our 4 “new” doppelgaenger Urals along with old friends at the local biker’s club. We also got to meet up with some good friends from Germany: Martin Henz – an electrical engineer from Bavaria who had replaced his BMW in Mongolia for a horse and then his horse for a Ural.
Suzy: We traveled a bit together up to Yaktusk last year and he wanted to join us for the Kolyma Challenge. This was really cool – his help with building the float, fixing the bikes and navigation was a great support! Then we also had A LOT of help from our good friend and publisher Tom Van Endert (aka the Ural Pope – he wrote the book “With Hammer and Key” which is all about Urals). So he had a nice holiday in Magadan by spending 20 hrs a day welding and getting the props in order…
YouMotorcycle: These had to have been some of the heaviest Urals, ever. And you made them float and swim across water.
Suzy: Each Ural weighed 800 kg (1760 lbs) and 800 km later we finally reached Seymchan where we had to stitch everything together in order to get floating. Each Ural had to be clasped to pontoons and the final drive replaced with the propeller. The can-saw, the axe and the hammer were of course part of our fine-tuning and preparations. A couple of days later the 4 Amphibious Urals took-off solo for their first REAL TEST DRIVE: 600 km on the Kolyma !!!
YouMotorcycle: Were there times where you started to take on water or the amphibious Urals failed?
Suzy: Our problems started a few meters later: A floating tree crashed into Kaupo (or a floating Kaupo crashed into a tree). Everyone was a bit further ahead and since we were floating with the current it was impossible to go back and help him untangle. Luckily it was not so serious and a few minutes later he pushed himself free. In no time we decided to tie all 4 floats together or else we would each be going on our own journey down this river.
YouMotorcycle: Because one Ural swimming across the surface of the water wasn’t enough of a sight to be seen, so you made them into a chariot. Love it!
Suzy: It was quite a thing to be attached all together at all times… We had to abandon the steering system of the 2 front bikes and allocated the task to the 2 bikes at the back. The Urals were usually running in twos: parallel to each other or front and back. Johannes was the maestro coordinating the whole thing – giving directions and signals for speeding up or slowing down.
YouMotorcycle: And this worked well?
Suzy: Every now and then we would switch off all bikes – just paddle and float so the engines could cool down. These were really silent moments…and while you kind of doze off then it gets really tricky. We hit some sand banks a couple of times and had to take weight off the float to avoid puncturing the pontoons as we dragged this 3000 kg float off of this cobbled floor. It was funny to park 300 Liters of petrol in the middle of the river and run back and forth carrying it while the others held the float in position.
YouMotorcycle: Sounds easy! (not)
Suzy: We quickly learned how tricky a calm looking river might be… I mean it was always a theoretical question what happens if we go down a sidearm and loose our direction. How do we get out of there?
YouMotorcycle: I see where this is going…
So one morning we were staring at some barges which where passing by – we had to go a bit right to get out of their way and VOILA and WOOSH we get sucked into a side-arm. SHIT. We spent the next 5 hours pulling and pushing our float through the cold water trying to get it back out. This was not very fun at the moment – an adventure though in retrospect…
YouMotorcycle: Did you have a moment of sheer celebration along the way? Some moment that said: Everything is going to be ok?
Suzy: A really good moment was managing to land our float after a storm. We landed at 1 a.m before a pack of howling dogs which was not the warmest welcoming but shortly after following a path through the woods we arrived at a small hunters settlement. The man was really lovely and took us into his “cafe” for vodka, tea and dried fish. He then heated up the banja for us to get warm and clean up. I think everyone had the brightest smiles on their faces that night…
YouMotorcycle: How did locals react to your sidecar … creation?
Suzy: Oh, this was great! The barges were honking at us and taking out their binoculars to study what’s going on. The fishing boats approached us to congratulate us, take pictures or throw fish on our deck! This one hunter was chasing us with his small boat to invite us to his home for tea and banja…It was really nice to feel so welcomed. We always had a home and never a problem.
YouMotorcycle: Did the Urals require any maintenance to keep them afloat?
Suzy: We had to maintain our chains by applying tensioners. For this we improvised by using wrench keys. The chains in return wore out our sprockets. Luckily we had manufactured a fair share of spare parts back in Vancouver. We had some electrical problems – mainly the generators which caused an impulse that broke our coils. Ignition problems and changing the sparkplugs very often but this was part of our usual fixing routine. Fixing while driving/floating was quite a challenge. I think we offered many tools to the river gods!
YouMotorcycle: Well, you must have pleased them, because you’re here to tell the story. What’s next?
Suzy: Well after the Kolyma Challenge we proceeded with our Adventures in Chukotka where we attempted to cross 130 rivers in the tundra that leads up to Bering Strait. We have a short story coming up about this on our blog. Finalizing our Adventures in Chukotka we had to say goodbye to Mother Russia and head for the final leg of our trip: The landway to New York. We’ve already crossed Alaska, the Yukon river, BC, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and have finally reached L.A! We will head for Mexico for a while to get our bones heated up before stretching towards NY City.
YouMotorcycle: Are you feeling the warm Cali love?
Suzy: People here have been just as lovely and welcoming. It is wonderful to see people amazed by the Urals while they are stuck in traffic or tucked in their business suits. It really warms your gut to see that our group can become a small distraction that makes someone get off his iPhone and mutter “Cool”…