Three wheeling through Portugal


ABR staff writer ollie Rooke gets to grips with riding a Ural Motorcycle and Sidecar as he explores the trails and backroads of central Portugal

When the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, it’s safe to say that few people were concerned about how the treaty would affect the motorcycle industry. Instead, the main concern was, rightfully, on what effect the pact would have on the world.

It promised non-aggression between the Soviet Union and Germany for 10 years, giving Hitler the chance to focus his military might almost wholly on conquering Western Europe. A week after it was signed, the Germans invaded Poland. France and Britain then declared war, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The bike ate up the trails
The bike ate up the trails as long as they were wide enough

Here’s where it gets relevant for us motorcyclists. Buried deep within the small print, somewhere between the divvying up of the Baltic states and promises of non-aggression between the two powers, the pact also opened up communication and the sharing of information between Soviet and German automotive manufacturers.

This included BMW which was busy building the R71 at the time. Boasting a 749cc engine and the opposed boxer cylinders the brand is still famous for today, the bike was a prime example of Bavarian engineering excellence. Fast forward two years and the Soviets were pretty grateful for this inclusion when Hitler trampled over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on his march eastwards to invade the Soviet Union.

The Ural is born

The Soviet Ministry of Defence knew that mobility would be vital in resisting the German advance and, after its existing fleet of motorcycles proved unsuited to winter war during fighting in Finland, it commissioned the design of an all-new bike and sidecar. One that would be able to withstand the rigours of life on the eastern front and aid the fight against the Nazis.

The BMW R71 proved the perfect base for the new bike. The Soviets copied every detail of the design using the information they had got two years earlier, and even used a few models of the bike to reverse engineer moulds so that they could produce the engines and gearboxes themselves. The resulting sidecar outfit was shown to Stalin, who approved full-scale production immediately.


And so, the Ural M-72 was born, the first in a line of now cult classic motorcycles that continued to be produced once the war ended and which capture the hearts and minds of enthusiasts to this day.

With all this in mind, I guess it’s partly down to Hitler and Stalin that I find myself flying to the Ural Experience Centre in central Portugal with a singular purpose; to spend the next two days riding a Ural in one of the best trail riding places in Europe. The timing could not have been better. Ural has launched a bike with the sidecar positioned on the left in the UK for the first time to make the outfit more suitable for our roads. Previously, Urals have been set up the opposite way around with the sidecar mounted on the right-hand side.

Learning to ride

I’d been assured on the phone by Rob, who runs the Ural Experience Centre, that riding a motorcycle and sidecar is a unique experience and unlike anything I’ve swung my leg over before. With a raised eyebrow and my curiosity piqued, I hop on a plane to Porto to put his claim to the test.

After a two-hour drive from the airport, I arrive at the centre, which is located just outside the town of Pombal in central Portugal, to meet Rob and his partner Zayne. There’s no time to waste and Rob has me dump my kit in my room, grab my helmet, and join him in the garage for my first sidecar experience.

With the evening sun dropping below the horizon, we jump on his own Ural for a blast around the local roads and trails with Rob riding and me in the sidecar. Immediately I’m hooked. His own Ural is a little different from the latest Ranger model that can be bought from dealers. It has a custom sidecar unit set up for rally riding and tuition but the basics are the same.

With us sat side by side, there’s no need for a two-way intercom when you’re riding in a sidecar. Rob talks me through everything he’s doing and the theory of riding on three wheels as he blasts through stream crossings and up gravel climbs.

Cornering is very different
Cornering is very different on a Ural compared to a two-wheeled bike

While I try to take it all in, mindful that I’ll be riding tomorrow, it’s hard to stay focussed as Rob chucks the Ural from side to side, making me giggle and whoop like a toddler. On paper, understanding how it’s all working is simple enough. A motorcycle is attached to a sidecar, with a third wheel positioned slightly forward of the bike’s rear tyre. The sidecar’s brake is linked to the bike’s rear brake, making them the primary method of hauling the ensemble to a stop.

Pulling the front brake alone is a no-go. Grab it and the momentum of the sidecar will send you straight into the path of oncoming traffic, as Rob demonstrates on an empty stretch of roads. The sudden dive of the Ural to the left is terrifying and hammers home the need to forget my motorcycling instincts over the next few days and embrace the new.

Cornering is also a new skill to master which Rob demonstrates as we sweep through a dense forest on a series of flowing bends. Every input has to be smooth and carefully thought through. Wrench open the throttle too hard and the drive from the bike’s rear-wheel will cause it to try and overtake the sidecar and pull to the right.

This is ideal in right-hand bends, where you roll on the throttle and experience an incredible slingshot effect as you speed up through the turn. But in left hand turns, any throttle input will cause you to suddenly straighten up, so you need to keep the revs steady.

With the lessons fresh in my mind and the evening drawing in, we return to base where barbequed pork, fine Portuguese wine, and an evening chatting all things two and three-wheeled awaits.

Up for the challenge

The morning after, we’re out early and I’m at the controls. With an empty gravel trail ahead, I hop into the saddle, disengage the parking brake and fire up the engine for the first time using the electric starter (there’s also a kickstart lever in case it’s ever needed). Giving the bike plenty of revs, I let out the clutch and begin to rumble along the lane, making small steering inputs and occasionally blipping the throttle to test how the bike reacts.

It feels alien, an impression that continues as I pull in the clutch and press down on the heel shifter with my boot, feeling a reassuring clunk as I find second gear. The heel-toe shifter is a relic of the Ural’s wartime heritage, a feature that allowed soldiers in cumbersome winter boots to shift when riding on the front line. While there are no bullets flying in the Portuguese countryside, the shifter is a reminder of the Ural’s rich and violent history.

backroads and trails of central Portugal
It was a thrill to explore the backroads and trails of central Portugal

After a few more passes of this beginner circuit, we head to a new network of tracks and empty tarmac roads, a setting where I can pick up some more pace and cover more ground. It’s olive harvesting season in Portugal, and the fields we pass are filled with workers whacking the trees with sticks and shaking the branches over green matts, filling baskets and burlap sacks with what comes tumbling down from above.

There’s nothing hi-tech about the process, and the Ural fits in with the old-time aesthetic as we cruise alongside fields before hitting a network of gravel lanes. I’m particularly impressed with the abundance of trails in the area, and how capable the Ural is when tackling them. But I’m mindful not to let things get too spirited as I encounter a car barreling towards us head-on. Thankfully it passes without incident.

I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of sidecar riding now and the pace picks up as I cruise alongside a trainline, before moving on to a more technical trail loop up in the hills. Helpfully, Rob takes over on a sighter lap of the new circuit, and I’m a tad apprehensive as he shows me the way down a steep descent which is filled with tight hairpins, loose gravel, and a few chunky rocks for good measure.

But, once again, the Ural impresses, and I find myself riding with the biggest of grins as I drop down the hill and scramble back up again, particularly on a right-hand hairpin when you can really give the engine some oomph and allow the slingshot effect to see you around safely. By the time we’re done for the day I’m a full sidecar convert, but also a little knackered from the learning experience. I gratefully sip an ice-cold beer when we get back for another barbecue.

A weekend of travel
A weekend of travel, adventure, and learning new skills. What could be better?

Into the mountains

After waking up feeling the effects of the previous night’s beer, the three of us head out on a day trip, Rob riding his own Ural and me riding in Zayne’s sidecar. While I’ve never been a fan of riding pillion, I find myself loving life as a Ural passenger. With my legs kicked out in front of me and a full, uncluttered view of the horizon, I can relax and enjoy the ride, casually waving hello to passers-by who nearly always return the greeting.

My casual lounging comes to an end all too soon though when I hop back into the saddle to tackle even more trails as we ride to a network of caves that are popular with local rock climbers.

The lane we’re on is punctuated by puddles and deep rain channels, a consequence of recent heavy rainfall, and it proves an exercise in wheel placement as I find my brain working constantly to figure out a line for three tyres to go through at any given time. It’s an utterly engaging experience and I arrive at the caves breathless and buzzing from the ride.

After negotiating the trail again on the way back up, we pull over for a lunch stop surrounded by recently harvested olive trees, and I find myself seriously considering what life would look like with a Ural in my garage.


Firstly, the queue to jump in the sidecar would stretch round the block. Every photo I’d sent to friends and family had been met with a flurry of ‘Oh, I want a ride!’ responses, something which never happens when the chance to ride pillion is up for grabs. The reaction from bystanders is also a never-ending stream of waves and smiles. Good luck stopping for a quick coffee or fill-up though. A Ural is the ultimate conversation starter, and you’ll struggle to get away from anywhere in a hurry.

As for the riding, well, Rob wasn’t wrong when he promised a unique experience. It’s no bad thing though. If you like motorcycling, you’ll love riding one with a sidecar. It’s utterly enthralling and engaging. The Ural is a machine that requires complete focus to ride, where every input I make has to be precise and gentle, and mustering up the focus required to get it right is addictive.

As for the setting, there are few places better to ride than Portugal. Across the two days, we rode a myriad of trails and saw countless more stretching off into the distance, while the roads in central Portugal were empty, winding, and superb fun. As we finish up our sandwiches and I hop back into the sidecar for the final ride home, I feel pretty gutted that the experience is coming to an end.

Still, with two UK experience centres and dealers opening up back at home in 2022, I know that I won’t be waiting long before I get another chance to ride on three wheels again. Ural’s journey, which started with an agreement back in 1939 between two despots, still has many more miles left to run.

The Bike

Want to ride a Ural in Portugal?

The Ural Experience Centre, run by Rob and Zayne, offers a unique opportunity to explore the roads and trails of central Portugal on three wheels.

Prices start at €150 per day (about £126) and the centre is located almost slap-bang between Lisbon and Porto airports, so there are plenty of cheap flights to catch to and from the UK.

Find out more at

I was riding Rob’s adapted Ural, fitted with a custom rally-ready sidecar unit that allows him to tutor students and take part in rallies in his spare time, with his partner Zayne riding in the sidecar. I could go into power stats and information about the brakes and suspension, but on the Ural that all feels irrelevant. It runs, it stops, it corners, and it’s utterly thrilling to ride. The Ural Ranger will be for sale in the UK in 2022 and I’d encourage anyone to head to a Ural Experience Centre to give one a go.