Thursday, 9 August 2012

Eastern European Escapade

The bike was a wreck, or at least it was just a couple of weeks before we took it for a 5000km tour in East Europe.  It was not the first time the Ural outfit had begun its life bursting from a crate after it toppled off a forklift.  Hari, of the Austrian based Ural distribution centre, confides that there were other mishaps at the hands of test riders on this machine. It looked a little older with 40,000km on its clock as we collected it for our four week ride to Montenegro and back.

It was a 2WD, forest camo Ranger 2006 model, fitted with Heidenau knobbly tyres, a spotlight and with a machine gun mount on the front of the sidecar. This was the same outfit that Charlie Boorman had ridden on his “By Any Means” trip from London to Sydney in 2006 and it still had his sticker on the front mudguard!

This trip was a combination of a promotion for Ural, continued testing of some developmental parts and an opportunity to share some time with the Aussie tour group, “Ferris Wheels”. It was their inaugural ‘Dalmatian Delights’ Tour.  We flew to Linz in Austria where we collected the Ural outfit which Vicki and I were to ride for three days down to Ljubljana in Slovenia to join the start of the 20 day tour.
It didn’t take long to reacquaint with left hand drive, the cute scenery and the sensational alpine roads.  It was the 30th April as we set out for Slovenia, and the first National Park was just open, but with nearly 2 metres of snow beside the road at the top of the pass.  Cool stuff, and my exuberance brought a reprimand when my playful clipping of the snow bank with the sidecar delivered a lapful of snow to my otherwise very comfortable navigator!

Mike and Denise Ferris had very kindly allowed us to join their tour where the fleet of new BMW GS and Suzuki Vstrom bikes are supplied and maintained by Adriatic Mototours. On arrival in Ljubljana, the day before the tour started, I sheepishly showed Mike the ‘nice new’ Ural that was to accompany his classy tour. To his credit, Mike never flinched at the contrasting colour scheme of our bike on their tour, or the slightly used look of our machine.

Apart from the sublime faith a Ural importer has in his product, I had the previous experience that assured me that even a well worn Ural of late model breeding can be as reliable as the best of them and will attract attention wherever it goes.  I am sure the rest of the other 12 tour riders departing with us decided we were the odd couple, trying to take this old outfit on a 3 week ride through the mountains with the best new German and Jap solos!

The Ferris Wheels Tour family are great company and with 7 couples and 4 singles, some riding solo and some doubling, it didn’t take long to get to know those we hadn’t met previously.  There was an age range from about 40 to 75 and only one couple who hadn’t ridden on a previous Ferris Wheels Tour.  One guy had 17 trips already with Ferris Wheels!

As we headed out for the amazing Plitviče National Park on our first day, we experienced some of the rain that makes this area so green and forested – say nothing of the endless labyrinth of cascading water in the Park which was our first day’s highlight. With top speed on the Ural clocked at 120, but realistically around 100km/hr, the Ural was overtaken by most bikes on this day as the riding was fairly straight forward. The Ural holds its own well in the more technical stuff and we rarely came in last at any stop during the tour as it traversed endless torturous mountain routes.

We did, however, have to watch the refuel situation as the solos were refueling around 300-350km and we had just over 200km in the tank and then another 100km maximum in the jerry can which is fitted to this model.  We usually did a quick refuel at around 180km at one of the frequent gas stations to get us safely to the next group refuel.  Constantly changing countries and 4 different currencies kept us guessing as to the correct bowser to use and currency to pay while refueling on our own, compared to group refuels when our guide handled all of that!

On this tour, we had Mike or the fast riding Denise to lead the way while the other one brought up the rear.  We all had the responsibility to corner mark until the last rider came through.  This worked well and it was interesting climbing the curb with the sidecar sometimes so as to take up a main road mid-corner position without leaving the bike too exposed to the traffic coming through.  Whilst the solos could park in the gutter OK, we could climb the gutter with ease, so it all worked out. The sidecar was easy to spot anywhere and the recognition made corner marking easy.

As we progressed into Croatia, we saw our first evidence of the Balkan War of 15 years ago.  Houses without rooves and bullet ridden walls are something we fortunately don’t see in Australia, but to see a country torn like that is a stark reminder of human nature’s weaknesses and the good fortune we enjoy here in Australia.

We made 420km that day and pulled into Sarajevo about 5.30pm. The hotel was 9 stories up the lift to reception (with no fire escapes of course – “just use the lift!”).  Ferris Wheels are good at finding unusual accommodation and being the tallest building in the old city, we had a great view.  I am glad we weren’t in town during the 1000 day siege that flattened this whole area which has now been largely rebuilt.

A rest day to admire the city gave Martej, who supplies the bikes, and myself, time to do a quick bike check.  I hadn’t thought to bring a spare set of Brembo brake pads and could see I was nearly down to metal. Normally one finger braking on the Brembo up front takes care of corner braking.  With a lot of mountain corners done and many more to come, I put in a call to Hari to post a new set to a hotel up the track and quickly learnt to use the back brake only.  This required a slightly more cautious approach to corners but didn’t slow us much and we still had .5mm of brake lining when we reached the new pads some days later.
I had an embarrassing problem when the headlights and taillights ceased to work on the Ural.  I checked the dipper switch, headlight and fuse areas closely before asking Hari for a suggestion.  Hari said “Have you checked the lights switch on the other handlebar?”  Well, what do you know – they have an on/off switch on the light system over there, unlike our hardwired headlight in Australia.  Local knowledge is a problem it seems, but it was easily fixed by simply turning it on! “Anytime you have a problem like this, give us a call” says Hari, “we can easily fix this for you!”

On to Mostar with its famous bridge and extensive wartime collateral damage.  It was a great ride through the forest on the narrowest roads yet, with rain to challenge us.  There were a couple of solo casualties on the wet roads but nothing serious.  The sidecar was a hoot in the slippery conditions and we were glad of it!  We had a local car do a 180º spin out, hitting the Armco right in front of us, leaving some startled occupants and pieces of bumper and grill to dodge as we motored through.  Not long after, one of our more cautious riders put his V strom down right in front of us.  The limestone based metal used on the roads there can be slippery like soap when it is wet!

We entered the small, friendly country of Montenegro and comment was made that this country must have been made in the stone age.  It is puzzling that such a small country can survive with such a small population living with so many rocks and small trees on precipitous mountains!  After another night in the mountains, we descended next day to the coast via 1000m deep ravines.  We followed some great whitewater rivers for many kilometres and finished the day at Petrovac, a small but pretty holiday spot on the Dalmatian coast.

Next morning, we were back up the mountains on roads that were narrower than ever and twisted through the rocks for many kilometres until we reached a spectacular mausoleum on the summit.  The view was incredible in every direction. What a harsh and exposed spot they had chosen, but then any excuse will do to build such extraordinary bike roads!

Taking the back road down from that mountain, we scored a bonus 20km backtracking after we had taken a wrong turn – it was their first time through here.  Great technical riding, and lots of it all day, took us up the coast into Croatia and to Dubrovnik for the night and a following rest day.  A cruise was on the menu and we visited a picturesque island in the sun. Alex, our most mischievous and senior rider, commandeered the boat helm, turning the deck music up to the delight of our rock and roll girls who proceeded to dance.

From Dubrovnic, we travelled along the numerous and beautiful islands so characteristic of the Dalmatian Coast.  Korcula was our next target. The coastal roads had excellent surfaces and great views of islands, resorts, vineyards and more rocks, of course.  We used car ferries to get from peninsulars to islands and back, on our way through to Hvar which had some of the richest botanical diversity of flowers to be seen in the spring time.  This island and seaside town produced one of our most enjoyable rest days - swimming in the Adriatic, sidecar trail riding the stony hill tracks and a boat ride to a very exotic dinner located in the garden of a private house and olive orchard.

We rode the ferry across to Split on the mainland and then put in a hard ride in the cold and wet conditions as we headed out the long peninsular to Pag, an area lashed by high winds regularly as they swoop down onto the Adriatic from the nearby Alps.  These stark, stony islands are home to a sheep industry. Poor sheep with the toughest conditions world over!

Back on the mainland next day, we had our only driving incident when an impatient taxi overtook as I was moving out to do the same.  He suffered a creased side door from contact with the Ural clutch lever.  The lever ball end had 5mm square of paint removed compared with his 300 Euro panel repairs!  Tough as nails, those Urals! On tour, you cannot really stay to argue the legal situation as it takes too long and would, undoubtedly, be costly, so out with the cash and settle on the spot is the best solution.

At the border back into Slovenia, which is an EU member, there was a noticeable cultural change. The rocks were replaced by farming and lush forest. We were now back on the smaller roads between villages as we headed to Sezana. The Skocjan caves we visited shortly after were immense with many kilometres of underground river and gorges over 100m deep, all under a cave ceiling sometimes 40m across.

The Ural now had new Brembo brake pads fitted, and just in time, as we climbed up to the Italian Alps in the famous Dolomites area.  These mountains are like dreamland for motorcyclists with their ‘in your face’ proximity surrounded by dolls houses in green carpeted valleys.  Ridges everywhere are scaled by torturous switchbacks of good sealed road.  The final touch comes with the good coffee spot at the peak of every climb, a place to warm up, celebrate the view and rejoice at being alive and able to ride a motorcycle, or better still a motorcycle and sidecar!

By this time, Vicki had established herself amongst the group as an interested map reader, sitting comfortably in the sidecar behind a windscreen and with the space and protection to follow a map as we rode along.  Sometimes even the GPS couldn’t decipher some of the Italian spaghetti junctions.  We noted a few of our group solos that tucked in behind us because they believed Vicki knew where we were, even if she didn’t!

Vicki finds the Ural sidecar a very comfortable viewing platform to ride in.  Equipped with our intercom under the seat and plugged to the standard cigarette lighter outlet so we could converse freely, she had a full view in front and was able to snap moving photos with ease using a high speed digital camera as the opportunities came.  This was at every corner in some places.

We carried extra wet weather gear in our spacious 80 litre trunk or in a bag at Vicki’s feet.  After we left the tour group, we strapped a suitcase on the rear luggage rack and put a plastic bag over it when the rain came.  I had fitted a Bagster tank bag for heavy gloves, the essential Ural promo brochures for admiring bystanders and our wallets, border documents, etc.  It was a very workable and comfortable setup.

At Corvara in the Dolomites, we spent a rest day gawping at the views and doing a 45km lap that took in four alpine passes over 2,000m high. Sensational riding - and I will be back again so long as I can still manage to ride.

We turned our steeds for home from here and rode back toward Slovenia and the popular outdoor sports area at Boveč. This area was by no means the tail end of the trip and once again the mountains, the rivers and the roads took our breath away! The world famous whitewater paddling Sočha river tumbled over rocks and through slit-like canyons beside our road. On the next mountain climb, the intensity of the usual switchback corners was enhanced by tunnels. These tight cornered tunnels were disconcerting to ride into as you plunged into the darkness only to find a rock wall in front of you!

Over the top after at least 35 switchbacks and we were descending again down steep cobbled corners built by Russian POWs – just the thing for a Russian built outfit to be at home with. This is a really spectacular corner of Slovenia and a fitting finale to a great ride as we cruised down through the romantic lake area at Bled and on to Ljubljana.
From here, Vicki and I farewelled our group at a triumphant dinner where I was awarded a dummy for taking out a Croatian taxi with the Ural. The other dummies went to downed solo riders who all sustained more damage to their bikes than the Ural! Our Ural had impressed by being reliable and keeping up with the group. After a week on tour, we had many riders taking a more interested look at our mount and several were able to take a ride in the chair which was, by then, sought after.

Vicki and I had a pleasant and restful couple of days riding alone back over the Alps and across the beautiful back roads in Austria. Hari was pleased to see us safely returned and expressed his desire to rent more sidecars out to suitably qualified sidecar riders. There is a huge contingent of moto riders present in the Alps all summer and they are well catered for with accommodation, restaurants etc.

After 5000km, we had only used 350ml of engine oil, replaced the Brembo brake pads and worn out the rear knobby tyre.  Only once did the sidecar itself get airborne unintentionally, although it took lots of fun flights around right hand switchbacks on what was, perhaps, our best sidecar ride yet!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Jon’s Trip to Irbit 2012

In July I had the privilege to be invited by the CEO of the Irbit Motor Works, Ilya Khait, to visit the factory during one of his regular two week stopovers there overseeing production and design progress. This was a chance not to be missed after four years of importing the Urals to Australia.

Irbit is an old trading town, where the Asian traders met the European traders. During the winter trading meet, the population rose from around 5,000 to 40,000. When the Trans Siberian rail was built and it bypassed the town, Irbit lost a lot of its significance. WW2 brought a surge of investment with construction of wartime factories way out east where the German bombers were out of range.

View over Irbit

The Ural motorcycle factory played a part in Russia defeating the Germans and it went on to reach a production peak of around 13,000 bikes annually in late 70’s early 80’s. The factory has now celebrated 70 years of production.

We flew into Yekaterinburg, the 3rd largest Russian city located half way along the Trans Siberian rail and site of the assassination of the Czar and his family in the Revolution. We stayed in the “Ural Hotel” an unusual looking architectural piece from the communist era and set out for Irbit next day. It was a 180km drive and we travelled through flat areas of forest and cropped farmland.

Hotel Ekaterinburg

The first impression of Irbit was of a town which had been left behind as industry and jobs moved elsewhere. It must have been quite impressive with its wartime factories in full production and its relevance prior to the railway taking business elsewhere.

The Irbit Motor Works was a 10 hectare collection of buildings for manufacture and administration of practically every component used in the bikes. Now it is a 2 hectare factory with concrete buildings showing signs of decay which is no doubt hastened by the ravages of a winter freeze. The upkeep of these buildings to our western standards would be prohibitive given the proceeds from an annual turnover of 1200 bikes.

Original front entrance to the factory - no longer in use

Vladimir, Jon and Ilya in front of factory

Ilya and his factory manager Vladimir gave me an unrestricted tour of the factory and then time to go back and watch closely any of the many processes that are still done in the factory. I asked about what I could look at and talk about in their factory, Ilya replied, “there are no secrets here”. This visit was to reveal the reality of producing Ural motorcycles for sale in the more sophisticated economies of the world – a remarkable achievement by some hard working and clever people.

The machine rooms were huge, with over 800 machines still used out of more than 900 the factory owns. There is no production chain and automation like you see in modern car factories. Many of the machines make just one part at a time and require an operator in attendance, while others process maybe 8 pieces before reloading and the operator is in charge of several machines at once. Transporting parts around the factory is done manually and then once they are collected together, with a forklift. There are less than 150 employees now to produce 1200 bikes where it was once some 5,000 to produce 13,000 bikes a year.

There are many thousands of parts that go to make up each sidecar motorcycle and many of them require multiple processes to produce, including casting, drilling, milling, finishing painting etc before assembly. The Russian workers were all beavering away doing this with skills many of them have used for twenty or thirty years in this factory. They are mostly proud of their product, and largely unaware of the lifestyle the end users enjoy in countries like the USA.

An example of the hand-building process - engine studs being screwed in

The machines are mostly from the 60’s I think and the bikes and sidecars are from the same era. It is like a retro factory with retro machines producing retro bikes! Many of my customers say to me “why don’t they put disc brakes all round?”, “Can’t they fit a fuel injection system to improve fuel economy?”, “Surely the brake linkage should be better adjusted when they assemble the bike”, and so on! The answer lies in the fact that probably every other motor vehicle factory from that age is dead and gone. With an annual production of 1200 this factory defies gravity. We are extraordinarily lucky to be able to still purchase one of these virtually hand built unique motorcycles and enjoy a reliable ride on the highways alongside products of our highly regulated motor vehicle industry!

The economics are no doubt razer sharp. The dedication of the team in IMWA is the stuff of legends. This is a passion for them as they survived the 2008 GFC and the daily struggle to manage the factory production and their worldwide marketing and product support. Ilya alone has a huge responsibility as he tries to continually refine the components chosen for the production, search for new and better technology and spend time at Irbit to oversee the production. Keeping the old machines running efficiently is a task not easily fulfilled and the cost of new replacement machines is beyond the scope of the present output.

Ilya tells me the present machinery if pensioned tomorrow would only recover scrap value per tonne versus up to a million dollars for each replacement state of the art machine! The alternative is to source more components elsewhere in the world and this progresses as fast as it can given the constraints of available cash and research time. Every motorcycle part is related to the parts surrounding it and a smart fix for one part can disrupt the surrounding bits without further research and trials!

This Ural outfit is on display in the Irbit Museum - this is in the Guiness Book of World Records for running non-stop for 25,000kms.

As I watched one person assemble a complete motor in quite a short time I marvelled that one man could do so many different processes quickly and accurately and maintain concentration. Maybe it is a measure of the simplicity of these engines.

Ilya puts in the hours, the focus and dedication of the top corporate high flyers, but his world is not about first class accommodation, first class travel and big salaries. As we headed out of Yekaterinburg to Irbit where town shuts down after 8pm, he buys some biscuits and cheese from the supermarket and a bottle or two of potable water so when he leaves the factory at 11pm he can get a feed in his room before turning in for the night. Back in Seattle Madina manages IMWA in Ilya’s absence while raising their two bright young lego lovers who may well be the engineers who can take Urals further into the future.

There is little glamour in the Ural factory, but you can see that I have come away from the Ural factory with great admiration for the people who keep it operating and with gratitude that they produce such a great piece of machinery for us despite the odds!
A few more photos from around the Ural factory

This was a prototype quad bike model, unfortunately it was never released.

This is the very first Ural model ever released - copied from the German BMW during the war.

This is a stack of gearbox casings waiting for the next step in the assembly line.