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Story & video: Losing the sidecar virginity

What happens when two friends, who have never even sat on a sidecar before, decide to explore a new sport at a race meeting?

 

I had agreed to try riding a sidecar as a passenger with Finnish sidecar racer Timo Kallio for an article. However, plans changed, as he called me and said there’d be a sidecar available for the Finnish championship race in Alastaro, which would be held in two weeks. I told him I was tempted, but had to sleep on it.

– All right, I’ll send you the owner’s number in any case, Kallio said.

I had never even sat on a sidecar before, so racing on the first try would be somewhat of an adventure. But would it be too much?

After deciding “no, it wouldn’t” I called the owner, Markku Artiola, the grand old man of Finnish sidecar racing, the next morning. He told me the bike was sort of reserved, but only for Friday’s free practice. And the whole race weekend would be a priority.

So, now I had a sidecar, but was still lacking passenger. I asked my friends on Facebook if someone would like to ride passenger, and received a bunch of no-fucking-way’s and “hilarious” jokes. But my friend from the Cannonball Bike Run, Adrian was ready to step up. He had not only zero experience on sidecars but also zero experience on motorcycle racing, although he’s really skilled on two wheels.

Two complete sidecar virgins, out to race then.

 

 

I got to Alastaro on Thursday night, and as Artiola’s team arrived, we unloaded the sidecars. Artiola told me about the machine and I got to sit on it for the first time.

The sitting position is extremely peculiar. You’re sit your knees, lie down on your chest and elbows with your toes hanging towards the tarmac. The handlebars are extremely narrow and upright. The ultra short (and heavy) throttle was on the right hand, brake and clutch both on the left. The brake lever activates all the wheels, and balance can be adjusted with a pedal box, if needed. The clutch is used only when starting. Linear actuator changes the gears via buttons on the handlebars.

As I had got my first touch at the weekend’s office, I asked Artiola about the machine. He had built it himself in mid-90’s, and it had originally used a two stroke engine from a snowmobile. Since then it had been swapped to a 2003 Yamaha R1 lump, which would be somewhat down on power compared to the other machines on the grid, for instance Artiola had a 2008 R1 engine in his machine.

The pushrod front and rear suspensions are completely adjustable regarding damping and all wheel angles. The sidecar wheel has also some adjustments with different spacers but these are generally not touched, at least not for first timers, such as us.

While trying to process all this new information, I headed to bed, where I dreamt about riding sidecars most of the night.

 

 

In the morning my passenger Adrian arrived, and got a quick rundown on what he’s supposed to do. He’d need to hold steady with the left hand on the sidecar handle when he’d move about. As he asked about the grab holes on the right side, they just told him “you’ll learn to find them.” Comforting.

Also comforting was the advice to take all the possible crash protectors off our leather suits for better movement to Adrian and better fitment for me. I also noticed that my Daytona racing boots were hardly ideal for the job. I could get in, but was unable to get out or the sidecar with the boots on. So I decided to ditch the other shell, and would wear only the inner boots for the rest of the weekend.

 

 

On Friday we had four 15 minute practise sessions to familiarise ourselves with the machine. Before heading out, we agreed on signals on “slow down” and “head to the pits”.

The first set was really stiff and hard as we both were trying to learn the basics. The speed definitely wasn’t too fast, but still we were both completely finished after 15 minutes. Earlier I had had some fears about the steering, as you’re supposed to turn in the corner unlike with a 2-wheeled bike, but that was no problem. However the steering was incredibly hard work because of the short handlebar. But if I was tired, after his acrobatics, Adrian was even more so.

For second session we were both more relaxed and somewhat got the hang of riding. On the third session Adrian had got so good with his moves I barely noticed him move anymore. Also the pace was up so much that I noticed that the sidecar would understeer heavily on right hand corners.

I told this to Artiola, and after looking at our tyres, he suggested we’d adjust the front camber. The setup was made for the previous riders, who were considerably lighter than us, so it seemed there was too much negative camber with us on the sidecar. After adjustment the handling was a lot better and we got a respectable lap time of 1.43. On the pits I consulted Artiola again and we decided to adjust both the front and the rear a bit more for the next morning’s qualifying session.

 

I could feel Friday’s riding well on Saturday morning. The problems with turning right had my left arm hurt like nothing before. Also some other, rather surprising places, such as my butt and back, seemed sore. Still that was mild compared to Adrian, who was hurting all over – especially the parts he used to lean against the fairing were really sore.

The qualifying session was the first one with official timing, and to our delight the adjustments we had done to the wheel alignment worked like a charm. On left turns we were able to power slide with the sidecar wheel off the ground and on the right turns the grip would let loose on both ends at the same time. The well-balanced machine showed itself in the times. We were 7th and improved our time by a whopping 5 seconds from Friday’s best.

 

 

Before our race the track was hit by a heavy shower, but the track managed to basically dry out before we’d head out. Still the organizers called it a wet race. We headed out with slicks and agreed that if it starts raining, we’d simply retire.

After the sighting laps we parked in the grid. As the red lights turned on, I felt my pulse rise at the same pace as the revs. When the lights went out, I slipped the clutch enough to get the sidecar moving and then simply dropped the clutch and opened the throttle. What an ace start! We overtook one row and were right at Artiola’s tail, when I was changing to second. Sadly the gear wouldn’t go in, until I helped it with the clutch. The front, however, got away.

After getting the machine on gear, we started a furious fight to gain ground. We caught up with the sidecar in front of us and started to look for a spot to overtake. To their disadvantage they had picked wet tyres, so we were faster than them, but as experienced racers they were able to block us for quite a while. Finally we left a bit of a gap before a fast bend, took the bend at a considerably higher pace and were able to overtake on the following straight. After that we simply pulled distance and finished at a safe sixth place.

As we headed to the pits, we were simply ecstatic. We both congratulated each other with Adrian, for two sidecar newbies we had done extremely well! Adrian also said that it was lucky that I couldn’t get it to second in the start, for he suspected he’d have fallen off!

 

 

On Sunday we’d start on the sixth place based on the Race 1 lap times. This time I cocked up the start, nearly stalling the engine, but eventually got going. We caught up with our nemesis from Race 1, and started battling it out. We overtook them on a hard braking, but half a lap later I again didn’t get a gear in, and they were able to push ahead. This caused me to get confused with the gears, and I eventually ended up on 6th, when I wanted to be on 2nd – “goddamn, why isn’t it shifting”. This caused them to get away, but we caught up with them. After a while of hanging at their tail, I decided to try what I did in Race 1, and took a left turn with a bit of a gap and considerably more speed. Suddenly the sidecar started tilting and I heard the exhaust scrape the ground. I countersteered and managed to keep the sidecar on track, looked that Adrian was still on board and started gunning again. At this point there were only 2 laps left, and we weren’t able to catch up with the guys in front, no matter how hard we tried, so it was 7th place for race 2, albeit only barely. Just before finish line I was again unable to get the gear in, and the guys on 8th nearly managed to pass us before the finish line!

On the out lap we gave thumbs-up to the 6th placed pair for the great battle, and on the pits they came to thank us for what according to them was the best race in a long, long time. We congratulated them for beating us and agreed that we wouldn’t be disappointed, since the race was such great fun! Also our team gave us hearty congratulations of a successful weekend.

Oh, and who won, you ask. Both races were won by none other than five-time sidecar World Champion, Pekka Päivärinta with Jussi Veräväinen as his passenger. Feels ridiculous that newcomers could race with a World Champion, but there we were, and I’d say our pace of less than 15 seconds slower than Päivärinta & Veräväinen was quite decent for a first try.

 

 

As for how it feels to race a sidecar, it’s really hard to compare it to anything else. It doesn’t feel like a motorcycle, nor does it feel like a car. Maybe a co-kart with a really powerful engine would be the closest comparable thing, but then there’s the teamwork with the passenger, which gives riding a completely new, interesting perspective. Also the lines are a lot different from those used with a bike, with a sidecar the turn-in point is considerably later.

Riding was also surprisingly hard physically; I’d claim it’s harder than riding with a 2-wheeler. Naturally I have no idea how hard it is to ride passenger, but looking at Adrian’s hands shake when he was getting his earplugs out after each session, I’d suspect being a passenger even harder than riding.

In any case, the experience was definitely something to remember! And I think I’ll get to know what it’s like to be a passenger, as we talked about switching roles next year for one more race. And then maybe one more and…

 

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