Urals and the art of motorcycle maintenance

It was 4am in the morning and I couldn't take any more. Mosquitoes dive-bombed from all sides, their high pitched scream sounding like Japanese Zeros in the South Pacific. Inside the bivvy bag it was so hot that sweat was running down the inside; I'd already made the fatal mistake of opening the top for some cool air and had the bites to prove it. That was enough. After lying like this for 2 hours in the middle of a Polish forest it was time to move.

We decided to rush to the bikes, fire them up and escape before we sustained any more hits. Amazingly enough both Urals had been more or less working when we stopped for the night; now mine was leaking petrol badly from both petrol pipes, and the lights had packed in. I ignored the smell of petrol and fiddled with some wires inside the headlamp shell until a pale yellow pool of light appeared. Eventually we got both bikes running at the same time and made a dash for the road. It was more than an hour before we discovered that we'd made a dash in the wrong direction and had to turn round. 6am saw us back at the memorable campsite, in exactly the same place that we had been when we stopped 4 hours earlier. We were bitten badly, smelt of petrol and oil, and had had no sleep at all.

We fixed the leaking petrol pipes, did our hourly oil refill on the M67 that I refused to ride behind for fear of lung cancer, and decanted what was left of the Jerry can into the petrol tanks. Oddly enough the Jerry can had been full the evening before - it was only that morning that we spotted the hole in the bottom. Two bargain 40 year old Russian bikes were getting near the German border and both had already broken down more times than we could remember. All they had to do was get firstly to the South of France, and then one of us onwards to Santiago in the North West of Spain, and the other back to the UK. It had not been a promising start.

Two fine motorcycles at the start of their trip on a beach in Poland

Our $3 Polish insurance got us across the German border, where we found a field and went to sleep in the sun. The field was actually beside a track to a quarry, but the trucks didn't stop us from getting a good few hours' sleep before it was time to start again. Start again fixing the bikes that is. We spent about 3 hours fixing things and trying to get the K750 to run. Eventually it did, so we packed quickly and left before it changed its mind. This set the pattern for the next week. We'd cajole the bikes - usually the M67 was the dodgy one - as far as they would go, and then find somewhere to sleep. We'd get up the next day, spend the magic 3 hours fixing various leaks, misfires, electrical problems, brakes, whines, squeaks, knocks and wobbles, and then set out with great hopes and ambitions. These would then soon be dashed as something fell off, seized or broke, usually before lunch.

I should mention the night after the mosquito forest night, as it is the most grateful either of us have ever been to find a hotel. We suspected it was going to rain from the black clouds and thunder, and then it started. Of course the ever-cursed M67 didn't have a proper gasket on the ignition cover so it started to cough and fight as the rain got in. Bulbs blew. We had open face helmets with no visors. I think we had decided that it was befitting of riding an old bike with a sidecar. The helmets were fine until it rained, then even at our dizzy speeds of 35 mph the rain stung our faces. Very wet, very tired after our previous night, unable to really see where we were going, and with an ever more truculent, smoking, coughing Ural we backfired our way up to a hotel in the middle of rural Eastern Germany. It had rooms, it had food, it had a bar, it even had a barn to dry the bikes out … we didn't even ask how much it was, and that's quite an achievement for me.

And so the miles rolled on, sometimes leisurely, at other times slowly, occasionally sedately. It became a quest to see how far we could go without breaking down. Then the debate as to what constituted a breakdown started. For example - the M67 throttle broke one day, so when the self-tapper and a bit of wire fell out a few days later, did that count as a separate breakdown? How about if we managed to wire it back up again without the engine stopping (which we could do after a few practice attempts)? Oil top-ups … we had to stop every hundred K or so for them, was that a breakdown? Maybe we should have tried to perfect the top-up from the sidecar whilst under way to avoid the stop …

Let's go back to the throttle incident that was so casually mentioned just now. It was Sunday morning and we were somewhere in Germany, in the middle of another forest as it happens, although this time a cooler one with nothing that sucked blood. Once again when we stopped for the night everything was more or less working. We replaced the front brake cable that snapped before moving 2 feet, and tried again. The throttle then joined the front brake cable. Alas, once apart it was not the cable, but the twist grip that was broken. After a few hours of highly ingenious and yet fruitless attempts at a repair I headed for the nearest town on the working bike with the cursed twist grip in my pocket. Not only was it a Sunday, but it was a bank holiday the next day, and Germany was closed. The German who donated his workshop, drill stand, wire and screws wouldn't even take our remaining 6 pack for getting us out of that forest. It's good to know at least one word in a foreign language. If you're on a Ural forget bonjour, hola, and hallo and go with cassé, rota and kaput.

This oil consumption was a trait that did concern us. It concerned Nacho because it was his bike that was getting through a couple of litres a day and lots of spark plugs. It concerned me because I was frightened of passing out through lack of air whenever I had the misfortune of bringing up the rear, and no doubt it would also concern everyone else because of its contribution to the green house gasses and sudden recurrence of smog into Germany wherever we went. We ordered new pistons, rings, barrels, heads and carbs from the UK and they were sent ahead of us to my godmother's house in France. This is actually a précised version - it took quite a bit of organisation to find and post the parts out, something that would not have been possible without the help of quite a few people back home.

There were two times along the way that we thought that we would have to abandon the bikes. Both times I imagined teeth rattling round the final drive as we rolled noisily to the side of the road. The first time it was a couple of broken spokes, the other a disintegrated wheel bearing. It's handy, that 4th wheel on the chair. Actually there was a third time … images of loose cogs rattling about inside the engine were just the generator falling off. I must be a pessimist by nature.

The mission now became to make Cognac where the parts awaited us. Things weren't too bad until the last day. The M67 overheated whenever we went through a town and had to stop at lights, or when it went up a hill. Its oil thirst was still on the greedy side so it was a pity when we left the oil container by the side of the road. All this stopping for thermal reasons and spark plug swaps meant that it was getting dark as we approached Cognac, which is probably why the headlamp bulb blew. The dip / beam switch had broken miles ago so again out with the toolbox to re-wire the headlamp. The K750's battery died a little later followed by a reluctance of the port cylinder to fire on the M67. With one headlight and three pistons between the two bikes we disturbed the peace and clean air of the vineyards as it approached midnight. Just for effect the Smoker cut out and rolled through the gates. It was pushed into the barn, but had made our goal under its own - all be it single cylinder - steam. Any further and the towrope would have had to be unpacked. We took the next day off from Soviet bikes and went round the distilleries of Cognac.

We rebuilt the M67 engine, found a cracked piston, scored barrels, a huge gap in the oil rings, and a blocked oil way - it now no longer smokes, goes faster, uses less petrol, and runs cooler. Now we had a decent place to work we also spent 3 or 4 days pottering with other things that had niggled, but had not stopping forward motion so had remained broken – brake lights, wobbles, speedos, that sort of thing. The only thing that we didn't fix was low charge on one battery, and the high one on the other. I guess the average between the bikes was 12V. We decided to only ride during daylight and ignore the vague feeling we had about there being a law in Europe about always having your headlamp on. We didn't really ever get the brakes working either, but got very good at reading the road ahead instead. Once we had both bikes running as we thought they should it was time to head off in different directions, Ignacio for Spain, me for Portsmouth.

Everything fitted back together, amazing!

Nacho left for Spain, appeared again an hour later, twiddled the carbs, and headed off again. He made Spain in a day, which was a daily record for both mileage and reliability, lost his key the next, and then broke down in the Basque country. After some playing about with the ignition he was obliged to give rides in the sidecar to the population of the village, young and old alike.

Next stop was the middle of a tunnel in the Pyrenees, once again the points. Breaking down in a tunnel is most unfortunate, and he had to be towed out. As the truck was there it was decided to take him the last 30Ks to the next haven, the parents of his girlfriend. The spring on the points had snapped. Another set arrived from the UK. With a combination of new-found mechanical skills and the odd prompt by sms it ran again, and run it did, all the way to Santiago without missing a beat (not a sufficient amount to stop it anyhow). From a novice motorcycle mechanic 3 weeks earlier Nacho was now a veteran. To be totally honest he wasn't a total novice – his other bike is a Bullet.

My girlfriend Katie had turned up in Cognac (leaving the hairdryer and other essentials behind and bringing barrels, pistons and wheel bearings instead. Good girl). She couldn't really see what all the fuss was about, sitting there in the sidecar on the journey to England … it was disappointingly reliable all the way to Portsmouth, almost the kick and ride experience we'd rather naively dreamt of when we planned the trip. The only event really was a superbly heavy rainstorm, and it was the passengers that complained more than the bike for once.

The exhaust fell off on the M275, the first and only bit of motorway we'd been on in the last 2000 miles, and it's only 2 miles long. I melted my boot trying to hold it on. Oh, and would it start when it was lined up right at the front of the queue to get on the ferry? Just as people started shouting "push it to the side" it chuffed to life like an aging tractor with puffs of black smoke from the exhausts. The 20 or so pre-first war Renaults returning from their tour of France behind us sat there ticking over like sewing machines, just to add to the frustration.


Pitchoune the dog enjoyed the ride after an apprehensive first few moments.

I would like to thank the support team back home without which we would have had to leave the bikes somewhere in Europe. My parents and Chris from Uralmoto Ltd spent a lot of time chasing parts and sending them out to meet us. Chris from C and C also got us some bits for which we are grateful, and we also want to thank my godmother Wendy for her hospitality in France, the barn, food, tea and Cognac.

This little adventure was preceded by a trip from India a few years ago where the art of breaking down was nurtured ...
The India trip