Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Piaggio MP3 with a Sidecar

I’ve never ridden a motorcycle with a sidecar. I've read about them. Follow the Redleg's Rides blog and Dom's adventures on Ural sidecar rig. And Ara’s adventures with his dog spirit on Oasis of the Soul have created a myth of riding across the country with my dog. A lot of information floating around my head with absolutely no first hand experience. Seems I am constantly reviewing things as a beginner with no room to puff and strut. With a bit of nervous energy and apprehension I approached the rig.

After I saw this picture I went to Wal-Mart for a haircut. The kind you get with a number 3 red clipper attachment that takes only three minutes.

Dom sent me a link to the online bible of sidecars and suggested I read it before venturing out and killing myself. Well, I don’t think he put it that bluntly but the meaning was plain. So the night before I knew I would be stepping up to take the rig for a spin I went through the bible. Most of it common sense. And the rest incidental to a slow rider like myself.

Arriving at Kissell Motorsports after work I parked my Vespa in the place it belonged and wandered out front where the Piaggio MP3 and sidecar rig was sitting not far from a visiting Zeppelin.

Standing straight, gut pulled in, acting cool I climbed aboard the MP3 and promptly smashed the visor of my new Shoei helmet into the windshield of the rig. It hit me so hard that all the pictures of it were out of focus and I am irrationally opposed to posting any soft focus images.

But try to picture this. The owner had mounted a very tall windshield and then using heat (or something) bent the top back so it would cover his head like a small roof. When I saw it I chuckled but had to admit that it might be nice in the rain. What I failed to consider was the guy must have been five feet tall. After whacking my head and spending a few minutes trying to position myself on the seat in a manner where my helmet wasn’t hitting the shield. Anyone watching probably assumed Mr. Bean was in town and looking at a new toy.

A tribute to ingenuity I figured out that I could lean out to the left beyond the windshield and ride just fine. This new kind of rig that I had never ridden before. A few hundred yards up the road convinced me I’m an idiot and I turned around to tell Craig Kissell I couldn't ride this thing because of the windshield.

Unfazed, I think I detected a slight smile, he asked one of the technicians to take off the windshield.

In the shop Justin made quick work of the windshield and installed the factory shield that the previous owner returned when he traded in the MP3 rig.I wandered around looking at the Triumphs and Ducatis wondering what I was doing with this contraption. I thought about my heroes. Pee Wee Herman. My friend Howard. The Highlander. What would they do? Justin tells me I’m good to go. I’m thinking about immortality.

Before I leave I had to photograph the rig with the big Victory bike. Not sure which was less appealing. I will say for the first time I rode away from Kissell's without worrying about wrecking the bike. I figured I would be doing Craig a favor.

I felt like I was sailing in a storm, constantly fighting to keep the thing on course, feeling each wheel had a mind of it’s own. At 35mph I fully expected the rig to fly off the road on into oncoming traffic and my wife could begin spending the life insurance. With much concern and careful navigation I made it home in the dark. Then I realize the little spot in the garage where I park the Vespa isn’t big enough for this monster. And I am not about to clean out the garage. So I pull it up against the garage door, pull the truck right up behind it and the VW to the side so unless someone picks it up and carries it this machine is going nowhere.

6am. With renewed energy and the power of a gloomy day I ask Junior if he wants to go for a ride. Don’t let the smile on his face fool you. It took a handful of dog biscuits and a few minutes to get him in the sidecar. Good training meant he would stay there for a picture but he was far too smart to go for a ride. And I would not take him either for a couple reasons. The sidecar was far too small for him.

After some experimentation I realized the rig was more stable than it felt. It tracked pretty well and after several miles I was comfortable at 45mph on the narrow back roads.One of the immediate problems was stopping along the road to take pictures.The rig is almost as wide as a car so it’s not easy to tuck it into places. With a lot of winter gravel still on the roads the extra stability was readily available. With that in mind I turned off onto the first gravel road I could find.

The rig handled pretty well on the packed surface but wandered around in the loose stuff. And because of the way the MP3 mounts to the sidecar, the MP3 angled slightly towards the sidecar, I felt like I was always sliding off.

Moving into the mountains of Rothrock State Forest I found a lot of hard wet ice still on the roads. The rig stays upright but more than once I was losing traction. Not far from where I made this picture I turned around before finding myself stuck or worse.

By late morning my stomach took over and I stopped at the Pump Station in Boalsburg for something to eat. Parking wasn’t a problem because I could just swing the rig around. But pushing the MP3 with the sidecar around on level ground was a chose. Don’t even think about it on a hill. I guess you learn to anticipate such things.

The good news is that I figured out the rig was stable. I even began to enjoy riding it a bit. The bad news for this one was with the throttle wide open all I could manage was a bit under 55mph on flat open roads. Fine for exploring and touring around on back roads but I would definitely not want to ride on the freeway.

Sidecar as conversation starter? Hardly. This runner didn’t bat an eye as he went past. And no one said a word about it wherever I stopped which sort of surprised me since it looked so, well, unusual. I might have well been invisible.

On the bright side it meant my ego didn’t take any hits either.

One more short tour on a dirt road. If this thing had a shiny side to it I would have to say it was off the pavement. Not off-road, just on less than perfect surfaces. But in the end this setup took what is perhaps the most stable machine I have ever ridden (Piaggio MP3) and turned it into the most unstable thing I have ever ridden.

Back to Kissell Motorsports.

I’m glad I got to ride the rig and also glad I could give it back. In my book it was just work to ride and while I chalked up the bad handling and performance to the weirdness of the MP3 sidecar combination someone with more experience with sidecars assured me that what I was describing is how sidecars and motorcycles respond. One big, hot mess. Feel free to pipe in if your experiences say otherwise. I’ll just say I admire all you sidecar rig captains.

This is Craig Kissell and he’s smiling because someone bought the rig. Different strokes and all. Or sidecars could be an acquired taste. Maybe someone can tell me what I’m missing.

For now, I'm happy to be back on the Vespa. And the weather is getting warmer too!


Doug said...

Steve, I took a try at a sidecar rig years ago and my recollections of the experience match your experience pretty well. I'd say they combine all the worst attributes of a motorcycle with all the worst attributes of an automobile. But they are unique and do have some redeeming qualities, not the least of which is their ability to make observers smile and wave, especially if there's a dog riding along.

hrw115 said...

I like the picture of Junior in the sidecar. :)

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Scooter In The Sticks (Steve):

The BMW K75 has been the described as the world's best birth control device, considering it is impossible to get laid after showing up anyplace on it. My bike has handed that title over to the MP3 with the sidecar. John Deere makes a lawn tractor that goes faster than 55mph, and one tha looks a lot better than this.

You had me worried for a bit.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Steve Williams said...

Doug: Thanks for confirming my findings. I guess I will have to wait for Charlie6 to comment to explain why someone would want to ride one of these things. I don't think he has a dog.

Steve Williams said...

hrw115: It's just for show. Like those pictures made in the Old West.

Dear Mr. Riepe: I plan to have the title framed.

So, why were you worried? And are you feeling better??

Orin said...

Junior looks good in the sidecar. Considering the number of dogs I see riding in sidecars, either they can be trained, or there's some kind of restraining device you can get. Doggles® are cheap.

There's a fellow in West Seattle who has a white Vespa P200E with a sidecar, which is where his dog rides. I used to see them all the time.

Scootin' Old Skool

Conchscooter said...

Much though I love her Cheyenne doesn't need to come where I ride. She is happier on the back seat of the car and I am happier riding solo. A hack is for old age, a means to extend one's ability to ride.
The MP3 remains in my mind an expensive engineering solution to a problem yet to be created.

Mike said...

Nice report and really nice photos again Steve. I like the one of Junior too and the one of Craig Kissell is good too with the short depth of field and hand on a Beemer grip.

I hope you didn't really get clipped with a #3!

RichardM said...

Great post and observations on the weird handling. I'm still looking at a sidecar rig to extend the riding season. The third wheel should add some stability. I kind of wonder what the impact of the fourth wheel on the MP3-sidecar setup. I think that it would be difficult to prevent the one of the front wheels from dragging due to steering geometry....

I also like the shot of Junior in the sidecar.


Charlie6 said...

Sorry for the late response Steve, new job has me jumping....

You now see how differently sidecar rigs handle....some comments.

1. The way you were having to struggle to steer it, sounds like the tug and sidecar were not aligned correctly (you said you felt like you were going to slide off) and steering was an effort. Alignment is key on rigs, not to mention bad alignment will lead to a short-lived pusher tire and some really squirrely steering. As to feeling that "each wheel had a mind of its own", weren't used to the inertia induced by the sidecar on the tug, after a while you learn to compensate for it.

2. I've no idea if someone makes something for the MP3 but leading links or modified triple trees which modify the front wheel's trail are also key to steering effort and stability.

3. Sidecar too small for you dog....must be a really small sidecar indeed. Most sidecar riders with dogs have a harness on their dog which keeps them from jumping out; since the harness is anchored to the sidecar.

4. Traction on ice, pretty hard to achieve, but I bet you felt more "secure" while on it than when on two wheels?

5. How long did it take you to "not put your left foot down" at stops? : )

6. So, did you "fly the chair"? On purpose or accidentally? Do you know see what the "bible" referred to as centrifugal forces on right hand turns?

Sidecar rigs are "mo better" when properly setup, one has trained formally to ride them and much practice....there's nothing like blowing past cars on snowy days, or going down trails one would be stopped by on two wheels (unless you're on a dirt bike I guess), or not worrying about falling over in high winds with driving rain and a bit of hail thrown in for good measure.

My guess, the MP3's double front wheel arrangement is probably sub-optimal for sidecar rig duty.

Interesting you didn't experience any MP3 version of UDF (Ural Delay Factor), but then again, did you ride in the the town where people could approach you readily?

My Ural rig has a reverse so I really don't pay attention when on it as to the angle I park at....with my future rig, that'll be a consideration and yes, with the heavier motorcycles, you have to plan where and how you park....I learned the hard way you can't push an R1150RT up a slight inclined parking spot. Woof.

Sorry your experience with the rig was not great, but perhaps you'll be able to try one out in the future with a more "normal" tug. If you're even in can try out my Ural.

Great report though!


Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

Steve Williams said...

Orin: If I was kicked in the head by a mule and decided to start riding a sidecar rig I would absolutely train Junior to ride with me. A harness, Doggles, and whatever else would be necessary. I love the idea of riding with him but the experience with the rig has, I fear, permanently soured me on the dream...

Steve Williams said...

Conchscooter: Now don't let this go to your head --- I agree with (almost) everything you said. And I too like my dog but would rather ride alone.

I am an alone rider.

The MP3 has some real advantages in my mind --- motorcycle feel and amazing traction and stability. The fear of sand, gravel, and other lurking road slippage is greatly reduced.

Steve Williams said...

Mike: I did get the number 3 haircut. Haven't had to look at my hair since!

Thanks for the kind words about the picture. Hard to go wrong with a laughing subject!

irondad said...

I rode an MP3 sans sidecar around the track we use for training. It seemed quite nimble by itself. I agree that the twin front wheel arrangement is throwing off the feel of the unit with sidecar attached.

The one I rode had a button that you pushed when the bike was at rest so that it would stand upright.

Presume you didn't use that with the sidecar?

P.S. Been looking at the photos on past posts. As always, you are the guru!

Steve Williams said...

RichardM: Since the rig was my only sidecar experience I couldn't really say whether it was behaving normally as these rigs go or was unusual because of the extra wheel up front.

One of the technicians at Kissell's who has ridden motorcycles with sidecars said it handled as expected and was no different than other sidecar rigs. So it could be that the difference between the two wheel experience and a sidecar on is just dramatic.

As an extended season machine it would be a good thing.

Steve Williams said...

Charlie6: All jobs seem to get in the way of blogging. The only reason I'm responding now is that I am sitting in a hotel room in Denver at a quarter to 7 having my breakfast before heading to a meeting.

I think you were right about the inertia of the sidecar. It was probably that more than an alignment problem. Once I got used to it there didn't seem to be an issue. Felt really odd though.

The sidecar was low and long. Junior just sits so tall. I probably would have pulled out the seat to make more room for him. A harness would be a definite item. Unfortunately for Junior I like to ride alone.

And I never put my foot down at lights. I think because it never felt like I was riding.

Never flew the chair but the thing did start to fishtail on the ice. No traction at all. I didn't worry about falling but was concerned about sliding off the road or just getting the heavy thing stuck.

There is a lot to consider with these rigs and your comments highlight the complexity. I'm sure others will too.

Whenever someone mentions sidecars I'll send them to your blog!

Steve Williams said...

irondad: It seems logical that the front wheel assembly would throw things off but it is an engineering question beyond my experience.

Never needed the locking button and even when riding an MP3 alone I seldom hit the button other than when I was lazy and didn't want to put my feet down at a traffic light.

Thanks for the kind words about the pictures. They are a labor of love.

Charlie6 said...

Steve, you're in Denver!?

We should meet...if you've time, send email to domchang at


Wanderer Roy said...

I saw an episode of Cesar, dog whisperer or something that he taught a dog to ride:
might help!

Ara & Spirit said...

You are too funny Steve!!! Reading you I could feel what you were going through. They have to be set up just right and in my case I have hydraulic on the chair as, I think you failed to mention, the leading wheel is now the wheel of the chair! Yes!!! Oh! I remember also my first ride in the GA fields and ending up in the ditch!!! Great write up... putting smiles on my face this morning.
I have a bunch of videos with camera mounted behind Spirit. On You Tube under the name "Beemerchef". Just in case you want to feel again the ride... from the couch of your living room.
Be well... Thanks! Ara & Spirit

Anonymous said...

i was wondering as to the cost of such a rig, as i have a mp3 already.