One man’s maiden voyage through the mountains in a motorcycle sidecar.
It was a dull, gray morning late in June—unusual for Denver. Rain was rolling in. At eight o’clock, sitting in my kitchen with a cup of coffee, I kept an eye on my phone, anticipating the cancellation call I was sure would come at any moment. Somewhere along I-25, a man named Scott Kirkwood was speeding north toward my house in a sidecar motorcycle, a mode of transport uniquely ill-suited to bad weather, thanks to the difficulty of turning and braking an asymmetrical vehicle. We were scheduled for a four-hour ride through the mountains so that I could write about my first journey in perhaps the most rarely glimpsed of all street-legal automobiles. Staring out my window at the dark thunderhead building in the east, sliding its way toward the Front Range, I figured the trip would be over before it had begun.
“Morning!” I heard over the line, when the call finally came through. The words were muffled by the unmistakable rumble of a motorcycle engine. “I’m on my way. Don’t worry. A little rain on our tail is nothing. We’ll outrun it!”
“Outrun” is not a word you usually like to hear in reference to steeply graded mountain roads like the ones mapped out for our route that morning—from Denver to Central City by way of Route 6 and Golden Gate Canyon Road. Still, Kirkwood had emphasized during the planning phase of our voyage that safety is paramount in trips like this one—that is, trips run through City on the Side, the company he founded in 2016 to introduce novice Coloradans to the thrills of sidecar riding. If there were any danger in our heading up to the mountains, Kirkwood would have called the thing off. So I waited. Fifteen minutes later, a mechanical growling outside my front door brought me out to the porch, where I saw a man dressed head to toe in leather—vest, boots, gloves, ass-less chaps—waving from the other side of the street. He wiped a curtain of gray hair to one side of his face and beckoned me over.
“Hop in!” he said. “No time to lose.”
The first leg of our journey took us directly through the center of downtown Denver. City on the Side deploys a fleet of Russian-made Ural cT bikes, distant cousins of the M-72 combat rig developed by Stalin in the ’40s, and in the spirit of historical homage Kirkwood has christened the members of his sidecar squadron with some choice pet names: Natasha, Anastasia, Svetlana and the like. Our bike, Nadia, was a glitzy, terracotta orange, conspicuous from several blocks away, perfect for Kirkwood’s stated objective of making all his City on the Side riders “feel like rock stars.” As we cruised through the city center, people on the sidewalk pointed, stared, snapped photos. “That’s the magic of the sidecar,” Kirkwood said, with a satisfied grin. “Everyone notices. Everyone loves it.”
After the stop-and-go of the city, the speed of the highway came as a shock, and a thrill. Carrying two passengers, the Ural tops out at 60 miles an hour, but sitting a mere 12 inches off the asphalt with the motorcycle’s engine buzzing and banging next to your head, it feels like easily twice that speed. At full velocity, the sidecar isn’t protected much by its tiny windshield, and all along Route 6 into Golden I struggled to keep my shirt from flipping up around my neck and flying right off me. It was hard to pay much attention to anything, though, other than the excitement of the speed. Something about the wind, the proximity to the ground, and the sensitivity of the bike’s pull on the sidecar rig made the ride feel closer to death than anything I’ve known in a car.
The mountains only heightened this sensation. The drive along Golden Gate Canyon Road is gorgeous in any vehicle, but in a sidecar it’s something else entirely. If any comparison can be made, I imagine the feeling is similar to flying a prop plane through tight airspace—every turn seems a death-defying close shave, every straightaway adds to the lust for speed. Halfway up the canyon, Kirkwood demonstrated something called “flying the chair,” a maneuver that involves rocking the bike sharply to the left and balancing on the motorcycle’s two wheels with the sidecar’s third wheel completely off the ground. At 50 miles an hour on a narrow road, with a sheer cliff dropping away three feet to the right, it’s a trick that will put your heart in your throat, but one I can’t help recommending. It’s all part of the experience.
After three hours of driving, a lull took over, and time seemed to slip away, leaving only the onrush of the road. This is where I remained, mentally, for the final leg of the trip, down from the mountains and back into Denver. Kirkwood dropped me off at my house, and the transition back to solid ground—feeling the earth under my feet—was disconcerting. Kirkwood had warned me, before the whole thing began, that a born “sidecar-ist” will recognize the tug of obsession after the very first ride. “Like falling in love,” Kirkwood said, “it grabs you quick and leaves you with no control.”
Consider this rider hooked.
CITY ON THE SIDE Offers tours from 1.5 to 8 hours, as well as tailor-made tours and special events; $139–$699.