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Common Tread

A sidecar road trip to Canada, and a race 30 years in the making

Nov 18, 2022

It all started with a photo. Two little boys, clambering over a bizarre motorcycle sidecar contraption, pretending to race their hearts out. It’s not clear who is winning. They are together and that’s what seems to matter.

Ari and Zack as children in a vintage racing sidecar
CTXP hosts Ari (left) and Zack on the same sidecar they would race approximately 30 years later. Photo courtesy of Miriam Henning.

Actually, this CTXP adventure started like most of them do, with a suggestion from our director, Spenser. He said that Ari and I should dig the old racing sidecar out of my dad’s barn in New England, ride it more than 300 miles on public roads, cross an international border, and then compete against a field of other sidecar racers at Shannonville Motorsport Park in Ontario, Canada. And, as usual, we told him to stop snorting the powder at the bottom of the Sour Patch Kids bag and focus up, we needed a real idea.

A few months later the CTXP crew arrived in my hometown of Chelsea, Vermont, with a box of parts for the bike and one (1) expired passport. Spenser had convinced us that being arrested for riding a vintage racing vehicle on a public road was pretty unlikely, and he had convinced my dad to donate the machine. He was on the debate team in high school and it shows.

Building

The motorcycle was in my dad’s shop, under a blanket, and the sidecar was across the road in a shed. Most sidecar racing outfits are purpose-built and therefore welded together, but this one is old school. It started life as a 1965 BMW R 50 /2 that was lowered and attached to a custom sidecar platform and raced in the mid-1990s by my dad and his buddy, Tom. At some point, the 500 cc engine was swapped for a 750 cc R75 mill. For at least a few of the past 15 years it was stored by hoisting it up off the ground in Tom’s back yard via a large pine tree and a come along. Once upon a time, my dad detached the slammed slash-2, swapped the square sidecar tires for standard rubber and raced it as a solo bike.

Ari and Zack working on a vintage racing sidecar in a dark garage.
Making the old BMW outfit street legal meant a bunch of extra wiring and using a hammer in a way that had Ari concerned. Photo by Spenser Robert.

All of this is to say, it wasn’t exactly ready to go when we arrived and even if and when we got it ready it was still bound to be questionable, both as a street bike and a racing outfit. The sidecar was as I remembered it from childhood — a steel-tube frame topped in plywood, with a little egg of a nose cone on the front and a tall, teardrop fender hiding an eight-inch trailer wheel. For the next day and a half, we used the parts we brought and what we could find in my dad’s garage to fashion a road-worthy seat on the sidecar, as well as equip it with lights and a horn.

It was the usual blend of hectic and foolish that CTXP adventures have come to embody, and it felt like home to all of us. The brief periods of free time between long stints of work felt like a time warp, being suddenly and oddly aware of being in my hometown with my friends. We jogged around the village to get in a quick workout and dipped in the river behind my dad’s house to cool off. We ate home-cooked meals and puttered around town on one of the many old bikes in the garage. Spenser’s right-hand cameraman, Andrew, had never been in a sidecar before, and we couldn't let that stand. Not on a trip like this.

A vintage BMW sidecar with a rider and passenger on board, posing in a small town.
One minute you're a cameraman signing on for a job, next thing you know you're in a Czechoslovakian sidecar and a modular helmet. CTXP camera operator Andrew gets his first sidehack experience in Tim Courts' street-going rig. Photo by Ari Henning.

Then it was back to slapping together a quasi-legal sidehack in front of the lens. The day before we were scheduled to leave, Ari drove off early in the morning to one of the few Passport Agency offices in New England. How he got past security without an appointment, made it to a desk to process the paperwork, and duped the agent into minting his new passport immediately is a tale for the CTXP memoir. Ari was not on the debate team in high school but maybe he should have been.

Riding

Before the rig was truly ready it was time to leave, and what a sight. Creature comforts for the rider consisted of a gel seat pad and a sheepskin over the seat. The passenger got a disassembled office chair bolted to an additional piece of plywood, with an extra piece of sheepskin for added comfort. The result was not luxurious but it was largely legal, as long as the cop(s) that spotted us didn’t really have any idea what they were looking at.

A 1965 BMW R50 /2 racing sidecar outfitted with lights and a chair on the sidecar platform.
That's half an office chair from the back of the garage and a 34-dollar headlight. The rear tire was almost toast when we set off, but it miraculously made it through the whole road trip and race weekend. Photo by Spenser Robert.

We came to learn a few more nuances of the discomfort. The back of the office chair vibrated horribly (not unlike our Dumb and Dumber bike), and the sidecar doesn’t have any suspension whatsoever, so sharp bumps became wickedly painful unless the passenger lifted themselves up out of the seat before the wheel hit the bump. It was also insanely loud, especially for the passenger sitting next to a racing exhaust and an engine working extremely hard for hours on end.

Two men working on a sidecar in a small town.
Many people visit Rochester, Vermont for the roads, the foliage, or the quaint country store. For team CTXP it was an ideal place to attempt a carburetor sync. Photo by Spenser Robert.

The good news was that the scenery and weather were near perfection. I might be biased, but it’s tough to beat a motorcycle ride through Vermont on a nice day — weaving down river valleys past covered bridges and country stores, over mountain passes thick with fresh leaves and shrubs stretching for the sun after a long winter. The worst thing about every scene we passed was almost certainly us.

Point-of-view of being on board a vintage sidecar, riding into a sunset.
In certain moments, riding this rig across the Northeast United States was beautiful. Mostly though, it was wicked loud and uncomfortable. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Upstate New York offered similar but (obviously) lesser beauty and before we knew it Ari was exercising his fresh new passport. After nearly losing the auxiliary gas can off the back of the rig and getting a splash of rain to keep us humble, we pulled through the gates of Shannonville and into the paddock of the Vintage Road Racing Association’s Quinte TT. Before we even started stripping the lights and sheepskins off the bike, we took advantage of one of the core values of club racing; other people’s generosity.

REVER map track of the sidecar journey across the Northeastern United States.
The sidecar journey avoided highways and hit some beautiful roads across Upstate New York. Click here to see more details of the route. REVER image.

Being that our dads have raced with the VRRA over the years, Ari and I have lots of old friends and acquaintances in orbit. The canopy we used as our home base for the weekend was donated by a certain Kevin we’d never even met, and was oh so welcome considering the sky was still spitting when we arrived. If you go through a club racing weekend without offering or receiving some help, you’ll be missing the most heartwarming part of the whole pastime.

A vintage racing sidecar in action on track.
Vintage sidecar racing takes a lot of movement from the monkey, and Ari adapted quickly. My dad and I had matching leathers when we raced sidecars together. Ari used my dad's set so we could look like a proper team. Photo by Spenser Robert.

There was one place that nobody could help us and that was getting around a racetrack on a sidecar. Way back when, I raced sidecars for a number of years with my old man, and at this very track, but Ari was a newbie. The concept is pretty easy to understand — sidecar rigs don’t lean over like a motorcycle, so in order to turn as fast as possible the passenger (monkey, in sidecar terms) has to lean to the inside of the curve. It can be quite elegant, but at its core it is a special and precarious dance that requires coordination and trust. Lots of coordination, that is, and even more trust.

Luckily for me as the pilot, Ari understands racing lines and picked up on how to be a good monkey in just a couple of sessions on the track. What ensued was a weekend of practicing and racing that somehow brought Ari and I closer as motorcyclists, and as friends. Even if the ol’ family heirloom BMW rig was a little slow and ungainly, it did pretty well for an antiquated design with drum brakes and shagged tires. The only mechanical mishap we had, a weepy oil-pressure-sensor plug, was fixed by another ration of club-racing goodwill; our old friend and new sidecar rival, John, stepping in to help out.

Reflecting

Our CTXP stories are always, one way or another, about riding motorcycles, but this one was different. For me, and for Ari, what this experience delivered was a journey back in time, to realize a dream. The thing is, childhood dreams don’t always make sense. Say you wanted to fill a small swimming pool with jelly beans and dive in, like a pre-diabetic Scrooge McDuck. You might have the means to make that happen these days, but you probably won’t do it because you know it’s not quite the thrill you imagined. 

Vintage sidecar racing is kind of like that. In some ways my reality (and Ari’s) has elevated beyond that dream — we have ridden expensive and fast motorcycles on five continents, around MotoGP tracks and through jungles, in part living out dreams we weren't even audacious enough to have. Much like childhood dreams occasionally need a dose of reality, reflecting on where we came from requires a certain perspective.

Four men standing in a rural town after swimming.
The hard bodies of the CTXP crew, freshly washed in a Vermont river and quietly making dreams come true. Photo by Zack Courts.

It’s not just looking back and seeing what we have left behind, but also understanding how it fits into what the present holds. Going to my hometown with my coworkers and friends in tow offered a bizarre and joyful blend of the two halves of my life. Like the sidecar and the old BMW, my present and my past were bolted together and the result was surreal — almost a limbo between adolescence and responsibility. 

Two kids playing on a sidecar at left, the two men as adults on the same sidecar at right.
The key to living childhood dreams is, to some extent, avoid growing up. Image by Carmella Martonick.

Having my people — the only ones who see me do what I know best — among the trees, breathing the air, and swimming in the rushing water that I will always call home, was timeless in a way I will never forget. Sure, we didn't win the race. Then again, when I think about climbing all over that sidecar, hooting and sweating in our helmets, I don’t think it would have been any different if we were winning. We were together, and that was all that mattered.