For some, the very idea of taking a pillion sounds horrendous. They’ll say that, like carrying a bag of potatoes on the back, it upsets the handling and that bikes are made for one. However, the other side of the argument is that motorcycling is fun to share. Personally, I enjoy taking a pillion, whether it’s a gentle ride out with my wife on the back, or charitable pillion laps on a race track at race pace – I enjoy them both equally. Obviously, some bikes are suitable than others, and the same can be said for pillions. However, in over 20 years of professional testing, I’ve picked up a few tips which I’m sharing with you. If you’ve never taken a pillion before don’t worry, it’s not as daunting as it may appear – that is unless you are planning to take sumo wrestler for a spin!
Pillion check – Have a little chat with your pillion first to understand their experience, and any fears they may have. Is it their first time? Have they been on a bike before? And without being rude, calculate their size. If you’re 5’2” and about to give your basketball playing husband a lift home, is that wise? Also is the pillion sober? If your pillion is affecting your riding, you can be charged with a criminal offence.
Bike Check – Do you have a pillion seat and pegs? Do you have a grab rail? Can you adjust the rear shock’s preload to compensate for the extra weight of your pillion? Adding preload to the rear helps with stability and improves the steering. Most bikes will have pre-load adjustment, and your owner’s manual is likely to have the suggested settings for carrying a passenger. If you’re lucky you’ll have semi-active suspension which will automatically adjust the suspension to compensate for the extra weight with a touch of a button. Don’t worry too much about the front suspension but, if you’re planning on riding the majority of the time two up, touring Europe for a few weeks for example, you can see a specialist, like K-Tech suspension who can set up your bike specifically for two up riding.
Simple signals – It’s a good idea to build up some simple hand signals, as at speed it’s hard to communicate without an intercom. My wife and I have a simple system. One tap from me on her left knee means hold on, fast overtake coming along. Tap on the right knee, back to normal speed and you can relax. If she is navigating, and knows the area a tap on the left for left and vice versa. A strong tap on my back indicates for a speed camera or to slow down. Pointing at the fuel cap means we are stopping for fuel shortly and a tap of the chin bar, means hungry or rest.
How to get on and off – I’m only 5’6” so I’ve always struggled with pillions getting on and off, especially if they are taller and heavier than me. However, when I worked as a Virgin Limo bike rider, they taught me a secret. Put the side stand down, place your foot behind it so it can’t flick up and always insist your pillion gets on from the side-stand side. All their weight is then taken by the side stand and not your inner leg – simple. Once they are comfortable, lift the bike up from the side stand. Repeat the same process when stopping. Get the side-stand down, foot behind and ask your pillion to climb off on the side-stand side. Try it – it’s ever so simple.
Slow speed and moving off – For many this is the hardest part of riding with a passenger. If you’re new to taking a pillion make sure it’s as simple as possible while you learn. Try to have a clear straight run on smooth ground, as you don’t want to attempt a U-turn in a gravelly pub car-park. Getting going is similar to a hill start, use a little more power and feed the clutch in. Once you’re above 5mph, you’ll hardly notice your pillion.
Accelerating – You have more weight on the back, less on the front. On hard acceleration the front will feel light and might even wheelie in extreme situations in the lower gears. Short-shift, change gear early and keep the change as smooth as possible.
Stopping – The opposite of the above. More weight on the front, less on the rear. The brakes won’t feel as strong as you’ve significantly increased the weight, and again in extreme situations the forks may dive excessively or even the rear may rise. Remember your braking distance will have increased. Try to be smooth, use a little more back brake and engine braking than normal to give the front stoppers an easier time.
Cornering – Your pillion doesn’t need to hang off the inside with their knee down, but equally they need to flow with the rider and bike. If you’re pillion is new to bikes, ease them into it. Remember you’re asking more from the tyres, try not to trail-brake as much as you would solo when going into a corner. Mid-corner ground clearance will be less as the suspension has sagged with the extra weight, the pegs may scrape as may the exhaust or centre stand. On the exit remember the front is now light and the rear tyre is taking all the extra strain, smoothness is always the key when it comes to riding with a pillion on board.
Touring – If you’re clocking up some serious mileage and you’re getting tired, so is your pillion. I’ve had pillions fall asleep on many occasions. Make sure they are ok and check the mirror to make sure they’re awake.
Bike maintenance – If you’re riding two up with luggage for the majority of the time, consumables won’t last as long. Your fuel range will be less, tyre and pads will also wear out quicker, especially if riding aggressively two-up.
Ball in a bowl – The key to riding with a pillion is riding smoothly. Here is a little tip. Imagine you have a bowl on your petrol cap. Inside the bowl is a ping-pong ball. Now ride without the ball leaving the bowl – get the idea?