Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Q I've been riding a couple of years and I reckon it's time to take
a passenger. What should I look out for?
A First thing is to find out whether your passenger has been on the
back of a bike before. Then ensure that the passenger is properly
dressed for the job, knows how to sit and hold on, and knows some
Q OK, so what should my passenger wear?
A Assuming you are properly dressed, for any serious riding
they need the same gear as you! You should ensure that the passenger
is wearing a helmet that fits. It's common practice to use that old
lid that's been kicking around in the bottom of the wardrobe since
you bought a new one. If you intend to carry a passenger at all
regularly, they should have their own helmet, and you should make
sure they understand to take as good care of it as you do of your
own. Make sure they know how to do the helmet up and CHECK! I've
seen people stuff the strap up the side of the helmet or have the
strap so ridiculously loose it'd pull off over their chin - give
assistance if required.
Next up is a pair of decent gloves, sturdy boots, trousers &
jacket - even for a short ride, these are a must. Don't EVER give a
girl (or a Scotsman come to that) a lift in a skirt! If they are not
wearing bike gear, make sure they have shoe laces and scarves tucked
away - you may laugh, but my brother nearly strangled his mate when
he gave him a lift and his long scarf caught in the chain.
Q What do I need to show my passenger before we go?
A Make sure the passenger knows where to put their feet! It may seem
stupid but I spent several jolly hours some years ago removing
melted boot sole from the tops of my exhaust pipes on my CX500 after
failing to explain the use of, or fold down, the footpegs!
Explain that they have to hold on and brace themselves. Explain that
on acceleration they will tend to fall backwards, and under braking
will slide forwards. It might sound scary but it's a damn sight
scarier when it happens and you are not expecting it. If they brace
themselves, the ride will be a lot more comfortable for both rider
You can show them the grab rail and how to hold onto it - again,
don't assume they know what to do. They may try to hold onto the
bodywork or the rear light lens - I've seen it happen.
It's worth explaining that the bike does lean over, so they are not
taken by surprise, you'd be amazed how many people have never
thought about that when they get on the back for the first time.
Encourage them to lean with the bike, no further but not to sit
Q So how should they sit on the bike?
A Make sure they sit up reasonably close to the rider to prevent
wind getting between you, and explain they shouldn't lean back on a
top box (unless it's a Goldwing or similar) - on most bikes, they'll
break the subframe and it sends the handling to hell!
Q What should they hold on to?
A There are several ways in which the passenger can hold on. What is
best depends on the the pillion's preference and experience and the
type of bike. Whichever they choose, it is important they feel
relaxed and comfortable, and vital that they hang on at all times.
If they have never been on a bike before, usually the best way to
hang on is around the waist of the rider - it's a lot more
confidence inspiring, and gets them to lean with you as they will
naturally follow the rider during cornering. The disadvantage is
that it is difficult for the passenger to do anything other then
lean on the rider during braking and they will tend to pull the
rider back during acceleration. Gripping tight with the thighs can
help here and gives you some feedback from the pillion. It also has
the drawback, depending on the bike, that they may not be able to
see what is about to happen as they will be close to the rider.
If there is a decent grab rail, and they are happy to use it, this
is my preferred option. It detaches the passenger from the rider
which may be less confidence inspiring, but it allows a more rigid
and stable position for the passenger to deal with both acceleration
and braking. The passenger also has more room, with a better view
past the rider so is better able to be "proactive" by hanging on
tighter ready for braking, accelerating or cornering.
Some people recommend what I've heard called the "brace" position,
with one hand on the grab rail and the other bracing in front either
on the tank or the seat. I've not tried this personally, so I'll
leave it up to you to try.
Q What kind of ground rules do we need?
A Tell them exactly what to do and what you expect and make sure
they understand. Make sure you are seated with your feet firmly
braced, and ready before your pillion gets on and off. Make sure
they get on and off only when you tell them to.
If you have any luggage on the bike or the passenger isn't very
tall, then they will have to mount the bike as if they were riding a
horse - they will need to put their left foot on the left peg and
stand on it, before swinging their right leg over the seat and
sitting down. Encourage them to do it carefully, place a hand on
your shoulder for support and brace yourself in anticipation for
their weight to rock the bike from side to side - a heavy rider can
exert quite a surprising force.
At the end of the ride make sure they understand to sit still until
you have the bike securely balanced - they should only dismount
again when you tell them.
When you are helmeted up, and more so when moving, communication is
difficult so make sure you have understandable signals. A tap on the
back might show the rider the passenger is ready to move off. If
they want you to stop or slow down, suggest a tap on the shoulder.
Make sure they are comfortable before pulling off and tell them not
to fidget around, particularly when travelling.
When coming to a stop at a junction or lights, ensure the passenger
knows they should not put their feet down - the rider will balance
the bike - or to let go - if the lights change, you will need to
accelerate away again.
Explain that in a corner, the rider will balance the bike, and all
they need to do is relax and stay in line with the rider - in
particular they should not sit upright in a bend. Finally relax and
enjoy the ride.
Remind them not to distract the rider unnecessarily, nor to make
signals to other road users.
Q What bike handling problems might I come across?
A The one that catches most riders out is when the passenger sits
straight up mid corner. The bike will try to go straight on, and
you'll have to lean over even further to get round the corner. To
cure this problem, warn the passenger first, then take corners
slowly and lean into the progressively with no more than a moderate
lean angle. What seems perfectly natural to you can seem positively
suicidal to a novice pillion. To help the passenger to feel more
connected with the rider, tell him/her to look into the turn.
The other common mistake by the passenger is to try to help the
rider mid turn by leaning further - unfortunately this has the
effect of tightening the bike's line mid-turn, forcing a steering
correction. It's normally experienced riders who don't passenger
much who fall for this one. Tell 'em to stop being so helpful and to
Try to get them to brace themselves forward/backward. If they
collapse against you mid corner or more especially under braking,
you'll find the bike's handling goes belly up, because you are
forced to lean on the bars to support the weight, and when you lean
on the bars you can't steer. They also clunk their helmet into
If they lean back against a top box, the weight will tend to make
the steering loose and flappy, and slow speed control in particular
becomes even more awkward. This is a particular problem with light
bikes with quick steering.
When you come to a halt, look carefully where you are going to put
your feet - is the camber too steep or is the surface covered in wet
leaves? - been there, dropped it! Keep the bike vertical - if you
lean the bike even slightly, the extra weight whilst stopped can
cause you to drop the bike.
Don't be afraid to put both feet down but remember that slowing to a
halt, you'll also be using a bit more rear brake than normal to keep
the bike from diving and the passenger from nutting you, and so
you're going to have to remember to put the left foot down -
concentrate and practice, or you'll end up releasing the rear brake
and having to make a sudden grab for the front to stop you!
Q How should I change my riding?
A Simple - take everything with more care, but particularly when
changing speed and overtaking. Practice smooth use of the controls
and plenty of forward planning to avoid having to jam the brakes on
or swerve suddenly. With a novice, pretend you have an egg balanced
on the tank. Give them time to adapt and get confident in your
riding AND their ability to hang on.
You can't use anything like the amount of throttle you can solo
without losing the passenger off the back, and with the reduced
acceleration available it's easy to misjudge an overtake - if you
aren't sure, don't go.
Extreme acceleration can easily result in the pillion toppling off
the back if they have not locked their arms in position. Hanging on
with your feet in the rider's armpits does not inspire pillion
confidence - someone did that to me once. What feels to you like
perfectly moderate acceleration can be extremely frightening to a
novice, so take it nice and easy.
Initially cornering will be harder to get right as the bike will be
slower to change direction and you will need to work harder to get
it turned. At low speed it's tricky to keep the bike balanced.
If you are filtering, don't forget your passenger's knees are now
the widest part of the bike.
Q How does braking differ with a passenger?
A If you've been taught to avoid the brakes and rely on throttle
sense, you're about to discover another weakness of this approach to
riding - with the extra weight of a passenger, engine braking will
be less effective so learn how your brakes work, and learn to use
Even under brakes, you can't stop as quickly, nor should you try to
brake as hard as you might solo - use the front anchors that hard
and the passenger will lose their grip, hit you in the back and
you'll struggle to control the bike with their full weight pressing
you into the bars. Brake more progressively to give the passenger
chance to brace themselves.
You need to change your brake balance too. You can use more rear
brake to compensate but don't forget that the extra weight on the
rear of the bike will mean less feel at the front tyre, and an
increased risk of locking the front.
Basically, just give yourself more time and space for everything,
including following other vehicles.
Q Anything I should adjust on my bike?
A Use common sense. If you are just taking someone a mile or two up
the road, then the only thing I would check are the mirrors. If you
are setting off to the south of France then there are a bunch of
Tyre pressures - check the handbook but normally rear tyre pressure
will have to go up
Suspension - check the handbook but normally you will have to adjust
preload and perhaps damping to cope with the extra weight
Chain tension - it might be worth checking the chain has not become
too tight with a passenger and luggage aboard
Headlamp aim - if the back has sagged under the weight, the lights
are now doing a good job of hitting the treetops - sort them out
before it gets dark
Q OK, read and done all that, now I reckon we're ready for the south
A Then make sure you both get a bit of practice in before you
attempt a long trip. In particular, do some slow speed and braking
practice before you mix it with the traffic. You'll find the bike
handles very differently and you don't want to discover that just as
you approach the lights.
It will also give your passenger time to get used to riding on the
back. Having a comfortable, confident passenger will make the ride a
lot more fun for both of you.
Q Ooo errrr - I took someone out on the back for the first time and
I didn't like it one little bit
A It just takes getting used to! Going at speed is generally no
problem, but getting the hang of slow control, steering,
accelerating and stopping is totally different with someone on the
Q My arms ached after taking a pillion
A Your passenger might be nervous, but so are you! Relax and ease up
those tense muscles.
Q Do I need a big bike to carry a passenger?
A Although the strict answer is no, in reality there are several
factors involved. One is the size and shape of the seat, which
varies from armchair to pocket handkerchief in size. Another is the
height and position of the footpegs. A third is the physical size of
the bike, and a fourth is the steering geometry and suspension set
up of the bike.
Obviously a big tourer like a Goldwing or BMW RT will be designed to
carry two people from the ground up, have huge seats, comfy
footpegs, and suspension and steering geometry designed for the job.
The large lazy engines will haul the extra weight without even
Sports tourers like Honda's VFR800, the older CBR600s, Yamaha's 900
Diversion or Suzuki's GSX600F/750F range are also perfectly
competent two up tools, with reasonable accommodation for the
passenger and a reasonable compromise in the way of bike set up, and
only the occasional need to drop a gear to regain lost acceleration.
A quick tweak of suspension and tyre pressures should be all that's
needed to set the bike up.
But by the time you get to the supersports 600s like the ZX6R or the
GSXR600, the seat has shrunk to minimal proportions, footpegs are
high and rear set, and although people do ride on the back to the
south of France and back again, they aren't very comfortable for
most of us. Meanwhile the extra weight perched high up on the back
of what is by comparison a small, light bike compromises the quick
steering and finely tuned suspension and the revvy motor suffers
from the weight more than most at low revs. You can compensate but
it isn't always much fun.
Q My mate can pull wheelies with his girlfriend on the back
A So what? With a passenger, you are responsible not only for
yourself, but for him/her too. Your pillion is putting a lot of
trust in you. Don't abuse that trust by scaring the living s@#t out
of them. Keep the riding smooth and you will both enjoy it. Don't
Thanks to contributors to Visordown for some of the suggestions made
in this tip.