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 ground rules.


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 and passenger.

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 upright either.


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 sit still!

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 yours.

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 them smoothly.

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 things.

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 of France

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 back.

Keep practicing!


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 noticing it.

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 show off!


Thanks to contributors to Visordown for some of the suggestions made in this tip.