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Carrying a pillion passenger - Question and Answer

It's an experience - and an experiment - that nearly every rider will go through at one time or another, but the first time we put someone on the back of our machine, we'll should realise we're actually taking on a very serious responsibility. Suddenly, someone else's life is in our hands. Yet it's surprising just how few riders do think it through. We'll have state of the art riding kits, but a battered old abandoned helmet that won't fit is dug out of the garage then handed to the passenger. We've got all the protective kit, yet the passenger has to make do with whatever they can find in the cupboard. There's absolutely no excuse for this. If you haven't got proper riding kit for the passenger, they shouldn't be on the back of our bike. And if you're reading this as a potential passenger, if your pilot won't take your riding kit seriously, how do you think he or she is likely to treat riding with you on the back? Having heard Brittany Morrow's story about her recovery after falling from the back of a bike after going for a spin with a guy she barely knew, it made me think again about carrying a passenger, and I'm not exactly a big risk-taker.

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, they need the same gear as you'd wear! Passengers are commonly given an old lid that's been kicking around at the back of the garage, but really they should have their own helmet. If you are using a borrowed helmet it MUST fit! 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. Then make sure they understand how to take care of it.

Next up is a pair of decent gloves, sturdy boots, and proper trousers & jacket - even for a short ride, these are a must. Don't EVER give anyone (Scotsmen included) a lift if they are wearing a skirt! If wearing lace-up boots, make sure laces are tucked away. Scarves too - you may laugh, but my brother nearly strangled a friend when a 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 another stupid tip but I once spent several hours removing melted boot from the silencers on my CX500 after a passenger rested her feet on them, after I'd forgotten to fold down the footpegs!

Explain that they have to hold on, and show them where and how. They can hold onto the rider (preferable for novices) or onto the grab rail. Don't assume they know. They may try to hold onto the bodywork or the rear light lens - I've seen it happen.

Q So how should they sit on the bike?

A Facing forwards, astride the seat, feet on the footpegs. That's the answer to the DVSA test question. But they should aim to sit reasonably close to the rider to prevent wind getting between rider and passenger, and shouldn't lean back on a top box, unless it's specifically designed for the purpose - on a Harley or Goldwing. The mounts aren't strong enough, nor is the subframe designed to take the weight of a passenger leaning on it. They'll break.

Q So is it best to hold onto the rider or the grab rail?

A It 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 do hold onto something on at all times.

If the passenger is confident enough, and the bike has a decent grab rail, then holding that 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, and with a better view past the rider, is more likely to be ready for braking, accelerating or cornering.

But if they have never been on a bike before, my preference is for them to hold on to the rider, around the waist of the rider. However, it may not be that easy to grip a riding suit if the rider accelerates, and under braking the rider will be supporting the passenger's body weight. 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.

Better yet, the rider can wear a 'body belt' with a pair of handles. The belt may not be elegant but it's confidence-inspiring for the novice passenger under acceleration, and helps ensure they move with the rider during cornering, and gives them some way of bracing themselves against braking too. Gripping tight with the thighs can help and gives you some feedback from the pillion.

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.

If there's one position to be avoided it's advising the passenger to rest both hands on the back of the tank. There's absolutely nothing to stop the rider falling backwards under acceleration, and this is exactly what happened to Brittany Morrow. Look her up on internet. I've worked with her on the New Zealand Shiny Side Up rider safety initiative and she's a brave and inspiring woman.

Q Anything else before we set off?

A Explain that on acceleration they will tend to fall backwards, and under braking will slide forwards. Tell them that the bike does lean over, so they are not taken by surprise. You'd be amazed how many new passengers have never thought about that. 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 - and specifically warn them not to sit upright in a bend - most novice passengers do, so be ready for that. To help the passenger to feel more connected with the rider, tell him/her to look into the turn. All this might sound like a recipe to scare them, but it's a damn sight scarier for a new passenger when the bikes starts moving and they don't know what to expect.

Next, tell them how to get on. It may be possible to mount from the left simply by swinging the right leg over the seat but if there's 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 up and over the seat. They can place a hand on your shoulder for support but brace yourself in anticipation. It's easier if the bike is upright and not on the side stand, but watch out for their weight rocking the bike from side to side - a heavy rider can exert quite a surprising force. Make sure they get on and off only when you tell them to. They should wait till you are ready, seated with your feet firmly braced, and ready for them. And yes, I have had a passenger try to climb on before I did.

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 when stopped - or to let go - if the lights change, you will need to accelerate away again. And tell them not to fidget around, particularly at slow speed.

Although it's important not to distract the rider unnecessarily, some signals can help if you don't have comms between rider and passenger. A thumbs-up can be used to 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. But they shouldn't make signals to other road users.

And double-check the passenger is comfortable and secure before pulling away.

Q What about stopping again?

A Remember to slow progressively, which means rolling off the throttle gently, then braking equally gently. Use both brakes, not just the front. In fact, you can use more rear brake than normal because of the extra weight gives the rear tyre more grip. More rear brake also helps keep the front forks from diving - the bike will 'squat' and stop more level which makes it easer for you to keep your footing. Remember, you have that extra weight to deal with, so smooth stops are essential.

With the rear brake in action, you're going to have to put your left foot down. If you're not used to that, some prior practice would be a good idea, or you'll end up releasing the rear brake and making a sudden grab at the front to stop.

Coming to a stop, Make sure you stop upright, not leaned over, because if you come to a half leaning the bike even slightly, the extra weight whilst stopped can cause you to drop the bike. 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! And don't try to ride at walking pace if you don't have to. Every little wobble will cause the passenger to move around, and it makes it difficult to hold a straight line.

Once stopped, don't be afraid to put both feet down. And finally, at the end of the ride make sure the passenger understands they sit still until you have the bike securely balanced - they should only dismount again when you tell them.

Q What problems might I come across?

A By far and away the most dangerous issue is losing the passenger off the back. My brother dumped me on the road behind the bike giving it a handful to impress his mates, just as I turned round to wave goodbye. It's not unknown for riders to lose control as the passenger makes a despairing grab for them.

Not far behind is the sudden hard stop that has the passenger losing grip on the grab rail and sliding into the rider's back. Suddenly you're having to support not only your own bodyweight but that if the passenger too. Losing control is common. If the passenger is nutting you, you're braking too hard.

The answer to both of those is gentle braking and acceleration!

The most common issue is caused by the passenger sitting bolt-upright mid-corner. The bike will try to straighten on, and you'll have to lean over even further to get round the corner. So warn the passenger first, then take corners slowly so that you can lean in progressively and get round with no more than a moderate lean angle. Don't bang the bike straight over on its side - what seems perfectly natural to you can seem positively suicidal to a novice pillion.

Alternatively, the passenger tries to help by leaning further - this tightens the bike's line mid-turn, forcing a steering correction. In my experience, it's usually other riders who don't passenger much who fall for this one. Tell 'em to stop being so helpful and to sit still!

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. Pretend you have an egg balanced on the tank.

Two-up, you can't brake as hard as you can solo, nor can you use anything like the same amount of throttle without losing the passenger off the back. What feels to you like perfectly moderate acceleration can be extremely frightening to a novice, so take it nice and easy. Hanging on with your feet in the rider's armpits does not inspire pillion confidence. That's a factor to remember when planning an overtake - if you aren't sure, don't go. And if you are filtering, don't forget your passenger's knees are probably the widest part of the bike.

The change in geometry of the bike will change the way the machine corners. 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. Some bikes are more badly affected than others - my old GS500E was almost unrideable two-up, but the XJ6 deals with a passenger well.

Give passengers time to get confident in your riding AND their ability to hang on.

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 - the extra weight of a passenger renders engine braking less effective so practice slowing and stopping with the brakes work, so you can use them smoothly.

As I already mentioned, the extra weight at the rear allows for more rear brake to be applied and you should aim to brake more gently than when riding solo to ensure the passenger can cope with the deceleration forces.

Ultimately, give yourself more time and space for everything, including when 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 aren't giving a good view of the road surface. But if you are setting off for the south of France then there are a bunch of things to check and adjust.

Tyre pressures - check the handbook but on many machines the rear tyre pressure should be increased.

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 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.

And don't try to ride too far on the first few days - you'll both be tiring more quickly riding two-up, but a passenger who doesn't normally go on the bike will be knackered.

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 Not exactly, if the videos from India are anything to go by, but you need a bike which is built for a passenger. There are several large capacity machines with such ridiculous pillion accommodation that I wouldn't even try to carry one.

An obvious problem is the physical size of the machine. Tiny bikes will struggle to seat two large riders. Then there's the seat - even large capacity machines can have a passenger seat the size of a pocket handkerchief, and then I wouldn't bother. Another problem is the position of the footpegs, which can be at knee-crippling heights.

Rather less obvious is how the steering geometry copes with the extra weight at the rear. I was very surprised to discover my old GS500E wasn't at all happy two-up. A big tourer like a Goldwing, a Harley Glide or BMW RT will be designed to carry two people from the ground up, have huge seats, comfy footpegs, and the suspension and steering geometry designed for the job. Plus the large lazy engines will haul the extra weight without even noticing it.

Sports tourers are usually 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 generally speaking sports bikes aren't great. Yes, I know you see people on the back of them all the time, but they usually look like a frog trying to hang onto a broomstick. They aren't very comfortable, and the extra weight perched high up on the back of a relatively small, relatively light bike compromises the quick steering and finely tuned suspension. As the rider, 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, let alone by risking their life. Keep the riding smooth and you will both enjoy it. Don't show off!

Q Where can I get a training course covering these point?

A Drop Survival Skills a line. I can run a short two-hour 'Basics' course covering these very points.

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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