How to ride with a pillion

By MCN Technical Staff -

Riding Skills

 29 November 2006 15:19

First things first

How many times have you seen a pillion wearing some shonky old lid and casual clothing while the rider is dressed in top-of-the-range safety gear? There’s no reason to treat your pillion’s health and comfort any less seriously than your own so make sure they’re kitted out with a decent, good-fitting helmet and proper protective gear. The same goes for having wet/cold weather clothing available if necessary. And why not treat them to a new set of earplugs while you’re at it?
What about the bike?

The main thing to do is increase the rear shock’s spring pre-load (this type of adjustment is available on almost all bikes nowadays) to compensate for the weight increase over the rear wheel. This will keep the bike’s steering geometry in the right ballpark by stopping the rear end sagging excessively and will retain a decent amount of ground clearance. If the front suspension is adjustable, extra preload plus a little more compression damping will help reduce fork dive when the extra weight is transferred to the front under braking. Fitting a grab-handle is something to consider if there isn’t one already fitted as standard and you’re going to be carrying a passenger on a regular basis.

Are there such things as pillion specific bikes?

If a bike has a dual seat and rear footpegs then it can safely carry a passenger at any time, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be comfortable. Sports bikes increasingly fail to take a pillion’s needs into account, with tiny, hard seat pads and peg positions that can put your passenger in a near-squatting position. Put yourself in their position and plan for more frequent leg-stretching stops than you might normally. If a lot of your riding is to be with a passenger, then hopefully you will have chosen a more suitable machine. Almost anything other than a sports bike will a) have had some proper thought put into passenger ergonomics such as the provision of a well-padded, supportive seat and b) won’t have its finely balanced steering badly upset by a load of extra weight on the back. It’ll also have a more flexible engine, with the kind of mid-range power you need for hauling extra weight without excessive gearchanging.


1. Novice pillions are nervous pillions. Calm their nerves by briefing them on what to expect. Start by explaining how you want them to climb on to the bike so they don’t suddenly put all their weight on one peg and have you topple over. Also show them where and how to hold on – many bikes have special grabrails behind the pillion seat.

2. Assure the passenger it’s OK to speak up – or scream up if necessary – if they’re not happy with your speed or are suffering discomfort. After a short distance, stop and explain – especially with first timers – how to avoid head-butting or back slams under braking and ask if they have any worries, like should the exhaust really be that hot?


3. In order to look after your pillion’s back muscles and mental wellbeing, use the bike’s controls smoothly. Change up and down the gears lower down the rev range so acceleration and deceleration are less violent. Also, learn to ‘blip’ the throttle on the way down the box and go for clean, rapid or even clutchless changes on the way up.


4. Politely explain that they shouldn’t wriggle or move about as this can distract you or even put the bike off-line. If they need to pull jeans out of their butt cleft, do so by distributing their weight evenly between the pegs as they do so. Not putting their feet down until stationary will also prevent embarrassing losses of balance.


5. If a passenger understands what is about to happen then they will be a lot more mentally comfortable. Work out a simple code between the two of you (eg the rider tapping twice on the pillion’s left leg can mean ‘accelerating hard’, or a simple squeeze of the thigh and brief look behind could mean ‘how are you doing?’


6. As the rider, you are responsible for another life so don’t mess with it. What you may consider to be a safe and everyday riding style – such as getting your knee down – is a different game with a pillion. They only have to twitch, or lose their grip and you could both be in trouble.


7. Experimentation on how best a pillion should hold on is good, especially if there are no grab rails on the bike. A good way is to use a ‘pillion pal’ (above). It’s a belt with handles worn around the rider’s waist. There’s always a chance your pillion has experience of two-up riding so don’t dismiss their views on how they should hold on.


8. If you’re having problems with the pillion banging into the back of you when braking, try to get them to brace themselves by reaching one arm around you to place a palm against the back of the tank. Make sure that they either have a second hold elsewhere though, or be ready to grasp you around the waist if you suddenly accelerate.


9. Having the extra weight of a pillion over the back of the bike changes its every dynamic. The front wheel is more likely to lift in the lower gears – not so much fun mid-corner – and as it has less load over the front, the bike is more likely to ‘push’ on the brakes and run wide into turns. Progressive, smooth use of throttle and brakes can mitigate these risks.


10. Your bike is going to take longer to stop with the extra weight, so use all your anticipation skills to give you more time and room. If you have to stop suddenly, build up brake power quickly but steadily. Grip the tank with your thighs and sit up to give your pillion a softer, larger wall to run into.


11. Explain to your pillion how to move their bodyweight – eg as the rider begins to brake, lean back and vice versa from the waist when they get on the gas. A good tip is to get the pillion to sit still and simply stare at the back of the rider’s head and let it all happen natural-like.


12. The most common pillion question is: ‘do I lean with the rider?’ The answer is yes, but don’t carried away. Pillions will be least intrusive if they just lean naturally with the bike, with their back at the same angle to vertical as the angle of the bike. Overleaning or underleaning  may affect the handling of the bike in a way the rider doesn’t expect.