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Don't be a stranger: Pillion passenger riding tips

Published: 30 July 2019

Updated: 30 July 2019

Riding with a pillion can be the best way to get friends and family understanding just what you love about biking. But there's a real art to carrying a passenger on a motorbike.

If you've never ridden with a pillion there's a few things you may need to change during your ride to maximise comfort and safety for both you and your passenger. It's no use scaring them senseless and having their helmet bang against yours every time you slow down if you want them to get into biking.

Don't forget, you can't take a pillion passenger if you're riding on L-plates - you must have a full licence. You'll also need to make sure you're covered by your insurer to carry a pillion, and that your bike's maximum weight isn't exceeded with both people on board. Check your manual for that.

Give a brilliant briefing

The first step is to explain to them what they are going to feel, that tipping back as you open the throttle, the front of the bike dropping a lot in comparison to a car when you brake.

A briefing is a very important aspect of riding with a pillion

Tell them to relax and stay seated centrally on the saddle and stay neutral, letting the lean happen as you tip into the corner.

Also arrange a "slow-down" hand signal, like a tap on the shoulder or waist if they are hanging on for grim death.

Get the right clobber

Find a way of making sure your pillion has the right kit. At least a properly-fitting helmet (there's no pillion helmet design so just use a normal motorcycle one), armoured jacket, proper gloves and high-top boots along with a pair of sturdy jeans.

Clothing is important for both you and your pillion passenger

Try and match your own kit to theirs, as your own kit will play a part in how you ride and affect how they feel. Would you want to jump on the back with a rider in full race leathers when you’re only wearing a fashion biker jacket and a pair of trainers?

Prepare your bike for  - tyre pressures and suspension settings

You also need to set up your bike’s suspension to cope with the extra weight on the rear, adding some preload to the rear shock and if it has damping adjustment, easing off the rebound and upping the compression by 25%, otherwise the steering could feel unsettlingly light.

Explain how to hold on while riding

Make sure your passenger knows what and where to hold on when the bike is in motion. Many passengers, and particularly those who've never ridden pillion, won't like reaching behind to hold the pillion grab handles. We'd suggest in this case try one hand behind and another around the rider's waist. Failing that, around the waist with both hands works too.

There are a couple of ways to hold on while riding pillion on a motorbike

A top box is a great bonus for a pillion rider - a ready-made backrest.

Communication is vital

Consider a two-way Bluetooth communication system so you can keep in regular contact with your pillion. The slow-down hand signal mentioned above is great in an emergency, but your passenger may want to ask a question without stopping the bike.

Offer easy boarding

Virgin Limo bikers, who ferry VIPs around London’s streets, have a method that makes it easy for their passengers to get on the back seat.

Being able to get on and off easily is important

The rider gets on and leans the bike onto its sidestand. The pillion can then stand with their left foot on the left pillion peg and swing their right leg over the rear seat. Keep your weight to the right to counteract the pillion’s weight while it’s concentrated on the left peg.

Trying to impress isn’t impressive

When taking a pillion for their first ride on the back of a bike just the thrill of being on the back of a motorcycle will feel fast and exhilarating enough without daft heroics like heavy acceleration or weaving in and out of traffic. You’d have scared yourself witless if you’d ridden like that when you first got on a bike, so imagine how a pillion will feel.

Careful with your right wrist

When it comes to the throttle, be assertive but not aggressive.

Precise throttle control is an important skill when riding with a pillion

Think of the attitude of the bike and try to maintain it in as flat a position as possible, as weight transfer will unsettle the pillion, who is sat further back, doesn’t have the power to anticipate what you’re going to do and doesn’t have handlebars to hold. Running a taller gear will make the bike pitch less.

Smooth shifts

If your bike will allow them, clutchless shifts up through the box make for a smooth ride. Just roll the throttle off slightly to reduce the engine load and then slip the lever up into the next ratio.

Take care with your gear shifts to keep things smooth

The exception is for the shift from first to second, which will need the clutch. For downshifts, slipping the clutch at the end of the lever travel will reduce the severity of the deceleration.

Brake carefully

The last thing you want is a head butt in the back of the helmet because you’ve slammed the brakes on unnecessarily.

Brake carefully and consider using more rear when carrying a pillion passenger

A pillion's weight over the rear wheel will mean the rear brake is more effective as there's less weight transfer forwards and you want to keep the bike more level to avoid those head butts, so use more rear brake, maybe 60/40, or even 50/50 front to rear instead of the more usual 75/25 front to rear for solo riding.

Maximise thinking space

Develop a smooth style and think further ahead than you might as a solo rider. Give yourself greater distance from the vehicle in front to increase stopping time. When it comes to slowing, the rear brake is your greatest friend. This has less effect on the bike’s attitude, keeping it flatter and more comfortable. Smooth use of the front brake will be needed to stop in a hurry.

Stop for a consultation

Luggage fitting instructions will always suggest stopping to check on the security of your load after a short distance.

A rest and a chat will do wonders for your rider-pillion relationship

It’s also good advice when carrying a new pillion. Give it 20 minutes or so for them to bed in, then find a convenient point to stop and check that they’re happy, know what they should be doing and are onboard with what you’re doing. 

They think it’s all over…

When you’ve finished, let them get off the bike in the reverse to the way they got on. Rest the bike on the sidestand and counter their weight by shifting yours to the right while they swing their leg over the back of the bike and dismount. Take the chance to ask them what they liked and disliked and you might find they want to repeat the experience. 

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