Riding with a pillion. Some riders love it, others avoid it. However you feel about it, one fact that can’t be denied is that taking anyone on the back of the bike for their first ever pillion ride represents an enormous opportunity. How the ride goes will almost certainly set the tone for how the passenger will feel about riding from that day forward. At worst, they may never want to get on a bike again. At best, they’ll become an enthusiastic passenger or even a rider. So, if you’re the person who’s behind the bars for that first ride, you’re in charge of influencing an individual to either love bikes or leave them. Because the bottom line is that what makes a great pillion…is a great rider.
No pressure, then.
When the mood is right, everyone’s keen and you have a passenger itching to get onboard, it’s tempting to just get on the bike and go. But spending a few considering a handful of important issues before you take, off can help make sure that the ride’s great for everyone, and that you stay on the right side of the law, too.
Avoiding pilot error…
Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’ve done this before, right? If you have a heap of experience taking passengers on your bike, then all good. If not, bear in mind that even if you have some riding experience under your belt, taking a pillion is a responsibility best reserved for very confident riders who know their bike and how to handle it in any road situation. If you have some riding experience but you’ve never taken a passenger on the back before, it’s actually a solid idea to start by taking a savvy pillion who’s done it all before. This way, it’s only the first time for one of you, and you can expect fewer surprises.
There’s nothing like the enthusiasm of a child who wants to get on the back of the bike and feel what it’s like to take to the road in a whole new way. (In my experience, this enthusiasm is almost always balanced out by the mood and attitude of Mum, should she be present). But we’ve all cringed to see a rider in traffic carrying a tiny pillion on the back, great big helmet atop a tiny body clinging to the rider like a baby koala. How old is that kid? How can it be safe? Is it even legal?
Most states decree that the minimum legal age for a child pillion is eight years old – but be sure to check your state’s laws for yourself, as these change from time to time. Even if your potential passenger passes the age test, add a good dose of common sense (remember that?) before okaying the ride. Is the child small for their age? Can they straddle the seat, place feet firmly on footpegs and also get a good grip on the rider or pillion rails? How does their helmet fit? If it rattles around like a bucket on a bowling ball, it might be worse than no lid at all. Never be tempted to take anyone on the back – child or adult – who isn’t wearing a full kit of protective clothing, regardless of the weather. A first pillion ride is an exciting time for a kid, but keep your brain engaged before you commit and make sure that your passenger is big enough to be seated safely, is dressed safely and wearing an approved helmet of the right size. Okay…I’m off to collect my ‘Fun Police’ badge now…
Hold on tight…
Whether your potential passenger is young old, big or small, what they understand about hanging on, and what they have to hang on to, is a worthwhile mini-lesson in itself. Some bikes have great accommodation for pillions, sensibly set pillion footpegs and good grip options such as grab rails or straps. Others have a pillion pad like a piece of toast, footpegs that place knees alongside ears, and nothing to cling to but blind faith and belief in a higher power. Whatever your bike has to offer, always rehearse first. With the engine switched off and the bike on firm, level ground, take a seat while wearing your full riding kit and have your passenger to the same. Keep your feet on the ground, level the bike up and make sure your pillion’s feet are on the footpegs. Now run through the available options for hanging on, and be certain your pillion knows where they are and how to hold on securely. Of course some pillions prefer just holding on to the rider, while some like to alternate between the koala hug and using whatever handles or straps the bike features. Note that there are aftermarket pillion grip options available today for most bikes, and even ‘handles’ that fit the rider’s waist, like a belt.
Check out the Oxford Rider Grips for Pillions
Depending on their physical size, confidence and need for comfort, some pillions are simply never going to be at ease on your standard bike. The seat may simply be too small or too high, or the footpegs positioned badly. There might simply be nothing to hang on to. There’s no doubt that some hardcore sports bikes seem to actively discourage pillions through lofty, torturous perches and lack of handholds. Chances are these bikes are not a great choice for any first time pillions who aren’t also regular participants in extreme sports. But bear in mind that for many other bikes, there’s a wealth of aftermarket pillion grip choices available, accessories and even ‘handles’ that fit the rider’s waist, like a belt. For those pillions whose greatest fear is tipping off the back of the bike, there are backrests, too. Get online and do some looking around, or speak with you’re a motorcycle accessory specialist for guidance. There are plenty of options available.
The pre-flight brief – stop, go, lean, learn.
Moves that are second nature to seasoned riders are often a mystery for a new pillion. So before you go anywhere, talk through some basics with your passenger. Ask them to keep their feet on the footpegs when you come to a stop. Make sure they’re prepared to hold on firmly and brace themselves so that their body doesn’t ‘rock’ backwards under acceleration, or slump forwards on the brakes, squishing you into the fuel tank. And of course ask them to follow your lead and lean into the turns with you – it’s common for new pillions to try to stay upright.
Now, just because you’ve offered up a few tips doesn’t mean you can take off like Valentino Rossi. Remember that you and your pillion have to operate as a unit. So keep acceleration, braking and leaning gentle to begin with. In time, you’ll be able to add a bit more pace as your passenger gains confidence and learns to move with you and the bike.
A breakdown of communications.
More a breakdown of communications, really. Out on the road, for safety’s sake it’s vital that both people on the bike understand what’s going on and what’s happening next. If the helmets you’re wearing don’t have any type of working intercom, clear communication poses problems. Like politicians or early bomber crews, you’ll find that simply shouting ceases to be effective beyond a certain point. So before you go anywhere, establish some basic hand signaling. The rider tapping the pillion on the leg might mean ‘I’m about to speed up’. The pillion returning the tap might be an acknowledgement. Work out your own routine for the basics, although it’s pretty much universally accepted that a sharp punch to the rider’s ribs, administered by the pillion, means “Slow the f**k down!” Even if you reckon you have your signals sorted, do your passenger a favour, pull over part way through the ride, switch off the bike and have a quick chat to confirm that they’re feeling good about the ride so far.
If you have helmet intercoms, pre-flight checks should include understanding the system’s basic functions as well as adjusting volume levels to whatever’s comfortable. Intercoms are one of the best things ever to happen to rider/pillion relationships, allowing both parties to talk on the go, ask questions, compare notes and stay safe. It’s enormously reassuring for a new pillion rider to hear a steady flow of information from the rider regarding what’s happening on the ride and how best to deal with it. If you’re not yet wearing an intercom-capable helmet and you regularly take a pillion passenger, definitely factor good comms technology into your next purchase.
Check out the latest intercoms here
It’s good to go, right? Maybe. How often do you take passengers? Or luggage? If you seldom carry luggage, think about how it affects your bike’s balance, handling and weight transfer when you do. Now think about the fact that your pillion likely weighs much more than luggage, and sits higher, too, raising your centre of gravity and giving the bike a more ‘tippy’ feel. With two riding on it – literally – it pays to be sure of your bike’s setup before you have a pillion climb aboard.
- How’s your rear suspension? Are you able to add spring preload, or adjust damping to compensate for the extra rear sag a pillion will bring?
- Check your chain. You may find that the extra weight of a passenger results in it being too tight. Adjust it if necessary.
- How’s your front suspension? Expect forks to extend as the rear sags, and for initial front end ‘dive’ on braking to be the result.
- How are your tyres? Check your bike’s tyre placard (on the chain guard, under the seat or in the Owner’s Manual) for recommended tyre pressures to be used when carrying a pillion. They’re usually a tad higher than standard pressures.
Finally, be sure that your brakes are in good condition and remember that your stopping distance will almost certainly be affected by the extra weight you’re carrying.
Finally, don’t be a d*ck.
Okay, we both know that you’ve got mad skills and you’re also a bit of a ratbag. You’re a motorcyclist, after all. But this one ride – the first ever ride for your pillion – is the occasion on which you must promise to stay away from stunts and shenanigans. Because no matter how brave a face your pillion might be wearing, a poorly chosen move on your behalf could put them off riding for life. Or worse, lead to their next ride being in the back of an ambulance.
Keep it smooth, keep it safe. Remember that for a new pillion, even your winding open the throttle briskly or sharply tipping into a turn might feel terrifying. You may well be used to superbike levels of acceleration and braking, but your pillion’s daily drive is probably very tame by comparison. So sudden moves and big speed won’t impress them, just scare them silly. And aren’t we trying to encourage more people to get on a bike?
So leave out the wheelies and slalom displays. Use the throttle gently and the brakes likewise. Ride silky smooth and there’s every chance your new pillion will gain confidence and want to go again. That’s when you know you’ve done everything right. The first time you take out a new pillion might not be packed full of thrills for you, but if it helps make one more newbie keen to learn about riding, it might be one of the most significant rides of your life.