Bournemouth & Wessex Advanced Motorcyclists

Riding with a Pillion

It is something most motorcyclists do not get any instruction on at all. It is all learnt by experience, and sometimes learning that experience can be very painful indeed.

First, some basic rules:

  1. Check the bike, including:

    1. Tyre pressures. They often need to be higher when carrying a pillion.
    2. Suspension settings - consult the manual.

  2. Adjust your riding style:

    1. Aim to ride as smoothly as possible - this demands a high level of planning and anticipation in order to minimise braking and gear changes.
    2. Allow extra braking distances to cope with the extra weight.
    3. Use the rear brake more. There is more weight over the back wheel so it is more effective two-up, and it makes the pillion less likely to move forward into you when slowing down and stopping.
    4. Use the clutch more to ensure smooth changes thus reducing the possibility of banging helmets
    5. Start gently to build pillion confidence.

There is one final category of tips, but first allow me to relate a true story ...

Several years ago I invited my friend to accompany me on a trip to the Fairford Air Show in Gloucestershire followed the next day to the British Motorcycle Grand Prix at Donnington. He had not ridden pillion ever so I took things ever so gingerly at first. My trusty 600 Yamaha was well up to the task and we enjoyed a splendid weekend covering over 400 miles at all speeds.

Exactly one year later I asked if he wanted to repeat the experience and he said he would love to. I turned up on my brand new Yamaha 900 XJS and, as last year, gave him all the kit (helmet, gloves, goretex/kevlar suit and boots) and made ready to go. I remembered that one year ago he was trouble free on the back so we set off without delay.

Out of his posh estate, down a steepish hill four hundred yards to a T-junction, turn left and on to a nice country A-road. Up to 25-30 mph and ahead a nice right-hander came into view. It was the sort of bend you could comfortably take at 60 mph but I maintained my existing speed and prepared to take the near-side line for optimum position. As we approached the bend I could vaguely hear my pillion saying something but I couldn't quite make out what it was. As I prepared to lean the bike over I realised what he was trying to say: "we're not going to make it, we're not going to make it".

Horror! He was so convinced that we were not going to make it that he resisted all my attempts to maintain my line around this gentle bend at this gentle speed. His fourteen stone weight and six foot height did nothing to help me in this endeavour. Cccrrraaassshhh! We came off and landed heavily on the edge of the road (we were not going fast enough to get into the ditch less than two feet from the tarmac).


Pillion sustained three broken ribs where the braces of his sallopettes dug into his chest as he landed; my bike twisted its front forks, scratched all the right-hand fairing panels and broke other various bits. Total damage £1,498.00. Apart from my pride, I was uninjured.

Who was to blame? Well, me of course. It was my hand on the throttle, and I was in charge of the bike. The moral of the story lies in the oft-quoted phrase "don't assume anything". Assume makes an ass out of you and me.

So this leads us on to the third category of tips - pillion and rider communication:

  1. Always brief your pillion before he gets on the bike. Tell him to act as if he were a bag of potatoes, just letting the bike go where it wants to go. Never fight it.
  2. If you have an intercom then use it. Had I been able to understand what the pillion was saying beforehand then I would have been able to stop gracefully.
  3. Tell the pillion not to put their feet down when the bike comes to a halt (yes, you need to do this before he gets on the bike!!). Ensure the pillion knows when to mount/dismount.
  4. Never assume, just because they have ridden as pillion before that they can still remember what to do.
  5. Agree some basic signals if you don't have an intercom. Two digs in the ribs to slow down and three digs to stop will do nicely!
  6. Tell the pillion not to move about on the back (especially at slow speeds).

Finally, don't be put off. A good pillion lends an extra set of eyes and other senses and can make a good ride into a really great one. Safe riding

Hugh Williams
BWAM Member

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