Two’s company


The secrets of pillioning

How you and your passenger can make two-up riding work

Perhaps welling up inside you is the urge to share the joy of motorcycling with a loved one or friend. Perhaps someone has already said yes. Brilliant. You are about to add a major dimension to your life leading to much satisfaction and fulfilment.

If you’ve thought about taking a pillion and chickened out, perhaps this story will inspire you to have another go. Even if you’re an old hand at it, you will probably get a laugh remembering your own first experiences.

When we first contemplate pillioning we are usually “a bloke” who wants to take either “a chick”, “a mate” or “a kid” somewhere. We may be riding pretty well any damn bike — as long as it has a spare seat and footpegs, we are away! Our experience could be all over the spectrum; it’s irrelevant because our enthusiasm knows no bounds! So, being a bloke, the first time I doubled a chick, a long time ago, I remember the initial issues (will she come? What should she wear? Will she like it?) being dealt with pretty simply and then we were off into the learning zone!

After many years of doubling people around Oz, a friend who was about to do it for the first time asked me a few questions. He was an intrepid and reasonably experienced rider, but he was mostly worried about how he would go at this new activity. Well, all my memories came flooding back.

As many other experienced pillioners know, it is not all about the rider. We will be fine. It’s the pillion and the bike that will be the source of all the problems! However, we had to figure this out the hard way. So here are some tips for people who are contemplating taking a pillion for the first time and would like to cut out some of the more serious potential stuff-ups at the outset:

The first thing is the rather significant but almost universally overlooked topic of the bike. By taking a pillion aboard, depending on the size of the pillion and the bike, you are increasing the weight the bike has to deal with by 20–50 per cent and that’s pretty important! Then you add a bit more weight for luggage (and who stays within the “manufacturer’s recommendations”?). So right away there’s a pretty big area for stuff-ups that only needs a small amount of effort to fix.

Sure, you can get away with short-distance pillioning and doing nothing, but too much weight soon becomes a problem because the tyres overheat and can be easily damaged — particularly the inner sidewalls — leaving you prone to punctures or blow-outs. In any case, the way the bike behaves if you do nothing is noticeably worse than if you set it up properly and “simply” have to deal with the extra mass.

When I carry an adult on my relatively heavy (220kg) Ducati ST4S, I increase front tyre pressure from 32psi to 35psi and rear from 34psi to 41psi. This is in the owner’s manual. Check yours out. At the same time, I can easily increase the rear spring preload so I move it from 60 per cent to 100 per cent. Any bikes with dual rear shockies will have a rotating ramp system at the bottom of the spring. Usually, you’d change this from notch 3 to notch 5 using the C spanner in your bike’s toolkit. You could also vary the damping rates if these are adjustable (I prefer hard compression when riding solo, softer when doubling with little to no rebound for either), but there is no need to fiddle with this and I don’t usually bother.

Next, it’s a good idea to ask an experienced rider to go for a ride on the back with you first to build your confidence and knowledge. It will be especially helpful if they have pillioning experience because they will know what you need — and will also probably see if you’re stuffing up before you do. If you can’t get an experienced pillion, try for a sensibly behaved small person because the lower mass helps make the job easier, but watch out because they can still bite.

It’s critical to talk to an inexperienced pillion before taking off with them. This is a big adventure for them, so it’s worth taking a couple of minutes and there’s rarely a problem with this. But it is important for you, too, because this is the only time you get to say no. The next one is after there has been a big problem and you will find it much harder to drop them off/bring them back. So you need to be OK with their attitude (some of which you can fix by adjusting your riding style).

Just to labour the point, when your pillion moves when you’re leaning over mid-corner because “the road was a bit close” or “I couldn’t see properly out of that side” or “I was a bit scared and couldn’t help it”, you will know a moment of terror — hopefully with no further consequences. It feels like someone has bodily picked up your rear wheel and put it down about half a metre away from where it was. You will have a big panic twitch and are bound to move some distance off line — and then, hopefully, pull it all together.

Whatever you think, stop right then and explain this problem to the pillion or they will do it again. They have no idea what is normal and will be thinking whatever just happened was your mistake! The other common mistake pillions make is trying to stay dead-set vertical “to help with the balance”. This feels as if your back wheel is being held up in the air and sort of on ice at the same time, but you don’t actually slip. Not very nice at all!

The next most important thing is for you to learn how to do an emergency stop. It needs to be second nature that you automatically brace your arms straight, hunch your shoulders and grip the tank with your knees (to keep things straight), preferably tipping your head forward a bit to minimise helmet clunk (which can also happen on acceleration and gear changes if you are not smooth).

On braking, you’re going to be slammed with 70+kg of floppy stuff and nobody can do anything about that. It is rather handy if your elbows don’t buckle at the same time because the bike will just fall over like a bit of ricepaper in the wind. This is not a good look when you are already trying to deal with a big problem! So practise a few very quick stops on the open road (tell the pillion first!). It’s the same squeeze-pull technique you use for normal braking and can be done almost as fast once you get good at it.

The next thing is maybe to state the obvious, but you need to work the first-time pillion up to it. The first few hundred metres, they’re likely to be quite panicked and wondering what they have got themselves into — don’t underestimate the surprise factor of this to them! So make gentle moves, create lots of space, use engine braking only and after a few kilometres they will start to get a feel for it. This is not the time to try to impress them with how well a bike can accelerate — even the most macho first-timer can have quite a problem with this sensation!

Believe it or, if you are pillioning in the rain it is actually easier. While the consequences of any slips on diesel, for example, will be harder to deal with, the extra weight onboard squeezes the water out from under the tyres more effectively and the bike actually becomes more stable and easier to ride than when riding solo in the wet — completely the opposite of what most people think!

Apart from braking, probably the most important skill to learn is that low speed manoeuvring is much trickier. The bike will tend to wobble and swoop at the ground in ways you wouldn’t have thought possible when you try to make a U-turn in the street or at the bowser. This is something you need to work up to over a loooong time, so constrain yourself to starting and stopping in a straight line for now. The irritation of having the pillion walk across the road while you turn around is nothing against both of you sprawled in the middle of the road as 200+ kilos of Bologna’s finest maxes you out for embarrassment and inflicts some minor injuries to boot!

Once you have a good handle on the overall experience of pillioning, a useful experience is to spend some time on the back yourself. When you get a look at what goes on from the pillion’s perspective, you’ll know how to adjust how you do it “up front”. But, until you have spent some time doubling a pillion, these lessons won’t sink in so easily. Taking a turn on the back gives you insight into how much trust is involved, which you need to be aware of and respect. It is sobering to realise how genuinely scary relatively simple things can appear when you are, as is so aptly described, “perched on the back”. From a rider’s perspective, things seem a lot more stable than from a pillion’s perspective. Fortunately, the rider has got it right!

After the above issues, there’s a lot of small stuff you’ll just discover along the way and I would have trouble remembering and writing down, anyway. An example to deal with is the whole topic of luggage on tour. I’m not going to tell you how to pack; enough people do that already! But I would particularly suggest having a plan for what to do with surplus jackets when the weather hots up. You can post home the trinkets you buy along the way, but you won’t do that with jackets. If you don’t have a couple of well-thought-out strapping options, you’ll just have to “sit and sweat”, which is not a particularly appealing option!

Hopefully, I haven’t forgotten anything important in the above info; after some 50,000km or so pillioning it gets a bit like that! But I confess to having made pretty well every blunder listed over the years, in amongst some really excellent pillion experiences. Please also be aware that the only true effect a pillion has on a well-set-up bike and its rider is an approximate increase of 20 per cent in tyre wear rates and a greater tendency to micro-wheelstand out of corners when riding quickly!

I hope this gives you the confidence to get out there and have a real go at pillioning. The rewards of having the company along can certainly make the little bit of extra trouble very worthwhile, and it just adds another great dimension to the whole motorcycling experience. Enjoy.