RidingJames Evans

How to be the perfect pillion

RidingJames Evans
How to be the perfect pillion

The relationship between a motorcycle rider and their pillion is a close one – far closer that between a car driver and passenger.

Now, when we mean ‘close’ we’re not just talking about the actual proximity here (although that’s true) but rather the trust and communication you need between rider and pillion. As a pillion you need to trust the rider and you need to have a way of communicating so you can ride smoothly and safely and effectively work as a team. This of course comes with time, but there are some ways you can make a good start.


Talk before the ride. The rider should tell you a few things before you saddle up for the first time. Make sure you’ve sorted your communication out and have an agreed signal for when you want the rider to slow down. Discuss how you’re going to hold on: is there a grab-rail at the back? Is the rider wearing a ‘pillion pal’ set of handles around his or her waist? Or is there a tank-mounted handle? You can – of course – do it the old fashioned way and put your arms around the rider’s waist. Do remember, that this means the rider is taking your weight on their wrists under braking. So perhaps discuss a way you can avoid this. A good way is that – when the rider begins to brake – you place one arm across their back to spread the weight as the bike slows, or push the palm of one hand on the tank to brace yourself.

Under acceleration, you can either lock an arm in place and hang onto the grab rail, or simply reach around with the other arm ready to brace against the rider’s waist again. These methods take time to get right, which is why if you’re going to go pillion often, it pays to invest in either a tank-mounted handle or a ‘pillion pal’ which is a set of handles that straps around the rider’s waist. Feeling secure means you enjoy the ride much more.

So you’ve worked out what you’re going to do under braking and acceleration. For cornering a simple, basic rule of thumb is to keep your head and back in-line with the rider’s. Motorcycles lean to go around corners and this may be alien to a newbie pillion. You will upset the rider’s control of the motorcycle if you desperately try and lean the other way, when the rider is trying to lean left to go around a left hand corner. So remember it this way, ‘heads in line and all is fine!’

Ready to ride?

Pride comes before a fall and the fall can happen when you’re trying to mount the bike! As it’s an inherently unstable machine with only two wheels, make sure the rider is ready for you to get on. They will tell you when they are ready – and don’t forget to lower the pillion foot pegs! Get yourself comfortable and the rider should tell you when they are about to pull away. Now just remember what you’ve discussed with the rider and enjoy the trip.

And it goes without saying that you’re both wearing the appropriate riding kit, right? That’s helmet, jacket, proper riding jeans or leathers gloves and boots. You want to be warm and safe…

And for the rider…

How you ride your bike clearly has an impact on how your pillion enjoys the experience. The key to a good pillion/rider relationship is trust and that comes from being smooth and making things as easy for the person on the back as possible.

The thrill of hard acceleration and braking is great when riding solo, but for a new pillion perhaps it’s best to try and be smooth – so no large throttle openings or hard braking – at least until they have a few miles under their belts!

Be prepared and ready for any previously agreed sign to slow down or pull over: you’re an ambassador for two-wheels, scaring someone isn’t going to show bikers or biking in a good light. So no stunts please…

Often we will up-change through the gears without using the clutch riding solo, but for the sake of smoothing out the ride for the person behind you, think about using the clutch at all speeds.

Doing the distance

A quick spin as a pillion is one thing, but let’s get advice from the experts. Grant and Susan Johnson run Horizons Unlimited and have travelled countless thousands of miles across the globe two-up, so what do they think? Grant, the rider, says: “When doing distance, keep her/your pillion happy! If she’s miserable and uncomfortable and afraid, you will know it! So, if she’s relaxed and going with the flow, you’ll both be happy. Give her good riding gear that fits and a comfortable quality helmet, keep her warm, too heated clothing is important and communication devices in the helmet are good too, so you can chat to each other. Remember the two of you ride and travel together as a team: you each have a job to do. For us, I ride and maintain the bike, pack and unpack, set up the tent etc. Susan navigates, plans, feeds us, and chooses the hotel (you will always be happy with her choice, she probably won’t always be happy with yours!) We use two GPS units, one on the bike that I use for general navigation, and Susan has a different one with the same destination set in. Along the way, if there is a disagreement between the two, or a detour, she can look at options, make an unrushed decision, and then her GPS is boss, she just tells me where to go, usually politely. If we want to stop for lunch, or find fuel, or get off the road we’re on and find a faster or more scenic one, or sort accommodation, again she can figure it out while we’re rolling. It’s all teamwork out on the road.”

Pillion tips: Susan Johnson

“Don’t shift your weight without telling him you’re going to! Let him know and stretch your legs or lean to the side or whatever before you get too stiff and sore. Moving around is good: he just has to be prepared and know what’s going to happen. Don’t put your hands on his shoulders while riding, pressure on a shoulder can actually steer a bike and will scare you both. Always just relax and go with the bike, you don’t have to actually do anything. My tip for new pillions is to try closing your eyes and you’ll find it works wonderfully to get into the flow and movement of the bike. And isn’t scary at all – in fact I sleep on the back! If he’s ‘busy’ in traffic or difficult riding conditions off-road etc., be quiet and don’t distract him. And don’t whine, just state clearly it’s time to stop for a break, to find a hotel or whatever.

My tip for new pillions is to try closing your eyes and you’ll find it works wonderfully to get into the flow and movement of the bike.

Do your share of the work on a big journey – at the end of the day he’s much more tired than you are, so it’s time to take charge and deal with the ‘living’ part of travel – food and accommodation. In the end, remember it’s all about being a team – everyone does their share, no one is doing too much or too little, either of which is certain to cause stress for both of you.”