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The #1 Trick for Riding with a Pillion Passenger

I don’t have much to say about the mechanics of two-up riding. Of course there are intricacies to moveable mass, momentum and centre of gravity. But what good is learning them? You already know how to ride a motorcycle. And you can probably guess how a fidgeting hundred-and-something pounds is going to change that.

50% ability, 200% responsibility is what you should expect. Adjusting preload and tire pressure is how you should prepare. Every other skill can be learned kilometre-by-kilometre.

The real trick to two-up motorcycling is mental. Too many riders have no idea what their pillion feels. As a result, they’re left clueless and frustrated by the actions of their passenger. I contend that understanding your pillion is the first and last step to success at the helm. Everything else is just physics.

Understanding Your Pillion Rider

I can think of ten “types” of motorcycle passengers. Undoubtedly you can think of a few more, but ten was good enough for the Lords A-Leaping so its good enough for me. Riding with each of these people got infinitely better once I understood their behaviour and the root cause behind it.

Homophobic Harry is the worst of them all. Fearing that our lower bodies might touch, Harry perches himself atop the rear fender. His hands rest on my shoulders because waist holding is inexplicably considered to be an act of love. Thigh contact is tantamount to second base for Harry, so his legs dangle at a safe (read “unsafe”) distance from mine.

So yeah – my first experience with Homophobic Harry ends in a crash. His leg hits a rock, breaking a few important toes and sending his entire body backwards. Harry yanks on my shoulders to rectify the problem, which causes me to open the throttle and lose control. The result is bloody, oily and filled with curse words.

We must understand that some pillions are uncomfortable with being a pillion. Ever since my brush with Homophobic Harry, I’ve resolved not to ride with people like that.

The next type of pillion is Martyr Mike. This guy sits through a two-hour haul without making a peep. But when I pull over, I find out that Mike’s hands are frostbitten and his shoe melted on the exhaust an hour and a half ago. What the hell dude!? I’m not some slave driver up here.

Handsy Hannah is the opposite of Martyr Mike. She keeps waving her hands in front of my helmet, trying to communicate through some kind of bullshit sign language. I’m not her Black Ops commander and – even if I were – I’d still rather see the road.

Of course Mike and Hannah are only responding to my shortcoming. As the rider, I’m obliged to establish a prearranged communication system or suffer the consequences of improvisation (in Hannah’s case) or radio silence (in Mike’s case). Proper rider-to-rider comm systems are unbeatable. But for a quicker and foolproof system, I often resort to the old “tap on my helmet and we’ll pull over to chat” system.

Handsy Haley is Handsy Hannah’s equally-annoying sister. There might be a time for tickling, poking and groping. But 110km/h on the Trans-Canada probably isn’t it. I’ve come to understand that a certain percentage of the population doesn’t take motorcycling seriously. And much like Homophobic Harry, I simply refuse to ride with this percentage.

Oddly enough, Haley’s intentional distraction is only as bad as Touchdown Terry’s incessant desire to “help.” Whenever I come to a stoplight, this guy plants his feet like it were a moon landing. That’s one small step for Terry, one giant annoyance for me. If I couldn’t balance the bike with a pillion on the back, I wouldn’t have taken one!

Motorcyclist Mark takes it even further. Alright, alright, I get it… Mark rides motorcycles too. But trying to go knee-down in a school zone and chest-bumping me into a tuck position only proves that he’s an ass.

Much like Terry and Mark, some pillions feel the need to get involved. And if you leave this type directionless, they’re going to annoy the shit out of you. One solution is to provide appropriate outlets for their good intentions. I usually tell Mark to look out for hazards, which keeps him vaguely upright. Terry gets navigational duty, which keeps him occupied at stoplights. There are a million solutions to this problem; choose anything that will prevent your passenger from “helping” in a harmful way.

Of course the backseat riders have nothing on Statue Stephanie. Behold – the human top case! Never mind “lean as I lean” and “tuck as I tuck.” The only thing Stephanie got from my pre-ride pep-talk was “no sudden movements.” And I’m beginning to wonder if she only heard two of those words.

I mind static pillions less than fidgety ones. But remember that immobility is also a sign of fear. If your passenger is rock solid and clamping down on your waist, it might be worth pulling over for a heart-to-heart conversation. A frightened pillion is dangerous because they’ll fight every bump and twist along the way. And when an unstoppable motorcycle meets an immovable passenger, something’s gotta give.

Modelling Maria is an interesting one; her idea of a motorcycle passenger is the scantily-clad showgirl from a MotoGP poster. That’s fine if Maria wants to sit on my motorcycle. But if I’m going to start the thing, she’d better change into something a little more slide-worthy.

It’s best to be delicate with passengers like Maria. It’s probable that your pillion’s experience with motorcycling is limited to the bad examples in movies and television. They’ve never heard the term ATGATT and even if they have, they probably can’t distinguish between fashion leather and competition-weight. So be firm about their protective equipment while maintaining a level of patience.

You might find Maria’s cluelessness easier to tolerate than Noodleneck Nicole’s spinelessness.  I know some of my gear shifts aren’t exactly butter, but smashing her helmet into mine every time I pull the clutch is ridiculous. Does Nicole have any neck muscles?

Sailboat Simon can certainly hold himself upright. All seven feet of him. I can’t fault a guy for being tall, but remember that the pillion seat is a few inches higher to begin with. The wind tosses Simon around like a bloody tall ship, and makes a breezy day feel like Hurricane Katrina for me.

A pillion’s physical attributes can’t be helped, so it’s best not to berate them for it. I tend to simply adjust my riding plan accordingly. Nicole gets brief outings for the sake of my sanity and Simon is denied access on the windiest of days.

Put Yourself in the Passenger’s Seat

Is your pillion fearful or frivolous? Do they need to feel involved in the ride, or would they rather not be a passenger at all? Are they tall or short? Heavy or light? Weak or strong? You need to find a way for your passenger to communicate these things. And when they don’t, you need to be especially intuitive in their silence.

The #1 trick for two-up riding is understanding your pillion. Mentally put yourself in the passenger’s seat or – better yet – jump on the back of a motorcycle and experience it for yourself. Understanding your partner’s position is critical to success.

Everything else can be learned on the road.

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