Back Seat Rider: How To Be The Best Pillion Ever

November 27, 2019




Boris Mihailovic

It’s only because I am the world’s worst pillion, I know what is needed to be the world’s best pillion.

Over the last four decades, I have been pillioned by riders of all kinds. Every calibre of rider, from top-end racers to an L-plater I felt would respond better to my advice if I sat on the back of his bike and yelled instructions into his ear, has pillioned me at some time.

I can confidently state no-one involved in this has ever enjoyed any of it.

Likewise, I have carried every type of pillion imaginable on the back of various motorcycles, so I know what I know.

And I know if you decide to put your life in another person’s hands and climb onto a motorcycle behind them, then you should know what I know, too.

Being a pillion rider on a two wheeler isn't as simple as it might look. Photo: UnSplash

1. We're hugely incentivised

Firstly, and most importantly, you need to understand the rider is even more incentivised not to crash than he would be if he was riding on his own. Pillions are often referred to as “precious cargo” (among other things), but if there was some way the rider could sacrifice the pillion in order to save himself, then we would have worked that out by now. But there isn’t. If the ship is going down, then it’s going down with all hands.

2. Don't just sit there

Crucially, the pillion must not contribute to this disaster.

So you can’t just sit there on the back of the bike and let your new best friend carry the load by alone. You must contribute. Being a pillion is a full mind-and-body involvement. And I’ll get to that in a sec.

But before he even rides off, make sure your feet are on the pillion pegs. Yeah, I know. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? How could anyone mistake an exhaust system, a shock-absorber bolt, and axle nut, or a swingarm for a pillion peg? A few too many Jack-and-Cokes is the correct answer.

Ladies, if you’re wearing heels, make sure your heel is clear of the exhaust. The utter disappointment that will occur when we arrive at our destination and discover your heels have melted on and scarred the pristine titanium of our new race system, will impact poorly on any romantic interludes we may have planned.

There's more to being a good pillion than just sitting there and looking good. Photo: iStock

3. Check for loose stuff

Also, before we belt off into the night, it would be smart to make sure any errant bits of clothing or matching accessories are not dangling down where all that stuff that spins really fast might catch it. Scarves, belts, skirt hems, handbags, and Smartphone cables are all problematical. And while it is incumbent upon the rider to make sure you’re flapping rubbish is all tucked away, we really can’t see much out of our mirrors once we get on. Help us out. You have no idea how long it takes to dig a $500 pure wool pashmina out of our freshly-lubed chain, do you?

4. Use your thighs

So now grip with your thighs, and hold on with your hands. Somewhere. If there’s a pillion grab rail, put one hand there. Different bikes require different pillion arrangements and what works on a sportsbike, will not work on a cruiser. Your rider should be able to assist you in this regard. Do not be afraid to ask. If you don’t ask, we will assume you know. We will only realise you had no idea when you hurtle off the back of the bike. And that is surplus to everybody’s needs.

It goes without saying, different bikes require different pillion arrangements. Photo: UnSplash

Oh, and if there is a piece of looped vinyl or some kind of strap that runs across the seat, and the rider tells you to hold onto that, call a cab and leave. The man is obviously an idiot. Those vinyl straps, which are thankfully disappearing from motorcycles, are the worst things in the world for a pillion to hold onto. Whoever originally thought a loop which either juts out from the seat between your legs and bisects the seat into rider and pillion sections requiring the rider to sit on your clenched fists as he rides, was a special kind of stupid.

Grab rail and/or rider. That’s what you hang onto.

5. You're not riding

Now that we’re moving, do not ride. The rider is doing the riding. You’re just assisting. And your assistance is crucial because now you’re on the back, the bike no longer handles like it should, and you’re ruining the whole experience of the ride for the rider.

It’s a physics thing. And motorcycle physics hates pillions because there’s too much weight too high up and too far back over the rear axle of the bike. And you’re really only being pillioned because there’s no other choice. You’re either too important to leave behind, or you’re a good mate. Or everyone needs to get out of wherever as quickly as possible. Or a combination of those three things.

Anyway, once we’re moving, you need to pay attention. It’s perfectly possible you cannot see anything except the back of the rider’s helmet, or you could be on a bike where your view is over the rider’s head.

Each has its own issues.

Remember, you're not the one riding. Photo: UnSplash

If you can’t see what’s going on ahead, and sometimes this is a blessing, you need to ‘feel’ what’s happening. The best way to do this is to push yourself gently against the rider and respond to his ‘body English’. If he’s bracing due to brakes, then you need to brace. Bonking your helmet into the back of his helmet each time he comes to a stop is really annoying, and you would not be the first pillion left on the side of scary highway at three in the morning.

If he’s leaning or moving his body in a certain direction, you need to do likewise. If you do not do this, the bike struggles to go around corners like it should, so sometimes it doesn’t. The best-case scenario for you here if you repeatedly refuse to go with the flow is being stranded. The worst is a motorcycle high-side. Google it. It’s far more spectacular than stranding.

Now if you can see over the rider’s head, or you’re one of those Nosy Nellies who likes to peer over the rider’s shoulder, do not anticipate things.

Motorcycle riders are the worst offenders here. Yeah, you ride, and now you’re on the back, and the pilot is not doing it like you’d do it, right? So you try and help. You anticipate braking when there is no braking. You lean too much or too little, or you try and sit the bike up because that’s not the apex you think the rider should be taking.

I myself am hugely guilty of this sin.

6. Just so we're clear

So to recap.

Mind where you put your feet.

Do not dangle anything.

Be an active part of the ride, but remember you’re not doing the one riding.

Oh, and always offer to help pay for the petrol.

Boris Mihailovic

Boris Milailovic lives to ride and has been a motorcycle journalist and author for over 30 years, writing for publications such as Ozbike, Motorcycle Legends, Australian Motorcycle News and Boris is currently writing his third and fourth books and runs a popular motorcycling website


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