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Being a Good ‘Pillion’ Passenger: your responsibilities & how to stay on!

Two's up on the infamous Ile of Man  TT mountain roadTwo's up on the infamous Ile of Man TT mountain road

Some folk would say that the motorcycle passenger has it easy, or pillion for the technical term, but hop on and you soon realise that there’s a lot more to it than just sitting pretty! Riding a motorcycle has as much to do with body positioning and balance as it does the levers and gears, and that also applies to the pillion. If you are on the bike it is your responsibility to help the rider keep you both on the road rubber-side-down! As a pillion you need to anticipate what the rider is going to do and be able to react quickly and smoothly enough to work as one. 

According to good ol’ Wikipedia, in the UK the word pillion is derived from the Scottish Gaelic for a "little rug", pillean, which is itself from the Latin pellis for "animal skin". With regards to motorcycles the word refers to the secondary seat pad, and from there is transferred to the lucky person sat on it! 

With Ryan’s help I now have a good 14 years experience in the pillion seat, including tackling the infamous Isle Of Man mountain section ‘two’s up’ (that's us photographed above on that incredible stretch of UNLIMITED SPEED road!). So let me pass on my knowledge of the back seat pad, starting with the most common pillion mistakes and their simple remedies:


Being left behind (dealing with acceleration)I don’t mean getting left at the service station, though it could be a risk if you’re a particularly annoying pillion so pay attention - I’m kidding of course (or am I?)!

At best being 'left behind' means a strained neck and pulling on the rider with the nagging fear of falling off, at worst it can mean actually falling off the back - which quite frankly doesn’t bear thinking about in fast traffic! Some bikes are more extreme than others and they all have varying riding positions but the technique is pretty much the same for all.


Remedy = engage your core muscles, keep your back in a neutral/straight position and lean your chin forward slightly to counter the forces attempting to force you backwards. If you’re using the rear grab rail instead of holding onto the rider you can push back lightly to hold your body centred during acceleration.


Head-buttingthe momentary pause during a gear change can cause you to knock heads especially if you’re putting in the effort to counter the forces of acceleration. Whilst not particularly dangerous it can be extremely irritating to the rider and be somewhat distracting so is a bad habit that quickly needs addressing.

We occasionally still knock helmets, but once in a while is OK - sometimes Ryan is forced to brake harder or change gear earlier than expected and it can take us both a while to get used to a new bike and the different timings and forces involved.


Remedy = surprisingly the remedy lies more in your thighs than your neck: squeeze your knees together gently for the duration of the gear change (usually just the count of one, unless there is a problem). As always a well engaged core will help to keep your body where it should be.

Knowing the timing of the gear changes comes down to knowing your rider and being able to listen to the sound of the engine, as well as being aware of what is happening around you both and so being able to better predict when a gear change is necessary.


Unbalancing the bike (cornering problems)as we’ve previously mentioned a good centre of gravity is extremely important in successful cornering and if the pillion gets it too badly wrong you can completely counter everything the rider is attempting to do, in the worse-case scenario it can mean causing you both to crash so is a serious issue! A smaller pillion has less impact than a larger one of course, but being petite shouldn't let you off the hook!

The requirement is that pillion and rider work smoothly as one which means leaning the same amount and in the same direction – not easy if the pillion is feeling fearful and clinging rigidly to the rider or bike.


Remedy = some folks get it straight away and others it seems need a little help relaxing! Relaxation is the key word; it’s really no use to either of you being so scared that you can’t move freely (else your worse fears will be more likely to come true!) so if you feel your anxiety levels rising make a conscious effort to relax your back and jaw, and take a deep calming breath if you need to. Fake it till you make it rings true.

Remember that riding a motorcycle two’s up is an exercise in teamwork so BOTH parties need to have trust in the other; it’s important that the rider also takes responsibility here and gives the pillion enough time to become comfortable with the leaning sensations and depth.

Also worth noting is this; if your rider is the type to behave in a dangerous manner and against your expressed wishes then perhaps you shouldn’t be on the bike (or even friends with them at all if they have that little respect for your well-being)!


Sliding forward under brakingthis problem is really only painful for the rider, if they’re male anyway, as they find themselves crushed between your weight and the tank in front! For the pillion it’s certainly annoying and leaves you in an uncomfortably close position meaning that in the least you’ll have to shimmy back again to regain a good centre of balance.

There’s often the unfortunate and embarrassing ‘fart’ noise that accompanies the movement of trousers across seat that I could do without (I feel it somewhat erodes my ‘cool biker’ image!)… ;)


Remedy = you’ll need to squeeze with your knees as we do for the gear changes, though for MUCH longer under typical braking conditions. It’s a great workout for your inner thigh muscles that’s for sure! Ensure that your knees are in a comfortable position to apply pressure (for the rider and yourself) and try to allow as much of the energy to be absorbed by your core as you can.

Some of the weight can also be spread across your hands and arms depending on how you are holding on; we like using the ‘love handles’ which are far safer than attempting to hold nothing but a leather-bound waistline and allow you to ‘brace forward’ through your palms, alternatively grip well and pull slightly if holding on to the rear grab rail.

Ryan is particularly brutal on the brakes (not many folk can out-brake him!) so muscle fatigue for both my thighs and forearms is often a problem for me, though I figure if he brakes too hard for me to be able to physically counteract then he’s the one ultimately punished with the ‘crushed nuts’ so all is fair in the end! ;D


Not being centred in your seat - this is a continuous problem no matter your experience since the roads are full of bumps that will inevitably jostle you out of position.

It’s annoying but not one that can really be avoided, the danger however is that by not being properly centred your balance is likely off as well and fidgeting yourself back to the centre at the wrong moment can distract or unbalance the rider too!


Remedy = the key is in learning how to find your centre of gravity no matter what position your backside has ended up in! If you’ve been knocked over to one side and can’t safely re-position yourself yet stay relaxed and feel your weight centre through just the one butt-cheek if needs be. Off-centre sit ups are a good exercise to find your balance and help tone up the muscles you need.

If I can see a nasty bump coming then I can put more effort into ‘sitting deep’ and holding myself to the seat if possible, pulling up ever so slightly on the grabrail or handles help with this, though we can never see them all coming.

The art of ‘sitting deep’ is something I was lucky enough to learn through horse riding before ever riding a motorbike but that applies well, the best I can describe is that you need to visualise your weight sinking through the seat itself as the bump hits. Imagine that you are made of liquid lead which seems to subtly instruct your muscles to absorb the bump rather than catapulting you from the seat and foot-pegs.


Restricting the riderthe rider needs to be able to move their weight around freely and sometimes with very little notice. The last thing they need is a pillion holding on so tightly or sitting so close that they can’t move at all, or one who suddenly grips hard in a reaction of panic, pulling their weight in another direction!


Remedy = again trusting and knowing your rider is extremely important, and since I trust that Ryan is highly unlikely to drop the bike I’m happy enough to lean far with him without gripping too tightly. Trust that the inertia of the bike means you won’t simply drop off the side during cornering!

Allowing for freedom of movement is another reason we prefer using the ‘love handles’ as it means that my arms are out of the way behind Ryan’s back instead of getting in the way under his arms or clawing for grip. If we’re really going for it (like being up on the ‘mountain mile’) I’ll also move my leg out slightly in preparation for a corner to allow him enough room to shift his butt on the seat and dip a knee!


Distracting the rider it’s surely needless to say that you really shouldn’t distract the rider from the job in hand if you can help it. There are far too many hazards for bikers on the road as it is!

Not that you can really say much to each other anyway through your helmets, wind and engine noise (unless you have a fancy intercom set up) but distraction can also come from unexpected moves or frequent fidgeting so try to be aware of how you might be affecting your rider.


Remedy = aside from essential communication and movement try to keep as still and quiet as you can. It’s a good idea to decide on a code to be able to get the message understood quickly and without too much thinking and questioning on the riders part, eg. three squeezes with my knees as we pass a sign for the services means I need to pee… If he’s received the message I’ll get a thumbs up in reply.

Of course safe communication comes down to being able to read a situation, I often give Ryan a tap on the shoulder and point out a hovering Kestrel or other interesting sight if I feel it’s safe to do so, but if he doesn’t react then I leave it alone - though I remember once battering his shoulder and pointing furiously to our right as a Hen Harrier casually cruised alongside us just over a Norfolk hedgerow which he was happy to not have missed (and we didn’t crash so all was well)!

It’s also nice to give each other a little ‘check-in’ squeeze every so often when we’re relaxing on a quiet stretch of road, and there’s often something to comment on that’s happened a way back but I would never try to initiate a conversation in the middle of a busy town centre or somewhere with a lot of traffic changing lanes so use your head on this one.


Muscle ache and fatigueriding seems to involve many muscles that don’t get used for other activities. If you’re not ‘bike-fit’ this can mean some severe aches and pains to contend with later on, as well as the dreaded muscle fatigue or ‘pump’ where the muscle has been overworked and suddenly becomes numb and weak. This can be quite scary if it involves the forearms as you’re often relying on a good grip to stay on the bike!


Remedy = a warm up and good stretch works wonders to wake up your muscles before getting on the bike but no matter how prepared you are, everyone has a point where they’ve had enough! Pay attention to how you’re feeling and request a break if needs be to allow your muscles some time to relax and recover.

Finding a way to strengthen and train the riding muscles for a degree of endurance is a good idea in general, whether it means requesting lot’s of shorter journeys on the bike in the days before a big trip, or getting down to the gym and working out on ‘terra firma’. I tend to go with a combination of both when we’re getting ready for the Isle of Man or a similarly brutal journey distance.

Also check out our article on avoiding aches and pains for some tips for long journeys sat in one position.


Poor timing – unless you’re a mind reader (married couples will agree that it comes in time!) it’s tough to react fast enough for some scenarios and you can find yourself missing the timing. On a bike even the rider doesn’t always know what’s going to happen next so how can you be expected to when you can’t even see in front of your face?


Remedy = pay attention and look for clues! I’ve learned to take in as much detail from a quick peek as I can and let’s face it you haven’t much else to do back there; whenever the opportunity presents itself, and especially if we’ve slowed unexpectedly, I move my head out to one side by a couple of inches but without shifting my body weight and then quickly return it to the centre where I can analyze what I saw. Be careful of the unbalancing forces of high speed winds when you take a peek. Let’s say I noticed three approaching cars with a gap behind then I can expect that Ryan will be overtaking once the 3rd car passes… If I need to shift in my seat I need to do so before he blasts that throttle!

Another useful clue as to where you’ll likely be leaning next comes from your road positioning itself; from the pillion perspective we may not be able to see ahead, but we can see the markings on the road either side of us. If I see that we’ve moved closer to the centre lines on my right (on UK roads) then we are likely to be cornering left, or overtaking, and similarly if we creep toward to the curb on the left then there is likely a right-hand corner coming up. Of course still don’t change your weight until the rider does!


Falling asleep!? - I’m guessing a lot of you are aghast at the idea of nodding off on the back of a motorcycle and it is an extremely dangerous situation to be in, but I’m not the only pillion to have had this problem! Honest! Add together a long day, a big meal, riding at night, and straight monotonous roads with the same droning engine or wind noise and before you know it you realise (with horror!) your eyes have been closed for several seconds! No matter how much you try to blink yourself awake, open your visor or even painfully bite a cheek, your eyelids just keep closing and you begin to lean in to the rider...


Remedy = If you're falling asleep I figure most folks would agree it's time to STOP! As soon as you can signal to the rider that you need to pull over and take a rest break. I'm sure they'll understand. Take a power nap if you can and get yourself a restorative cup of coffee, though often just getting off and out of the helmet for a few minutes breaks the sleepy spell, as does switching to some more involving roads instead of the motorway!


I hope I’ve helped you understand the role of the pillion passenger a little better, let me know what you think and/or any further questions you might have in the comments below - we’d love to hear from you! 


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Sarah is a UK artist and writer with a lifetime interest in camping and survival techniques.

Living the #vanlife since before it was a hashtag and touring on two wheels with her husband Ryan, they have a wealth of camping and motorcycling knowledge to share, and know a thing or two about packing light! read more

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