Motorcycle Riding Tips for Your Passenger

Tips for someone who is going along for a ride

Tips for a passenger on a motorcycle
Before you ask a passenger to climb on, you should make sure that he or she knows a few basics and has a method of communicating their needs.Cruiser

I tend to agree with Volkswagen: “On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers.” Whether we’re talking about bikes, buses, trucks, or airplanes, I want to be the driver. Call me a control freak if you like—just put the freaking controls in my hands.

But with control comes responsibility. You are responsible for the safety of the person who is just along for the ride. And among your responsibilities when you invite somebody to come along as a passenger, is understanding how your motorcycle's dynamics are altered by the addition of a second body. You also need to be sure the person climbing on behind you also understands what is involved.

The changes a passenger makes to your motorcycle’s behavior are primarily due to the added weight. Simply adding 100 pounds or so to your motorcycle will decrease acceleration, increase braking distance substantially, and slow response to steering inputs. It will compress the suspension more than usual, eating up available suspension travel and cornering clearance. When that weight is placed up high and right above—or worse, behind—the rear axle, its effects on handling are amplified. Add a somewhat loose connection and the ability to shift its weight independently, and the problem expands. The weight may be most noticeable when you are maneuvering at very low speeds, and some combinations of bike and passenger can be quite unwieldy at a crawling pace.

To deal with these changes, start by leaving yourself a greater margin. To give yourself more cushion for stopping, open up the distance from the vehicle ahead and slow down more when approaching intersections. Wait to pull out until there is a big gap in traffic. Slow down a little more for corners. Avoid potholes and slow down more than usual for dips.

But the best thing you can do to lessen the effect of the passenger is to brief him or her (for the rest of this discussion we will, for the sake of brevity, be blatantly sexist and assume that your passenger is female) on what to expect and what to do. Show her where the footpegs are and tell her to keep her feet on them at all times—explain that there is no need to help support the bike at a stop. Point out how close the wheel is and caution her not to touch it or the chain. Point out the exhaust system and warn that it is scalding hot and should not be touched. I have learned the hard way to do this with anybody the first I ride with her. The only two passengers who ever burned themselves riding with me in 35 years both had told me about how much they knew about motorcycles, how they rode all the time, yadda, yadda, yadda. It turned out they were exaggerating. So now I brief anyone I haven’t seen ride a few times. Insulting someone’s motorcycling experience beats a third-degree burn every time.

Work out how she will mount the bike. I prefer to climb on the bike first, start up, and get it positioned for departure, then have my passenger climb on, using the left footpeg as a step. There should be an agreement that she will query you and get a clear reply before climbing on. My wife and I use a loud “Ready?” “Ready!” system, but oral communication can sometimes be difficult in helmets. You might prefer her querying with a tap on the shoulder and an exaggerated nod as an affirmative answer. Some riders have trouble supporting the weight of the passenger standing on the footpeg, in which case you should establish an alternate mounting routine. Get it clear, since nothing gets a ride off on the wrong foot like tipping the bike over before you ever reach the street. The dismounting procedure should also be reviewed. Here you can ask her to wait until you place the bike on the sidestand if you have trouble supporting the bike as her weight shifts.

Next describe how to sit on the bike. Explain that she should lean with the bike and lean equally, not more or less. I like to give a little insight about how a motorcycle corners and tell how you have to tip the weight of the bike into a corner to turn. I explain that if she fights the lean, it simply means that I have to lean the bike even deeper. I suggest looking over my inside shoulder in a corner. I tell any passenger, male or female, to hold on to me at the waist. Do not let a passenger use the grab-strap under any circumstances, since she will then weave around, destabilizing the bike. Even grabrails or backrests are poor places for a handhold, though they may help the passenger resist braking forces. We recommend the same riding gear for passengers that we do for riders—helmet, jacket, gloves, sturdy full-length pants, and solid footwear that covers the ankle. Occasionally passengers will resist a helmet, citing hair, vision, or other concerns. I always insist, and fortunately have a full selection of helmets in all sizes.

Work out some basic communication signals. One should be “Stop right now!” This is useful when an urgent problem arises, such as a contact lens gone astray or a bee down the neck. Another useful signal is a less urgent request to stop.

A variation of this signal can allow the passenger to inform the rider he’s doing something that scares her. Wouldn’t you rather have your co-rider tap your leg a couple times instead of climbing up on the high side of the bike just when you’ve been surprised by a decreasing radius corner and are dragging the floorboard?

This column has previously harped on the benefits and technique of riding smoothly. This is doubly true with a passenger aboard. If you are bumping helmets, it’s your fault, not hers. Smooth throttle transitions, gradual applications of brakes, attention to shifting to avoid jerks, and easing into corners will make the passenger’s ride more pleasant. After five minutes or so with a new passenger, stop the bike, shut it down, and ask how she is doing and what you can do to make the ride better. Stop frequently and repeat the request. Give a new passenger plenty of rest stops if this is her first long ride.

If you plan to tote passengers regularly, take a look at the amenities your machine offers. Cruisers usually provide enough room for passengers front to back, but some pillions are uncomfortably narrow or thin. An aftermarket or rebuilt saddle can benefit you both. Most passengers appreciate the security of a backrest, just be sure that it doesn’t make her lean back far enough to upset the handling even more. If you make changes to seating arrangements, try to keep her ahead of the rear axle.

Finally, if you ride regularly with the same passenger, it’s worth taking the time to practice some of the traditional skills exercises like panic stops and quick swerves with her aboard. Work up gradually to maximum forces so you both have time to adjust. You will both learn something and be much better prepared for that unwanted eventuality.

The right passenger makes a great riding companion. Making sure that a passenger is right, is up to the rider.

Related:

For more safety tips for riding with a passenger, click HERE.