The world of motorcycling is full of stories of great adventures – usually told from the perspective of the rider. In comparison, pillion riders keep a rather low profile. They seldom boast about the blissful happiness and pure joy they experience when being out on the road with a trustworthy rider. And they rarely ever mention the bravery it sometimes takes to get on the back of a motorbike. It’s about time we take a peek into the secret world as seen from the back of a bike.
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By and large, riders and their pillion passengers, face the same challenges when out on the road: When it rains, they get wet. When it is hot, they start to sweat. When it is cold, they have to shiver. And they both feel the rush of adrenaline caused by an animal crossing the road unexpectedly, by a corner that tightens up as you go in, or by a sudden emergency brake.
To some extent, riders and their pillion passengers also experience the same thrills. They both are part of the environment they ride in, they feel the wind, the light, the change of temperatures. They feel the same emotional rush when skirting along a bendy road. And they both enjoy the freedom of the road, the feeling that it is the journey that matters, not the destination.
It’s a question of trust
However, there are also some fundamental differences between the experiences of a rider and a pillion passenger. A pillion rider does not really get the feeling of “being one with the machine”. Also, the back of the bike offers neither the place, nor the opportunity to fully concentrate on the road or on the technical aspects of riding. So, when a rider’s mind “goes blank” as he “zooms in” on the ride ahead of him, the mind of a pillion passenger expands and keeps running at full speed. Speaking of which: Speed feels very different on the back of a bike. Riders are sometimes surprised at the paleness of their passenger’s face and the terrified look in their eyes after having ridden a stretch of road at a pace that to them felt quick but comfortable. Which proves that sense of speed has very little do to with the actual tempo, but a lot with the feeling of being or not being in control.
Every time a pillion passenger swings a leg over a bike, there is a tingling of the nerves, caused by the sensation of handing over your life to another person. If you trust that person, the tingle is warm and pleasant. If you don’t, but you get on anyway, for whatever reason, it may turn into a shiver, requiring you to show a lot of guts. As do all pillion riders, because let’s face it: trusting a person in theory and throwing yourself into a bend with him (or her, though in reality it is usually the woman who are brave enough to sit on the back) are two completely different things.
Sit back and relax? Easier said than done
Despite not being the one who is in control of the throttle, gearshift or brakes, a pillion rider is far from being passive. Leaning into corners, holding on tight (but not too tight), making sure you do not collide or bang crash helmets with the rider when she/he accelerates and brakes are only some of the active elements of pillion riding. In some situations, even sitting still and remaining relaxed can be an active undertaking, especially if it means going against your instincts. It takes a lot of willpower to overcome the body’s natural reactions to a potentially risky situation, i.e. the impulse to tense your muscles on a rough patch of road, the urge to counterbalance when the bike leans over in a corner, or the desire to scream at the sight of an oncoming vehicle during a tight overtake.
More often than not, the one in the backseat helps with navigation, i.e. pointing out exits, sights or points of interests (photo stops, roadside cafés). She/he also helps managing the risks, be it by occasionally granting a praising pat on the back for a well-done manoeuvre of the rider, or – if necessary – by administering a warning slap when the rider shows signs of “forgetting himself” - and the one on the back.
The big, big advantage of pillion riding: The pillion passenger gets to really observe the scenery. Many take mental notes, pictures or even videos of the fantastic views, stunning artefacts of nature/architecture/human life or little scenes of daily life that pop up during a ride. Sharing those with the rider at the next stop also enhances their experience – and makes for great contents for the photo album, the next blog entry or social media post.
To share your journey is to share your ride
A lot of people who ride together are couples, who not only share their lives, but also their passion for motorcycling. From our point of view, that makes absolute sense. Getting out on the bike together is a bonding experience, and who would not want to share their favourite pastime with their significant other. That holds particularly true for the holidays. Once the ultimate challenge of packing clothing and other stuff for two people into one top box and a set of panniers has been mastered, there is nothing like touring a country together. Especially if it is a country as beautiful and diverse as South Africa – where the riding is superb, and the pillion riding even better.
Personal note from the author:
Pillion riding got me into motorcycling. As a little girl, I seized every opportunity I could get to jump on the back of my dad’s motorcycle. The time spent on the pillion seat of his MZ ES 250, an East German motorcycle make, affectionately called “Iron Sow”, still belong to my most cherished childhood memories. I got my own driving licence at the age of 16. After that, I did not ride pillion for more than 20 years. In fact I thought my days in the back seat were over.
The first time I got on the back of Joe’s bike, I was so nervous, I could feel my knees shaking. I knew he was an experienced rider, and I did not question his riding skills. What I did question, however, was my own courage and my ability to sit still and not interfere with his riding. And indeed, it took us a while to overcome the unfamiliarity associated with riding two up. And while most of the time we go out on two bikes, there are days when I feel I really want to go pillion. It is a wonderful experience every time, and I would not want to miss out on it ever.
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