Tips for Two Up Riding

By David L. Hough

Iíve ridden motorcycles in some scary situations. Once, crossing Nebraska , I faced two converging tornadoes. In Colorado , during a torrential downpour, I sprinted into a restaurant a few seconds ahead of the lightning bolt. In a canyon in the French Alps, I barely managed to swerve out of the way of a Mini driver in a four-wheel drift around a blind turn. I narrowly avoided a Moose collision in British Columbia , been surrounded by longhorn steers in Utah , chased by baboons in South Africa , and blinded by freezing sleet in Oregon . Been there, done that, got the SCARY RIDE T-shirt.

But the scariest rides of my life were those rare occasions when I had to thumb a ride on the back of someone elseís bike. Hey! There arenít any handlebars back hereówhat am I supposed to hang on to? Whereís the brake lever? I canít see where the bike is headed! I donít know which way weíre going to lean. Uh-oh, I think Iím slipping off the back! Slow down!

Most motorcyclists I know ride ďsoloĒ most of the time. Sure, there are couples who ride two-up on every trip, but most riders seldom carry a passenger. So when we do ask someone to share the ride, we may forget to explain what they need to know, or not remember that the additional load will require different riding tactics. Letís review some of the basic concerns for carrying passengers.

The Safety Briefing

When you board an airplane, you assume the pilot knows what to do, but the passengers may need some coaching about how long the flight is going to be, or whether the flight includes breakfast. First-time passengers may need some coaching about things like emergency exits, toilets, and seat belts. When you have a passenger lined up to ride on the back of your saddle, itís part of your job to describe or provide the necessary riding gear, and explain how to climb aboard, what to do when the bike leans, and how to communicate at speed. After a few rides, passengers will know whatís expected.

Way back in November, 1996, Motorcycle Consumer News published some helpful hints I authored for ďThe Second RiderĒ. That article was written especially for passengers. You might consider locating that issue and loaning it to future passengers, as an easy way to get them up to speed before the ride. For a novice passenger, you should explain the need for riding gear that is warm and durable, including a heavy jacket, leather boots to prevent burns on hot exhaust pipes, gloves to protect the hands, a helmet to protect the brain, and eye protection. You might not want to bring up the possibility of rain, but you should point out that youíre going to be riding in whatever you brought along.

You should discourage any potentially harmful clothing, such as a long, floppy scarf that could wrap around your helmet in a cross-wind, a long drover coat which could snag itís tails in the drive chain, boots with dangley things which could catch on a footpeg, or spike heels which will melt onto your mufflers.

For first-timers, itís also helpful to explain that you will saddle up first and get the bike balanced, and then the passenger can stand up on the left passenger peg and swing onto the saddle. Mention that motorcycles lean into corners, that leaning over is normal, and that the passenger should lean the same as the rider. There are a number of other little points you could cover, such as the passenger keeping feet on the pegs when stopping, and that you will do the traffic signals, thank you. New passengers want to do the right thing, and will probably appreciate some coaching.

Handling Changes

Whatís most important for the rider is that a second person on the bike changes the total mass and the loading, and that changes how you control the bike. Acceleration, braking, and cornering tactics all change, not just because of the additional mass and where the weight is loaded on the bike, but also because the second riderís weight can shift around.

Quick Stops

For example, consider what happens during hard braking. There is more total mass to stop, so you can expect a somewhat longer stopping distance. But, with more weight on the rear wheel, more rear braking can be used in a quick stop, or on slick pavement. On a machine with integrated brakes, you wonít notice much difference, except that it takes harder braking and more distance to stop quickly. More weight means increased traction, so you might think the limiting factor would be brake efficiency. But what you will discover when you try a quick stop, is that the passenger slams forward during hard braking, limiting how much brake effort youíre willing to apply.

In a quick stop, the passenger pitches forward

Once when riding with my wife on the back, I observed what appeared to be a brown log in the left ditch. But as we got closer, the ďlogĒ suddenly raised up itís antlers, leaped up onto the pavement, and clattered into a U-turn. I immediately applied the brakes, but my wife wasnít prepared for a quick stop, and slammed into my back, pushing me forward onto the tank. Even though she is a relative lightweight, I had to modulate the brakes well short of maximum, just to keep from being pushed into the handlebars. We managed to miss the deer by inches, but the lesson to me was clearly that I must always allow more stopping distance when carrying a passenger. Remember, the passenger canít see ahead as well as you can, doesnít know when you are going to suddenly squeeze the lever, and during a stop doesnít have much to brace against, accept you.

If you carry a regular passenger, you might consider practicing quick stops with the passenger aboard. Some training sites allow passengers to be carried during the practice exercises. The typical drill is for the rider to take the course with no passenger, and then repeat the same exercises with a passenger the next day. Passengers may find it helpful to listen to the classroom presentations, too. It helps them to understand why youíre doing what youíre doing, and why you must concentrate so much on traffic and surface hazards.


When accelerating, you have more control over the situation, because you can roll on the gas smoothly to help the passenger stay put. Heavyweight touring machines with top boxes and passenger backrests provide a relatively secure perch for the second rider, but many machines donít offer much in the way of passenger hand holds. Those silly straps that manufacturers used to stretch across the middle of the saddle were supposed to be grab handles for passengers, but only lawyers could figure out how a Homo Sapien might have braced against a quick stop with their hands between their knees. Some machines provide solid grab handles around the rear of the saddle, but it is still difficult to hold on if the bike is accelerating quickly.

Just remember that your passenger doesnít have much except you to hold onto. You can suggest that they grasp you lightly around your waist. If your passenger gives you a little squeeze while riding along in a beautiful sunset, the message is probably ďGee, Honey, Iím glad you brought me along.Ē But if your passenger suddenly strangles you in a bear hug as you roll on the gas, itís probably a sign you are getting a little too aggressive with the throttle. If you want to enjoy the company of a second rider, youíve got to make them comfortable, which really means riding conservatively.


When you are carrying a passenger with little motorcycle experience, you shouldnít be surprised when they panic as you lean the bike over into the first sharp turn. Of course it will be your turn to panic if the passenger manages to lean outward while youíre trying to get the bike leaned over. The wise rider takes corners sedately for the first hour or so, to allow the novice passenger some time to adapt to this leaning business, and also for you to adapt to cornering with the additional mass.

If your bike already has limited leanover clearance, donít be surprised when the bike starts making sparks while cornering with a passenger. Thatís because the additional weight of the second rider compresses the suspension more, reducing leanover clearance. You can reduce the ďtouchdownĒ problem by following a larger-radius cornering line, by reducing entry speed more than for ďsoloĒ riding, and by rolling on the throttle more as the bike is leaned over. But if your machine makes sparks too easily, thatís a message to get the bike jacked up off the pavement a little more.

First of all, check your tire pressures. When carrying extra weight, your tires need extra pressure. Typically, the tire chart for your bike will suggest 3 to 6 psi more pressure in the rear tire. If youíve already been lazy about checking your rear tire pressure, you could easily be 10 pounds less than ďpassengerĒ specs.

While youíre checking the bike, take a close look at the rear suspension. The springs on your shocks may have been on the weak side right off the showroom floor, and most springs sag even more with some mileage. If you have an agile and cooperative passenger, you can check the shock preload by measuring the travel with a tape measure. With the bike unladen, measure the spring length. Then measure again with both rider and passenger weight on the machine. Ideally, the springs should only compress about halfway to the limit with the full load supported on the wheels.

If the shocks are close to bottoming out just sitting there, jack the spring preload to maximum, and check again. If that doesnít get the preload back into an acceptable range, itís time for stronger shock springs. Shock suppliers can usually provide similar-looking but stronger springs, or dual rate springs. There are also specialty shocks with multiple springs for a wider range of preload adjustment, and spring spacers for front forks. The suspension specialists are always willing to offer advice. Talk to your parts man, or call the suspension people directly. Be prepared with the model number and year of your bike, and the weight you intend to carry, including rider, passenger, and typical baggage.


Hills can provide some surprises, too. Consider where a passengerís weight is positioned on the bike. Typically, the passenger is sitting directly over the rear axle. On level pavement, that means the riderís weight isnít applying any load on the front wheel. But when the front end is pointed downhill, more of the passengerís weight is transferred to the front wheel.

When you are braking on a downhill section, the weight shift forward will increase front wheel traction. Obviously, the brakes have to overcome the forward energy of the riders and machine. Whatís less obvious is that when pointed downhill, the ridersí weights are being pulled downhill by both forward energy and by gravity. And kinetic energy increases dramatically with increased speed.

 When braking on a downhill section, the brakes have to overcome both forward energy and the downhill pull of gravity.


If youíre approaching a steep downhill turn, you donít want to delay braking until the last second, and then find you canít get the bike slowed to an acceptable entry speed for the corner. More than a few riders of heavy touring machines have made sight-seeing excursions into the weeds when they discovered they couldnít get the overloaded bike down to speed on the available pavement.

When pointed uphill, itís a different ball game. Remember, if the passenger is perched over the rear axle on the level, then on an uphill slant the passengerís weight will be behind the axle. And the riderís weight will also be shifted towards the rear wheel. Thatís why a bike with a passenger aboard wants to do a wheelie when youíre trying to get started uphill.

With a passenger aboard, the bike may do a wheelie when youíre trying to get started uphill.

The wheelie problem can be even worse when there is a heavy load carried behind the passenger. If you find yourself in a situation where the front wheel starts to float as you ease out the clutch, try to get some weight shifted forward. You can try standing on the pegs and leaning up over the tank, but thatís not easy when balancing the bike with a passenger. If you encounter this situation more than occasionally, you should take steps to unload the rear of the bike, one way or the other.

For instance, consider what youíre carrying in the top box or saddlebags. Perhaps heavier objects could be moved to the front of the saddlebags, or to a tank bag. Maybe you donít really need to carry that set of Ĺ-inch drive sockets strapped over the tail light. Or maybe itís time for a bike with a longer wheelbase.

Even if the bike doesnít show any air under the front wheel when the bike is climbing uphill, be aware that the weight shift rearward unloads the front tire, and that decreases traction. In an uphill turn, that means the front wheel can drift wide.

Remember, the front end gets lighter heading uphill, which means the front tire has reduced traction.

You can help maintain front tire traction in uphill corners by entering at a slightly higher speed than in a comparable level corner, so that the machineís forward energy continues to pull it uphill. Remember, rolling on the gas tends to lift the front end, so you donít want to roll on just where youíre also leaned over. If the machineís inertia can carry it uphill, you wonít have to roll on the gas in mid-turn. Thatís a good tactic when riding by yourself, but when carrying a passenger it is much more important.

Carrying Children

If youíre suddenly faced with the dilemma of making a choice between children and a motorcycle, the obvious win/win situation is to take the kid along on the ride. The problem for the kid is that children younger than perhaps 9 or 10 years old tend to be not equipped physically or mentally to stay put on the back of a motorcycle at speed. The problem for the adult rider is that even a minor injury to a child from motorcycling will probably spell the end of the ride for another 16 years or so. Statistically speaking, very few children under age 12 are injured in motorcycle accidents, but if youíre the unfortunate parent or grandparent holding onto the handlebars when the kid got hurt, youíre going to receive more trouble than you bargained for.

A variety of imaginative approaches have been invented for carrying children on the back of a motorcycle, but none of them are foolproof. The most obvious hazard is that the child can fall off. So, there are belts with passenger handles for the child to hold onto, and belts which strap the child to the rider. The bottom line is that whether the child falls off or gets dragged off during a slideout, itís going to be ugly.

The safer approach to carrying children is to go for a sidecar outfit. Not only is it unlikely a child will fall out of a sidecar after they fall asleep, but in the event of an accident, the child has some protection by the sidecar body and chassis. Most importantly, a three-wheeler is much less likely to slide out on loose gravel, or take a tumble when crossing an edge trap, grated bridge deck, or railroad track.

If you arenít quite willing to risk carrying a child on your two-wheeler, but youíre willing to learn how to drive a three-wheeled motorcycle, maybe itís time to look into a sidecar.

Be aware that driving a three-wheeler is an entirely different experience, but fun in itís own way. There are no statistics available from the insurance industry, the federal government, or the motorcycle industry in the USA that give us any conclusions about the lowered risk of sidecars, but veteran sidecarists believe that outfits are inherently less risky than two-wheelers. If youíre a parent facing the motorcycling vs. child dilemma, youíll have to make up your own mind.

If you would like additional information about sidecars, go to . For information about sidecar training courses and sidecar/trike instructor certification, contact the Evergreen Safety Council,

Whether youíre intending to carry an occasional passenger, or your significant other wants to go along on every ride, the experience is bound to be more fun if everyone understands whatís needed, and there arenít any hazardous surprises. If your life has been getting a little boring recently, I highly recommend a ride on the back of someone elseís saddle. Take my advice to get some ďpillionĒ experience on the back of someone elseís saddle. After that, youíll probably appreciate a conservative rider who takes off gradually, stops smoothly, and corners uphill or down without any unplanned sight-seeing excursions off the road.

David Hough is a long-time motorcyclist and journalist. His work has appeared in numerous motorcycle publications, but he is best known for the monthly skills series ďProficient MotorcyclingĒ in Motorcycle Consumer News, which has been honored by special awards from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Selected columns were edited into a book ďProficient MotorcyclingĒ published by Bowtie Press. He is also the author of ďDriving A Sidecar OutfitĒ. A pocket handbook, ďStreet StrategiesĒ is also on the market now.


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