The View From the Pillion

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A friend of mine who reads this blog once remarked, “Linda is either devoted or daft to be riding with you.”

It’s a legitimate observation, and not just in the context of my wife. The same can be said of anyone who spends a lot of time on a motorcycle’s passenger seat. The British call it the pillion.

I’m not sure of the term’s origin, but it could be “passenger who has to peer around the pilot’s helmet in order to see anything.”

To be honest, being a motorcycle passenger can alternate between utter boredom and sheer terror. You’re literally putting your life in the hands of the pilot – if something goes wrong, there’s not a damn thing you can do except watch as the crash, collision, tipover or skid unfolds.

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It happened to me just once, in 1997. I was helping a colleague in Nevada pick up his new Road King – a 700-pound beast of a bike – from Reno Harley-Davidson one afternoon.

He was a little out of practice but excited about riding again. The plan was for me to pilot the Harley three miles back to work where he would acclimate himself in the company parking lot. When we got to the dealer, though, the bike was parked outside, all washed and waxed and shining in the sun, looking perfect. He asked me if he could ride it back to work, with me as a passenger.

Like a nitwit, I said sure. It was only three miles.

We made it about halfway when he turned right onto a side street and started to swing wide, taking us over the dividing line into the oncoming lane and towards the curb. I heard him yell, “I can’t hold it!” and I thought to myself, hey, it looks like we’re going to hit the cur–

And we hit the curb, were ejected from the bike, and in the next picosecond I was on the ground, sliding face-first across the sidewalk into some bushes. I was astonished at how fast it happened. I was wearing gloves and a leather jacket and I got away with a quarter-sized scrape on a knee, where the Levis had shredded away. Everything else was fine. I later found a twig lodged in one of the helmet’s air vents.

My colleague suffered much more; he had a dislocated shoulder, a hurt leg and was badly scraped up from the sidewalk. He ended up going to the hospital. (I went back to work.)

The Harley, amazingly enough, was unscathed; it hit the curb, threw us off, and spun around 180 degrees before shutting down and coming to rest on the sidewalk. It stood upright on its engine guards, the bars that protect the sides of the bike. It looked like someone had parked it and walked away.

To his credit, my colleague, who apologized about eight million times, recovered and went on to take that Harley across the country less than a year later.

I don’t dwell on that day but it’s an experience that helped shape the way I ride, especially with a passenger, most especially with Linda. I make sure that everyone who gets on behind me knows that I take it seriously, that I never screw around and I never take chances.

I simply take care, always.

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That’s the sheer terror aspect. The utter boredom is a lot more boring to talk about, especially on long rides, during which the passenger has nothing to do but watch the world go by. It may be interesting for 20 or 30 miles, but the novelty soon wears off.

So on our long-distance rides of 400 to 500+ miles per day, passenger comfort has to be a priority. Besides agreeing on how many miles we want to cover in a particular day, I start by making sure Linda has the right gear, helmet, riding suit, gloves and boots, comfortable and durable. She picks out the styles and colors.

On the bikes, I put in more comfortable seats and add a backrest for her; Endurance has had a backrest for more than a decade and I’m in the middle of installing one aboard Terra Nova now. During last August’s ride to Montana, I rigged up a beverage cup with a straw for her, an improvement that will be used again in future rides.

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To stave off monotony, she shoots pictures with a digital camera while we’re moving, and has come up with some really nice shots over the years. She can use an iPod while we travel. She’s also our ambassador on the road, waving to people in cars, especially children, who always seem fascinated by motorcycles. She’s the one who pays the occasional toll, since she has two hands free.

Our system isn’t perfect, of course, and we have arguments and tense moments like anyone else. But we’ve gotten better at it.

And sometimes being a passenger is an advantage, as it was for her in Glacier National Park last year. She was able to enjoy the park as we wound our way around The Going-to-the-Sun Road while my focus was solely on the road itself, staying on it and not tumbling us into a valley. The scenery was brilliant, even though she had to look around my helmet to see it.

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2 thoughts on “The View From the Pillion”

  1. That Harley-Davidson getting parked by itself is hilarious 😀
    however I can attest that you are a very safe driver

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