Pillion to Pilot: A New Point of View

A new rider shares her experiences in taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation training course.

article image
by Richard Backus
The group on course. I wonder why my bike — a dark blue 2019 Yamaha XV250 (far left) — had no mirrors?

Moving from the two-up position to piloting is a reality for an increasing number of women participating in recreational motorcycling.

I’ve been riding pillion for more than two years now. Granted I was a reluctant passenger at first for two good reasons: fear and safety. I’d seen too many younger motorcyclists roar up alongside my car in thick traffic, no helmet, no gloves, wearing shorts and flip-flops. This seemed unnecessarily reckless to me, but this was before I agreed to take a short trek on a vintage motorcycle through the countryside on a bright day in May. Two things happened that day. I fell in love with the 360-degree view with what I call smell-o-roma of a rural ride, and the comfortable, albeit somewhat measured pace of an older, more tempered machine. To my surprise, I loved both. I’ve ridden pillion on the gravel back roads of Kansas, the challenging streets of San Francisco, and the gorgeous coast and hills of California. I’ve been passenger on a 1973 BMW R75/5, a 1983 Laverda RGS 1000, a 1980 Moto Guzzi V50 Monza and a 2016 Ducati Scrambler. My pilot was patient and enthusiastic, provided all my gear, and explained all the quirks of makes and models that made the ride not only fun, but gave me a great deal to focus on while moving; I listened for and physically sensed those details in action. It was a rich introduction that became a serious hook. I’m told that I actually squealed with delight that first day. Motorcycling is a sensorial experience like no other.

Safety awareness for serious fear

If I enjoyed riding pillion so much, why bother learning to pilot my own bike? My very first thoughts of basic motorcycle training were really about safety. I thought it would be a good idea for me to know more about what is happening for my pilot. I believed that increasing my knowledge and awareness might actually increase our safety. Facing the fear of what could go wrong and understanding what can be done to minimize negative results just made good sense to me whether or not I actually enjoyed piloting on my own. Plus, I was just flat-out curious if I could do it.

My curiosity was paired with healthy fear. I’m 56 years old and have two children. I am a single parent. Like a lot of women my age, I have been shaped by a particular cultural influence regarding gender roles that complicate my psychological and social perspective. In other words, my fears are real; financial costs with loss of the ability to work given an accident, negative social judgement, and shaming gender expectations are all present for female riders. Yes, culture is changing, but many people do not respect women motorcyclists and stereotype them instead. Yet, my biggest fear was failure, any kind of failure, from not finishing the course, to dumping the bike. Over the course of two years riding two-up however, I processed a great deal of both real and irrational fear within a new community of men and women who love motorcycles. The positive and accepting conversations at most rides and events won out. Additionally, I was noticing that the opportunity to face raw physical fear each time I got in the saddle was helping me release a certain maternal fear that had taken hold of my guts since giving birth. It’s a basic fear that I think most parents feel, quietly humming beneath the surface as they watch their helpless children navigate a sometimes perilous world. The opportunity to be on a motorcycle was bringing me back into myself and helping me get grounded as an individual again. This was exciting and felt important.

Choosing a women’s-only course

I chose a course that was open to women only, with a curriculum developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Aware that my fears were well founded, I wanted to remove as much stress and distraction from my learning experience as possible. My previous work experience includes 30 years as a professional dancer/athlete and dance educator. I am a perfectionist and being in a large group was not a good idea. I also wanted the company of other women to learn more about those of us who are in the minority of the motorcycle world. Our subset is growing and supporting this community is important as well. I am so glad that I chose this course.

There were five women the first night and our instructor, Mike Adams, was obviously not a woman. What was not surprising are Mike’s credentials: veteran police officer and motorcade specialist. My classmates were all between the ages of 39 and 60, and our first discussions were about why we were there and what we feared most. We all were experienced passengers, but not all of us had piloted a two-wheeled vehicle before. Valerie, Chandra and Melissa had actually maneuvered bikes once upon a time, but abandoned participation while raising kids believing the sport too dangerous. Bonnie and I had no piloting experience. The universal fear of being hit by a car is likely a conscious fear for all motorcyclists, and it was for each of us, too. This was expertly addressed by Mike beginning with basic awareness and preparedness. He assured us that safety was in our hands and that mental focus and a relaxed yet alert attitude are mandatory first steps toward a safer ride. Mike always brought us back to this point; the onus of safety is on the motorcyclist first. Turns out, we were each afraid of something — the bike roaring out from under us, falling, speeding out of control — and therefore we were all on the same page. Mike assured us that we would learn together and proceed slowly after each skill became

We worked in teams to read, review and test through the first few chapters of the basic rider course handbook in preparation for the real deal the next morning. FINE-C, Friction Zone, SSS, braking, shifting, T-CLOCS, etc., all crammed into four hours. I drove off that evening exhausted and searched for a store that was open at 11 p.m. in order to buy a pair of cheap, lace-up boots. Turns out, high-top sneakers won’t do. Piloting requires decent footwear.

Pavement, power and patience

Early the next morning we gathered in a large parking lot. The bikes were all ready for us: two Yamaha Star XV250s and three Honda Rebels. We worked to actualize what we reviewed the evening before. Slow was the key. I liked the curriculum and method for the course as each new skill built upon the previous skill and confidence naturally grew for each of us. I was actually amazed that the friction zone yielded a great deal of control. I was relieved to be able to shift smoothly and brake well. We were all pretty elated to be moving, and stopping successfully. My biggest issue was that I looked down instead of up and I neglected to scan ahead. Mike was very patient with me and simply repeated himself over and over. Turns were a problem. Oddly enough, turning broadly with more speed was easier than turning tightly. Unfortunately, remembering to square up after a stop became a problem for most of us. We lost one student the first day due to an awkward fall and injured throttle elbow. We all got sober quickly after this and our classroom work that afternoon turned to safety margins and risk offset as well as strategies for common riding situations. Again, the fear crept back into our minds.

Deluge and determination

The next day was not so great. I dumped my bike, twice. Both times because I neglected to square up after stopping to watch my classmates. I also became very frustrated with figure 8 turns and hard angle turns. I just couldn’t keep inside the lines. Mike picked up on my frustration. His admonitions were all about deep breathing, keeping my head up and taking my time. Finally, it occurred to me that what was happening was mental fatigue. Piloting requires a great deal of mental alertness, more than I experience driving a car. Mike was right. I was new at this, yet expecting it all to be second nature somehow. If I didn’t want to get hurt, I needed to pace myself. The pressure was on. I knew that by the end of the morning’s riding session I would have to execute all the exercises within the context of testing. I needed to relax.

Just then, it started to rain, then pour. Mike gathered us up and said we would just keep going. He said the rain was an opportunity for real confidence building. We all performed well; sweeping curves, obstacles, quick stops, all in standing water. By the time the testing was to start we had already been through the worst of it. When Mike explained the rules for the exams and how points are deducted from your score, my heart sank. I had to stay in the lines, not put a foot down, and definitely keep upright. It wasn’t pretty, but I made it. Bonnie was the most in control and could navigate those tight boxes like a champ. Chandra did everything well, and Melissa rode consistently and made us all laugh with her self-deprecating humor and positive team spirit. We made it through day two and on-the-bike testing.

Back in the classroom, we reviewed our handbook, discussed emergencies, special situations and rider impairment then we took our written test. Before leaving, we reviewed our piloting scores and test results with rider coach Mike. We all passed, but we were all impressed by how much practice we would need in order to master the basics. It was clear to all of us that a second course would be wise, because there is nothing like real experience to make you pay attention and in two short days we came to understand how poor habits are hard to break. I know this from my dance training. Anything can go wrong during a performance and the only safeguard against injury is muscle memory. I attended beginner dance classes to practice basic techniques every single day for just this reason. The acronyms and exercises of the Basic Rider Course work in the same way. The course proved very productive for me, and I doubt I’d be out on my own without it.

Head up and seated well

These days I put my course lessons to work as I tootle around town on a 1976 Suzuki GT185. This is the perfect bike for me right now. It’s small, upright, and easy to manage. If there is anything I’d change for a women’s-only course, it would be the bikes. I do understand that most facilities offer what is available and many of the bikes are sold at cost or donated to course schools. That said, I did not like the cruiser style of the motorcycle I learned on. The saddle placement and angle was relaxed instead of alert and I did not feel aligned enough for quick responses. I felt sunken and had trouble accessing the rear brake as it felt too far forward, not directly under my knee and hip in a way that allowed for quick, solid movement. Likewise, my reach felt less mobile. I could easily get both feet on the ground, and this was perhaps most important. The standard shape of the Suzuki GT185 allows me to line up head over ribs, ribs over hips, hips in a nice angle to my knee and foot. I can put my feet firmly on the ground as well.

With each outing, my fear lessens and my confidence increases. Soon I’ll be one of the nearly 20 percent of pilots who are female and own a motorcycle. While I still love to ride pillion, piloting is a new thrill. It feels good to come to terms with some fears as I age and prove to myself that I can create a new worldview in spite of cultural norms. I like to think that I’m one of many women out there changing perceptions about age, ability and gender. Women pilots offer differing motivations for wanting to own and operate motorcycles. My guess is that these are just as diverse as most male motivations for the same activity. Fortunately, there are different machines for different motivations and routes to match each one of these. I am excited to explore, however slowly, the many roads ahead. When I’m ready, I might just wave to you. MC

Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine Featuring the most brilliant, unusual and popular motorcycles ever made!