The Perfect Pillion

by

Jeff Hughes

 

We missed the chicken.  Our arrival in Brandywine was just a few minutes later than usual, but that was enough.  Pulling up to the firehouse, the doors were shut.

Wheeling the bikes around, we disappointedly motored the half-block down to the little park.  We’d have to find something else for lunch.

Pulling up next to the strange, green sidecar rig, we dismounted and began shrugging out of our gear.  Dropping the Aerostich Roadcrafter on the seat of my BMW, I gave the unusual 3-wheel hack a sidelong glance as I walked towards the picnic table, next to which our two young guests stood smiling.

Joachim and Annette were a German couple in the midst of a 9-month, round-the-world journey.  My buddy Dave had met Joachim – traveling alone at the time - the year before at an overlook up on the Highland Scenic Highway.  A quick friendship had developed and a few months later when Joachim offered that he and his girlfriend were embarking upon their big trans-global trip, Dave had suggested that they spend a few weeks at his house in Arlington. 

And so it was now, after having spent several months traveling north through South America, as the couple rolled towards the east coast they were meeting us for our annual 3-day Labor Day run.  They’d be following Dave home at the end.

After the usual introductions and greetings, and a few minutes hearing about their trip so far, we discussed where to get lunch.  The little town of Franklin, a dozen miles down the road, seemed to make the most sense.

Mounting back up, John and Dave took the lead, followed by Hannibal, the heavily-loaded sidecar rig of our new friends.  Kevin on his Ducati and Jay and I on our BMW’s fell in behind them.  As our loosely strung gaggle rolled westward I couldn’t help but stare at the strange contraption in front of me.  The sidecar itself was homemade, based on a frame that Joachim had had welded to his own specs.  It was attached to an old BMW Airhead.

It also didn’t hurt that Annette was quite fetching.  The combination of a pretty young woman, the unusual sidecar outfit, and the adventure obvious in their round-the-world trip all combined to create a fascinating and alluring package.

What it didn’t prepare me for was what came next, a mile and a half on as we approached the ascent of the mountain between us and Franklin.  As the sidecar turned into the first sharp bend, Annette lifted herself from her seat in the car and swung her ass far to the outside of the rig, hanging on but by the slender handle obviously placed there for that purpose.

After absorbing the sight in a moment of stunned amazement, I broke out laughing.  It was exactly what you’d expect to see during the sidecar races at the Isle of Man.  But seeing it demonstrated by a pretty girl, deep in the mountains of West Virginia, was the very last thing I expected.

Kevin and I glanced at each other.  He too was laughing.  We just shook our heads.

What we would learn over the next couple of days was that Joachim and Annette both were quite accomplished motorcyclists, with extensive experience riding in Europe.  Annette fell in love with Kevin’s 900SS and would end up buying her own 916 within a couple of years.  In the meantime, it quickly became clear that these young Germans were anything but your run-of-the-mill motorcycle tourists.

Fast forward three weeks and we’re back on the road again - this time on a week-long trip to Deals Gap and the mountains of western North Carolina.  Joachim and Annette have been joined by Andreas and Karin, another German couple who have flown over to experience the storied roads of Appalachia.

With the sport-riding potential of the area in mind, Hannibal has been left at Dave’s home in northern Virginia.  The two visiting couples are riding two-up on spare bikes lent by Dave and Jay.  Our pace rises accordingly.

The days pass quickly in a blur of terrific roads, good company, fine food, and fascinating scenery.  Our German friends are duly impressed.

As the week winds down the tires on the Yamaha Joachim is piloting begin losing what remaining tread they have.  We decide to put Annette on the back of my BMW for the return trip home.

Early the next morning we begin the 574-mile ride north up the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive.  Andreas, with Karin on the back of his bike, and me, with Annette on the back of mine, quickly drop the others.  The two of us, having adopted an extremely aggressive pace, quickly tag-team our way up the spine of the Blue Ridge.  Swapping the lead at periodic intervals, we take turns finding the one line that might work at our elevated pace. 

In retrospect, it easily was one of the most reckless, imprudent pieces of riding I have ever done.  Riding hours on end at 80-90 mph, two-up, when the speed limit was half that, was clearly irresponsible.  I certainly won’t try and defend what we did, only offering the sad excuse that exuberance and youth and hooking up with another very fast rider can be a combination fraught with peril. 

But I did learn a few things.  For I had found the perfect pillion.

 

 

Nearly all of us have carried a passenger on our bike at one time or another.  Some of us are quite experienced at it – having ridden with our wives or girlfriends for many miles.

And most of us have said pretty much the same thing before having that newbie passenger climb onboard for the first time:

“Just relax.  Keep your feet on the pegs.  Don’t do anything unexpected.  Lean with me.  Wait for my signal before getting on or off.”  Depending upon how well we know her we might or might not have told her to hang on tight.

And that basic level of instruction works, after a fashion.  For most people, backseat riding on a bike never gets much more sophisticated or any more complicated than that.

What I learned from Annette, though, is that an active, engaged passenger can make an enormous difference in minimizing the inevitable handling disadvantage that comes with riding two-up.  Far from simply hoping for a modest, somewhat neutral level of disharmony from the back seat, an active passenger can actually contribute to the proceedings, counteracting much of the disadvantage that their extra weight brings.

Annette sat very close, first of all, so there was essentially one body mass on top of the bike, not two.  And rather than simply sitting back there casually enjoying the ride, she watched the upcoming road with the very same intensity that I did, shifting her gaze over one shoulder or the other as the road unfolded.  Because she was a sport rider herself, she knew exactly what I was thinking and what I was trying to achieve as I lined up each turn.  She didn’t just “lean with me.”  She pulled herself hard to the inside with the same significant effort that I did.  Had we been wearing race leathers with knee pucks instead of Aerostich suits, her knee would have kissed the tarmac at the same time as mine.  She was anything but the pleasant backseat passenger most of us are used to, in other words.  She was every bit as actively engaged there on the back of my bike as she had been weeks earlier when swinging her ass out of the seat of Hannibal.

And that’s probably the best example there is.  Think of those sidecar racers.  Those crazy guys you see every spring at the Isle of Man.  Sure, one of them is nominally the pilot, the guy doing the steering.  But, really, both of them are doing equal work in getting the car around the course. 

What I learned from Annette is that you can have very much the same thing with that passenger on the back of your bike.  Someone who is actually as much a copilot as they are a passenger.  And that it can enable you to do things two-up that aren’t easy to do when hauling around your more relaxed, I-think-I’ll-just-sit-back-here-and-enjoy-the-view passengers.

All it requires is that you first find that girl who likes sportbikes as much as you do.  One whose favorite sport isn’t football or baseball or soccer – it’s MotoGP and Superbike racing.  She’ll have her own bike.  And she’ll love those good roads every bit as much as you do.

And then you just have to convince her to get on the back of your bike, instead of riding her own.

Good luck.

 

© 2009 Jeff Hughes