Mums on the Run: Pillion tourer test

Sons getting embarrassed by their mums as we went last-minute Christmas shopping on the best sport-tourers in the country

Ah, Christmas. Such a joyous occasion, presents, loved ones, festive drinks and a night-time visit from some old fella with a massive sack. Thing is, to get to the good part (the presents) you have to suffer the hell and indignity of Xmas shopping, sitting in huge traffic jams, scurrying round the shops like a festive rodent, sniffing out next year’s tat then queuing forever to pay top dollar prices before wrestling your way home for a mince pie and a glass of mulled cyanide. Christmas shopping sucks. It doesn’t have to be that way though, we use bikes as an excuse to beat the traffic all year so surely this is the best time to do so. Panniers and top boxes can hold plenty and if you pick the right bike you can even take someone along to help you carry the bags, maybe even enjoy the experience. A plan was hatched. We were going Christmas shopping.  With our mums.

You see for a proper pillion test we would need to do some distance, carrying straight-talking passengers who would tell it like it really was, then help us with our shopping at the other end. There was only one choice: our mums. Picking the bikes was the easy bit; there is as much choice out there if you’re looking for a bike for two people, as there is if you were looking for a bike just for yourself.

Ducati’s Multistrada would play the part of the city chic fashion conscious commuter bike for two perfectly, because that is exactly what it is. You only have to ride on the continent once to see that, Italian cities are full of two-up Stradas. France is the same, I have seen them ridden two-up at home but Crystal Palace just doesn’t paint the right picture. Triumph’s Sprint ST would hold the middle ground perfectly, it has a strong reputation as the perfect bike for those looking to go a bit quicker two-up, with a couple of subtle changes to the bike for 2008 this would be an ideal chance to see if it’s still up to the job. And the Pan European has gained a dedicated, slightly freakish following in the UK as the perfect bike for long distance touring. Yes it sits in a different market to the other two but why? It might be more tourer than sports but it simply can’t be ignored if you’re in the market for a bike made for two.

Our choice of pillion has more depth to it than just a funny title for a roadtest. Mums talk straight, if something is good they will say so, more importantly if something is bad they don’t hold back.

James Whitham’s mum Pat is older than some, but not as old as others. You would think that having a son like James she would be used to being around bikes, she is but it has been a while since she has travelled any distance on one. Staffer John Hogan’s mum Marion is older than some and shorter than most, has never been on the back of a bike before but was adamant she would be fine because she “likes rollercoasters.” Art Editor Barry Tavner’s mum Terry is older than some and busier than most, she was looking forward to seeing how practical and time-saving travelling by bike could be so she could get to more meetings on time.

Birmingham was pretty much the central point from each mum’s house, and has some brilliant shops.  The fact that it was the middle of December and freezing cold was swept aside like bad helmet hair. Each mother and son combo was issued with a helmet intercom so the backlash of annoying chatter never died away from behind.

Mum’s the word

Top 10 tips from our pillion mums!

  1. Don’t worry about looking stupid, rather that than freezing.
  2. Don’t carry handy stuff in your trouser pockets, it gets uncomfortable.
  3. Always put your helmet on before your gloves. Important, this.
  4. Relax, you physically can’t hold on too tight for too long as your arms and hands will go numb. So relax.
  5. Always wear some earplugs, motorways are really noisy. as are sons.
  6. Look around, it’s a great way to see the world!
  7. Unless you have intercom, don’t waste your time trying to talk over 40mph
  8. Only climb on when the rider is ready
  9. Get used to helmet hair, there is no quick fix. carry a comb at all times.
  10. At least enjoy it, if you can’t do that you’re better off in a car.

I chose the Multistrada for the freezing ride to Manchester to pick up my mum. As a solo bike it’s fantastic, the perky 1,078cc air-cooled twin feels like it has every one of the claimed 95bhp, and as long as you don’t try and ride it in too high a gear it’s super smooth. Get it wrong and the judders would force you to heave on the super heavy clutch to find the right gear. Why Ducati can’t fit the APTC clutch as fitted to some of the Monster range I don’t know. Even in the freezing cold and dark I still managed to have some fun on my way up North, fully adjustable suspension is there as are Brembo four pot brakes, both fantastic. I think the OE tyres (Pirelli MT90 Scorpions) are a tad useless, they take an age to warm up and have never really inspired my confidence, and this bike would definitely suit some stickier rubber. I still can’t get my head around how the top half of the fairing moves when you turn the bars but can forgive it as the screen did a passable job of blowing the Siberian winds over my head.       

My mum was jumping about like an excited child (only smaller) before we set off, at barely five foot in her Hein Gericke boots she made hard work of getting on, but was apparently comfortable and happy especially when she realised that she could reach the grab rails. “I was really worried about not being strong enough to cling on to John for the whole journey. Then I realised there were handles for me to hang on to, or I could just leave my hands in my lap on the motorway and I felt much happier.” Riding out of town the Multistrada and I were on best behaviour. I decided against stiffening the rear at all to improve two-up handling as the roads were so slimy I wanted to give myself a fighting chance of feeling what was going on.

It was immediately obvious that even more attention than usual had to be paid to getting the right gear with mum on the back. The judder became more pronounced and the bike took a little bit longer to pull through the bottom end of the gear, only if you got it wrong, mind. The bike still felt agile, I was expecting more vagueness from the front end than I actually got and like I said I didn’t adjust the suspension to take the extra weight. I did notice a mild speed-weave on the motorway, but only above 90mph, and it straightened out over 100mph anyway. We definitely didn’t struggle to keep up with the Whithams on fast A-roads but (rider skill aside) I had to work quite hard and the feedback from the mums was that the Triumph was more comfortable than mine while we were getting a shift on.

Once mum was used to my ham fists we were fine on the brakes, never needing more power than what was available, even when pushing fairly hard. We couldn’t really fault the Ducati’s two-up abilities, if anything riding it pillion highlighted the niggly things that let it down riding it solo. The economy only changed a tiny bit as well, dropping from an average 44mpg solo to 42mpg two up. After we got into Brum I was under strict instructions as to which shops I would be carrying bags from. If you’re interested the AGA shop is very good, as is the Harvey Nicholls (apparently). I thought I would get lucky and score a reasonable Xmas prezzie, it wasn’t meant to be and I got some moisturiser as me mum was worried about my skin on future windy cold roadtests. Bah.

John Hogan

Hogan’s mum speaks her mind:

“I loved the whole experience, everything from going to the Hein Gericke shop for some kit to flying along the motorway with John. At one point we stopped to look at a map, within minutes a guy on a bike stopped to ask if we were okay, I had heard that bikers look out for each other but didn’t really think it was true, it was and I was amazed. The bike looked daunting, everything is taller than me so it wasn’t really the height. I think it was the boxes on the sides. Once on I was fine, I liked leaning over in the bends, and accelerating away from lines of cars. John said I wouldn’t get bored on the back and not to worry about the fact there was no radio and he was right, I found myself enjoying the view on the M6 and I have never done that in a car. I didn’t like filtering on the motorway, even when we were going really slowly I just shut my eyes, I trusted John but earlier on he was pointing out drivers putting on make-up and chatting on phones, weaving all over the place. I was more worried about them not seeing us. I think I would choose the Triumph if I had to pick, it looked really sporty but Pat didn’t seem to mind the riding position. The Honda just looked like an old man’s bike and I didn’t like the colour. Would I recommend riding pillion to people who hadn’t done it before? In a flash, even if it was freezing cold!”

I’ve ridden the Sprint ST loads of times and always had a bit of a soft spot for it, but this was the first time I’d ever ridden one with anybody on the back, and this wasn’t just anybody, It was my lovely old dear.  This was also the first time she’d ever been on the back of me, and the first time she’d been on any bike since 1978 when, under duress she got a lift into town on the back of my dad’s 400/4 coz her Austin Princess had shat itself.

Once she’d managed to get on, which I have to tell you was a bit of an epic in itself until she’d perfected the technique, she felt quite comfortable. I was acutely aware of her lack of experience of being on a bike so I took it really steadily as we set off from her house so as not to scare the lass. After about five miles or so she pipes up over the intercom asking why we’re going so slow. Once above about 30mph or so you’d hardly know you had a pillion passenger on at all. Especially on the faster, flowing stuff I could’ve convinced myself I was riding one-up if it hadn’t of been for the chatting we were both doing.The rear seat is quite a bit higher than the front and although this meant my mum could see where we were going most of the time without having to poke her head out to one side, it also meant she was right in the wind-blast. Under about 80 though she said it wasn’t a problem.

One area where I thought the bike would feel a lot different two-up was the suspension. Every other time I’ve ridden an ST, I’ve felt that the suspension was very close to being too soft with only an 11 stone rider aboard. I was convinced that once we’d done the “buckaroo” bit by filling the panniers full, and piling a 10-stone parent on the back, both the rear unit and the forks would both be way overloaded but I was completely wrong. True, you feel more weight transference as you brake or accelerate but the suspension on the whole still feels comfortable and to be working within tolerances.

The extra weight didn’t affect the handling and steering as much as I thought it might, either. The centre of gravity two-up and with luggage is higher and further back than when you’re riding solo. By rights this should make the bike harder to turn into a corner and reduce the amount of feedback you get from the front end. Over the years I’ve done loads of “pillion in a million” things taking people round race circuits fairly fast and whatever bike you’re riding always turns into an ill-handling pig as soon as the passenger gets on.  On the road though you naturally tend to ride smoother and more predictably when you have someone on the back so you don’t notice the bike steering slightly slower.

One thing you need to watch with the weight high and back is the front wheel coming up under hard acceleration. It was very easy in first gear to get all that mass rolling to the back end as you opened the throttle and several times I ended up wheelying down the road with my mum blissfully unaware of what was going on. I’d have been in right trouble if she’d clocked we were doing a wheelie! Strangely, at no point, even accelerating hard with the front wheel in the air did mumsy feel like she was in danger of dropping off the back. Her legs rested so snugly against the panniers she said she felt held in and dead safe. 

Filtering through city traffic at walking pace took a lot of concentration if you wanted to look smooth and doing three point turns or manoeuvring in car parks was made difficult because when on full right lock the twist-grip is too close to the tank to be able to use it properly. To be fair though it’s always going to be the slow stuff that’ll catch you out when you’re carrying a load of weight on any bike. I like this Triumph. It looks good, has plenty of grunt, the handling coped well with the extra weight of mum, and the exhaust note is as sweet as ever. And even though she’s not been on the back of a bike for ages mum said it was the most exciting thing she’d done since a parachute jump strapped to a 6 foot soldier!

James Whitham

Whitham’s mum reckons:

“It’s 30 years since I’ve been on a bike, although as a child a bike and sidecar were, like many other families our only form of transport, so I really had no idea what to expect. When he arrived outside my house the bike was bigger than I thought it was going to be and I have to say I was a little intimidated, but once I figured out how to climb aboard and we got going I settled into it. I think at first James was concerned not to frighten me because even to me he seamed to be going fairly steadily, once I told him I trusted him and I was enjoying it he went quite a bit faster. The bike was much smoother than I thought it would be and also I couldn’t believe how it accelerated!

"Probably the most impressive thing was the manouvrebility you seem to enjoy on a bike, the way we were able to get into the centre of  Birmingham in no time at all despite the traffic being really heavy amazed me. Even though the weather was cold my clothing kept me warm and I have to say I can now fully understand what people see in this motorcycling thing, I enjoyed every minute of it.”

The blanket of frost which greeted us in London at 6.30am on the 12th had not gone down well in the Tavner household. I foresaw misery for mum and in return a fair bit of ear-ache for me. The concept of taking our mums shopping on the back of bikes had been met with hilarity at its conception and even when I’d mentioned it to my mum she’d seemed fairly relaxed about the whole thing. With the Pan’s display showing -3 for the air temp I knew the next two hours weren’t going to be much fun for her and even as we set off I knew that telling her we were on the most comfortable of the three bikes on test was going to be scant consolation for the poor dear.

I, on the other hand, was going to be fine as I’d already dialled the heated grips up to eleven and had layered up knowing that I was going to be mum’s first line of defence. Filtering is not as difficult as you’d think on the Pan even when two-up as the whole bike just feels incredibly balanced despite it’s obvious weight and with all the panniers. Once we hit the motorway we began our experiments with the windshield, this was a short-lived affair though as the intercom died shortly after and all I had to go on was how much mum’s head was moving at the different settings. I settled on the lowest setting in the end as it seemed to prevent the icy blast that we got when the screen was at mid or fullest height. As with other tourers we’ve tried in the mag I’m still left wondering what the actual advantages of adjustable screens are.

The next two hours were chilly but effortless, this is the environment that Pan’s were made for, churning up miles and miles in a very civilized manner even in these sub zero temperatures (well, I thought so). It was only once we got to the rendezvous and mum had begun to defrost that she asked me why the grabrails or seats on this sort of bike weren’t heated at all, a valid point considering the suffering a pillion has to go through. There were no other complaints really from mum regarding the Pan. She’s been on a few bikes since I joined the mag and although this was by far the most comfortable bike she’d been on she also thought it was the most bland and wondered why the huge Honda only come in such a drab colour. I suspect that this was just down to the beauty of the Triumph which really did stand out when the three bikes were side to side. In the end, and almost entirely down to its looks, that was the bike all the mums fell in love with in the end.  

Barry Tavner

Barry’s mum says:

“I like to think I’m up for most things but only the most loving mother would agree to a 300-mile round trip up the M1 and M6 on what turned out to be the coldest day of the year! The bike, a tourer I’m reliably informed, handled well in my view. Baz thought it was sluggish but that wouldn’t be the word I’d use – we touched alarming speeds at times. It didn’t have a back rest and since many touring bikes do, I don’t know why Honda decided not to bother. My biggest complaint, though, was the metal back plate which damaged the nerve endings on my left thumb as I hung on. I couldn’t be seen dead with my arms round my son’s waist – so uncool – and now I’ve paid the price! But I loved the speed. I loved the circuits around Birmingham City Centre. I loved seeing the world from such a different perspective. And I know I’d love it even more on a warm day! But The colour, Sludge silver, is not a favourite of mine and definitely not on a bike. There’s only one colour and that is red. Honda, take note!”