Kelly's Group Riding Tips

By Kelly Cash

I've been riding with a number of motorcycle clubs, and enjoy the comraderie. While most aspect of clubs are great, there IS one area in which I think many clubs could use some improvement. When riding as a group, I (and others) have noticed that riding styles vary; many groups seem to lack cohesion. I'm not sure I'd profess to be an "expert" in this area, but I have learned many techniques when riding with groups that have practiced good techniques. I think they'll help groups ride together, which will make us safer and increase our riding enjoyment.

Basic Techniques

1. Ride in a staggered formation. We all learned in MSF/CMSP classes that there are three "mini-lanes" in each lane on the road. When group riding, we use the center portion for evasive maneuvers. The bikes alternate left and right through the group, with the leader on the left. The leader is on the left to have better visibility of oncoming traffic and is able to see through corners easier from there. In the following diagram, assume the leader is bike #1, the next bike is #2, and so on:

          Direction of travel ->

7 5 3 1 (vacant center "mini lane") 8 6 4 2

The staggering helps in a number of ways: It primarily allows us to stay closer together, while giving us extra room should we need to perform evasive maneuvers or emergency stops. It makes it less likely to be hit by debris thrown up by the rear tire of the rider ahead. It gives us better visibility of the road ahead, and the ability to swerve around potholes and other obstacles.

Once the group takes off from a stop, the column will rapidly line up from front to back. When it comes time to stop at an intersection, the column of bikes should move to a double-file formation, closing up the space between the bikes. See the diagram:

          Direction of travel ->

7 5 3 1| | 8 6 4 2|

The benefit is that we all get ready to take off as a unit. It also discourages cars from trying to wedge into our stopped column. Once we take off, we'll spread out into a staggered formation again. The exception to riding staggered is when the road gets twisty or hazardous. Then we spread out even further to a single-file formation for increased maneuvering room. Once the road becomes normal again, so will our formation.

2. Stay in position, particularly when cornering. Don't weave from side to side. If you're riding on the right side, be sure not to cross to the left when going through a turn. This will put you too close to the riders in front of and behind you.

3. Keep close proximity to the rider in front of you. I personally prefer a tight formation, within reason. Don't get so close that safety is an issue, but don't let a huge gap form between you and the bike in front of you. This allows us to keep closer track of each other, it discourages cars from cutting into our moving column of bikes, and we all make it through intersections faster- This reduces the chances of red lights breaking up the column.

4. Decide beforehand what speed we plan on riding. One good rule to go by is to never leave anyone behind; to not push people beyond their comfort levels. At the very least that could scare some riders, and it might even be unsafe. It's the road captain's duty to keep track of the column, and to watch for gaps opening up. If there are, someone's uncomfortable and the column should slow down. Now, having said that, there are a number of us who like to push the limits, and ride in a more "spirited" fashion.

I prefer keeping the group together; in case of problems we're all there. But, there may be times when we might break the group in two, having a fast group and a slow group. If we do this, we should then have a road captain for each group. The two captains will make sure each knows the route, and decide where and when the two groups will reunite. All groups should ideally take the same route.

One main point is that no rider should be pushed beyond his/her comfort level when riding. Any rider struggling to keep up with the rest of the group will not only not enjoy the ride, but can make dangerous mistakes. Either break the group into two or more sub-groups, or agree ahead of time that the speed of the column will be dictated by the slowest rider. The last thing any group wants to do is to make anyone uncomfortable, let alone get hurt.

5. Maintain a consistent speed. This reduces the "rubber-banding" effect through the column. When speed fluctuates, the effect is "amplified" more the further back in the column you are.

6. Watch your mirrors more often than usual. Keep track of your neighbor. Be mindful of problems, people uncomfortable with the speed, and so on.

7. Communicate with each other. Use turn signals, both hand and lights. Remember to cancel those turn signals! Don't rely on the "self-canceling" feature to do it. Why? Some of us have multiple bikes, and not all have signals that self-cancel. Not only that, but waiting for the self-cancel to happen may confuse people behind. We've all seen the hand gesture used to describe a person who talks too much- It's also used to tell someone their turn signal is still on.

There are some people in the chapter who have CBs and Chatterboxes. It's effective for two people who can communicate electronically to be at each end of the column. This allows the leader to know if everyone made it through a green light, if someone's broken down, etc. If the leader doesn't have this capability, the number two bike should. That way the tail rider can still get information to the road captain at stops.

8. Designate a good rider as "sweeper" to bring up the rear. This person will watch for any problems, and make sure anyone becoming separated from the main group is not left stranded. If possible, have the sweeper remain in radio contact with the leader. Should someone break down, or get stuck by traffic lights, the rear can tell the front to wait.

Advanced Techniques

These techniques don't seem as though they'd be difficult. And they wouldn't be ordinarily, when you're riding by yourself. It's when a road captain is watching out for a number of people that they become a challenge.

1. Change Lanes Purposefully. When riding alone it's common to change lanes frequently for better position, avoiding traffic, etc. But trying to get a number of bikes to change lanes frequently is both difficult and frustrating for those at the back. Find the best lane to be in and stick with it. Plan ahead for turns and exits. Don't wait until the last second to dive across 3 lanes of traffic to exit a busy freeway.

2. Change Lanes Smoothly. Objective: To change lanes when all riders in the column can change at once, with no cars splitting up the column.

Lane changes without traffic: Okay, say we need to move right one lane on the freeway to exit. The road captain flips on the right turn signal and raises his/her left arm. Everyone else does the same, all down the column. Who moves first? Not the captain- That would cut off bike #2. No, the bikes on the right move first, making room for the bikes on the left.

Lane changes with traffic: This is a lot trickier. Let's look at a diagram:

          Direction of travel ->

7 5 3 1 8 6 4 2 ------- | Car | -------

We want to move right, but there's a car in the way. We could:

  • Slow the column of bikes down to let the car get ahead of us.
  • Speed the column up to get in front of the car.
  • Compress the space between our bikes, but that's risky.
  • Break the column in two, change lanes, and when there's room, have the second group pass the car to rejoin the rest.
This gets complicated further when there are a lot of cars in the way. Follow the lead of the road captain, paying special attention to changes in speed. There is another option- The bikes in front of the car change lanes. The bike immediately in front of the car gradually reduces speed, creating room ahead for the bikes behind to move into.

In the above diagram, it'd be bike #3 which slows to make room for bikes #4 - #8 (in that order) to pass and get back into the column. This may change more than just the order of the bikes; it may also change the staggering position of bikes #3 - #8. Note that bike #3 should signal the bikes behind to pass, preferably before they change lanes behind the car, with a "come around" kind of wave. After the entire column is in the new lane, the tail bike (which used to be #3) may wish to move back into its original position. Generally this need only be done for communication purposes: To get the bike with a CB at the tail, or in front.

3. Pass Traffic Smoothly. Doesn't sound tough. And it's not, but it does require a little finesse. Let's say the column is behind a car. We wish to pass. We're in a staggered formation, the leader is on the left. The leader signals, and passes, pulling forward to allow room for the rest of the bikes past the car. Bike #2 moves to the left, where the leader was. The rest of the column does NOT adjust staggering position. Example:

          Direction of travel ->

3 2 ------- 1 | Car | 4 -------

The rest of the bikes pass this way, maintaining passing speed until ALL bikes are past the car. This is important- If the first couple of riders don't maintain passing speed, there'll be no room for the riders behind to pass the car.

4. Communicate Road Conditions. It's one thing to tell the column which way to turn. It's quite another to run across a potentially dangerous condition, and signal back without reducing your control over your bike. Okay, most signals are for easy things: A pothole, a patch of dirt, a chunky-style road pizza. A simple example would be: You're cruising down a straight road, you pass a pothole on your left side. No sweat, you simply point to it with your left hand. What if the pothole's on the right? You may not want to take your hand off the throttle, so you point with your foot. Let's make it a little trickier- You round a turn, and you come across something in the path of the bike behind you. If you point, will the person behind you see your signal in time? Try. Maybe they'll be able to avoid the hazard. All right, let's make it really hairy- You're in the middle of a long, blind turn. All of a sudden, you're in the middle of a huge patch of gravel, covering the road. Should you point at it? You don't want to risk losing control by taking either hand off the bars, or by taking a foot off a peg. Communication is great, but don't lay your bike down to do it! If the rider is close enough behind you to see, and you can safely signal, do. And the rider behind might relay it back to warn the rest what's coming.

I'm reminded of the motorist driving on a winding road. An oncoming car rounded a turn, and its driver yelled "Pig!" at him. "Cow!" yelled the first driver in retaliation. As he went around the turn, he crashed into the biggest pig he'd ever seen. The moral: Don't ignore signals, they may be intended to save you! If you can't communicate with a hand or foot signal, try a blast of the horn. I think we all recognize a horn as an indication of impending danger, so if you hear a horn, stay alert and slow down!

Conclusion

These techniques are, as Rod Serling might have said, "Submitted for your approval." It's not my intent to try to dictate rules or regulations to anyone or any clubs, and frankly, I couldn't even if I wanted to. No, these techniques are intended to be a starting point. All suggestions, ideas, comments should be discussed. There is a wealth of riding experience in clubs, and no doubt many have developed good solutions too. Develop the techniques that best serve your club and riding styles.

Have fun, but be safe!

-K

Kelly Cash was a CMSP/MSF safety instructor for 12 years, and has been the road captain for a number of motorcycle clubs.

Copyright 1998/2014, Kelly Cash All Rights Reserved.

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