Riding as a group can add some safety as well as some risk to a motorcycle ride depending on how you do it and who you do it with. It’s a little like sex that way. At some point in the trip planning the subject of group ride formation should be mentioned. Hopefully sex is not a topic of group planning (although that could be fun too – Editor). The main safety aspect of group riding is that you are more visible as a group in staggered formation or in two-abreast configuration than as a single motorcyclist. Car drivers lost in their music or stressed about work are more likely to take notice of you. The main risk of group riding is that you are counting on the riding skills of your fellow group members and for them to be aware of the other bikes, road hazards and traffic to keep themselves and you safe.
Having ridden in groups with riding styles ranging from military drill team precision riding formation down to some total free-for-alls, I have had the opportunity to look at many aspects of group riding and develop some preferences. The classic question for group riding is how tight and crisply is your group going to ride. The sub-questions are how safe do you want to be and what level of focus and reaction time are the riders comfortable with.
The three types of Motorcycle Group Ride Formations we’ll look at are Military Precision, Free For All, and Compromise.
Group Riding – Military Precision Option
Some motorcycle groups ride very crisply, always in staggered formation, with each rider riding two seconds behind the rider directly in front of them and one second behind the staggered rider, as the motorcycle safety courses tend to recommend. When the leader decides the riders should be in single-file riding formation, he holds up his left hand with the index finger pointed up and each rider passes the signal down the line and everyone reacts. When the leader decides the group should move back to staggered formation he raises his left hand and waggles his 1st and 4th fingers. Again the riders pass the signal down the rows and everyone reacts. There can be many more leader signals, but you get the picture.
Riding in a tight staggered formation, you are very visible, cars are unlikely to dangerously insert themselves between the bikes, it is easier for the entire group to take advantage of short passing opportunities, the rear riders are unlikely to get left at a stoplight and all riders are focused on the other bikes and road conditions. The staggered lane position gives you more reaction time in braking situations. Additional benefits are that a road hazard identified by the leader gets communicated down the line for everyone to avoid. Also, as you enter a curve, you can judge by the speed and brake lights of the riders in front of you what a safe speed is for you to take that curve. When changing conditions affect the group, you can feel them by the closing or lengthening of the space between you and the rest of the group and you can see the brake lights of 3 or 4 bikes in front of you.
A fun part of riding with a group like this is what I call the Blue Angels pride. The Blue Angels are the group of U.S. Navy jet aircraft that ride precision formations in air shows. Wingtip to wingtip they roar at supersonic speeds through climbs and rolls, their flying an incredible display of skill and teamwork. Those guys have an amazing pride in those skills and that team and I get some of that while riding tightly with a skilled group of riders.
The price for the military drill team riding precision is some reduction in your sight seeing as well as the ability to zone out with your music or your thoughts. That is too big a price for some riders to pay. Some other riders may not feel their skill level is up to the task and feel uncomfortable riding tightly.
Group Riding – Free For All Option
When riding in a group, you need to ride safe both for yourself and your other riders. Part I of this post described the pleasure of riding as a group and the option of riding with group military precision. While this is a fun way for skilled riders to ride as a group, it doesn’t fit for everyone. On the other end of the group riding scale is the Free-For-All.
A Free-For-All ride is where there are no riding rules. Everyone “rides their own ride”. Sometimes the riders are bunched and sometimes spread all over the road for a mile or so. “Staggered formation” becomes a term for rider condition in the bar at the end of the day. Signals between riders don’t exist and nobody knows where the other riders are going to be or what road conditions they are dealing with. Some folks seem to get a feeling of freedom from this. They are on their bike and nobody is going to tell them what to do or curb their freedom in any way. Unfortunately they have added a great deal of risk to their group ride.
There is no increased visibility provided by the group of riders since they are often so spread out they may as well be riding solo (which would probably be a better idea for them). They are not able to learn of road hazards or conditions from other riders in front of them because often they can barely see them. They don’t know where to expect the riders behind them to be if a quick swerve or turn is necessary.
Free-For-Allers tend to be all about “me”. They get to zone out with their thoughts or music or the scenery. They don’t want to trust the input of their fellow riders and feel that when they are hanging back they have more time to react to a situation even though they might not recognize a situation happening to a bike in front of them because they are zoned out or just too far back to see it. When I find myself riding with a group like this, I tend to push on ahead or drop back a couple miles and ride solo for my own safety. I’ll meet them for lunch or at the end of the day.
The “C” word, Compromise
There are different levels of riding skill among bikers and I don’t want to exclude an entertaining character from a ride because he is not a Blue Angels pilot riding with military precision. On the other hand, I do want riders in the group to be thinking about the safety of other riders as well as themselves and not riding in a free for all, so here is what I try to push as group riding rules.
Staggered formation is a must. You just have to do this. It makes the group more seeable from the front and back and increases the spacing for reaction time and it is not tough to maintain. A side benefit for the group leader is that with a quick mirror check he can look down a staggered row of riders and count the headlights to make sure everyone is there.
Rider spacing needs to stay as consistent as possible, but on open roads it doesn’t have to be super tight. At 70 mph (120 km/hr), maintaining a 2-1/2 to 4 second gap between you and the rider in front of you gives you a range of between 260 feet (78 meters) and 412 feet (126 meters), still seeable as a group from in front and in back and that should be enough time to react to a problem while letting you float a little with your music. It is pretty easy to use a lane line or road marker to maintain that gap. In towns whether you are on freeways or small roads, tightening up that gap to 2 to 3 seconds keeps the last rider from getting caught at the stop light while everyone else has to pull over and wait for them. On a freeway, it makes sure everyone can change lanes safely and not miss an exit and makes it less likely that unaware car drivers will split your group.
A good plan when you are on a very scenic section of road is for everyone to just agree to meet at the end of the section of road at a specified time. That way everyone can cruise the scenic section at their own speed, stop for their own pictures and viewing and not worry about nearby riders.
For the “me” rider who just wants to zone out and “ride their own ride” oblivious of the group, that’s OK, but they should ride last in line where their inconstant speed and lack of awareness of the group won’t cause the group to become disconnected and less safe. And these “me” riders might want to get a GPS because the group may not be able to see far enough back in their mirrors to keep track of them.
Ride safe for yourself. Ride safe for your fellow riders.
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