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Motorcycle Group Ride

The Three Motorcycle Group Ride Formations

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.

Motorcycle Group Ride Side of Road

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.

Motorcycle Group Ride Parking Lot

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.

Motorcycle Group Ride Desert

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.

– Jefe

Life, America and the Road is available in paperback from Jefe’s website for $14.95 and makes a great read for motorcyclists and an even better unique gift idea. You can read our review of Jefe’s book here.

For the more digitally-friendly of us, Jefe’s made the book available via Kindle for only $2.99. The digital download is cross platform meaning it will work on your iPhone, Android phone, tablet, and laptop or desktop provided you can download the Kindle app. You can grab the digital copy here.

About Jefe

Jefe Smith continues to ride across America, 140,000 miles in the past 12 years. His irreverent storytelling of road experiences, life experiences and the America he discovers can be accessed in his first book, LIFE, AMERICA and the ROAD A Biker's Perspective, which has been well received by the motorcycle community. The ebook is available in the Amazon Kindle Store and signed hard copies are available at www.jefestours.com. A second book, LIFE, AMERICA and the ROAD to KEY WEST A Biker's Perspective is due out in July of this year.

14 comments

  1. Not to be argumentative…..(who, me?), I disagree with the writer’s opinion that group riding, especially the popular “Military Precision Option”, has many (if any) inherent advantages over riding alone. In my experience, this activity is often an accident waiting to happen. The biggest two challenges are 1) very few riders have the “Blue Angels” skill levels to ride in such a precision formation safely, and 2) most groups have no idea how far apart the bikes should be spaced. This is because everyone knows the “two second rule”, but no one ever does the actual math!

    Typically, riders just GUESS at the spacing, and guess badly. At 60 MPH (OK…100kph), you’re travelling a mile a minute. That’s 88 ft per second. So you should be 176 feet behind the rider directly in front of you. That’s well over half a football field apart. When I’ve ridden with some groups and “attempted” proper spacing, some jerk called the Tail Gunner usually yells “tighten it up”.

    Bad advice!

    If you can’t do any sight seeing, why are we out here, anyway? And you’re burning up all kinds of excess fuel and brake pads with all the keeping up and panic stops.

    Plus, no car approaching the back of the group can get past safely…nor can the group pass anyone up ahead…..not as a one solid entity; it just can’t happen if 10 bikes are spaced out over a quarter mile, as they should be. The disadvantages of attempting this “Golden Helmets/Military” style far outweigh any perceived safety gains.

    Oh, and all of this letting go of the bars to wiggle your fingers for single file because there’s a curve up ahead…..or, flailing your leg to point at a pothole? Crazy! If the group were just spread apart the way they should be, they’d all be able to see these “hazards” themselves, just as they would on a nice solo ride. (Not to mention, am I the only one in a group of ten riders who feels a little stupid wiggling their hand in the air, when all you have to do is LOOK AHEAD to see that we’ve gone into single file mode! For crying out!)

    I agree with one thing: groups of bikes ARE more visible than single riders. Unfortunately, many groups end up looking like donkeys while trying to perform like race horses!

    • Hey Mike, thanks for your oomment. I am not trying to compare riding in a group to riding solo as that debate gets into personal levels with plenty of right answers. I am displaying some different group riding techniques I have experienced. My attempted message is three-fold. 1) When riding as a group, you have to be thinking about the other riders in addition to yourself. 2) If you are going to ride in a group, some level of structure allows everyone to take advantage of the opportunities to be more visible and focused. 3) Whether it is 20 different hand signals and military formation or a more relaxed system, it is worth discussing what rules are in play on each group ride so everyone is on the same page and knows what to expect.

      This topic is near and dear to me as I was hit by a rider behind me on a group ride. The problem was not that he was riding too close, it was that he was riding too far back and had become disconnected with what was happening to me in one of those road situations that went real bad real fast. My bike sustained $8,000. in damage and my friend who hit me was life flighted to a trauma center and fortunately survived. I very luckily walked with minor injuries. The experience is detailed in the Dodging a Bullet chapter of my book (advertising plug) along with the changes I made as a result of it.

      I agree that there is an elementary school classroom aspect of all the riders mimicking a leader’s hand signal when the situation is intuitive, but not all riders have good ride intuition and in a riding group that includes folks who have not ridden together frequently, it helps confirm that everyone is focused on the group and the ride.

      Jefe

    • Completely with Michael Scott on this. We have one golden rule for our group rides. You ride your way and take your own responsibility. From an organisational point of view, the leader is really the navigator and tends to wait for less geographically aware anywhere the route turns off. Everyone else gets on at their own pace but usually stay in sub groups. The organiser also makes sure everyone at least knows what the next meet point should be. Somehow I end up with that job a lot. If I’m really organised I get to mark up maps and such. Oh yeah, and the silver rule is first at the meet point gets the teas in. Helps to keep the speeds reasonable. Bronze rule is if you aren’t having fun you’re doing WE’RE doing it wrong. Tell someone. That’s half the reason we ride together.

      • “get the teas in” implies some UK to me John. A long way from my southwest U.S. It is funny how some of us seem to get stuck with the leading task on most rides. I recently complained to a group about the crap I took for making one wrong turn on an otherwise flawless ride and suggested that maybe someone else should lead. These friends told me unequivocally that I would continue leading and I would continue to take crap for it and to stop whining about it. I guess it’s nice to be appreciated for something.

        I never recommended the military precision option for the reason that Mike Scott mentioned: plenty of riders are just not up to it and for John’s comment that rides are about having fun. I ride with several groups and one of them is very crisp and military-like. It is a challenge and fun to ride with them occasionally and they do have advantages of being seen and being able to pass and be passed by other vehicles easily, but that is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea and it is only mine occasionally.

        Sounds like John does a good job of communicating route and stops to his group which minimizes the requirement for everyone to stay together. The only other thing I like to communicate at the beginning of a ride is to be aware of what is happening with riders near you. You are responsible for your own ride, but in any group you are also responsible for not messing up a nearby rider’s ride.

    • I have ridden thousands of miles in group rides, I disagree with Michael Scott, riding in formation isn’t some trick of military precision. We typically ride 2 seconds behind the bike in front of us and even when having to stop suddenly this has not been an issue. I notice no difference in consumption or wear and tear on the bike, (actually I probably get a little better gas mileage in a group) panic stops and catching up? Really?

      As for passing if your traveling slow enough that cars need to pass let them in by separating the group, no big deal. Were rarely passed as a group though as we typically set a good pace of 5 over the posted limit.

      As for signaling, yeah we can see the hazards and can see when your going single file. Its just a courtesy. If you are not comfortable removing a hand from the bars should you really be riding?

  2. I agree whole heartedly with Micheal Scott, I was about to respond similar. Also, why so many pages for so little writing? I would have linked to this in G+ or Facebook but I dislike the paragraph and then a new page. I assume its for advertisements, but you can just insert ads where you want on a long page. Seems an awkward way to read and normally I don’t even bother going past the first page.

    Jim

    • Hey Jim,
      Thanks for your feedback. This article is 1,650 words. It’s longer than 99% of the other stories on the site, but you used the words “so little writing” to describe it – and that’s exactly why we split it up: to make one of the longest posts ever on the site seem like a breeze.

  3. Dan "Smokey" Orr

    While I agree on most comments here it’s about the level of experience of each rider. I belong to a riders group and we have 80+ members. We do military funerals, parades and group rides for the fun of it. I am a “Tail Gunner” riding a trike at the end of the line. My job is to keep an eye on any new members who ride in the back of the formation. Watch for approaching traffic from the rear, how the formation is doing as far as “Is everyone in line and doing what they are suppose to be doing. When riding on a highway we stay in the left inside lane unless traffic says otherwise. We stay there to avoid merging traffic , if we are holding up traffic we will move to the right outside lane to allow it to pass. Most of us have been riding together for a number of years and we have had no accidents. We always have CB communications with the leader and the Tail Gunner. This is a safety item for sure. Safely riding in group is safe if everyone is on the same page.

    • Dan "Smokey" Orr

      One safety item I forgot is that as the Tail-gunner when we do change lanes, it is up to the Tail Gunner to first ensure the lane is open and then take the lane at which time I radio the leader that the lane is under my control now and it is safe for the rest of the formation to change lanes. The leader will then signal to change lane and as he takes the lane so does the rest of the formation.

      • This is what my ex and I would do on our rides together. I would signal, she would be behind me when safe and actually be the one to first change lanes, to ensure that she had more than enough time and space. Then I would join in after.

    • Couldn’t agree more with that last thing you said: Safely riding in group is safe if everyone is on the same page. 100%!

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