Group Riding for the Novice
You know you’ve always wanted to hit the open road on your bike in a big group like, say, The Hell’s Angels, but you didn’t necessarily want what you think goes with it.
Riding in a large group with your fellow bike lovers – without the intent to terrorize small towns, fly the colors, deal meth or pack a pistol and a woman of questionable virtue on the back – calls for you to know a few rules of the road to make sure everyone stays safe and enjoys their day to the fullest extent possible.
Once you know the rules, you won’t find yourself intimidated by riding on a poker run or charity event, so we’re here to offer some useful tips on what to do to prepare yourself for the experience.
Taking part in a group ride isn’t the same animal as taking your daily cruise alone on the asphalt, and your riding style will need to be different.
Safety. It’s the number one concern in a group ride and it’s complicated by the sheer number of riders you’ll be cooperating with during the day.
There are some simple things you can take into consideration as you plan or plan to take part in a large group ride. At least one rider should carry a First Aid Kit, and everyone should know who has it. Feel free to make sure all your fellow riders know if you happen to have emergency training. You’re not bragging, here, you’re letting people know you’re a go-to resource should the worst happen. If you’re a nurse or an M.D., you’re damn handy to have along.
Anyone along on the ride have serious physical limitations like poor vision or bad tires? It’s good to keep an eye on your fellow riders in this regard, both for their sake and yours.
Make sure that whoever leads the pack follows all traffic and speed laws at all times. Nothing worse than having the constabulary ruin an excellent day by stopping the whole group and picking over the bikes and riders with a fine tooth comb for violations. Keep in mind that it’s much better to get momentarily separated from the group than to end up in a pile of twisted motorcycle at the side of the road or in the back seat of a police car.
Should you find yourself feeling uncomfortable with any aspect of a particular group ride while you’re out on the road, take the safe course of action and head out on your own. Let at least a couple of the riders in the group know your plan to go “lone wolf,” and then do it.
Know what you’re getting involved with
Is this a mellow 50-mile ride? An all-day iron butt jaunt of 500 miles? What kind of road and traffic conditions are you going to face? A ride down Lakeshore Drive in Chicago will present you with entirely different demands that a jaunt through the country. Consider also where you’re headed and whether or not that destination appeals to you. Not everyone wants to ride 150 miles to shop for Christmas ornaments or perhaps 25 miles to end up drinking Pina Coladas for six hours before heading home.
If you’re the organizer of the ride, as short meeting in the parking lot with the group to let everyone know the precise route is a mandatory event. No one wants to be uncomfortable, either with the route or the duration of a ride, so make sure you have as much information as possible about both before you take off.
Simple maps are always a good idea, even in this day and age of GPS devices and cell phones. Planning out stops is also a good idea to make sure you don’t find yourself out of synch with the group when your bike lacks the range to go 200 miles between fuel stops. How much fun is it to be separated from the group with no idea how to link back up with the ride? That would be no fun at all.
Expect the leaders of the group to have the good sense to stop every 50 or 60 miles if the group includes less experienced riders and no more than 100 miles for groups composed of experienced riders. While there are no real hard and fast rules here, weather conditions, heat (or lack of it) and traffic density should all guide any decisions the leaders make on how long to ride at a pop. Riding in heavy traffic is much more mentally and physically taxing that a slow cruise along country roads with little traffic.
Don’t like to ride at night? Make sure you know how long the group plans to be out before heading home and finding yourself on your machine for two hours in pitch black conditions.
Who’s running the show
The leader or organizer has complete responsibility for the riders following in their wake, and not taking that position seriously is a disservice to fellow riders and dangerous in the bargain. The leader is tasked with monitoring the group for problems and communicating unsafe conditions to everyone on the ride. The role doesn’t mean you have to be the best or fastest rider. Taking your fellow riders outside their comfort zone is irresponsible, and should you find yourself on a ride where that’s the case, get out of the group ASAP. Unless you signed up for one, a day spent racing and trying to peel the “chicken strips” off your tires could prove disastrous to you and others in the group.
Expect the leader to ride at the left front position to give them the optimum view of the road ahead. They’ll set the pace, so follow as long as you feel comfortable with their style and abilities. It’s just bad form – and sometimes even dangerous – for riders to pass the leader, so just don’t do it.
You should also find that an experienced rider is tasked as a “sweeper” to bring up the rear and monitor the end of the cadre.This rider is generally positioned in the left rear lane to give them the best possible view of the entire group and the action ahead of them on the route. Don’t fall behind the sweep and make sure to signal them should you have mechanical difficulty, physical problems or plan to leave the ride.
Your position in the group
You’re going to be riding in a “staggered” or “diamond” formation to provide the highest possible safety conditions and increase the length of each rider’s reaction time. This kind of formation is the rule of the road, and you’ll be using one third of the road on either the right or left side of the road depending on your place. You may end up riding in a side by side column of twos for short distances in traffic or at stops, but be prepared to re-form the staggered configuration the second the road conditions allow it.
Know all the hand signals and use them. Keep them simple and easily understood. The left arm straight out with the palm up generally means it’s time to speed up. The standard DMV hand signals for turns should be used.
Consider providing a chase vehicle and be aware if one is part of the group. It’s always nice if a non-rider is along to carry a can of gas, supplies to fix flats, maybe a couple of cans of motor oil, a set of plugs and a few common tools in US and metric sizes.