Tips for Leading a Motorcycle Group Ride

Riding with a group of friends can be a blast. But, it can go all pear-shaped if certain precautions aren’t taken upfront. Some problems are merely inconvenient, like when the group has to wait around because someone didn’t arrive with a full tank of fuel or when someone goes AWOL during the ride.

Other problems are more serious, like when a guy runs into the back of another rider because he was riding too damn close, or when a knucklehead lowsides into a guardrail trying to keep up with the fast guys.

Group rides can be a great way to meet like-minded riders.

As a group leader, it is your responsibility to take some basic precautions. Let’s take a look at a few.

Before we start: These tips do not take the unique issues of very large groups into account. However, these tips can be used for groups of 2 to perhaps 30 riders.  Trying to manage more riders than that and your into a whole other ball of wax. Breaking into smaller subgroups is a better solution.

We Gotta Talk

The root of most group riding mishaps can be traced to a few key factors. The first one is a failure to voice basic ground rules so that members know what to expect and what is expected of them.

Start by evaluating the group; are they aggressive and reckless, or law-abiding and considerate? Is there talk of drinking alcohol or stunting? If so, then nip it in the bud, or pay later.

Speed & Passing

The group is better off if all participants agree on general speed limits and passing. Some group rides I’ve attended come right out and say that I should expect illegal passing and speeds that exceed the legal limit. Knowing this ahead of time let’s me decide whether or not to participate.

One option is to break into sub groups with one sticking to more conservative speeds while following the rules of the road.

Another rule I want to know is whether there is passing within the group. I’m not a fan of inter-group overtaking because it encourages bravado and risky dicing. If passing within the group isn’t allowed, then faster riders should ride up front and everyone must maintain a safe following distance from each other. If a rider wants be in a different part of the group, he or she can wave someone past or change positions at the next stop.

When the leader decides to overtake slower traffic, he or she must be smart about whether it’s worth the risk. If you have a turn or stop coming fairly soon, just hang tight. But, if the opportunity presents itself to make a pass that is safe for all, do it. Your fellow riders then decide to pass or not and hopefully have the self-discipline to patiently wait if it’s unsafe to overtake.

Passing as a group is dangerous if riders blindly follow the person in front. It’s better to tell your group to wait until the rider ahead has almost completed the pass before committing. And when making the pass, maintain passing speed well beyond the slow vehicle so that the next person has room to return to the lane and file in behind you.

Formation

A staggered formation is often the norm when on long straight sections of road with at least a 2 second following distance from the bike directly ahead. This means that you will be only about one second behind the rider offset to your immediate left or right. Even though the staggered formation gives riders access to the width of the lane, this formation is pretty tight and can lead to collisions when attempting evasive maneuvers. By riding two abreast, you are limited to either the left or right portion of your lane. And that’s just not good enough for maximum safety

That’s why the leader needs to abandon the staggered formation when the road is narrow or riddled with surface hazards and when the road turns twisty! When following single file, each rider has the full width of the lane to use cornering lines or avoid mid-corner hazards. .

There is a recent discussion about something called the “reverse formation”. It basically has the front rider in the right wheel track rather tahn the left. The idea is that it affords the second rider to see and be seen better. But, I have my reservations, because this puts the first rider in a spot that is hidden from view and prevents him or her from seeing ahead as well. See the video and add your thoughts in the comments below.

Hand signals are useful for alerting the group of a hazard or a change in plan.

Staying Together

One time when riders should be side-by-side is when coming to a stop or entering traffic. When stopping, the leader should gradually slow and come to a complete stop. The rest of the riders should “box in” so the group is compact.

To keep the group together, the leader should stop and wait  when possible, like at intersections and then wait for the last rider to arrive. Look for a thumbs-up before continuing. This is used in combination with each rider taking responsibility for the rider behind by waiting until the straggler is in sight before turning onto a new road.

One thing I see from time to time is a group leader who is too concerned with keeping the group together when it isn’t necessary (or safe). For example, if there are no turns or stops for people to get lost, then keep moving, make safe passes and let people have fun. And know when it is important to keep the group together, like in areas with many chances for wrong turns.

When it’s time to go, the leader should leave slowly. This helps prevent the bungie effect where riders in the back must go much faster to catch up with the leaders. Remember, the group is relying on the leader to lead the way.

Some groups use communicators between the group leader and a “sweep” rider to monitor things. This can really help manage group rides and is a way the leader can know if the pace is okay or if there is any potential trouble. An experienced volunteer should be put in charge of this sweep role.

The Pace

Group riding often places safety in the back seat. It’s not unusual for safety-focused individuals to become reckless when exposed to pack mentality. One thing to emphasize that each person rides within their limits and to resist the temptation to keep up with the group. Far too many group rides end in tragedy because one or more participants exceed their riding ability.

Managing the group’s pace is the job of the leader. Many times the leader sets a moderate pace, only to increase the speed as the ride progresses. It’s okay to wick up the speed through a nice set of twisties, but you must then slow the pace to allow stragglers to catch up without much effort. This pattern balance fun with predictability that encourages slower riders from feeling a need to stay in touch.

Yamaha Champions School guru, Nick Ienatsch penned The Pace article that has been referenced by many riders over the years. Check it out.

Poo, Meet Fan

When things do go wrong, you will want to be able to manage the situation. Ask if anyone is CPR or First Aid certified if you’re not. Know if you’ll be riding in areas with no cell service and have an idea of the nearest population if you need to send someone to make a call.

It’s smart to attend a class or seminar that discusses how to manage an accident scene and a motorcycle scene in particular.

Before this happens, you also need to consider if you could be held liable. Some groups require waivers, but most don’t. It’s implied that each participant is responsible for his or her actions, but that doesn’t stop family from coming after you anyway. Sucks, I know. But it’s the society we live in. It’s another reason to follow these tips to avoid problems. Also, encourage full protective gear so relatively minor mishaps remain minor.

Set the Tone

Yes, being a true group leader (as opposed to a reluctant leader) means you are willing to take on the responsibility. Not everyone is cut out to be a leader. It can be stressful, but is also rewarding to show others a good time. Group leading isn’t too hard with just a bit of preparation.

This leadership begins before the ride by posting rules and expected behavior, encouraging full protective gear and explaining logistics. A bit of foresight reduces risk and increases enjoyment. And if things go well, you’ll look like a hero. If things go wrong…well, just follow these tips and you will hopefully be okay.

Sweep Riders

Well organized groups select a strong rider to take up the back to keep an eye on things. This person can identify any particularly weak or aggressive riders and can help keep the group together. Communication to the group leader is a huge plus.

More on Group Riding

Marc R. one of our guest instructors penned a piece on riding in groups that dovetails nicely with this article. Check it out.


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Ken is author of "Motorcycling the Right Way” and "Riding in the Zone" (book and blog). He is also the "Street Savvy" columnist for Motorcyclist Magazine, and former longtime author of the Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies columns for Motorcycle Consumer News. Ken is Lead Instructor for Tony's Track Days, a 20 year Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor, and owner of Riding in the Zone Motorcyclist Training.

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