Riding in a group can be very enjoyable. Whether the group is a group of friends, riders of the same model of bike or other interest to a giant group ride with the ultimate goal being charity or awareness of a cause, it can be a wonderful experience. However, as with anything else, one bad apple in a group can sour the experience for everyone so keeping in mind some basics of group riding to do you part to help keep the group safe.
Know the Signs and Signals
For most group rides, communication is done by hand signs to the group. The group leader will communicate and each rider should pass it back. This is true whether there are 5 riders or 100 riders. If a turn is coming up, pass it back. If there is a stop sign or light ahead, pass it back. The hand signs for turning and stopping are especially important for riders, as they can get you home if your bike runs but the lights don’t work as well. Left arm out is a left turn, left arm, bent at the elbow, point up is a right turn and pointed at the ground is a stop. If you have taken an MSF course, you should already know these.
From those basics, many groups use a few other common signals to let the group know what is going on. For example, an outstretched foot can be used to communicate road debris or road kill to avoid running over. Another common sign that is used is to tell riders to go from staggered to single-file riding and back. A good ride leader will discuss what they use as these signs before the ride begins; however, it is typically 2 fingers either stretched out or together to tell those following to switch from staggered to single-file. Ask questions before you start riding if you have any questions about the group’s etiquette.
Know Group Riding Rules
Group riding has some very simple rules that everyone in the group should adhere to. One of these is following distance. Each group will have different comfort zones for this. Personally, I have led rides where everyone was staggered with about five feet between each bike. This would grow quite a bit in the curves in a very natural fashion and that was fine. I have been in a for-charity group ride with police escort and at least 500 bikes where there was only a foot or two between bikes. This was a little close for comfort but did not have to be, but we’ll tackle this a little later.
Many smaller groups prefer to have the most experienced riders toward the front of the group with the group’s skill level going from there, aside from the “Tail Gunner” who is an experienced rider as well. The ride leader may not be the most skilled rider in the group, however, he or she knows the route that is being taken, including the proper speeds for the fun parts. They may push themselves or set a relaxed pace. Regardless, they are the leader and the pace they set IS the pace for the group. In general, passing other riders in the group formation is not appropriate unless there is a safety issue or a mechanical issue.
The “Tail Gunner” on most group rides functions as a traffic cop in certain situations. If a lane change is issued in a group with a designated tail gunner, the tail gunner actually is the first to move over, keeping cars from ending up in the middle of the group. If the leader and tail gunner are in sync, it looks well orchestrated, maintains the group and actually help keep the entire group safer.
Know the Route
In saying this, I’m not advocating for each rider to print out a map of the route and follow it turn for turn. What I am saying is that everyone in the group should be aware of the distance, time, destination and stopping points for the day before setting out. Most group rides are initiated with someone saying “I feel like going here, it’s a 100 mile drive that will take about 3 hours to do and there will be a stop for lunch before we return a different route that only takes 2 hours.” That’s enough to go on, typically. This allows riders (and passengers) to plan equipment, budget, fuel concerns and hydration for the day’s ride. Giant group rides can be tedious and if people are not sure where the group is going, they typically are far less prepared than if they do. Having a map or GPS is a good thing to pack though in case you manage to get separated from the group, as rare as this may be.
Know Your Limits
The final element to group riding is knowing YOUR limits. I learned this the hard way a number of years ago and it has been reinforced more than once since then through observation. One of my first group rides, years ago, was literally three days after buying a new-to-me Yamaha V-Max. I met up with the group, which was a mix of other V-Maxes and sport bikes and proceeded to push myself past where I was comfortable with on that bike. I learned a lot about riding that day but was not comfortable. I realized afterwards that I wasn’t ready for a ride with a group like that for a while, at least not until I knew the bike better. Since then, I’ve seen people drop bikes because while their 600cc sportbike could do everything that was asked, the rider could not and the group he or she was riding with was pushing farther than that person could go.
My first and last escorted charity ride was sullied by a bad rider as well and from those I have spoken with, most have a similar horror story. The event had at least 500 bikes, which meant at least 500 toys going to Toys for Tots that Christmas but many of the riders were incredibly inexperienced. For any group ride, you are ultimately responsible for whether you should be there or not. Even if it is a great charity, if you haven’t ridden enough to be comfortable riding at freeway speeds and staying in your half of a lane, then a group is not for you yet. If you can’t comfortably taking freeway negative cambered, decreasing radius onramps at speed, then a jaunt through the woods with fellow sport bike riders is not going to be a positive experience yet. Practicing solo will help make you ready in no time though.
Group riding can be be either a highly enjoyable or dangerous and uncomfortable experience. By knowing your part and your own limits, you can help ensure that you aren’t a “bad apple” in the group, helping to make the ride a more fun for everyone involved.