Riding in a group can be a great way to enjoy the camaraderie of traveling with other like-minded motorcyclists. Caravanning in a large, unbroken procession, however, poses special risks. For example, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where riders often tour in sizable packs, recorded one the highest number of fatalities in the history of the event in 2015. Although my personal preference for group riding is at most three or four bikes, I often find myself riding with more.
Here are suggestions for mitigating the risks of larger riding groups:
Plan the Ride/Ride the Plan
A well-organized ride will include: a map of the route, or turn-by-turn directions, with designated fuel and lunch stops and phone numbers for contacting the ride leader and emergency services. At the pre-ride meeting, there should be a discussion of route conditions, riding formation, hand signals, the skill level of riders, speed, and the assignment of riders within the group formation. It’s very important everyone understands that they are expected to follow the ride plan, unless an unforeseen event causes a deviation from it, or the ride leader directs that a change be made.
Arrange Riding Order According to Experience and Skill Levels
Less experienced riders are frequently placed closer to the front of the procession. That way the ride leader can more easily monitor whether the pace and technical challenges of the route are appropriate for everyone. Because of the accordion effect of frequently changing rider intervals in large groups, the most skilled riders are often placed in the rear, as they are better able to safely catch up with those ahead of them.
Designate an Experienced Ride Leader
Although the ride leader may not have developed the ride plan, he or she is responsible for following it and keeping everyone as safe as possible on the road. This includes setting an appropriate, steady pace for the skill level of the group (e.g., an appropriate pace for the least skilled rider in the group), having an in-depth knowledge of the planned route and stops, making sure that riders are maintaining a proper formation, and curbing any inappropriate/unsafe riding behavior by group members. It’s important that the leader make a comfortable number, and duration, of stops for gas, snacks, hydration, and bathroom breaks.
Designate An Experienced Sweep Rider
The sweep rider is responsible for monitoring the group from the rear. He or she will assist with any bikes having mechanical problems or other issues. The sweep rider should have his or her headlights on high beam so the ride leader can monitor the tail end of the procession. If a situation warrants it, the sweep rider may need to call the lead rider and/or emergency services.
Arrive Ready to Ride
If feasible, each rider should meet at the rally location with a full tank of gas, an empty bladder, a properly serviced motorcycle, appropriate riding apparel, a first aid kit, a tool kit, a cell phone, and a positive attitude.
Avoid Acting on Competitive Impulses
A group ride on public roads is not the place for racing or other unsafe antics. Determine if, or under what circumstances, one rider is permitted to pass the rider in front of them. For example, it may be fine for one rider to pass another, if the slower rider ahead makes room and signals for the trailing rider to pass.
Break into Smaller Groups
On two-lane pavement, allow other motorists an opportunity to pass by having breaks in the caravan of motorcycles. Four to six bikes in the smaller groups should be about right. Create passing gaps when a trailing vehicle indicates its intent to pass.
Ride Your Own Ride
It’s paramount that riders stay within their skill level and comfort zone, even if that means dropping out of the group. If so, tell the sweep rider that you’re dropping back and will rejoin the group at the next scheduled stop. They probably won’t be more than a minute or two ahead.
Use Established Hand Signals or Electronic Devices to Communicate
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s recommended hand signals can be found online. Hand signals are generally initiated by the ride leader and passed along by each succeeding rider.
Be Courteous When Passing Other Motorists
Signal when changing lanes to pass another vehicle, don’t dart directly in front of the vehicle passed, and maintain your pace after passing. When a motorist pulls over to let you go by, show appreciation by waving.
Don’t Become Fixated on the Bike in Front of You
There is often a tendency to focus on the motorcycle directly in front of you. Even if you’re maintaining a proper distance from that bike, you’re only looking a few seconds ahead of your front tire. Continue looking through curves and down the road for potential hazards.
Use a Staggered Formation When Appropriate
A staggered formation provides extra room for riders to avoid rear-ending the bike in front of them. The rule of thumb is two seconds or more. A tighter riding formation is beneficial when riding through towns at slower speeds. Traffic is less likely to enter the formation, and it facilitates the negotiation of stoplights and other dynamics likely to break the formation. At higher speeds in the countryside, however, riders should be allowed to spread out in the formation and take their own line through curves.
Don’t Forget about the Bike Behind You
Every rider should periodically check his or her rear view mirrors to make sure they can see the next bike in the group. If that bike isn’t visible, slow down for them to catch up or reverse course to find out what happened. This will work its way up to the ride leader, who should also turn around to investigate the problem.
I was leading a group of about 20 bikes one time, when I glanced in my rear view mirror to discover that, to my great surprise, no one was back there! I reversed direction and found that a rider had low-sided on gravel in the road. Because each rider was monitoring the rider behind them, they sequentially pulled over or reversed direction to provide assistance. They did exactly what I had asked them to do at the pre-ride meeting.
The important thing is that riders reflect on these considerations before hosting or participating in a large group ride. If the leader isn’t advocating or following safe group riding practices, it’s better to go your own way.