I probably have more experience riding in a pack than anyone else here at Common Tread, and it kind of surprised me when I realized I haven’t written about the topic. Having ridden many bikes with many groups, I believe there are some things you have to do (responsibilities) and some things you can rightfully expect from those around you (rights) to make the ride go well.
Responsibility: Prep your bike
Make sure your bike is ready to ride. This sounds basic, but lots of folks whiff on it. Your standard T-CLOCS lookover is pretty much the minimum. If you ride a late-model, low-mileage machine in cherry condition, this may be all you need to do. If you’re riding older equipment, though, your list will be longer. I think it’s fair for a group to understand if they have an old or chopped bike in the pack that repairs are a way of life.
Maintenance, however, is not. It’s one thing to hole a piston. It’s quite another to have maladjusted pushrods or a set of burned points when you show up for a ride. Your friends’ time is valuable. Time off to take a trip typically is hard to come by and could be more profitably spent at work. Respect that, because when you pull over to wrench, you’re spending not just your time, but the time of a dozen other riders who made sure their bikes were tight and right.
If you’re holding up a pack because of repeat repairs, you may want to seriously think about dropping off. Solutions may involve a break for you with extended repair time if you are capable, requesting a ride to obtain a breakdown vehicle, or getting in touch with the chase truck, if one exists.
Right: You should not be left behind
You have the right not to be left behind. A group of motorcyclists that leaves a downed rider without his permission is a group of turds. Sometimes, a group will want to leave a rider because he’s not keeping up. This is a situation with some give and take. If you’re riding with a group you’ve not ridden with, some clarification of speeds and the equipment people are on should be clues as to whether or not you’ll be comfortable. Similarly, a group taking on a new rider (or a freshly assembled group!) needs to be patient with the slow man.
A group that simply takes off on a slow man sucks, but it does occur. If that happens to you, do not roll faster than your guardian angel can fly; you’ll run out of talent. Lost on the road beats injured in the ditch.
Responsibility: Do not be the slow man
Not being left behind is a two-way street. You can’t hold a whole group back just because you can’t hang with the group you're riding with. Solutions to a slow rider can be the group slowing down, the group waiting at turns for the slow man, or finding a new group for the slow man. Similarly, the slow rider can also opt out and split off or find a new pack to ride with — but any of these decisions need to be made audibly so expectations are set and met. One can’t just drop off the back and disappear, or the pack may lose time and miles, turning back to find a slower rider.
Another way to keep up is at stops: if your bike has a kicker, or you are wearing more gear than the rest of the folks in the pack, be aware that saddling up to fly will naturally take you longer than it does the others. Start getting ride-ready a little early on stops so everyone isn't waiting on you.
Right: Ride where you feel comfortable
If you don’t know where you’re going or you think you’re slow, you shouldn’t be made to ride in front unless your reticence has been explained. If you aren’t comfortable riding side-by-side and the group prefers to ride that way, speak up. If you need more room in the turns from the riders near you, speak up. Recognize you may be asked to ride deeper back in the pack. This is usually not a slight, it’s the faster riders trying to keep you in a spot where you are not stressed out and not ruining their day, either.
Responsibility: Help your fellow rider
This commandment is a long one. If you see someone drop off the back due to repair, break formation and run up to let the rider out in front know and get the pack turned around. If you know someone is slow, hang with them so they don’t feel left out. Recently I rode a modern Street Glide side-by-side with a friend on a pretty radical genny Shovel chopper. I knew he had a high potential for breakdown, and I also knew his cell phone had no juice. Getting lost for him was a major pain. For me, I just had to plug in my GPS and slow down a little. A minor inconvenience for me saved him a major headache.
If I am ever riding a bike equipped with a front brake, I’ll let the no-front-brake choppers rest their rear wheel on my front wheel at a hill so their takeoff is easier. If I’m riding with a dude with a sketchy headlight, I’ll find out if he wants to ride real close when it starts getting dark if I have a good one on my bike. Extending courtesies like these make you the person everyone wants to ride with.
Pass on turn signals as you receive them. (I don’t care if you have electric turn signals, turn them on and wave your left hand, too.) The more time the people behind you have to figure out what’s going on, the less likely it is that one of them wads a motorcycle into you. If you see some detritus in the road, indicate that to the guy behind you.
Right: Have any size fuel tank you want
If you’ve got a bitty peanut tank on your cool-guy chopper, that’s rad. A big group probably needs to take a break/check phones/have a smoke/take a whiz every 70 or 80 miles anyway. But you do need to go to the bike in front and communicate your range before you set off. Ideally, he’s got a tripmeter and can reset it at each fuel stop. If not, then someone with a tiny tank, a big engine, and a heavy right wrist should be up front riding fast, but also keeping an eye on fuel.
Responsibility: Gas up together
Don’t be that group of bikes that ruins a gas station. Pick three or four buddies and buy rounds of fuel, much like you would beers at a bar. Otherwise, it’s just unnecessary time wasted while people fuel up one at a time. If you’re on a long-range machine (dresser, adventure bike, or the like), don’t bother filling up with all the tiny tankers if you know there’s fuel within range; you’re just making a mess of the filling station.
Responsibility: Keep the pack intact
It's not a pack if it's not a pack. “Shut the door” on cars. The pack should be treated like a long single vehicle. Allowing cars into your space makes a mess of the pack, splits it up, and makes each individual cycle less visible. It also encourages hot-dog riding as a rider frantically tries to reacquire his position in the pack. Simply positioning yourself in your lane, “shutting the door” at the rear, communicating to the motorists, and not yielding lane position is often all that’s needed to keep cars out of your group.
If yours is a group that will be blocking (pulling across traffic to prevent it from breaking the pack), you need to know a few things. First, this is illegal in most places in America. Second, it’s still often safer than following the law, rather than having the previous situation take place. Third, there are two ways to do this correctly. The first is the less common: the front man blocks, waits for the pack to roll by, and brings up the rear, with the #2 rider assuming the role of lead rider. This only works if everyone knows where to go. The more common way for this to go down is the lead man blocks, the pack rolls through the intersection or turn, and then the lead man returns to his position at the front. If your group is doing this, get to the right of the lane single-file so the lead man can scurry back up to the front quickly.
If your group is large and moving slowly, in the name of all that is holy, stay out of the left lane.
Right: Control the size of the pack
You don’t have to ride with 100 bikes if you do not want to. I personally prefer much, much smaller groups — half-a-dozen bikes is about the point where I want to split off into a smaller splinter group. A good rule of thumb: the more bikes there are, the more relaxed your riding needs to be. If you are the rubber-band rider who changes speed a lot and constantly causes the guy behind you to tap his brakes, you might not be a huge problem in a group of four, but in a group of 40, you’re going to be a major pain in the ass.
If you like to ride aggressively (or you simply don’t want to ride with a bunch of people of unknown skill), you have the right to split off and meet up with the others later. You will have to find your own way, of course, but that increased workload may well be offset by increased joy.
Responsibility: Ride safely
“Safe” in this context is relative. For instance, if the pack you’re running with rides two to a lane, you better be able to ride comfortably like that. You can’t just ask everyone to stagger because you don’t want to ride two across. (Similarly, a good leader who understands not everyone is close will often specify a stagger, or the second man in line may set that precedent.)
Your tail and brake light should function, and if they don’t, you need to let everyone know. You’ll probably be put in the middle of the pack so law enforcement does not disturb you, and you need to give lots of advance warning with hand signals, or the dude behind you is going to have a very long day.
Lance summed it up nicely when he edited this article. “In the end, you have to ride your own ride and be responsible for yourself. If the group has rules you aren't comfortable with or can't comply with, then you need to let the group go and ride the way they want to ride and you have to go ride the way you want to ride."
If you're not having fun, you're probably doing it wrong.
Ultimately, if you want to successfully ride in a pack, you need to prioritize the needs of the group before your own whims. The pack must get to where it is going. The sum is greater than any of the parts. Many riders know and operate under this assumption, but if you’re nervous about beginning your group riding career, understanding some of the rationale and psychology behind the ways group riding has evolved will make your foray a little less alien for you, and a bit smoother for the riders you hook up with.