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Common Tread

Tips: Riding in groups

Sep 18, 2014

That’s right kids, it’s time for another one of my rants. I don’t know how many of these videos I’ve seen, but all of them after the first are just plain unnecessary. Roll the video and then let’s take a look at some group riding tips to keep this from happening to you.

Why is riding in groups so difficult?

To tell you the truth, I actually don’t like riding in groups. Part of the beauty of motorcycles is that they’re so nimble and can accelerate or decelerate so quickly that you can literally be anywhere on the road you want to be. But, mix a bunch of those nimble riders together, and suddenly we’re dodging each other, on top of road debris and cars.

Most people try to ride in formation either because it makes them feel cool and part of some badass biker gang, or because they see motorcycle cops do it.

The only person I like riding with is my roommate, Mark. He and I have been riding together for the past five years. That was almost a daily occurrence when we used to be young single dudes who did stuff all the time. When we first started riding, he was the better rider and always took the first position and we got used to each other's styles quickly. It’s been months since we’ve ridden together, but to this day I know what every change in riding position and every head nod means and I can usually even predict those before they come. In turn, he has learned to trust that he always has the number-one riding position. I’ll never pass him to fill a gap because it’s on my side of the lane, I’ll always pull in to the lane he’s signaling to clear a spot for him, etc.

Riding in this manner actually does add to the safety and fun of riding a motorcycle, but there are a few things we don’t do. We don’t ride side by side (unless we’re on desolate roads and no one is going to need to turn for miles). We don’t ride off each other’s back tire, and we don’t zip through traffic on different sides of cars. The main thing people miss when it comes to riding in a group is that it takes discipline.

Here are a few strategies we use to make riding in groups fun and stress-free, and to avoid being on the next YouTube crash compilation.

group ride
You're sure this is the right way, right? Photo by Scott Toepfer.

1: Discuss the route ahead of time

This seems simple enough, but it’s incredible how many times I’ve met up with people and just told to follow someone. Too often, in the resulting confusion, someone ends up cutting across four lanes of traffic to make a freeway exit. Are we taking the 710 to the 60 to the 101 or the 405 to the 110 to the 101? Do you want to try the 10 because there’s a Dodgers game? Cool. Now if something happens or I lose sight of you for two seconds, I can ride to where I know you’ll be, instead of trying to follow where you are.

2: It is the front guy’s job to wait for the rear guys, not the rear guy’s job to keep up

More often than not, it’s the fast guy leading the group, especially if the day is more about the ride than the destination. I’ve been in way too many groups where the front guy starts to have a little fun while the guys behind him are almost killing themselves trying to keep up. Set the expectation that the front guy will pull over for a stop if he gets too far ahead. When coming to an intersection, for example, if each person waits, before making a turn, until the next person catches up, then no one will get lost, wondering which way the pack went.

The bottom line is that everybody should feel free to ride their own ride, not pressured to take risks to keep up with a faster rider. Nobody should have to worry about getting lost or left behind because they don’t have the same skill level.

3: Look for communication

Make it a habit to check in with the people riding around you more often. You never know when one of your buddies has been trying to wave you down for 15 minutes because you forgot to secure your chinstrap.

4: Stay in order

I know this one sounds dumb. Part of why you ride a motorcycle is to enjoy the freedom it brings, but stay in order. Most of the accidents I’ve seen while riding in groups resulted from someone thinking they could pass a buddy or move around someone only to have the guy in front of them ride directly into that spot. If your buddy slams on the brakes to look at a duck, you slam on the brakes to look at a duck. Sure, this will mean you’re at the mercy of your riding buddy's love of stopping and ducks, but it also means that he will be confident you’ll never hit them from behind.

5: Give each other some space

group ride
Giving your fellow riders space means you can both set up properly for corners. Riding side by side or in a rigid staggered formation on curvy roads just means nobody will be on the optimum line. Photo by Lance Oliver.
If you know where the people you’re with are going — and you should — you’re not going to get lost. There is literally zero reason to ride directly off the rear tire of the guy in front of you, and doing so greatly decreases the time you have to react if things get weird. Your buddy will not be impressed by how perfectly you can stay nine inches off his rear tire. He'll just be stressed by your riding.

Again, this isn’t a comprehensive list for how to ride in groups. If you’ve never ridden in a group and really have no idea how to do it, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation has a wonderful and boring guide on the general principles. These tips are things I actually put into practice on a weekly basis to make riding with buddies a little safer, a little more enjoyable, and a lot less likely to end up on YouTube.