Tips & Tricks

Riding in groups

How to Ride in a Group

by Brian Cannoo


Apart from having ridden with the Pretoria BMW MC Club for four years, I have always been interested in the dynamics of group riding. The basic question is, how do you keep a group of riders together, safe and supportive?
Research on the subject has revealed the use of such diverse systems as CB radio link-ups, leader/sweeper systems and complete free-for-alls.

When riding together, our club has some pretty easy rules:

  • Stay behind the leader
  • Sweep at the back
  • Staggered riding formation
  • Never turn until the rider behind you knows you're turning.
  • Simple as these seem, observation has lead me to believe that few riders seem to understand the meaning of these rules, and many fail to observe them. Although to many they are simply common sense, perhaps it is not enough to state the rules, but to explain what they're for. How many club members understand the role of a sweep, even when they are acting as sweep?

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There are, of course, other rules that seem so obvious that one shouldn't have to mention them. These include, but are not limited to:

 

  • The Prime Directive: Do not hit the bike in front of you (you'd be surprised)
  • NEVER pass a fellow rider on the left.
  • To my horror, on a breakfast run with a sister club, I was passed on the left, often in bends, no less than seven times. The rule had been clearly stated during the pre-ride briefing. That was on the way there. On the way back, I refused to ride with the group.


So what is the real answer? Better understanding of the rules? Or simpler rules? Both, I think.

This article therefore sets out to explain the application of the basic rules as well as to propose a new, simple, easy to apply rule that experiments have shown to be very effective.

Please bear with me while I restate the problem:

How to manage a group of riders, riding together, in such a way that they are safe and provide mutual support?

This question encapsulates many aspects. I will list some of the problems it needs to answer below:

Bikes have an alarming tendency to crash into one another.
People in the group miss a turn and get lost, often leading to large groups 100km apart before anyone notices.
One bike has a problem like a puncture or empty tank and it is an hour before the leader knows about it.
Bikes follow one another into a dangerous situation and you end up with a multiple bike crash (I once saw six members of a club that shall not be named follow one another into an oil patch on Long Tom and all six crash into the woods).
Etcetera, etcetera. I am sure you can think of more.
The problem with any set of rules is that it has to handle such diverse situations, from high speed country riding to the slow robot-to-robot shuffle.

I am going to tackle the basic rules and concepts in turn, and try to explain the concepts behind them.

Staggered Formation

Most of us will have heard of this, and been instructed to use staggered formation, but why?

It's actually simple. When riding, your safe stopping or reaction distance is a function of the open space in front of you. Put another way, the amount of clear road directly in front of your front wheel is your safety area.

First let me define a unit. I define a "bike length" as the length of the bike PLUS the amount of space in front of it required to stop. So at 120km/h this can easily be 100m or so.

When riding, bikes need about a full lane width to ride comfortably. This allows for some space to manoeuvre. However, in an emergency, a half lane width will do. Space to brake in.

So when riding together, smart bikers stagger their position to allow the bike behind them a safety margin, and to allow themselves the same margin. You now have TWO bike lengths in which to stop, instead of one. Also the bike behind you has space in which to pass you under heavy braking should he have to. Double the safety.

If the bike in front of you shifts from one side to the other, shift to the other side, maintaining the formation. The bike behind you will follow suit.

Of course, this means that the staggered formation rule applies to everyone, including the leader and sweep, who sometimes seem to think they're exempt. I have often ridden with the club and ended up behind a rider who thinks the rule doesn't apply to him, or doesn't understand it. This is very frustrating, as this rider is riding in MY SPACE. I usually either pass (on the right) or drop back to get away from this dangerous idiot.

Should the staggered formation rule ever be broken? Of course it should. But only for good reason. Here are some good reasons:

The staggered formation rule does not mean you should ride through a pothole or patch of oil. If you see something potentially dangerous in your path, move around it, and signal to the rider behind you to look out, by flashing your hazard lights or pointing at the road surface with hand or foot. Get back to your side as soon as it is safe to do so.
In tight bends. I have seen members of another nameless club riding in close staggered formation through tight bends. This is extremely dangerous. It not only forces riders to adopt a poor line through a bend, but also destroys the real point behind staggered formation riding. Think about it. In a straight line, your emergency braking area is in front of you. In a bend, however, it is toward the outside of the bend. Assuming of course you are smart enough to know you should be using an inside line on a bend. So bikes on the SAME LINE in a bend ARE in staggered formation, as none of them is in the following bike's emergency braking area.
High speed country riding. At 130km/h plus, your following distance should be measured in the hundreds of metres anyway, so there is no need for that extra bit of space. Pick your best line instead.

Ride Your Own Ride

When following a leading bike, there is a natural tendency to keep your eyes on the bike in front of you, rather than on the road. This means you tend to follow the leading bike, braking when he does, accelerating when he does, and taking the same line through bends. This can be a big problem. Extra credit for guessing why.

OK, I'll tell you. Few bikes have exactly matching handling characteristics, acceleration, braking power and comfortable riding speeds. Even fewer bikers have exactly matching abilities.

So the rule is simple: Keep the bike you're following in your peripheral vision, your eyes on the road, and make your own decisions. About speed, cornering line, road surface, braking distance, everything. To reinforce this, when I catch myself following, I chant the mantra to myself "Ride your own ride, ride your own ride." This seems to cure me of this disastrous behaviour quickly.

No Passing on the Left

This one is so obvious, it shouldn’t need mentioning. But it is broken woefully often, as you saw earlier.

The main point here is this. The area to the left of a rider, between the bike and the edge of the road or the next lane, is the rider’s emergency area. If the rider knows that under no circumstances will anyone intrude on this space, he is safe in the knowledge that this space is there for him to use in an emergency. A sudden flash of brake lights directly in front, and no space in which to stop? Dive to the left, hitting the brakes hard.

As you can imagine, if there is another bike passing on the left at this moment, you have a horrible crash on your hands.

A rider needs to know that this space will always be empty, so he can swerve into it with no notice without even taking the time to check his mirrors.

So keep it sacrosanct.

Leader / Sweep

Most well organised mass rides will have an appointed leader and sweep, who should be made known to all members of the group. Smaller groups can be more informal but should still observe the basics.

The leader is the biker who knows the way. It is almost unforgivable for the leader to get lost or miss a turning. Many an evening's ribbing has been suffered by a group leader who screwed up.

But the leader's responsibilities extend further than this. He is ultimately responsible for the whole group's safety and well-being. He is the first to observe hazards in the road and warn those behind of the danger. He should be able to judge a safe speed in any situation, and takes the lead in drastically reducing speed when entering towns. If rain starts to pour, he has to find a safe and sheltered spot for the deployment of rain gear.

On long rides, it is a very good idea to let people take turns at leading. This is because the leader's job is more tiring than any other's and he deserves a rest now and again. It is more tiring because he has to be more aware of road signs, hazards and so on than the others.

The sweep plays a role that is even more important. It is the sweep's job to see that NO-ONE gets behind him. If one member of the group stops for any reason, the sweep must stop too.

The reason for this is very simple. NO-ONE gets left alone. Imagine riding at the tail end of a group and having a crash. There you lie, bleeding in the road, and no-one knows.

You may have spotted the flaw in this system: Who looks out for the sweep? I have a solution for that which I'll talk about now.

You are responsible for the rider behind you

This is the new rule we have recently tested very successfully. It works very well indeed in small groups, and there is no reason it should not work as well in any size group and under any riding conditions.

I was on a trip a while ago with four bikes. I was leading. We were moving quite fast because the sun was setting and we wanted to get to our overnight stop before dark. At one point, due to an oversight, the last bike in the group (the sweep) ran out of fuel. We had travelled a further 40km before I found out he was missing. I stopped in a small town for a break, and when the third bike pulled up, I asked him where the last rider was. He didn't have any idea. The result was that one rider sat alone on the side of the road for well over an hour, and we had to ride an extra 80km that day, in the dark. All because of one rider's failure to watch his buddy.

The thing is, at any kind of riding speed, it is impossible for the leader to keep track of more than two bikes behind him. Imagine that you are riding in a group of 30 bikes. How many do you think the leader can watch?

So if each and every rider takes responsibility for the rider behind him, the group stays together and even the sweep has a backup.

Application of this rule is very easy. Keep one bike's headlight visible in your mirrors. If he disappears, reduce speed slightly. If he still doesn't appear, slow down. Keep slowing down until you see him or it becomes obvious that he isn't coming.

If everyone in the group does this, the leader of a large group will know there is a problem within a few minutes, even if the problem is 30 bikes behind him. Remember, at 120km/h, 30 bikes equals at least three kilometres. After stopping and waiting a couple of minutes, each rider should turn around to find the group.

This rule has the added advantage of incorporating the "don't turn" rule, as it is clear that if you can see the rider behind you, he can see when you make a turn.

Of course, it works even better if someone in front of you stops for any reason, you stop too. This will discourage unnecessary stops (the bane of any sweep's life) and provide backup to anyone who needs it.

Riding Standards

Finally, it should be mentioned that there are some minimum standards that the club expects when riding together.  Unnecessary injuries due to inappropriate clothing, or punctures due to badly worn tyres are problems that can ruin everyone's ride, and are easily avoided.

The following are regarded as a minimum standard regarding protective clothing:

  • Helmet (duh)
  • Riding jacket - a proper, protective riding jacket.  An anorak or windcheater is not enough.
  • Gloves - proper riding gloves, leather or other protective material.
  • Boots - riding boots are best, or at the very least strong shoes.
  • Trousers - proper riding trousers are encouraged, leather or other protective material.  Denim jeans are the very least that will be accepted, and shorts are obviously way off the mark.

Failure to meet the above standard will result in your not being allowed to ride with the group.

Particularly when leaving on a long ride, please make sure that your tyres are up to the trip.  Having to find a new tyre in a small town can be very difficult and can delay the ride by hours or even days.

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