Group Riding

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: RoadRUNNER Staff

Sharing the experience of the road, the companionship and camaraderie make riding with others a great deal of fun. And if you do it right, it's safer than riding alone: a group of riders is more difficult for a dozing driver to miss than a single bike. Yet if you get it wrong, it can be downright dangerous.

Just like riding in traffic, the goal of riding in a group of bikes is to make sure your "danger zone" - the space ahead of you, behind and to the side - is kept clear of other vehicles. In general terms, you should keep a space of at least two seconds clear in front and the same behind, and avoid encouraging other vehicles to share your lane. That includes other motorcycles.

If you've ever seen or followed a group of police motorcyclists, you'll notice they often ride with two bikes side by side in lane. It's their choice, of course, but it's dangerous. A bump or other hazard in the road could cause handlebars to touch, and an almost certain get-off. Motorcycle safety organizations, including the MSF, recommend you avoid riding alongside another bike. However, I don't necessarily recommend you tell this to a group of motorcycle cops.

So how should you ride in a group of other bikes?

Imagine that each lane on the road is divided into three narrower lanes: the left side, the center, and the right side of the lane. In general, it's a good idea to avoid the center of the lane. That's where the "grease strip" lain down by leaky auto engines is, and it's especially treacherous in wet weather. In most situations, even if you're on your own, you should avoid riding on the grease strip.

So if you're riding in a group, avoiding the grease strip, not riding side by side and allowing the maximum distance around you, the safest logical option is a "staggered" formation. If the bike in front of you is riding to the left side of the lane, ride to the right side of the lane, and vice versa. You should leave a minimum of one second between you and the rider in front of you, assuming they're on the other side of your lane. That should make you two seconds behind the rider ahead in the same lane position as you are.

(If you're moving from one side of your lane to the other, remember to check your mirrors and shoulder check before switching. Don't use your turn signal: it might confuse other riders.)

Before you set out on a ride with a group, make sure every rider understands these guidelines, and agree on a target speed that will work for everyone. If you keep to a one-second gap, you shouldn't have too many problems with cars pulling in to split the group, but it may happen. Let the car in and give it plenty of room. Slow down if necessary, and don't try to race it. In a collision with a car, you'll always lose.

A couple of other things about groups. First, the yo-yo effect. As you slow down and stop, the group will inevitably get tighter, with the bikes closer together. As you accelerate, the group will open out. Make sure you allow for this. It's the same effect that causes stop-start driving on busy highways.

Remember that you're no longer acting in isolation: your actions affect the other riders in the group. Avoid sudden speed and direction changes. Riding in a group requires more discipline and care than riding on your own.

Let's say you're leading the group: be aware of your pace and that of the riders behind you. Use your mirrors to monitor traffic behind you. And it's important to think ahead. If you see a "stale" green traffic signal ahead, look for tell-tale signs (like a flashing pedestrian light) that the light is about to change. When changing lanes or passing, allow for the possibility that another rider might follow you regardless of traffic conditions.

If you're riding in the middle of the group, ride your own ride. Don't just blindly follow the rider ahead. Scan the road before you and anticipate just as you would on your own. On narrow twisty roads, or through blind hills or curves, ride in single file and leave extra time to react.

Riding in the back of the group requires that you watch the group leader (or the riders well in front of you) as well as the traffic all around you. If the group is changing or merging lanes, you may want to move early to block the lane from traffic behind. This can prevent cars from getting stuck in the middle of the group. You may also want to choose the "dominant" lane position, even if it means riding directly behind the bike in front of you. Just leave an extra half-second's space.

Have fun riding in a group - but stay safe!

Robert Smith is a licensed Motorcycle Safety Instructor with the British Columbia Safety Council.