RIDING IN GROUPS
by Insp. Kevin Fitzpatrick
In consultation with: Phil Curtis and Andy Morrison
Thames Valley Police Driving School
All of us love getting together with our friends and riding out on our bikes for either the day or the weekend, perhaps even longer. Whether it’s a day at the coast or five days in the Black Forest in Germany the enjoyment is the same. Planning the route, sorting out the kit, prepping the bike and so on is all part of the fun. We all love it but are we always aware how easily it can end in tears?
I hate to say it but in the past few years there have been an increasing number of accidents (including fatal accidents) involving people riding in groups. Quite often the victim is either a newcomer to biking or someone who has only recently joined the group. Sometimes the group itself is new or had only got together for one ride.
Whatever the cause, with a few simple precautions and some common sense rules the run can not only be made safer but much more fun for all concerned. We have prepared the following to help organisers, who may be new to running trips, to plan a run with the benefit of other peoples (sometimes painful!) experiences.
A book such as ‘Motorcyclists Welcome’ by Peter Gleave is an invaluable asset when organising trips if you wish to ensure that your accommodation will be suitable for groups of motorcyclists and that secure parking is available. The added benefit that can be had is a photocopy of the page containing details of the location to which they’re heading.
Whether you are looking for the quickest, motorway based route or a more challenging ride through the countryside you need to think about where you are going to make stops and to sort out rendezvous points in case you all get split up.
When making these plans you need to consider the comfortable range of all the bikes on the trip as well as the ability of the riders to ride for long distances.
To avoid mishap it is a good idea to give everyone a copy of:
the route to be taken (list of roads and/or a route map)
stopping places / rv points
each others mobile phone numbers
If someone does go astray they are less likely to get worried or do stupid things to catch up if they know where they are supposed to be heading and how to make contact with the rest of the group.
The Running Order
This is critical to get right if you want a safe and successful run for the whole gang so this point is worth spending some time on.
You often hear it said that you should put the slowest bike out in front – but think for a minute what will happen if you do that. The slowest one is frequently one of the least experienced riders on a less than quick bike, does he or she really want the responsibility of leading the way? What about the perceived pressure from those behind to ‘get a move on!’? Or conversely, do the others really want to be stuck behind Timmy Slowcoach for the whole trip? Some fun that would be!
The reality is that it never happens. The group may start out with the slowest in front but pretty soon some of the others get fed up, start overtaking each other, blatting off and before you know it it’s all gone to rats and you never get them together again this side of Christmas!
If, like me, you’ve found yourself at the ferry port waiting and wondering if the others are ever going to show up (especially the bloke with the tickets!) you’ll know that this scenario is to be avoided like the plague!
So what is the best order to ride in?
Well for a start the leader/navigator should be out in front. He or she should have studied and be familiar with the route and should have the riding skills and the bike to make reasonable progress.
At the back you need a ‘sweeper’. This should be an experienced member of the team (or a pair of good riders) on a big, reliable bike – one with a turn of speed if required. This rider should, like the leader, also be familiar with the route to be taken and should, if possible, have a mobile phone or other means of communication. The job of the sweeper is to look out for stragglers or break -downs and to make sure no-one gets left behind or has an accident without being noticed.
Between the leader and the sweeper you can afford to spread out a bit. Usually riders will pair up with people they know and little sub groups can form – not a problem if everybody is still singing from the same song sheet. As a rule it is best to keep the newer riders well up towards the front where they can be a bit protected by their more experienced companions.
Rules of the Road
When out on the road there are two golden rules for a successful group run and these need agreeing by everyone before the start:
No overtaking each other without prior planning and
Ride to the bike behind you not the one in front
There is nothing more likely to break up a group of riders than Tommy Teararse getting a cob on in the middle of the pack and burning off past everyone with one or two of the quicker bikes in hot pursuit.
Okay, it’s their trip as well and you’ve no right to demand that they ride along with everybody else the whole time. What is fair though is that they wait for the stop then let you know they are going to be having a ‘blat’ on the next stage of the journey. You can then warn the rest that a couple of riders will be out of the group for a while and you can arrange to meet up at the next stop.
‘Riding to the bike behind’ is more serious and is the key to the whole concept of good group riding.
Basically, one of the main causes of accidents is when the riders in the group play ‘follow my leader’ and constantly try to keep up with the bike in front. You often see riders towards the back of a group doing stupid things like overtaking on white lines, flying into blind bends, speeding in the most inappropriate places and even jumping red lights in an effort to catch up.
This can easily be avoided, without having to crawl along in a big group, if you just keep the bike behind you in your mirrors all the time. That way you can make as much progress as you like and only need slow down or stop if you can’t see that bike for any extended period. Certainly, never turn left or right or deviate from the ‘ahead’ course without being sure that the follower has seen you.
By exercising this simple technique you will be amazed how you can enjoy the higher speed runs along more challenging roads without having to sacrifice the group concept.
Staying together, or at least in sight of one another is quite important on motorways. This is especially true if you are in unfamiliar territory. Remember stopping on the hard shoulder near a turn off just to let the rest of your group catch up is illegal and can get you booked or worse.
Within reason, the slower your group rides on the motorway the more likely they are to stay together. Really big groups of Hells Angels can often be seen trundling along at around 50 m.p.h. and hogging (pardon the pun) the nearside lane.
Those of us less comfortable with the idea of holding everyone up or obstructing other traffic might like to try a different tactic. The best one is to give the lead rider the strict speed limit which is well within the reach of everyone else in the group. It could be 65 on a busy urban motorway in the U.K. or as much as 100 m.p.h. on an Autobahn in Germany. It doesn’t matter as long as the others can do at least 20 m.p.h. more without blowing an engine – or a driving licence!
Combining this with the no overtaking rule and riding to the bike behind, no-one should have too much difficulty staying in touch with the group when the inevitable speeding car gets in the middle of them.
Town / City Centres
Riding in large cities like London, Paris or Amsterdam or even smaller towns like Reading with the intricate traffic management systems can be a nightmare at the best of times. Even when you know your way around it is easy to get into the wrong lane or get caught out at the lights.
Staying together in a large group in these places is next to impossible. Sooner or later the group is bound to get broken up and the total strangers to the area will have major problems finding their friends.
The only way to sort this out is to get organised before going into the town into smaller groups of around three or four bikes. Ideally, one of the smaller groups should be able to act as a navigator, although this is not always possible.
By riding in a staggered formation it is possible for this size group of bikes to stay fairly close to one another at low speeds and even to move almost as one vehicle through junctions etc. minimising the risk of further split ups.
However, this technique needs practising to get right and less experienced riders may be uncomfortable until their confidence improves. A bit of practice in local towns before the trip could well pay dividends if you know a major city is going to be on the route.
Above all it is essential to have a substantial landmark as a rendezvous point in case of dispersal.
Even in a country where you don’t speak the language you can usually get directions to major places of interest and, of course, morale (which is linked to safety) will stay high for lost riders if they have the company of a couple of other bikes with them.
It only takes one member of the team to get badly injured for the whole trip to be ruined for everyone. I will always remember being with a large group in Germany when one of them became seriously ill. Getting him medical attention and ultimately flown home was bad enough but getting his bike transported across France then back to the U.K. was an absolute nightmare.
It turned out that the insurance we had all taken out did not cover any dangerous activity and motorcycling was specifically mentioned! It ended up costing our friend thousands and much of the fun was taken out of the whole adventure.
On the other hand, now older and wiser, a few years later when two of our number crashed in driving rain in Dublin we had things right. An overnight stay in hospital was followed by a call to the A.A. 5 Star service and not only were medical bills covered but the bikes were shipped home and a hire car provided free of charge for our friends to complete the rest of the holiday.
It certainly pays dividends to get the right cover before venturing on two wheels away from the U.K. and, even if you ultimately don’t use it, the peace of mind it brings is alone worth the cost of the premium. Additionally, if you book through the large motoring organisations you get sent lots of info on legal requirements etc. for the countries you are visiting and lots of other bumph as well.
As a veteran of many large trips both home and abroad I can say honestly that they are great fun and worth all the hassle of organising. It has been my genuine experience that the best trips have been those when the principals mentioned above have been adhered to and the ones best forgotten were those where it has been ‘every man for himself’. Have fun.