By Todd Bogenrief
Whether you are an experienced rider or a brand new rider riding in a group can be challenging. If everyone is not on the same page with what is going on it can create problems, and a small problem at 55 miles per hour can be dangerous. With that in mind though, group riding is often a rewarding and enjoyable experience. It gives us a chance to meet up, ride to fun locations, and share the experience of wind and road together.
This article does not seek to reinvent the wheel of group riding, but provide some basic guidelines for what to expect in a group ride, specifically for our HOG chapter. In my experience though, these basic procedures are fairly common among other groups as well, and may help know what to expect when riding with them as well. Be warned though, that is not always the case and when riding with a new group be sure to be familiar with their group etiquette for your safety as well as theirs.
Preparation and Meetup
Probably the most important part of the ride is being prepared and meeting up. Whether an impromptu ride or a planned ride, the ride organizer will put out a meeting location and a time to meet up. The time to meet is usually noted with kickstands up (KSU), meaning that is the time the ride leaves the meeting location.
Try to be at the meetup location about five to ten minutes early if possible. The ride leader will be available to go over the ride route and any other information that is important for the ride. For impromptu rides there will not usually be a route map, but the leader should be able to go over the ride route they intend to take. For larger organized rides there will often be a route map, as well as somewhere indicating planned stops.
Please make sure your motorcycle is in good working order and you have a full tank of gas when you arrive for the ride. Breakdowns happen and often can’t be predicted, but if that tailpipe has been hanging off for the last week, one tire is always going flat, and the carb is leaking it might be important to get that looked at before heading out on a 500 mile road trip.
Another thing to consider is the type of ride, the terrain, and the weather. Prior to a ride there should be a basic indication of the ride’s duration and length. Longer rides may require more preparation in the way of supplies.
What is the temperature when leaving and what is it expected to be like during the ride and at the end of the ride? Have I checked the weather forecast? Is this a short ride or a long ride?
Questions like that can help determine what to wear when leaving and what to pack. We often leave early in the morning when it is cool, or leave in the afternoon in the heat and return home at night when it can be cold. Layers when it is cool make it easy to change what you are wearing as the day gets hotter. A few extra water bottles and a snack never hurt either.
For larger organized rides, before heading out the ride leader and road captains will discuss the route, hand out route maps if available, and present any other important information relevant to the ride. This information will usually include the basic route, where any significant stops will be, and how often to expect a break. This is the time to ask any question you might have about the route or ride as well.
For safety and visibility we follow the general staggered formation used by most groups and as defined by the Illinois Motorcycle Operators Manual:
“Staggered formation — This is the best way to keep ranks close yet maintain an adequate space cushion. The leader rides in the left side of the lane, while the second rider stays one second behind in the right side of the lane. A third rider maintains in the left position, two seconds behind the first rider. The fourth rider would keep a two-second distance behind the second rider. This formation keeps the group close and permits each rider a safe distance from others ahead, behind and to the sides” 
What is important in this formation is to try to keep the space at about 2 seconds distance. If the group spreads out too far, especially on the highway, cars will use that space and break up the group. A responsible ride leader will maintain a safe speed limit for conditions as well to avoid having the group break up.
The staggered formation also allows for a quick switch to a single-file formation when entering sharp curves and narrow roads. The ride leader will sometimes indicate when to switch to a single-file formation by indicating as seen in the figure below. Other riders down the line may also pass the message along. When the ride leader determines it safe to return to staggered formation they will signal again to return to normal staggered riding.
The ride leader may not always signal when to switch to single-file, but when coming to a section of road with sharp curves it is always good to assume that the riders will need a little more space to slow down and use the entire lane for the curve. We are all different skill levels, and some riders may feel more cautious when cornering and slow down more.
Other than the ones indicated above, the only other signals we commonly use are those to indicate road hazards. Just remember to actually avoid the hazard you are signaling about. This is something that I have almost done because I was too worried about signaling those behind me. If you see the hazard well ahead of time and can safely signal, do so. If not, keep yourself safe and the other riders behind you should be able to use your maneuver as an indicator that something is not right.
Ride Your Own Ride*
While all the ride planning and riding formation may seem like overkill, it is an important part of the process of riding with a large group of people. One thing to keep in mind though is that at the end of the day, you are riding your own ride. As such, you are responsible for your own safety. It can be easy to get caught up in signaling other riders of hazards and only paying attention to the rider in front of you, but your awareness should be the same as when riding alone. Keep an eye on conditions farther up in the pack for changing conditions.
Most importantly, ride to your own skill level. Other riders may be more or less experienced. Don’t ride beyond your own comfort level just to keep up with the group. If the ride leader is riding too fast, let one of the road captains or leader know at the next break. As a general rule, we try to stay at or just above the speed limit, depending on the flow of traffic. In curves it is normal for the group to spread about a bit as each rider will ride to their own comfort level.
*But Don’t Forget You Are in a Group
Sure, all that ride your own ride stuff is great, but don’t forget that you are in a group as well. Riding in a group of twenty motorcycles with riders of varying skill levels is not the best time to show off your awesome cornering skills or how much horsepower that Stage 4 kit has. We’ve all been in a group where the ride leader decides its drag race time, it’s not fun for anyone, except I guess the rider that got to do zero to one-hundred in 5 seconds and leave the group eating dust and fumes.
You are going to get separated from the group, this is a fact in group riding. The first thing to do is not to panic and break laws or take unnecessary risks to catch up with the group. Hopefully all that preparation we did before the ride will have break locations, the end location, and possibly a route map in your hands. Also, with larger rides there will most likely be road captains spaced out through the group who will know the route.
If there is a road captain in your group, let them safely take the lead position of the separated group and they can continue as the new ride leader. Make sure to adjust your stagger accordingly, the lead rider should be in the front, using the left third of the lane. Either the group will catch up to the main group, or everyone can reconnect at the next rest stop or final ride location.
The main group will try to maintain the speed limit and safe riding formation on the designated route. In some cases they will stop to let stragglers catch up if it is safe for them to do so by pulling to the side of the road or into a conspicuous parking area. If you notice you are coming up on the main group who are traveling slowly or stopped, reduce speed to rejoin the pack.
The worst case scenario is that there is no road captain in your group. This is possible with smaller rides. If you know the final destination, continue on a route you know, or when safe to do so use the route map or a smartphone/GPS device to get your bearings. If there are others in your group, pull over at the next gas station or parking lot to see if anyone else knows the route so that they may take the lead.
In Case of Emergency
In case of emergency or mechanical failure, you may get separated from the group. If there is a medical emergency safely pull over and contact the appropriate emergency service as soon as you can. Other group members can help by directing traffic or helping keep the area safe. One of the road captains or group leader will try to have a first aid kit with them as well.
Mechanical failure may present other problems as tools or part may not be available. Once safely out of traffic, contact your towing/roadside assistance service of choice. Other riders and road captains can help determine the next best course of action.
1. Illinois Motorcycle Operators Manual, pg. 32