If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 12 July 2010

Group riding

Yesterday's outing has made me think a bit about riding in a group, and the procedures thereof. It's not as simple as it first appears.

For most of my biking life, I have ridden alone. No particular reason; just that I've never had many friends with bikes, so the usual mass rideout on a Sunday has generally passed me by. Joining the Triumph Owners' MCC has given me the chance to do a few rideouts in company, and it takes a bit of getting used to.

Some clubs have very strict rules about group riding. I am told that the Honda GoldWing people are almost military about it, with strict no-overtaking rules and draconian penalties for disobedience. You may have seen them, usually on the Continent, with twenty or so Wings with colour-matched trailers, and grey-bearded riders with his'n'hers matching outfits, all riding in a straight line on an autoroute somewhere. Not my kind of riding at all. Even the Harley guys have 'Road Captains' and give them training to supervise and lead a large group of riders.

To some extent, this is necessary. If you are going to ride as a group, then you need to be aware that there are dangers in this which are not immediately apparent. One thing is the direction-finding thing. If someone is leading and there is a specific destination then, unless that destination is made known to everyone and each rider has a map in case of getting lost, the group needs to stay together. On quiet roads, that isn't a problem, and the leader can set the pace according to the experience and mood of the riders in the group and everyone is happy. But if there is traffic, then the leader has a choice - overtake when possible and hope the rest will catch up, or stay behind a queue of traffic to keep everyone together? Most will try to overtake where there is plenty of room, but there is still the danger of following riders playing follow-my-leader and overtaking where there is oncoming traffic or trying to get into gaps that aren't safe. This brings in the second danger, that of the 'catch-up' panic. If the riders ahead of you overtake some slow-moving vehicles and disappear into the distance, then unless you know the destination and are mature enough to sit back and wait, you will want to get ahead by any means possible, which may include risky overtaking, lane-splitting, overtaking on blind bends, and so on. I'm sure most people will have experienced, when in a car, a group of riders screaming past, one after the other, barging their way in between cars and generally behaving like arses. These may just be very skilled riders, but I suspect that many of them are riding with a fast group and don't want to be left behind.

There are a number of ways of dealing with this.

The best for a large group is the 'drop-off' system, where the group ride independently (together if traffic allows, separately if not). when the route takes a significant turn, the leader makes the turn and then waits in view of the junction. When the second rider arrives, he takes the leader's place and directs the rest of the group on the right road. When the last rider passes, he or she gives a signal to the waiting rider and then he or she follows on, now becoming the 'last man'. It works well, but requires a bit of organisation (such as a pre-ride briefing) which some riders find incompatible with the freedom of riding a bike.

For a smaller group, this degree of organisation may be unnecessary. Just riding so that everyone keeps in sight of each other may be enough, although this does restrict the ability of riders to 'go their own way'. It is frustrating, for example, to overtake a slow vehicle and then have to cruise gently a few hundred yards in front of it until you can see that the following rider has made the pass.

No organisation at all is probably the most dangerous. A lead rider with something to prove, or a following rider lacking the experience and judgement to hold back and wait, can be a recipe for disaster. There is an old biker saying, "ride your own ride" (which is applicable to life as wel as criket as any fule kno), but it's sometimes hard to stick to, when the excitement of a good day's ride is around you, the testosterone is flowing and there's a point to be made.

Then group ride yesterday was pretty sedate, overall. In fact, I would have to say that at times it was boring. When you are following a camper van along a main road at 35 mph, and you know that on your own you could have overtaken that, and the twenty cars strung out behind it, about half an hour ago, it can get a little frustrating. But the lead rider was aware of a couple of inexperienced pillions behind him and I guess that holding back was probably the right thing to do.

We talked about this over lunch, and agreed that we were a pretty relaxed bunch and that rigid rules were for other folks. I tend to agree, but sometimes I think that , especially with mature and sensible riders, the simple matter of starting a rideout with a mention of the destination and "see you there" might make matters a little easier for everyone. The quicker people can get there as fast as they like and have an extra cup of coffee, and the steady-eddies can take their time and ride within their own comfort zones. The option of riding together is still there, of course, but no-one feels bound by it.

Rideouts are great for the companionship and in getting you to go places you might not think of on your own. I think I still prefer riding alone, though, on balance.


  1. endemoniada_8813 July 2010 at 00:27


    In many respects, I hold to the argument that we all ride alone anyway (excepting those with bike-to-bike comms, perhaps). Company's nice when you get there, and sometimes a leader who knows where they're going is good, but mostly it's at best an irrelevance and at worst a downright drag whether you're in a group or not.

    That said, I did enjoy riding as a group to Monza and back. Partly because we had no real preset rules: the order just evolved naturally - leader (experienced bloke with the satnav), paceman (slowest bike and least experienced rider), middle (next least experienced), shepherd (experienced bloke without satnav) and tailgunner (me, experienced bloke with distinctive lights and a satnav). That way we pretty much knew where everybody was - the leader could pick my lights out easily - and could keep an eye on everybody's needs. But the traffic density was very low, there were hardly any hold-ups and even our less experienced chaps could hold a good constant pace. On the no turn-off twisties and mountain passes, it was accepted that those not comfortable with upping the pace would let the others through and we'd meet up again at the other end.

    I've never had a comparable experience in the UK. Large rideouts have been, without exception, a pretty tedious experience. And those with strict rules - well, you can poke those straightaway. I didn't take up biking because I want to be told what to do and when and how to do it...

    Smaller groups (up to 3 or 4 bikes) have been OK, but they have the advantage of being with people I know well - and trust - to begin with.

    Really, though, if you're going to be in a group, I think it's only fair (and probably only enjoyable) if everybody's riding standard is of a level where the pace stays acceptable to all. It certainly isn't acceptable to push people beyond their comfort zones, but it's equally unedifying to drag other people down to the point where they're bored and fractious. If you're lucky, you wind up in that comparable kind of a group, if not, the see-you-there arrangement is the only one that makes sense...

  2. The Monza trip sounds good. Did you go for the racing?

  3. endemoniada_8813 July 2010 at 23:03

    We did - the WSB round in May. Although it was as much about the journey as the entertainment: it's nice to have a proper destination, but the riding was the best bit. Two days to cross France, one day of "fun" riding in the mountains, two days "commuting" to the races then the reverse to get home. Fantastic trip with a really nice bunch of people. We hope to do the same next year, albeit to a different round. Portimao and San Marino are the current front-runners.

    Just to keep in practice, we're headed up to Silverstone in a couple of weeks, again for the WSB. Not as much of a challenge, perhaps, but should be a nice weekend out.

  4. Sounds good. I think I may have to do something like that this year. I could do with a leg-stretch.


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