The fundamentals of group riding

We all want to enjoy riding with our mates on the road and be quicker than them on the track. We show you how to do both

Riding bikes with your mates is a right laugh. In fact, a shared biking experience - whether it's blasting an Alpine pass or simply having a Sunday run to a nice boozer - is much better than a solo one.

Plus there's nothing better than riding around the outside of your mate on a track day, and re-living the pass at the bar for the rest of the evening.

But it seems there is a serious problem when groups of bikers ride together - people crash, and for lots of different reasons. There are right (and therefore wrong) ways to enjoy a mob hoon - turn the page instantly if you have any doubts (or even if you don't...) and prepare for mass enlightenment.

A summer run with friends is what biking's all about. But how can you keep it smooth, swift and safe?

For many, biking is a social thing, and a big part of that is riding somewhere with a group of mates. For others, group riding holds less of an appeal, but situations arise when lone bikers end up riding with others.

If everyone is riding at the same pace, in the same frame of mind, going the same way to the same place and they all want to get there at the same time, then it shouldn't be a problem, but if anyone is out of kilter with the rest then problems can arise.

Gary Baldwin, an accident investigator with the Thames Valley Police, says group riding has become an identifiable cause of bike accidents. "In 2003 it became a real issue," he says. "You'd get 20 blokes riding together at a pace only one was happy with. It's a recipe for disaster."

But it isn't all doom and gloom. If you're up for a group ride there are few things you can do to make it run smoothly and, with Gary's help, we're going to tell you how.

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Rules of engagement

It might all sound a bit anal, but before you set off talk about how the run is going to work. Set some ground rules, plan fuel and food stops. Ideally, meet at some services so everyone starts with a full tank and an empty bladder. Is there a run leader, or are you just out for a 'who's fastest' thrash?

One fundamental problem is the mix of abilities and riding experience you can get in a group of riders. Do you know each other, or are you riding with a group of strangers?

"There's a new thing," says Gary, "which has been people meeting who don't know each other. It sounds bizarre but it's a case of, 'We all go for a ride because we all surf the same website'. I've attended group ride accidents when it was obvious there were about three people enjoying themselves while the rest were terrified to bits. There were no ground rules, nobody knew what was happening and what wasn't. Common sense things need to be agreed before you go out otherwise it can turn into mayhem."

Out on the open road, following a line of bikes at close quarters can screw up your forward vision. The temptation is to hang on to the rear light of the bike in front, often in a defiant, 'You're not faster than me' way, but doing so can ruin your view ahead. Bikes aren't very wide, but their height can obscure everything you want to see for a good few hundred yards ahead, especially if it's a twisty road and the guys in front know what they're doing and are on the right line. Stick too close and a dab of brakes five bikes in front can mean a panic-braking near stoppie a few bikes back. Ditto when someone slows suddenly for a turning they nearly missed. Follow the guy in front and of course keep an eye on him, but look through and around, not at them. It's easy to say but don't be goaded into riding beyond your ability. If the guy in front is quicker than you, fair play, they're quicker. Maybe you can learn by sticking behind them, but not if just keeping them in sight takes up 100% of your mental capacity.

"Getting people to ride their own ride is the real difficulty," says Gary. "If we were all a bit more disciplined it would be fine. But dangers arrive because there's this pressure in our brains that makes us want to keep up.

"When you're in a group you can't ride flat out, that's fundamental really. You can't go out in a group of large numbers and ride as fast as you would normally and expect to stay together. It doesn't work."

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So where are we going?

If the aim of your group ride is to get a whole bunch of you somewhere, together, by bike, then it helps if someone knows the way. Or at least a way. Sounds painfully obvious, but the simple matter of navigation can be a major cause of problems on group runs.

If the lead rider knows the way, then fine, everyone follows him, but problems arise when the group gets split up or people can't keep up. People are forced to ride faster and faster the further down the group you get just to keep those in front in sight.

"Bikes are macho things," says Gary, "and when people start to get lost or dropped off and can't keep up, they'll try harder and harder to keep up until they're out of their depth. But they won't give in. Common sense goes out of the window and they ride like a dingbat to hang onto someone else's shirt tails with them. They're stretched beyond their abilities, and that's the killer. On the occasions I've dealt with group riding incidents, people have got completely out of their depth and gone flying into a corner without a clue how to deal with it.

We need a bit of management before setting off. The way to stop most problems is for everyone to know where they're going. If you've got a mixed ability group - and that's what scares me about groups of people who've just met - why not split people up into groups of different ability or experience?"

If that sounds too much like an organised school trip, a dead simple solution is for everyone to make sure the rider behind them is always in their mirrors. If not, back off until they are. It works, but obviously has to be agreed beforehand, and can mean people coming to a dead stop while they wait for slower riders to catch up. A more involved but effective method is the marker system used by some riding clubs. It works like this. The lead rider must know the way, and he/she is always in front, while a designated, easily identifiable rider brings up the rear. The merry band follows the leader, and when he/she makes a turn the rider immediately behind stops and waits at that point, sending all the following bikes in the right direction. When the tail-end Charlie comes into view, the rider giving directions slots back into formation as the last-but-one bike. The system works best with large groups of riders. It doesn't require anyone to ride out of their skin to keep up with the rider in front, and nor does it preclude overtaking within the group.

But all it takes is some common sense to keep a smallish group of riders together. The key is for the lead rider to ride at something below their normal pace (especially if they're a bit tasty), and most importantly when overtaking - to give others a chance of keeping up you've got to overtake then back off, not overtake then bugger off.

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There are two types of overtaking to look at. First, overtaking other road users, second, overtaking bikes within the group itself.

Overtaking other road users is risky enough on a bike as it is. One of the biggest causes of car v bike accidents is when a bike overtakes a car as it's turning right. Throw another 20 or so riders into the mix and things become even more dangerous.

It's tempting to follow the rider in front when they overtake, but is it safe? There may be room for them to pass, but another bike following through behind could force an oncoming car to swerve out of the way. Okay, you survived unscathed, but it's hardly good biking PR. In long lines of cars, you might follow a rider through on his overtake expecting him to go for two or more cars at once, but if he passes one then backs off just as you're gassing it, you're in danger of a nasty rear-end crash. On short hops between cars, is the bike in front going to leave room for you to pull in alongside? If not, you could end up forcing the car you've just passed to brake or move out of your way. Again, bad PR.

Drop back and improve your forward view. In long lines of cars try and keep a vehicle between yourself and the bike in front as a safety buffer. And don't forget that cars may be looking to overtake within that line too.
"In large groups the pace gets more frantic the further back you are," explains Gary, "and the overtakes get tighter and tighter until the bloke at the back overtakes anything, anywhere. If he's been held up by an overtake he couldn't make for two miles, the bloke at the back has to average a faster speed than the guy in front. Quite often people will follow others through on overtakes where their view is blocked by the rider in front. It's a case of, 'Well, I'm on a bike and there's always room'."

The other thing to consider is overtaking bikes within your group. Bikes overtaking bikes isn't a problem as such, but it can be unnerving when another rider comes past just as you're tipping into a corner or about to overtake the vehicle in front. It's as much your lookout as anyone's to make sure nothing's coming past as you go for an overtake, but it's plain daft to pass someone as they're lining up their own overtake.

By laying out ground rules you can decide whether within-the-group overtakes are 'allowed' or not. If they are, be safe and courteous to your fellow riders, but bear in mind that one person's swift, safe, well executed overtake is another's suicide move.

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The show-off

Real problems begin when you involve people whose sole aim is to show everyone else just how fast they are. If you're out for a thrash with mates then perhaps that's the whole point and it may not cause too much grief (at least within the group, and at least for as long as everyone stays upright), but invite a throttle-happy egocentric nutter into a group out for a leisurely ride and it's a different matter. They are the one most likely to perform the dangerous overtakes, and the rider most in danger of ploughing into the back of those in front when everyone slows.

If you spot a nutter, get well clear of them. If that means backing off and letting them past, then do it. If they're a slow nutter, getting ahead may work but be careful they don't try and keep up, causing even more grief. Ideally, talk to them at a fuel stop or a set of traffic lights and, as nicely as you can, tell them to calm down or piss off home.

If you're the potential nutter joining a group ride with the intention of showing everyone just how quick you are, then have a quiet chat with yourself first. Do your new mates really care about your god-like skills? Are they going for a ride solely to worship at the altar of you? It's unlikely. Go along for the ride, but treat it as an exercise in self discipline, not self worship. If you can't keep yourself in check then perhaps it's better to sit it out. Remember this: it doesn't matter how quick you are, there's always going to be someone, somewhere better than you.

Wheelies can be another problem. Again, if you're riding with mates you know well then the odd wheelie is probably part of the show. Ride with people regularly and you get to know exactly the kind of places they're likely to come past you on the back wheel or suddenly roll off in front of you before popping the front up. But it can become a real problem in groups of riders unfamiliar with each other's antics.

If you're a natural born show-off, think hard about the company you're riding in. If you're concentrating on when next to pull a wheelie you're probably not paying enough attention to what the riders around you are doing. Does that guy/girl in front, who you've never met before/is nervous/inexperienced/ riding out of his skin just to keep up, really want you coming past pulling a minging fourth gear stand-up wheelie? If you really don't care what he thinks then you probably haven't read this far; if you do, not doing it is almost certainly the best course of action.  

Team spirit, mob mentality

It doesn't matter how well you're riding, a big group of bikes is rarely anything but intimidating to other road users. A single bike is a menace to many; multiply that by five, ten or more, add a few loud cans, some daft overtakes and a scant disregard for 30 and 40mph limits and a group of bikes can become a mobile exercise in bad biking PR.

The last place you're going to change people's negative perceptions of motorcycles is from the middle of a pack of 20 or more of the things, but if you're riding in a group you need to make more of an effort not to upset people (if that sort of thing bothers you, that is - which we hope it does). Be aware that car drivers may be intimidated or irritated by your presence as a large group, so diffuse tensions where you can. Be extra courteous to other road users and pedestrians. If cars move over to let you through, thank them. If you're waiting to overtake don't sit inches from their bumper, and don't overtake en masse then suddenly slow to turn off into a side road or fuel station, holding up the cars you've just passed.

Be extra careful through villages, and be especially aware if bikes have loud cans. Make sure your headlights aren't blinding people in their mirrors as you come up behind, especially if you're carrying a pillion - one badly-adjusted bike headlight in a car driver's rear view mirror is annoying, 10 or 20 are downright infuriating.

"You might think you're doing really well as 30 of you blitz down the road at 110mph overtaking everything in sight," says Gary. "But if one of you crashes and ends up splattered on the front of an on-coming vehicle, those people you've just overtaken all stop to give the police information about the reckless riding they've been a witness to.

"I've been in situations where I'm the first on the scene of an accident and had people saying, 'They came past me like maniacs'. But whether or not they were overtaking like maniacs - and in many cases they probably were overtaking at speed but that doesn't necessarily mean it was dangerous - other people's perception of what's good and bad is probably very different from yours. If you're riding in a group of 30 it's particularly important to show a bit more respect for other road users. One or two bikes speeding through a village might not get noticed, but when 30 of the fuckers come through it tries the patience of the most pro-bike residents. As a large group you're very much an identifiable beast and you have to try that bit harder to get it right."