Group rides. For some, they’re the ideal way to go, for others, they’re a necessary inconvenience. And sometimes they can be pretty stressful!
If you’re a new rider, or just not accustomed to riding in a group, the idea can be a little scary, especially if you don’t know the others in your group very well. Even seasoned riders, if they spend most of their time solo, can feel a bit unsure about the rules, expectations and etiquette of group riding. So we’ve put together this little guide that will help you navigate the basics of riding in a group.
Staggered formation. You’ve probably noticed how groups of riders space themselves out within their lane; we call this “staggered formation.” The purpose is pretty simple: it allows each rider a clear view ahead, along with space to the side for any quick or sudden maneuvering they have to do in the case of road hazards like potholes, rocks, critters, debris, etc.
The leader is typically in the left portion of the lane, rider No. 2 is in the right portion, rider No. 3 in the left, and so on. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation recommends spacing yourself so that there is a 2-second gap between you and the rider directly in front of you. As speeds increase, that means a longer distance, and at slow speeds (especially in heavy traffic areas…read more here) that means closing ranks and tightening up the formation.
Who rides where? Put an experienced, responsible rider in the lead position. The leader should obviously also know the route you’re taking. The least experienced rider in the group goes next, in the No. 2 position behind and to the right of the leader. The last position, also called the “sweep,” should be another highly experienced rider. The sweeper should carry a first aid kit and tools, and they should also know the route in case the group gets separated.
Group size. Try to keep your group manageable—between five and seven riders max. If necessary, break up large groups into smaller ones.
Lane changes. A good leader will be watching their mirrors, and will wait until there is a large enough space for the whole group to move over. Sometimes that’s just not possible, in which case each rider makes an individual lane change, returning to their position within the new lane.
Maintain your speed when changing lanes! Remember that there are riders behind you who need to move over as well.
Communication. This is especially important in a group. The leader will often activate their turn signals early; following riders should also use their signals, essentially passing the message back. Some groups also like to use hand signals for upcoming turns: left arm straight out to the side for a left turn, left arm raised at a 90-degree angle for a right turn.
There are a few other “universal” hand signals in the moto world: tapping the top of your helmet means “police ahead,” extending a hand down and opening and closing your fist tells another rider their turn signal is still on, and sticking a foot out indicates a hazard in the road on either the left or right side. Below is a chart from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation showing some other common hand signals. Each group has their own way of communicating, so don’t be afraid to ask before you leave!
Curves. When the road gets twisty, throw the staggered formation out the window. Forming a single file gives you the space you need to lean and adjust your line if necessary. Remember this might also mean giving the rider ahead of you some extra space.
Passing. Never blindly follow the rider ahead of you when they pull out to pass a car. Move over to the left portion of the lane and wait until you have a clear view of the road ahead. That may mean waiting until the rider in front of you is safely back in the lane ahead of the vehicle you’re passing. Then check your mirror to make sure another speed demon isn’t trying to make the pass from behind you.
Being passed. Being passed by a single vehicle is easy: just let them go. There may be times when the vehicle doesn’t have room to get around the whole group in one go. Don’t take offense, even if they’re obviously just being impatient. Open up a space and let them back in. There’s no sense in riding too close and putting yourself and the rest of your group in danger.
But what if it’s another group of riders passing yours? Well, first off get in the habit of watching your mirrors (read more here). That way you won’t be startled when riders start blasting past you. As the sweep rider, if you see another group approaching from behind, move to the right and wave them past. This lets them know a) you see them, and b) you’re going to maintain your position to the right, giving them plenty of space to make the pass. As a mid-pack or lead rider, you’ll just need to keep an eye on your mirrors. If the headlight of the bike behind you moves to the right, look for passing riders and move right as well, waving them by. This can take time as the two groups filter past, but just hold your right-side line and give your fellow riders a wave as they move on.
Staying together and on-course. Each group has its own procedure for this, and it’s something that should be discussed before you leave. Some groups prefer to stay in a pack at all times, with the leader pulling over immediately if you get separated, for example at a red light. Others, especially on long trips or when riding off-road, use the back-marker technique. When approaching a turn or confusing intersection, check your mirrors. If you don’t see the rider behind you, pull over and wait for them. Basically you’re making sure that each turn is marked, and the sweep rider can pick up any stragglers.
5 Ways to Become a Better Group Rider
No, there’s not actually a final exam, but I do want to leave you with this parting advice, and it’s the most important: ride your own ride.
Ultimately, we are all responsible for ourselves and only ourselves. Even though you’re in a group of other riders, you alone are in control of your bike and are therefore on a solo ride. If the group is doing stuff that makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it. Ride your own pace, don’t run the red light even though the two riders ahead of you did, if you need to take a break signal to your group and pull over. And don’t attempt an unsafe pass—your group won’t leave you behind.
Do you have any comments or group riding suggestions? Share them in the comment section below. And happy (group) riding!
Jenny, thx for article. In addition to riding on my own, I also ride with couple meetup groups and have met some great people and improved my riding skills. However, one group I rode with (combo of cruisers & sport bikes), “flew” down the road with speeds in excess of 10-20 mph over posted. I’m more “smell the roses” and enjoy the journey. I would signal them to go in front of me. They would tell me I need to “close the gap.” I finally dropped out & have found another group that’s more my style of riding. So, I would suggest to anyone out there if you’re not comfortable with group’s riding style and/or unsafe riding, leave the group. Don’t ride in unsafe conditions – too stressful & not fun.
Hand signal for pull off should read “arm positioned as for LEFT turn not right turn”.
No…”As for (a) right turn” IS CORRECT.
Upper arm straight out, forearm straight up, them move it to the right to signal pull off!
The picture is a bit confusing.
David’s comment above is incorrect!
Follow the chart.
I have not rode with a group on my own. Only our friends. My husband took care of everything. I am afraid of being on my own.
We hear that a lot. What is it that you’re afraid of specifically?
I have issues when “the leader” keeps the group in the left lane… sometimes after passing a vehicle, and sometimes no passing occurs. Is there an accepted practice to this I might be unaware of? When I lead, I always pull my group back to the right lane. It drives me crazy when we stay holed up in the left lane… and under the speed limit!
A good practice, and the posted law in some areas: Slower vehicles keep right, or, keep right except when passing. Unless you are passing someone YOU are the slowest vehicle. Even in high traffic areas with many off/on ramps this practice is still the best.