One of the greatest joys of motorcycling is riding with friends. But riding in a group presents special challenges–whether your “group” consists of two riders, a dozen, or more.
Group riding connects us in a way that solo riding can’t. As a group of bikes rumble through town or across the countryside, each rider is experiencing the same scenery, weather, road conditions, etc., even as each individual may experience them differently.
This gives gas stops, and lunch breaks a new dimension, where riders swap stories as fresh as a still-too-hot cup of coffee. A fresh perspective is what’s great about motorcycle group riding.
By learning some of the basic guidelines of group riding, you can make sure your next outing is safe and enjoyable for all.
The best group rides start with the best rider meetings. These don’t have to be big, formal affairs–just a quick “touchbase” to get everybody on the same page and cover a few basic topics, such as:
It can also be important to make sure less-experienced riders know they can stay in their comfort zone. No one should be expected to ride beyond their skill level. Sometimes, this might mean having two route options available or putting newer riders in a group that doesn’t mind going at a slower pace or stopping more frequently.
Good communication is one of the most important aspects of good group riding etiquette–and it starts before the ride begins. Whether a small group of friends is out for a ride or an organized event such as a chapter ride, make sure everyone is on the same page before you set out.
Be sure, for instance, everybody knows what to do if someone in your group gets separated. Exchange cell phone numbers as needed. If you’re part of an “event,” attend the riders meeting.
Assure that everyone is clear on the hand signals to be used.
The MSF recognizes the need for key, universal communicative gestures that result in safe, fun, and effective group rides. The great news about learning the language of MSF signals is that it’s quick and easy.
Some of the basic ones include:
But why the MSF signals rather than your own signals?
“There’s no reason to invent a new language when one already exists that works perfectly fine, and that’s already ‘spoken’ by so many riders,” says Ray Petry, Senior Project Manager for Harley-Davidson® Riding Academy in Milwaukee. “The MSF signals are sensible and fairly intuitive. Plus, they cover the most common situations that need to be communicated by motorcyclists.”
So, take a few minutes and look at the MSF signals (you can download and print them from the MSF website at https://msf-usa.org/library.) Then take your printed copy, give it a nice laminate of clear packing tape on both sides, and put it in a saddlebag or the pocket of your riding jacket.
Of course, not all our riding communication occurs with people in our group. Sometimes, we’re compelled to communicate with other motorists.
Brake lights and turn signals are the most critical tools for communication; however, Petry also believes in the added redundancy of hand signals. “I think that other motorists sometimes forget a human is sitting on a motorcycle until they see a hand go up in the air,” he says. “It’s anecdotal, but it seems like motorists give you a wider berth when they see hand signals and motorcycle signals.
“And let’s not forget: a friendly wave to a deserving motorist or bystander can help turn a positive light on motorcyclists. The more that all motorists see us as real people, the sooner they’ll treat us like it.”
“The very nature of a group is that it takes longer to react to any situation that develops on the road,” he says. “So, whenever I’m a group ride leader, I give a couple of taps of the brake light to grab the group’s attention whenever possible, rather than going straight into a braking situation. Likewise, if I’m riding in a group, I’ll use my turn signals sooner than if I were alone, because it takes an extra moment or two to register with the group.”
And finally, Petry addresses the annoyance of being overly communicative. “Some riders want to point out every crack in the road or debris on the shoulder. This creates additional distraction and risk to the group, especially if people stop paying attention to the rider. My advice: Communicate only what is essential.”
The first rule of riding in groups is to ride in a staggered formation.
That is, with the lead rider in the left third of the lane, the second rider following in the right third, the third rider again in the left, and so on.
Each rider behind the leader should maintain a two-second following distance to the rider two spots ahead in the same side of the lane and one second behind the person directly ahead on the opposite side.
This staggered motorcycle formation gives each rider room to maneuver, making the group a little more “compact,” taking up less room on the road than if everyone were riding single file.
Following distance is key when riding with motorcyclists in a staggered formation. Each rider should stay at least two seconds behind the rider directly in front – at least one second behind the rider in the other half of the lane. “At least” is key. Riders should feel free to fall back further when going through a set of curves or if conditions (such as high winds, rough roads or heavy rain) call for a higher safety margin.
In addition to the space cushion advantage, the staggered formation takes up less room on the highway than a single file line, makes it easier for other motorists to see you, and makes it less likely that you’ll be separated by other traffic.
Even though riding in formation presents several advantages, it also presents certain challenges. Chief among them can simply be staying together–especially when riding through protected intersections. So, make sure a “separation plan” is discussed at the pre-ride meeting.
Generally, it’s best to limit the size of a single group to six or eight bikes. When groups get bigger than that, the risk factors increase, and keeping the group together becomes increasingly difficult. If your group ride is larger than eight bikes, consider splitting into several groups, each with designated lead and sweep riders.
If a group does get split up at an intersection, the lead rider can make a decision to slow down (to a safe minimum speed), or even to pull over and wait, to let the stragglers catch up – but only if there’s a safe place to do so. Sometimes, it’s best just to regroup at the next planned stop.
Again, it’s better to get separated and regroup later than to put someone’s safety at risk. Make sure you establish a plan, and everyone knows it. If less-experienced riders are along, make sure they aren’t all in one group–and each “sub-group” has at least one experienced rider to look after the motorcycle beginners.
Finally, related to the point above, it’s a good idea to have experienced riders–or even official “Ride Captains”–riding in both the lead and “sweeper” positions (the last bike) in each group.
While groups of motorcycles have a visibility advantage over single bikes, intersections are still the area of highest risk—approach with caution, with riders proceeding through only when it’s safe and legal.
Blocking an intersection without permission and a proper escort is almost always illegal. And always put personal safety ahead of staying with the group.
Line up side-by-side, two-by-two, at the stop. At STOP signs, proceed through the intersections two at a time, returning to the staggered formation as you pull away.
If the intersection is clear of other vehicles–or if you can be very confident (through eye contact and hand gestures) that other vehicles know what you’re doing, it’s sometimes okay to proceed in larger groups. But do so only with great care!
Tighten the formation to allow as many riders as possible to pass quickly. Don’t ride side-by-side; make the turn single-file or in a tight, staggered formation.
Proceed with caution single-file, with each rider proceeding through the intersection only when it’s safe and legal.
While waiting at a traffic light, it may be appropriate to close up the formation and wait side-by-side. However, when the light turns green, riders should pull away one by-one and re-establish formation.
Turn your head to check for traffic before merging.
When merging onto a multi-lane freeway, do so single-file, and go into staggered riding only after entering the traffic flow. It’s the responsibility of the lead rider to accelerate to and maintain a safe merging speed–and the responsibility of those following to keep up.
Remember that other traffic may separate your group when you merge. If this happens, take your time re-grouping; don’t be so hurried to reestablish your formation that you compromise anyone’s safety. Often, a good idea is to slow down a little (staying in the right lane) and encourage the other vehicle to pass, waving the driver around if necessary.
At cruising speeds, the ride leader is advised to stay alert for merging issues as the group approaches on-ramps. If your group is in the right lane, consider moving the group a lane to the left (with enough notice and good communication) when approaching a merging situation.
Exiting the freeway should also be done single file. Adjust your following distances accordingly as you exit–though remember that your following distance (measured in seconds) will automatically increase as you slow down, even if you keep the same linear distance from the bike ahead of you.
Every rider should use turn indicators; the lead and sweep riders should also use biker hand signals.
The basic motorcycle group ride rules for passing are simple:
But a more important group riding rule is: Pass only when necessary!
It’s often better to bide your time and be patient–especially on two-lane roadways. But, if you do have to pass, here are some strategies to keep in mind from Ray Petry, Senior Project Manager for Harley-Davidson® Riding Academy.
If you’re among a group of riders who are about to pass a motorist, agree in advance on how the group will or will not pass and follow that guidance while still making
your own safety decisions.
“It’s a mistake to follow the rider's lead in front of you blindly,” Petry says. “For starters, that rider might have very different sensibilities than you about what constitutes a safe situation for passing. Secondly, even if the situation was safe for his pass, it might have changed by the time you’re ready.”
The best approach is to employ the same strategies and sensibilities when riding solo. Petry adds a bit of caution for group passing: “If you’re riding within a group and decide to pass a motorist, be extra cautious to look behind you before swinging wide. Others in the group behind you might not share your same caution and could decide to pass before it’s their turn.”
“If my bike is fully loaded, I ride with the premise that I’m not going to pass unless it’s absolutely necessary,” says Petry, “because a loaded motorcycle takes more time to accelerate and decelerate.”
For those occasions when he does pass while riding fully loaded, Petry eschews the “gas-it” method in favor of building speed before initiating the pass because a fully loaded motorcycle doesn’t accelerate quickly enough.
“My rationale is the same as for passing unloaded: use the method that consumes the least amount of time for the whole passing process. With a loaded cycle, I’ve found that the building-speed method is generally the quickest.”
Years of riding in rural Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have made Petry aware of the pitfalls of passing slow-moving farm machinery.
“Someone driving farm equipment like a tractor or combine poses added challenges and danger to a motorcyclist,” he says. “Their equipment is usually wide and sometimes hangs into a second lane. Sometimes, they can’t see or aren’t paying attention to motorists behind them; they might not have working lights or turn signals; their equipment is cumbersome and can sling mud and dirt onto the road; and they might abruptly turn into fields without a marked or visible driveway.”
Pay attention to these dangers for clues to directional changes a farmer might make in his/her route, such as the telltale sign of dirt chunks going into and out of fields and other equipment being operated in upcoming fields.
Pass in small groups of two or three. Or when traffic is light, the whole group can pass together, as long as all the riders hand sign and maintain good following distances while making the pass.
Pass one by one, only in designated passing zones, just as you would riding alone.
Passing presents special challenges for a group. It can lead to a group getting separated and put riders in dangerous situations, often unnecessarily. A group ride should aim to enjoy the ride with each other’s company and have a shared experience to talk about later. It shouldn’t be to get somewhere in a hurry.
As a lead rider, if you find your group stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle on a two-lane road, don’t force it. Consider finding a safe place to pull over and rest for a while. Or just drop back to a safe following distance, relax your mind, and focus on the scenery or the beautiful weather instead of the frustration of the slower speed.
How to handle occasions when you’re the one getting passed? According to Petry, it’s best to check your ego at the door, do your scan of the situation, and allow the pass to occur as safely as possible.
“If I think the situation is safe and okay for passing, then I stay my course and don’t make any changes,” he says. “But I’m prepared to change that tactic and have a plan for it. If I see a motorist roll out to pass me, I look at all the factors on the road. I want them to have a choice to go in front of me and the ability to change their decision and come in behind me. That might mean moving over to the right third portion of the lane and slowing down.
Here are a few more useful tips from Petry for safe passage:
The motorcycle group riding guidelines presented here are just that: guidelines. As with any aspect of motorcycling, there’s always more to learn and no substitute for experience and good group motorcycle riding etiquette.
And don’t forget to take a headcount at the end of your ride to ensure everyone is accounted for.
A version of this post appeared in Enthusiast magazine.