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The Road Captain’s Basics

(Reprinted courtesy of Motorcycle Consumer News, Sept. 1996)

By David L. Hough

Given my choice of traveling alone or in a group, I’d prefer to travel alone. When I’m cruising toward the horizon all by myself, life is much simpler. I only have to make decisions for one person. I can change plans instantly without having a roadside conference. When I’m ready to go, I just go. If I run out of gas, I…wait a minute! Who’s going to help me if I’m all by myself?

What’s more, even if I don’t have a bike problem, it gets kind of lonely after a while. When I peer over the rim of the Grand Canyon to absorb the awesome view, or stop at an overlook with Mount Rainier gleaming in the twilight, I often feel like sharing the experience with others.

And I can also remember some great group rides. Back in the "good old days", I used to lead the Puget Sound Motorcycle Tour, a three-day ride-to-eat bash where socializing was a big part of the fun. The final tour in 1976 had 120 participants. I’ve had some great "canyon" rides with small groups of proficient riders. And I can remember a few spectacular rally parades where there were thousands of riders in one never-ending formation.

But then I’ve also had some group rides that were dangerous disasters. I suppose my preference for traveling alone isn’t so much that I don’t like groups, but that I’m cautious about joining groups that aren’t organized all that well.

DAFFY DON

I remember a small group of friends led by a rider who turned a day ride into a nightmare. Daffy Don didn’t tell us where we were going, or offer any advice about riding style or speed. Daffy didn’t do hand signals, or check his mirrors. Taking off from a stop sign, he would peel out in front of a line of cars, leaving the rest of us riding over our heads trying to catch up. When Daffy instantly decided to make a fuel stop, he drove across two lanes of oncoming traffic without signaling, abandoning the rest of us in a gaggle on the white line, hoping we wouldn’t get run over by passing 18-wheelers. After an hour or so of that nightmare, I intentionally missed a turn and got "lost" from the group. Looking back, I wonder what took me so long.

BOSS MAN BILL

By comparison, I remember a different group I joined for a ride through the mountains and canyons north of Los Angeles. Boss Man Bill explained where we were going, and maintained a pace in traffic suitable for the least experienced member. Bill also explained that once we turned off onto the narrow twisty "canyon roads" each rider should ride at his or her own pace. The more aggressive riders could zoom on ahead. Average riders could motor along enjoying the scenery. The slower riders could bring up the rear.

The key to keeping the group a group was that at critical intersections, Bill patiently held everyone until the slowest rider caught up. That way no one felt pressured to ride faster than their skill level, just to avoid getting lost, yet we could all socialize together at the rest stops.

The difference between the two groups is that Boss Man had an excellent understanding of group riding dynamics and set some simple rules that allowed everyone to enjoy the ride without creating dangerous or frustrating situations.

THE RIDE CAPTAIN

Most of us have gone for a ride with two or three companions, although we may not have recognized them as "group" riding at the time. If you haven’t had the humbling opportunity to lead a batch of bikers yet, you will, even if it’s just one other machine. Whether the group is large or small, the rid4e will go better if you follow some common sense rules. Let’s revue some of the dynamics, consider some of the techniques for leading a formation ride, and evaluate some alternate ways to move a group of motorcyclists down the road.

Let’s say you are asked to lead a club ride, with a potential for 20 bikes. Hold it! Don’t run away just yet. We’ll talk you through it. You’ll be the leader, or "Road Captain", but you should arrange for another experienced rider, or "Tail End Charlie" to bring up the end of the group. Now don’t fire up the engine and head out into traffic just yet. First, here’s a trick question for you: If you immediately accelerate up to 55 mph, how much time will pass before Charlie starts to move? Well, if riders manage to follow you exactly 2 seconds apart, Charlie will be sitting in the same spot for 38 seconds. At 55 mph, you’ll be advancing at 81’ per second, so you’ll be 3078 feet down the road before Charlie even eases out the clutch. What’s more, each rider will have to go faster than 55 to catch up with you, and the farther back in the pack, the faster each rider must go to catch up with the group. If Charlie throttles up to 110 mph, he can catch up in 38 seconds. If Charlie is only willing to risk 80 mph, it will take him 84 seconds to catch up, assuming that you hold 55 mph. So you shouldn’t be surprised if he’s hotter than a rear Heritage header long before the lunch stop.

Think of a group of motorcycles like a train, with the cars hitched together with 10’ bungee cords. That’s why the smart Road Captain pulls out slowly and creeps along at 30 mph or so until Charlie finally gets rolling. You can either watch in your mirrors, or listen on the radio if so equipped. Once the entire group is moving, you can pick up the pace to cruising speed. To avoid holding up other motorists, it’s wise to maintain at least the speed limit or the average speed of traffic if the road is busy. You don’t want to encourage other motorists to attempt passing the group.

When approaching a slower speed zone, the clever Road Captain decelerated the group well before the speed sign, so that as the first bikes arrive in the slower zone, Charlie has also slowed, and isn’t locking up his brakes to avoid jamming his front tire up somebody’s tail pipe.

The Formation

You’ve probably seen motor officers (and also big bad bikers) riding side-by-side in 2 columns. The side-by-side formation looks really impressive, but a staggered formation allows for more maneuvering room. In a staggered formation, riders follow at a 2-second interval behind the machine in that wheel track (see Figure 1)

The staggered formation moves the same number of bikes in the same road space, but allows machines in either column to temporarily move sideways to avoid hazards such as a car door, pothole, or edge trap. The staggered formation also provides a slightly better view of other riders. Two seconds is the minimum distance to provide a space cushion, while keeping the group as compact as possible. If everyone pays attention, it is easy to establish and maintain a staggered 2-second formation. It’s the Captain’s choice whether to ride in the left or right wheel track.

The bad news is that we must be prepared for a Daffy Don to join us. When you are signaling "start your engines", Daffy will still be chatting with that chickie-babe on the pink Sportster, with his riding gear still on the counter in the coffee shop and his keys in an inside pocket. Daffy will be constantly drifting over into the wrong track, or creeping back an extra 8 or 10 seconds to really upset the rear guard and make them miss the traffic light. Of course, Daffy will also expect you to find a gas station in a few minutes, because he only fills up after his bike goes on reserve, and that won’t occur until for at least another five miles. Don’t think you can ignore him-he’ll roar up through the pack to tell you when he’s ready.

When It’s Time To Go, GO!

My suggestion for Road Captains blessed with a "Daffy" is to expect everyone to conform to the group, and make that clear at the riders’ meeting. When it’s time to go, GO! Leave Daffy running around in circles in the parking lot if he’s not ready. Keep the rest of the group moving when Daffy runs out of fuel during the ride, and let poor Charlie handle the problem. When the group stops for fuel, expect everyone to top off their tanks and/or drain their bladders.

Don’t even think about stopping the group on the shoulder of a busy highway just because 1 rider has a problem. I’ve seen some extremely dangerous screw-ups where a whole gaggle of bikers has come to a screeching halt in freeway traffic for some minor problem such as a dropped glove. Yes, I’ll admit to having been a "Daffy Don" now and again, running the tank dry or having a flat tire. But I would encourage you to avoid the embarrassment yourself, whether a leader or a follower.

Getting Through The Green Light

When you’re leading a group through controlled intersections in traffic, it is unlikely that you will get everyone through before the light turns red. There is a temptation for the following riders to speed up and run the yellow to stay with the group. Tail end riders may panic and run the red also. Explain at the riders’ meeting in the beginning that riders are expected to obey all traffic signals, and that you will slow down as necessary to let everyone catch up. In practical terms, with a series of signal lights, the leader will get stopped as many times as the tail-end riders, and everyone will pass through all the intersections at about the same rate. I’ve been in some big groups where "escort" riders pull over to block the intersection and let everyone run the red light, but I don’t recommend that tactic unless the escorts are on-duty cops. The real legal eagles tend to look askance at motorcyclists’ taking the law into their own hands. All you usually have to do is keep the speed in check as you leave town to give everyone a chance to catch up before you roll the group up to cruising speed. Once in a while, you may have to creep along in the slow lane or even pull the group off the road to wait for riders caught at a long light. With a group of only 5 or 6 riders, it’s easy to find a place to stop, and also to get rolling again, but with groups of 30 or more, it’s best to keep going at a slower speed to let the rear of the group catch up.

Communication

It’s a smart idea to have a short riders’ meeting before taking off to explain where you’re going, what sort of formation you’ll be using, the meaning of various hand signals, the radio channel you’ll be using, and what to do in case of a breakdown. This also establishes in everyone’s mind who the leader is. It’s also a good time to pass out route sheets. You might also suggest that if anyone needs to split from the group that they notify Charlie, so he won’t have to run the whole route backwards looking for a ‘stranded’ rider who’s been home for a couple of hours suckin’ on a cold one.

Clubs which ride together on a regular basis often find it useful to have CB radios, especially on the lead and tail-end bikes. The Captain can explain what’s coming up next, and Charlie can report what’s happening back at the tail-end. For example, Charlie can whine that he’s had to stop with Daffy, whose dry battery has finally expired, and would the next participant with a radio kindly assume the Charlie job?

Signals

Hand and light signals are quick ways to communicate, with or without radios. I once happened to pull in behind a group of Gold Wing riders during our state’s "Governor’s Run", and was privileged to observe their proficient group skills. The ride leader maintained a slow enough speed to allow the others to quickly catch up as they pulled onto the road. Once rolling, all riders maintained exact position and following distance in a nice staggered formation. At the sight of a pothole, the leader flashed his stop light twice, and all the others passed the warning signal back. Where the road narrowed, the leader held up one finger, and everyone shifted smoothly into single file. Through a twisty section, the riders cornered briskly at the same pace. Where the road widened again, the leader held up two fingers, and the group immediately changed back to a staggered formation. To change lanes, the leader positioned the group next to a space in traffic and signaled. Charlie immediately signaled, and the whole group moved over as one. Their ride was truly an impressive performance. There are other hand signals you might find useful (See figure 2)

Cranking a finger in a circle with your right arm means, "Start your engines". The left hand patting the top of your head or helmet means, "Turn on your headlight". A hand held high with the fingers opening and closing means "Turn off your turn signal, Daffy". Pumping your hand down (palm down) means, "Slow down". Pumping your hand up (palm up) means, "Speed up". Waving your hand forward means "Go ahead and pass me" or "You lead." Waving your hand up and down (palm toward the rear) is a warning to delay the pass. Pointing vigorously toward the general position of your fuel tank means, "It’s time for a pit stop". You may think that pointing at surface hazards such as a pothole would be helpful to following riders, but it’s too easy to misinterpret. The guy behind you may think you are signaling "move over to where I’m pointing". The better warning signal is tapping your brake light twice, to encourage the other guy to look for the hazard.

Getting Stopped

OK, you got the group rolling. You’ve managed to efficiently herd everyone through town without losing Charlie or causing an accident, and it’s been a pleasant ride. Now, how do you get a long string of motorcycles stopped and parked for lunch without creating a traffic hazard? The most important consideration is having a parking area that’s big enough for the whole group.

You don’t want to get half the group off the road and leave the other half stranded out there like sitting ducks. The best scenario is when the group has space to motor into a parking lot and park side-by-side to conserve space. Riders should pull up to the left of each rider ahead, so they can immediately back into the parking space without waiting. (See figure 3) With a little experience, the whole group can get parked quickly, which helps move everyone off the road efficiently. The larger the group, the more important it is to have specific stops arranged. When I led groups of 80-100 riders, I would ride the entire route prior to the tour, both to identify specific problem areas, such as construction zones, and to find suitable parking areas. If stopping for lunch, I would also make specific arrangements for a meal, to give the restaurant an opportunity to set up group arrangements, and have enough help on hand.

Alternative Ways To Move A Group

When we think "group ride", we usually imagine a long string of bikes in formation, but there are other ways to move a group. Formation rides are fun, but socialization takes place mostly on the rest stops and meals, not on the road. One technique I have used is printing up route sheets, which detail the route and schedule. Participants who wish to ride in formation can follow along. Those who would rather ride alone are advised to leave before the scheduled time, so that we’ll know if they have had a problem. It’s relatively easy to make up route sheets by snipping pieces out of an official state tourist map and adding schedule information alongside. If you are concerned about copyright infringement, you can make a simplified tracing of that part of the map.

The longer the trip, the more important it is to divide a larger group into smaller units. Ken Craven, that irascible British tour leader (now deceased) used to suggest that participants on his trips to Spain divide up into teams of three riders. Ken had noted that accidents always involved four or more riders, never two or three. One reason should be obvious; three riders can all see each other. With four or more, at least one of the riders can be hidden. On Ken’s Mojacar tours, our little teams of two or three riders could cover the miles with less fuss than the larger groups, yet join together with everyone else at the evening meal to socialize. Poker runs are a form of group ride in which everyone usually rides at their own pace.

Back In The Pack

Group rides are a lot more enjoyable when the leader is more like Boss Man Bill, and less like Daffy Don. If you’ve never ridden in a group, make a point of staying close to the Road Captain rather than at the back of the pack. It’s a lot easier to maintain speed and position if you are no more than two or three bikes from the front. To avoid being a Daffy yourself, fill your tank and empty your bladder before the scheduled departure time. When the leader is ready to go, get your key in the ignition and get ready to roll.

Once underway, maintain the requested interval and lane position. Try to avoid drifting back and creating a big hole in the formation. If someone ahead suddenly wakes up to being in the wrong track and moves over, every following rider should immediately re-establish the proper staggered formation. Watch the leader for hand signals. When riders ahead give warning signs, pass the signal back down the line. If another rider has a problem and pulls over, stay with the group and keep rolling unless the leader also pulls over, or asks you to stop and help. It’s Charlie’s job to deal with the problem.

When the group pulls into a parking lot, follow the parking drill with everyone else. Don’t ride up behind the next rider, but pull up alongside to the left, and immediately roll your machine back into the parking space. Avoid "creative" parking decisions on your own, which might result in a line of others following you and blocking tail end riders still trying to get off the street.

Getting Lost

Of course, you might just happen to join a group that elected Daffy Don to lead, or find yourself with a thirsty gang that makes tavern stops every five miles, or encounter a "magnetic" rider who wants to tag along. If you find yourself in a group that starts doing dangerous things, excuse yourself and quit the ride. If you’re embarrassed about leaving, remember that it is ridiculously easy to get separated. Ease off the throttle, signal others to pass, and make a pit stop. Or, make a "wrong" turn and get "lost". Definitely avoid a group where riders are drinking during the ride. The possibility of finding some new buddies isn’t worth the risk of an accident. The same logic holds true for magnetic riders who are attracted to other motorcyclists and zoom over to create a group without asking. If you would rather ride alone and concentrate on what you are doing, wave "so long" and change lanes. If necessary, take the next exit, or stop for coffee, or just stop and see what they want.

Try It, You Might Like It

If you have been avoiding group rides like the plague, consider joining up once in a while as part of your skill improvement program. Maybe you will even discover some fellow enthusiasts with whom you enjoy riding. If none of the others measure up to your standards of group leadership, maybe you’ll just have to be a Road Captain and show ‘em how it’s done.

But remember; riding in a group once in a while doesn’t mean you can’t go droning off toward the horizon by yourself when you feel like it.

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