Transition from right turn to left turn in a Lee Parks Total Control clinic


What's New


Group Riding

Riding in a group of motorcycles appeals to many riders, but there are significant differences from solo riding that you should be aware of. First let's consider the formation of the group.

I'm assuming that you're not in a parade, going slowly, probably with a police escort blocking side traffic for you. You're just a part of the normal traffic stream, with the responsibilities and normal risks that entails. The usual formation has the lead rider in the left wheel track, number 2 in the right track, number 3 left, and so on, alternating to the last rider. The distance between a rider and the person ahead and behind but in the other wheel track is one second; the distance between a rider and the person ahead and behind in the same wheel track is 2 seconds. This is to shorten the group while still providing two seconds between two riders in the same part of the lane.

Now let's do some arithmetic to see what we really have. Suppose there are 10 riders. You're on a multilane highway doing the speed limit or thereabouts, 65mph. 65 miles per hour is about 100 feet per second. (I do this conversion a lot in this page. To convert from miles per hour to feet per second, multiply mph by 1.5.) The time between the first rider and the tenth is nine seconds; that is, there are nine one-second gaps in the formation. That's 900 feet between first and last riders.


Now we can start to see some of the reasons that group riding is different. For instance, how long will it take for someone to pass your group? Depends on how fast that person is going, of course. Suppose he's in a hurry and doing 80, 15mph over the speed limit. That's about 22 feet per second faster than you're travelling. It'll take 900/22, about 41 seconds, between the time he's alongside the trail rider to the time he's alongside the lead rider. And that's alongside, remember. If he wants to move into your lane after passing the group, and if he delays his lane change until he's one second in front of the lead rider, that's another 100 feet he has to cover. In effect, your group is now 1000 feet long, not 900, and it'll take 1000/22 or about 45 seconds, to get far enough ahead to change lanes one second in front of the leader.

Now let's think about the driver who's not doing 80, but only a little faster than the speed limit, say 70, and is midway alongside your group when his exit approaches. He's going 5mph faster than you are, which is about 7 feet per second faster, so it takes him 1000/7 = 2 minutes and 23 seconds to pass the entire group with a 1-second pad in front. If he's midway along the group when the "your exit one mile" sign appears, it'll take a minute and 10 seconds to pass the group and change lanes. In that time, at 70mph, he'll travel over 1.3 miles, well past his exit.

Now you know he isn't going to miss his exit. He can do only three things. He may speed up to try to pass the group. If he goes to 80 — this guy who was doing 70 — it'll still take him 23 seconds to pass the 500 feet of the group in front of him, and in that time he'll travel over half a mile. He'll make it, if he isn't timid, and if there is no other traffic blocking his pass.

An alternative is to slow down and let the group pass him, then pull in behind. But he'll have to slow a lot. If he goes to 60, that's only a 5mph difference between his speed and the group's speed, about 7.5 feet per second. It'll take a minute and 20 seconds for the back half of the group to get ahead so that he can change lanes, far past his exit. He'll have to slow much more, and of course he's doing it in a lane to the left of the group, which should have higher-speed traffic, not lower. No, slowing is not a good option.

Obviously what will usually happen is that he'll break into the formation. So let's see how your group will handle that.

Breaking into the Group

You're riding along in the middle of your group and you see a car to your left, signaling to change into your lane. Your first thought may be "he can't do that, I have the right of way here" but if you don't change your mind that may also be your last thought. So you roll off the throttle to give him room to move over. If everyone behind you in the group is paying enough attention to see what you see, and if they all react correctly by slowing as a unit, then there's no problem. The car moves over, takes his exit, and you close up again.

Now what if some of those people — who are up to 450 feet behind you, remember — don't see the turn signal and don't slow until they see you doing so? Suddenly you're alongside that friend of yours who's in the right wheel track, and only one second in front of the other person in the same, left, wheel track. And you may still be slowing a little.

You're probably ok if everyone in your group is an accomplished rider, not prone to sudden jerky movements. Although they didn't see the turn signal (and you slowed by rolling off the throttle, not by braking, so they didn't see a brake light either), and since you slowed unexpectedly you're now quite close to the riders behind you, still they won't do anything too radical like jamming on the brakes, thereby causing even more problems for the riders behind them. But it'd be just too bad if someone got panicky, or was looking at his GPS receiver rather than 12 seconds up the road, or the riders in the right wheel track had to move to the left to avoid a truck tire carcass at the same time you dropped back beside one of them.

Of course you have the same problem if your group is in the right lane passing an entrance and an entering car meets your 900-foot group just as he runs out of merge lane. So maybe we should get out of that lane.

Which Lane?

To avoid being next to the entrances and exits, with their attendant problems, we think about moving over to the left. That isn't a good idea on a road with only two lanes in your direction; you don't want to clog up the faster lane, and a 900-foot group of bikes doing 10 or 15mph over the speed limit represents a golden opportunity for a cop running radar to meet his daily quota all at once. But if there are three or more lanes, the middle lane might be a good option. So how do you get there?

Ten riders all independently trying to change lanes is a disaster waiting to happen. The best way is for the trail rider to move over, thereby blocking the lane and enabling the rest of the riders to move over, from rear to front, one at a time. Of course, that works only if there's nobody in the new lane for the next 1000 feet; if there is, or if someone from the third lane moves into the middle lane before the lead rider is in place, then you have a split formation again. And even if it works perfectly, note that when a rider in the rightmost track moves into the new lane, he is very briefly one second behind the rider ahead of him in the left wheel track; and similarly when the rider in the left track moves over he's briefly one second ahead of the rider in the right track. It'd be too bad if something happened that required hard braking at that time.

So maybe, after the trailing rider has secured the lane, we should move all the left-track riders over, followed by all the right-track riders. (And reverse that when changing lanes to the right.) You can see that your group needs to give some thought to how to do this before you get on the road, and after a decision has been made, everyone on the ride should know the decision.

But one way or another, everyone is now in the middle lane. Your problems with exiting traffic wanting to get through that lane into the rightmost lane, and entering traffic wanting to move out of the slowest lane, are just the same as they were before. You need to think about the group speed. You need to think well ahead so that the group won't be in the wrong lane when your exit comes up. It'll take as long for the group to pass a slower vehicle as it would for a faster vehicle to pass the group — almost 2 and a half minutes if you're going 5mph faster than the slower vehicle.

The Slinky Effect

It's clear that unless your group is alone on the road, there are adjustments that'll have to be made for other traffic. When someone changes speed, let's look at the effect on riders behind.

Suppose the lead rider is doing the 55mph speed limit through the center of town where there are lots of on- and off-ramps. As the group leaves the urban area and the speed limit increases to 65mph, the leader rolls on the throttle and eases up to 65. It takes the second rider a little time, half a second or more, to react to the speed change, and meanwhile his following distance is increasing. He then increases speed to a little more than 65 to catch up, then throttles back to 65. The third rider does the same thing, but has to increase speed a little more than the second rider did. The effect ripples back through the group, with the last riders increasing speed dramatically, and then slowing quite hard, to re-establish their proper spacing.

The effect is even more exciting when the leader slows. Remember that driver doing 80 to get past the formation before it's too late to take his exit? He changed lanes when he was one second in front of the lead rider, too close for comfort; and he was also slowing for his exit. So the leader rolls off the throttle and slows by 5mph. It takes half a second or more for the rider behind him to recognize the speed change, and meanwhile he's catching up, shortening the distance between him and the leader. When he reacts, he'll not only roll off by 5mph, he'll want to slow just a little more than that to re-establish his proper following space. And the third rider will need to roll off a little more than that for the same reason. By the time the effect ripples down to the end of the group, those riders will be braking, possibly quite hard, before speeding up again as the group stabilizes.

Rider Placement

How do you decide the order of your riders in the group? It seems desirable that the leader have some experience, and certainly should know the route well. This should be a very smooth and steady rider, not prone to sudden acceleration or deceleration. The trail rider should also be experienced in group riding, particularly if you're going to depend on that person to secure a lane for the group when changing lanes. And the bigger the group, the more desirable that at least the lead and trail riders be in communication.

How about the rest of the riders? I'm aware that a number of very experienced groups put less-experienced riders, and even experienced riders who have not done much group riding, at the back, where the (assumed dependable) trail rider can watch them and call a halt if needed. But in light of the slinky effect, discussed above, I think you should consider placing such riders immediately behind the leader, where any inexperience in speed changes will be least disruptive to the group.

Other Groups Do It; So Can Yours

None of these problems are insurmountable. As your group's experience and skill increase you'll be able to adjust to most hazards without losing contact. And even if the worst happens and the group gets scattered, you'll be able to regroup at the next scheduled stop. (You did schedule regular stops for fuel, right? And you did make sure that every rider in the group has a copy of the schedule?) But thinking about the various problems and their solutions will help you meet them without drama.

Off the Interstate!

You've finally gotten to your exit, where the scenic roads begin. Your leader pulls into the gas station at the exit as planned. The last three riders are missing, so cell phones are checked for messages in case there was a mechanical or other problem. No messages, and only a couple minutes later they arrive, having been cut off from the group a few miles back. This is not a problem since everyone knew where to meet (as well as where to call in case of a problem).

Riders refuel, some visit the bathrooms, some grab a snack, phone calls are made (now that everyone is accounted for, cell phones change from being a blessing to being a nuisance), clothing added and subtracted, and a couple of people buy a souvenir bandanna. Finally, finally, everyone is ready. The group pulls out for the short ride through town.

The first traffic light is red, and the group "boxes up" as they stop: The leader stops in the left track, the second rider stops beside the leader on the right, third rider behind leader on the left, fourth on the right beside number three, etc., keeping the group compact at the stop. When the light turns green (and after the leader has checked for someone running the light) they leave as they arrived, first leader, then number two, then three, etc., so they stop side-by-side but ride staggered.

The second light isn't so accomodating. The leader and the next two bikes get through the green, the next two get through the yellow, the next two simply run the light, but the last three stop, hoping that they don't see the two runners get killed or ticketed. The 4-way stop sign two blocks down further fragments the group, as other traffic interleaves into what used to be the formation. One rider mentions that they could have someone stop halfway through the intersection to block traffic until everyone gets through. The rider stopped next to him mentions that she's a cop and frequently does that for funerals and such, but if a non-authorized person does it, he'll be arrested.

Into the Twisties

But none of that matters because the route is clearly marked and there's a scheduled reassembly point a couple miles out of town. After everyone pulls in (and messages are checked, and a few phone calls made, and the rest of the candy bar is eaten, and one rider changes gloves, and another rider borrows sunglasses), the leader explains that the rules are changing now. The question which your group will have to decide is how you're going to take the twisty 45 miles to come. Will you stay in the one-second-between-riders formation? Your speed will probably be closer to 50mph than 65, for less than 700 feet from front to rear, but it's still 9 seconds long; it'll be next to impossible for faster traffic to pass you.

Another problem is that, on a twisty road, you want to use all of your lane; and when you move to the other side of the lane, you want to be further than one second from the riders ahead and behind (see my thoughts on lane position). A lot of groups expand their formation to two seconds between riders, no lane position specified, for such situations. In your case that gives you a formation 18 seconds long, over 1300 feet, a quarter of a mile, at 50mph. Now there's no chance anyone can pass legally or safely. So for the next 45 miles one of two things is going to happen. Either everyone else on this scenic road is going to putt along peacefully behind you for an hour; or some of them are going to pass as many as they can and then muscle into your formation.

There is still another decision you could make. You can dissolve the group entirely, regrouping at the designated restaurant 45 miles from here. Each rider will ride independently, at a comfortable pace, passing and being passed as it happens. The only concession to the group will be the designated sweep rider, who will stay behind everyone else, and will stop if anyone else stops for any reason whatever.

No matter what decision you make, be sure that everyone knows and agrees to it, before you leave at the start of the ride. And that brings up the issue of "rogue riders", riders who are along with you but don't follow the procedures that your group has established. In my opinion, such riders must not be tolerated. A mistake or misunderstanding can be cleared up at the next stop — possibly an emergency stop to clear things up if required — but a group member who knows the group's rules and refuses to obey them must be ejected from the group. The group should be unanimous in such cases; there is simply no place for unexpected behavior in a tightly-packed group of motorcyclists.

Alternative to Formation Riding

I'm sure you've noticed that I dislike, and even disapprove of, large groups — and to me, even 5 riders is a large group. I take more pleasure in the ride than in the camaraderie; the camaraderie happens after the ride. If your tastes differ, no problem. Armed with prior knowledge of the potential problems, you should be able to handle them with a minimum of risk. But if you're like me, perhaps an alternative would suit you better.

It should be obvious that all the problems increase and decrease with increasing and decreasing group size. My preferred way to get a large group of riders from one place to another is to use the buddy system, basically groups of two. In this way all the riders have someone else looking out for them, but each rider has to look out for only one other person. The group can still stop every 100 miles, or whatever distance is appropriate for your riders, but the stops are far more efficient, as you have to wait for only one other rider, not all the rest of the riders. You still check for messages at each stop so that no pair is lost as a result of a mechanical or other problem. Other traffic is not inconvenienced by you, and if someone separates a pair, visual contact is maintained and they can close up again after only a minute or two.

It's true that you miss the exhilaration of motorcyclists ahead and behind as far as the eye can see; but the rest of the world also misses the exhilaration of motorcyclists ahead and behind as far as the eye can see — if it's exhilaration that they feel.

Whatever you choose, be sure to choose with knowledge and thought. And have a great ride!