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Buddy Bashing

By David L. Hough

Note: the following is based on a true story, although the names and details have been changed to avoid any further embarrassment.

Two riders are making a cross-country trip together. Over the past several years they started riding together and taking longer and longer trips. They are both veteran motorcyclists and equally skilled. Either one could travel independently, but they enjoy the company of another rider. Betty is in the lead today, with Bob following along. Late in the day they enter another small town along the secondary highway they are navigating. Betty observes a small dog darting around near the street, and instinctively rolls off the throttle. The dog isn't chasing the bikes, it's chasing some small animal, perhaps a squirrel, but Betty is concerned the dog might run out into the street. As she had predicted, the dog does dart out into her path, and she pulls off a perfect quick stop to avoid hitting it.

Photo: During motorcycle events you may find yourself on the road with other motorcycles, but it's not so much a "group" as several different riders who happen to be on the road together. The idea that we're all thinking alike is an illusion.

That should be the end of the problem, except that Bob doesn't realize Betty is stopping, and he's not prepared. Before he can reach for the brake, his bike rams into Betty's. The impact knocks Betty's bike forward a few feet where it wobbles into a crash, fracturing her leg and ending her ride.

That should also be the end of the story, except Bob is embarrassed and needs to save face. Bob argues that Betty should not have made a quick stop just for a small dog. If Bob had been in the lead he would have kept going and swerved around the dog. After thousands of miles of riding together, he assumed that's what Betty would do, too. In Bob's mind, Betty caused the crash. As we might imagine, Betty blames Bob. After all, he ran into her.

This crash isn't an isolated incident. Over the past several years we've heard similar stories of accidents during group rides, and some have produced life-threatening injuries. Most of us join in group rides from time to time, whether it's fifty riders or just one or two buddies. So rather than try to fix the blame, let's see if we can avoid some typical errors that lead to accidents.

But my buddies and I think alike!

One assumption that sets a group up for an accident is that we're all on the same wavelength. It's a common misperception that after riding with others for X miles or Y years, we've all learned the same skills and habits. That's part of what got Bob in trouble. He assumed that Betty would ride exactly as he would under all circumstances.

The truth is, we're all different, with different risk awareness and different risk acceptance. The idea that we're all thinking alike is an illusion. There's nothing wrong with getting to know your riding buddies and their habits. But it's essential for everyone to understand that when we're riding down the road, each person is responsible to control his or her machine. It's not so much a "group" as several different riders who happen to be on the road together. It's healthier to maintain some suspicion that those other riders on the road with you are potentially hazardous.

Back in 1980, I participated in a tour from England to southern Spain led by the late Ken Craven. Ken had led a lot of tours through foreign countries, and had some sage advice to offer. For one thing, Ken suggested that when riding we break up the large group (40 or so riders) into small groups of 3. In Ken's experience, those accidents that had occurred on previous tours had all been with groups of 4 or more riders. That's not to say that you can't have an accident because you're only riding with one or two buddies, the point is that more riders create more potential problems.

Consider this: three riders in a group can all see each other. With four or five riders, one or more riders can be hidden behind someone else. And that also applies to how other motorists see us. A large group may be seen as a rolling roadblock that's holding up traffic.

If the group leader has defined the ride as one large group in formation, you'll need to adapt to large group tactics. But whenever I have a choice, I fall in with one or two other riders and separate from the main group.

When the group is composed of riders of relatively equal skill and experience, it's customary for everyone to take a turn at leading the ride. Whoever the leader, it's a good idea to have a rider's meeting before departure to explain what's going to happen. If there are navigation concerns, printed route sheets can be handed out. When I'm leading a group, I may suggest that if anyone doesn't want to ride with the group, they depart first, and meet us at the next scheduled stop. That way, if they have a problem, they won't be left behind.

The bungee effect

I was having breakfast at a roadside caf� after a rally when a group of four riders fired up and left. This was a busy highway with lots of tourist traffic and I was curious to see how they managed their departure. The lead rider stopped and looked left before pulling out onto the highway, then immediately accelerating up to speed. The second rider chased after the leader, slowing briefly for a quick glance before pulling out. The third rider glanced left without slowing and immediately accelerated after the group. Rider Four, seeing his buddies rapidly disappearing down the road, accelerated toward the highway without slowing or looking�and narrowly missed a collision with an approaching driver who fortunately braked to avoid the bike.

Photo: Just because you're riding in a group doesn't mean you can ignore the laws or traffic hazards. Is that second rider looking for traffic before pulling out from the side street? Is that rider on the airhead planning to make a complete stop?

Rider Four had taken a big gamble by not looking. And I'm sure that lead rider wasn't aware that his group techniques had created a big hazard for Rider Four that could have ended in a nasty crash or even a fatality.

It doesn't take long riding in a group to appreciate that riders back in the pack have to accelerate twice as hard as the leader. Let's say the group leader takes off and accelerates to just 50 mph. Rider Two takes off a couple of seconds later, and has to accelerate to 60 mph to catch up. Rider Three takes off a couple of seconds after that, and he has to accelerate to 70 mph for several seconds to catch the other two. The bigger the group, the greater this "bungee" effect.

What we may fail to appreciate is that decelerating creates a similar problem. Let's say the lead rider reaches a 25 mph sign, and immediately slows from 55 to 25. Unless Rider Two has some warning, he may not slow until he sees the lead rider's brake light come on. Then he's closing fast, and has to get hard on the brake to avoid rear-ending the ride leader. Rider Three has to brake really hard to keep from running into Rider Two, and so forth.

If there are 20 or 30 riders in the group, you can see how tail-end riders can be riding at double the speed of the leader, attempting to catch up, and then braking hard to keep from rear-ending each other. That's why the clever ride leader maintains a slow speed until the entire group gets rolling, then accelerates the group together; and starts to decelerate the group well before the reduced speed zone.

Novices to the front, please

When less experienced riders find themselves in a group ride, the tendency is to wait around and fall in at the back of the pack. That way, the novice can see what the others are doing, and the others can't see what the novice is doing wrong. But, remember that the "bungee" action gets worse at the tail end. So, novices should be directed to ride immediately behind the leader. That also helps the leader establish a speed that's appropriate for the group, since he can see what the least experienced riders are doing.

But we don't really ride fast!

I've been in a number of group rides that were faster than I would have preferred. And I've led a few rides that, in retrospect, were faster than I should have allowed. There's something about motorcycling that brings out our competitive spirit. "Boy, those other riders are really aggressive. I'd better crank up the wick so they won't think I'm a wuss!" It's easy to get stampeded into riding a lot faster than I feel is safe. And it's just not macho to say anything about the pace or drop back.

Some groups are more aggressive than others, whether a matter of speed or poor leadership. When I realize a group is more hazardous than I'm willing to accept, I take action to separate myself from the group. I can suddenly remember an appointment I need to head for. Or, I might just make a "wrong turn" and get lost. If I want to ride aggressively, I'd rather ride by myself, and not have to squander my attention on other riders around me.

I've noticed that experienced riders tend to jack up the speed year by year. If nothing goes wrong, it seems to make sense to ride a little faster than you did last year. You've also gained a little additional skill and knowledge, and that allows you to ride faster without getting in trouble. Many of the big-mileage riders I know ride well over the speed limits. That's their decision, but the error is believing that three or four very fast riders can ride together at an aggressive pace.

Photo: There's something about motorcycling that brings out our competitive spirit. And it's just not macho to say anything about the pace or let the others pull away.

As the crash between Betty and Bob reminds us, it's not so much the skill level or experience of the riders that allows accidents to happen, but rather road hazards that occur without warning. We can be in control of our bikes, but not in control of the situation. That raises the question of whether a group formation should be side-by-side or staggered.

Years ago our club invited a motorcycle officer as our guest speaker. When asked about riding with another officer, he was very proud that they rode side-by-side in the same lane. He bragged that he and his partner knew each other so well that they trusted their lives to each other. But he didn't have a ready answer for what they would do if one rider encountered a pothole or edge trap that required one of them to do an evasive maneuver.

It's not a question of trusting your riding partner, but not trusting the situation. I'd rather have more options for what to do when the unexpected happens�say a large pothole in one wheel track, or a truck driveshaft in the road. Because of that, I prefer to ride in staggered formation, never side-by-side.

Photo: You might feel confident riding side by side with a buddy, but that limits your options when some hazard suddenly pops into the scene.

Hey, we can make another 100 miles today!

One big factor that sets groups up for accidents is fatigue. Riding all day takes a lot of effort and concentration. And riding all day in a group demands even more energy. After 6 or 8 hours duking it out with traffic, our skills and reactions are very likely degraded.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004, a group of three seasoned riders leaves the Seattle area for the 49er rally in Auburn, California. The weather has turned cold and wet, which slows them down. To stay on their planned schedule, they press on farther than planned. The next day is also rainy, cold, and windy. After only another 250 miserable miles, they turn in, exhausted. All three riders are getting concerned they might not make the rally, but each one keeps that fear to himself.

On the third day they awake to blue skies. Suddenly their attitudes get brighter, and all three realize that an aggressive dash to Auburn will get them there on schedule after all. But two hours later one of the bikes spins a bearing in the transmission. Locating a rental truck to transport the ailing bike puts them another four hours behind schedule.

Photo: A staggered formation gives everyone more maneuvering room to avoid problems such as potholes or edge traps.

Now the two remaining riders urgently need to make up time, and they press on. Late that evening they are just a few miles short of the rally, when suddenly, at a confusing intersection, the two riders collide. Both riders are carted off to the hospital, and both bikes to the towing yard.

As one of the riders relates afterward: "Mistakes were made but the underlying cause was fatigue. We simply pushed too hard and didn't stop often enough. We were all thinking about getting to the rally on time, and we were unwilling to say anything to each other about how tired we were�"

That business about trying to make the destination on time regardless of setbacks is a dangerous mindset that many of us share. I've known riders to continue over mountain passes at night in blizzards, head off across the desert without sufficient water, keep riding through hurricanes, and keep going at speed on plugged tires. It's awfully hard to admit defeat and delay the trip, or worse yet, turn back. And I'm speaking from lots of personal experience here.

Photo: Riding all day takes a lot of effort and concentration. And riding all day in a group demands even more energy. It's important to recognize fatigue and deal with it before it turns into an accident.

I'm here, where are you?

More than a few accidents have occurred as a result of someone getting separated from the group. That's more of a problem when the riders have no plan other than to "follow the leader." Without some sort of backup plan, a separated rider can panic.

For example, two well-known motorcyclists were returning from a rally in 2003, husband riding his machine, and wife riding hers. Their riding style was apparently the "follow me" approach, usually with the husband leading. About two days into their homeward leg, the riders became separated in traffic. The husband, failing to see the other motorcycle, pulled over and waited by the side of the road. After waiting a few minutes, the husband decided to turn around and retrace his steps to find his partner. While attempting to make the U-turn, he was struck broadside by another vehicle and fatally injured.

That terrible accident points out that trying to hold a group together visually can distract a rider from observing traffic or surface hazards. Riding in traffic, we must expect that a group (even a group of two riders) will get separated by other vehicles or traffic signals from time to time. So we should have a plan for what to do when we get separated. The most hazardous tactic is to ride around in circles looking for the other riders.

If it's a large group, one basic rule should be that the group will not stop to wait for riders held up by one traffic signal in a string of intersections. If the tail end of the group gets separated by a red light, odds are they will eventually catch up. If not, the leader can pull over on the way out of town to allow the group to reform. The clever ride leader will also issue route sheets showing when and where the group will be.

Clubs who ride in groups often equip their bikes with CB radios, to maintain voice contact. Cellular telephones also provide a quick way to find each other. The plan could be to stop and call the other rider if a certain time period has passed without a visual. For instance, if you haven't seen your riding companion for 10 minutes, stop and call.

Or if the riders are independently capable, the plan could be for each rider to continue to the specified destination, say a chain restaurant or hotel. The "emergency" destination can be an hour away, a half day away, or the end of the day's ride. The establishment can be contacted and a message left for the other rider.

BMW Message Board 800 426-9662 (800 4 BMW MOA)

One of the very unique membership features of BMWMOA is the 800 number Message Board. This is a toll free* "bulletin board" where members can leave a message for fellow riders or family members. The message is automatically posted for 24 hours, but can be re-entered each day as needed. If you get separated from other riders, or have an emergency, you can leave a message on the board, and they can do likewise. *USA or Canada

The bottom line

With a little planning and some awareness of group dynamics, riding with companions can be enjoyable and reasonably risk-free. But, if you join a group and aren't having fun, or you think the risks are unacceptable, don't be bashful about dropping out. It's your ride and your choice.


David Hough is a long-time motorcyclist and journalist. His work has appeared in numerous motorcycle publications, but he is best known for the monthly skills series " Proficient Motorcycling " in Motorcycle Consumer News, which has been honored by special awards from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Selected columns were edited into a book " Proficient Motorcycling " published by Bowtie Press. He is also the author of "Driving A Sidecar Outfit ." A pocket handbook, " Street Strategies, "is also on the market now.


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