As someone who's been lucky enough to ride some of the top superbike and grand prix machinery on many of the world's finest racetracks, let me assure you that there's still nothing more pleasurable than riding on a favorite road in a group of familiar partners. Fortunately for me, as a frequent guest tester for Sport Rider, it's also a common occurrence.
Conversely, don't underestimate the danger that out-of-sync or unpredictable riding partners can cause you. I've heard and witnessed enough horror stories to have no tolerance for being around riders who I don't trust. They represent a greater potential threat than all other dangers combined, since our exposure to them is often for a longer duration in a variety of unpredictable circumstances. Editor Kunitsugu's experience with an egotistical rider at a BMW model launch—who nearly crashed himself and the group's leader off the road—is a prime example (Wheelspin, Aug. '05). But just to give you an image of the real potential danger, I've heard the first-hand account from a former SR staffer who saved the life of a fellow motorcyclist whose leg was severed from his body by an impact with his riding partner's bike. Next time you're wondering if you might be over-reacting, imagine yourself being a part of that grizzly scene to keep your perspective.
For photo composition purposes, we staged the staggered-rider formation a bit too tightly. Ideally, give yourself a two-second gap to the person directly in front of you and approximately one second to the person staggered to your side. Staggering allows a tighter formation and an improved field of vision.
That said, I prefer to focus on the positives, and there are few things as satisfying as following a group of well-ridden motorcycles as they precisely carve through a tricky set of corners, each tipping in and clipping apexes in seamless succession. Even more important, however, is that partners not surprise each other with unexpected moves or ride in each other's blind spots. I've been riding with Kunitsugu and SR guest tester Steve Mikolas for nearly 20 years and with Andrew Trevitt and SR guest tester Jim O'Connor for about half that. I'm confident no matter what surprise lurks around the next corner—a patch of sand, pool of oil or, as we just experienced, a deer skittering for traction with its hooves clattering across the tarmac—that I know how each and every one of us will react a split second before we actually do. It's not just the years that we've ridden together that builds our trust, though it does help. There's also some basic group-riding etiquette that allows even newcomers to the group to fit right in.
Great roads and even better bikes are key ingredients for an enjoyable ride, but the most critical factor is being comfortable and confident with your fellow riding partners. Space yourselves out with at least a one- to two-second gap between you—and leave the who's-fastest competition for the track. When the road turns twisty, single-file formation works best.
The first key to riding harmony is communication among the riders. Don't be shy about initiating a discussion, setting the guidelines before the ride begins. Make sure everyone knows the final destination and the route to get there. Solicit comments from everyone; don't behave like a drill sergeant. Discuss any recent changes to the conditions of the road or law enforcement crackdowns.
Once you're rolling, the biggest communication factor will be visual: always know where the other riders are and what they are doing. This starts by making sure that you can see the rider behind in your mirror and see the reflection of the helmet of the rider in front in his mirror. That way you're visible in his peripheral vision at a glance without forcing him to turn his head to look for you or get distracted wondering where you are.
Visually, you want to be scanning well in front of the bike in front of you, not staring at the rider's back. Be aware of what the riders ahead are doing with your peripheral vision, but don't fixate on them. All riders' visual awareness needs to be at least two to six seconds ahead; the faster your speed, the farther ahead you need to look. Don't trust the lead rider to keep you out of trouble because by the time you see him react, you'll already be behind the eight ball. Ideally, you'll recognize the situation as a group and react as a group, while still individually minding your responsibilities to help keep yourself and everyone else out of trouble.
Keeping the person behind you in your mirror's field of view is actually the responsibility of the following rider and alleviates any question as to the follower's position. The leading rider is responsible for ensuring that the person behind hasn't lost touch with the group.
If you're riding in a multi-lane situation, let the leader choose the lane and the speed (within reason) and cue off him, moving as a group formation whenever possible rather than spreading out in multiple lanes. In passing situations, move as a group when the situations allow but realize that every rider is also individually responsible for his own judgment and personal safety.
Allow the leader to set the pace, but let everyone know that there's no pressure to keep up. Let everyone in the group know at the outset that you'll be stopping at each major intersection, giving anyone who's dropped behind time to catch up and eliminating the fear that they need to keep up or be left behind. This situation should also figure into the pace that the leader sets. It's more fun to ride as a group, and no one's ego gets bruised in the process. Likewise, everyone should be comfortable waving someone past any time they feel like backing it down. Our passing etiquette is to only pass when waved by, and we always pass on the left when the coast is clear. Never pass on the right side. It sounds like common sense to most of us, but you'd be surprised how many riders think otherwise.
Make sure everyone knows the difference between a street ride and a track day. The street is no place for competitive urges to push the pace up to elevated danger levels. This has happened a couple of times when new riders join the group, wanting to impress others with their speed; they always try to work their way up to the leader and then ride on his taillight as if he were Valentino Rossi preparing for a last lap pass to win the World Championship. Probably the best solution is to wave riders like this up to the front of the pack, then have the rest of group slow down, turn around and ride in the other direction.
When following, make sure that you can see the face shield of the leading rider's helmet in his mirror. You never want to be in his blind spot, which can make the lead rider uncomfortable or force him to turn his head to find you, potentially causing a distraction.
The first time I rode on a track, I realized that while riding on the street, I had no idea what fast was. Unlike many racers, I never stopped enjoying street rides; I just no longer had the need to get a speed fix unless I was on the track. It's likely no coincidence that most all of my favorite riding partners have race experience. We settled the who's-fastest question long ago and don't have anything else to prove.
The more riding experience I got, the more selective I became about who I chose to ride with. Who you ride with should be given at least as much—if not more—consideration as what you ride and where you ride. I've been fortunate to have cultivated a close bunch of riding partners who I absolutely trust with my life, which is good, because every time we ride together, that's exactly what I'm doing.