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Organising and joining group riding - some rules and tips
This particular article was originally penned after a friend of mine (at the time member of an advanced group), told me a sorry tale of things going wrong on their group rides. Three rides, three crashes bringing the rides to an unplanned halt. Now, having organised trouble-free group rides for years I'd like to say that on a well-organised ride, with proper rules and sensible riders this shouldn't happen. But having written the article, the next three rides I organised were also brought to a halt by silly crashes. Two riders fell off at walking pace on sharp corners, and required medical attention. The third ran out of road on another tight bend and whilst unhurt, needed a van to take his bike home. Bad luck? Perhaps. But maybe we were actually. Shortly afterwards, a survey of rural riding fatalities in Lincolnshire found that ALMOST HALF occurred on group rides. So if we take on the organisation of a group ride, we take on a lot of responsibility and we need to understand just how group riding brings some very unique problems. But we also have some responsibilities if we join a group ride.
Most discussion on how to organise a group ride tends to focus on how the ride's organised once it's underway. But if we're setting it up, we really need to back up a stage and focus on some risk assessment and management.
Virtually all the serious problems I've seen on group rides result from just a few issues. Here are four that crop up in the planning stage:
- poorly-planned routes
- lack of organisation to deal with a mix of abilities
- worst case scenarios
And one is down to the ride attendees:
- individual poor attitude to riding and a lack of self-control
Planning and Organisation
The route: start by deciding what the ride is for. Is it just a couple of hours out with some buddies? A club outing to a different part of the country? Or do you want to put on a day's riding for riders you don't know?
That's important because it'll influence the route. For example, if we're leading a small club group off for a few days riding in a totally different area, then planning a ride up a motorway is likely to be the quickest way of getting there - it's easy enough to organise a rendezvous at a particular service area or junction. But on a day-long ride with a big group of unknown riders, then short stretches of motorways can cause real problems with keeping the group together. And believe it or not, I was on one group ride where the organisers had forgotten there were a few riders on L plates.
Town centres also cause problems, even with a good system of marking. As well as having drivers get annoyed by being 'blocked in' by a stream of bikes crossing a junction, and deliberately pulling out, a big group can be chopped into numerous chunks by traffic lights or roundabouts. This happened on a ride down the French coast through Bolougne with thirty-odd riders. One rider didn't follow the group riding rules and failed to mark an exit from a roundabout. The next rider just ahead of me couldn't see where he'd gone so followed the 'all directions' sign. He guessed wrong so the back end of the group went the wrong way. After ten minutes we stopped when we realised we'd lost the front. But the group leader was still blissfully unaware because he still had bikes behind him, thanks to that rider who didn't stop. With no contingency plan and no route map to the lunch stop, we had to contact him by phone - not so easy when someone's riding with the phone in a pocket. We made it to lunch, an hour late, and that meant we had to abandon our pleasant ride back to Eurotunnel. One mistake totally disrupted the day. One group kept stopping and reassembling after each junction, but this causes inconvenience to other road users, and eventually becomes unworkable if the group's a big one. You could have a reassembly point marked on a map. That'll work IF people can read a map.
For the same sort of reason, right turns on fast, busy roads are best avoided. It'll take ages for a big group to make the turn. Meanwhile, there's a long queue of bikes backing up and potentially blocking the road.
And think about whether the group will cope with really awkward corners or turns. I planned one route for some new riders, but overlooked one very tight, right-back-on-itself, downhill junction. As I approached I suddenly realised it would be a major problem for some of the less-experienced in the group. I had to pull the group up and warn them at the last moment. That one would have been best avoided.
It may be that the UK's not blessed with vast areas of open roads, so we're bound to encounter villages. But with a bit of careful planning, it's usually possible to avoid the bigger towns and motorways, and to avoid the most awkward manoeuvres.
Don't forget fuel. It's amazing how often it's a last-minute consideration but plan your stops and make sure everyone can reach them. It's no good planning around your own 250 mile tank. My Hornet has a notoriously short reliable fuel range of 120 to 130 miles. With reserve, I can be reasonably certain of hitting 150 miles... unless we're riding at speed. On one group ride in France, our destination was only 90 miles away, so starting with a full tank should have got me there with plenty to spare... except the leader didn't take the obvious route, but a much longer ride that was marginally quicker thanks to some autoroute with no service area and didn't check if anyone would need a top-up. I had just hit 135 miles when we turned off the motorway and a moment later I ran out of fuel. Fortunately, I was able to coast downhill into the town and straight into a filling station half-way down.
Getting tired: the problem of fatigue shouldn't be underestimated. I know that because it's something I've been guilty of. I tend to forget that I'm used to spending long hours in the saddle. Just recently, I left at 9am to ride 90 miles to meet a trainee at 11am, covered another 90 miles in five hours training (which actually took six and a half hours because we talked so much), then rode just under 100 miles for another two and a half hours to my final destination, not arriving until 8:30pm.
But not everyone is capable of doing that. We have to remember that for some riders, one hour in the saddle is likely to be a long ride. Others will make problems for themselves. Having organised a ride in North Yorkshire a while back, I was rather flattered that someone had ridden almost 150 miles to make our 10 am start, but in retrospect it meant he'd set off at 7am and by the time he crashed, at about 4pm, he'd covered another 120 miles of fairly technical riding with only a couple of twenty minute refueling stops and an hour's lunch break. Even though it was in clear sight, he failed to spot a sharp kink at the end of a gentle left-hander. The bike left the road at walking pace, but fell a metre on the far side. The bike was unrideable, and was ultimately a write-off. He said some months later that he was absolutely knackered when he crashed.
Make sure you plan stops. Dehydration is an issue on a bike so we all need to personally refuel and rest up on a long ride, but be aware of the issue that the slowest riders will be last in and have least time to recover. Up front, you may feel refreshed. The rider at the back may barely have got the helmet off. And factor in loo stops, and bum and ciggie breaks. Be particularly cautious after lunch when the combination of food and biorhythms cause a low point in our riding.
Who's on the ride: we also need to think about who is on the invite list. If we know the riders, then we should be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Similarly if it's closed-to-club, we should have a reasonable idea of who will turn up. But once it's an open ride, we have no idea who'll turn up. We can pitch a ride for 'experienced only' or 'suitable for newly qualified' but we're relying on attendees to self-assess. I've seen plenty of 'experienced' riders with poor skills. Ultimately, we won't have any idea of their capabilities - or level of self-control - until we see them ride. Or we can suggest a 'fast' or 'slow' ride. One of the problems of 'fast' riders turning up for 'slow' rides is that they get bored and start messing about.
We also need to think about the size of the group. It may stroke our ego to be leading a big group of thirty-plus riders, but it causes any amount of problems. We have to find ways of keeping the group together, and to keep it under control. Having said that, I have ridden in groups of thirty where everyone's behaved impeccably but I've also seen chaos. My own preference these days is for small groups - single figures. And with just four or five riders, the leader can usually see everyone else in the group. Plus it's more intimate, everybody gets to know everyone else - and it's easier to find somewhere to stop for lunch.
And it almost guarantees a mix of abilities. So what do we do about inexperienced or new riders mixing with an experienced group? The usual solution is to put the slowest or least experienced rider behind the leader. That way, in theory at least, the pace is set for the entire group and no-one will be left behind. But think about this. However much they are told to "ride at your own pace", the rider behind the leader will not want to hold the group up. So there's a serious risk they'll override, and the leader will progressively up the pace to the point where they can no longer sustain it.
If the group's a large one, does everyone ride together? Or should it be split up into mini-groups which ride at their own pace? This is one way to deal with a mix of experienced / inexperienced or fast / slow riders. Or does everyone do their own ride but following a common route?
If the ride is split into mini-groups do they cover the route at their own pace? That's an approach I have used successfully in France. Or do the mini-groups plan to meet at intervals along the route? Do they set off together again? If they do, this inevitably means the slower riders have less time to recover. Or if everyone is riding alone, do they do their own thing once they've set off?
How are you going to organise the 'marking system' so riders know where to turn? Is overtaking allowed? These are all decisions that need to be made before the ride.
With small groups of half-a-dozen or so, the leader can keep everyone in sight, but bigger groups need a marking system. There are two alternatives - the 'caterpillar' (as used by the National Motorcycle Escort Group which escorts cycle races and similar and of which I was a member for some years) or the 'leapfrog'.
In the caterpillar system, the rider immediately behind the leader stops when the leader turns off, and waits for the next rider who slides into his place as the first rider moves off again. This works well with groups which are riding on open roads where riders are riding at their own pace and can lose sight of the rider ahead. Why? Because everyone stays in the SAME ORDER. Each rider knows exactly who is ahead and behind. You'll see why that's important in a moment.
With the leapfrog system, the rider immediately behind the leader stops to mark the point where the leader has turned off, but this time that rider stays there and lets the entire group pass by, only moving on again when the tail end rider, sometimes called 'the sweeper', comes into view. Now, if no overtaking is allowed within the group, then the group order stays the same aside from this 'front to back' rotation. But many groups do allow overtaking. And then two problems arise. Unless it's a small group and we know exactly who's on the ride, we'll probably not know everyone. And that means it's possible a random rider can get into the group. It's always possible that the next group rider won't realise the interloper is not part of the ride, and will follow that random bike when it turns off. Riding with a buddy, that's exactly what happened when I pulled out into what turned out to be the middle of a group ride. I turned off, stopped to wait for my buddy to appear, and whilst the front half of the group carried on on the main road, the back half thought I was marking a turn for them and turned off where I'd stopped. The second issue is that in my experience getting back to the front can become a competition for some riders, who end up constantly passing the slower riders. I'm not a great fan of this method as it results in dodgy overtakes and scary moments for slower riders as they are passed by the quicker guys.
Worst case scenarios: what can go wrong? The obvious issues are the group splitting, crashes and breakdowns. What are your fallback plans to deal with each? Are you going to provide a route map? Does everyone have a contact number? Can you hear the phone and answer it? Have you got anyone with first aid training? Does anyone have a first aid kit? What about tools? Can you deal with a puncture?
Here's another to think about. How do you deal with a disruptive rider? It's worth thinking about because sooner or later, you will get someone who thinks a group ride is an excuse to pull wheelies down the village high street.
On the day
Don't just set off. Hold a briefing at the beginning of the ride. Make it clear that rules will be operating. You may find that some people will leave at that point. Too bad. If they're not happy to follow rules, then we don't really want them along.
Whether you provide route maps and contingency meet points is up to you, but make sure everyone knows the lead and the last rider (the 'sweeper') in the group. Ideally, make it easy for everyone to see you. Don't just wear a fluoro yellow hi-vis, as half the group will - try a different colour like blue or green. Maybe use a coloured headlight cover. There's little to be gained from an introduction such as I saw on one group ride where we were all sitting in the cafe, drinking tea. "Bob will be sweeper, there's Bob for those of you who don't know him". Bob duly stands up, in his pullover, waves and smiles all round. Yeah right, that's going to make him very easy to spot when he has his gear on and is riding his unidentified bike.
Joining a ride?
You may be joining a ride, and possibly a bit nervous, so here are my tips for group participants. The main thing to remember is that it's all too easy to fall into the trap of not looking any further ahead than the tail light of the rider in front and never checking your own mirrors.
Ride your OWN RIDE: don't ride in the wheeltracks of the bike in front! In the event of a sudden stop, you might not! On twistier roads where there's only one line, sit well back. On wider and straighter roads, it's possible to stagger alternately, one bike to one side and the next to the other, but it does require everyone to understand how it works. It's particularly useful in town, as it makes the group shorter and more compact, thus taking up less room on the road, which helps prevent drivers turning into the middle of it.
Don't follow the rider ahead either: stay back and look past the bike in front. Get too close and it's hard to look at anything other than the brake light. The bike you're following speeds up, you speed up. That bike slows down, you slow down. The rider cocks up and you follow them straight off the road... it happens. If you find yourself struggling to do this, drop back until the rider ahead is out of sight and trust the marking system - if it works properly, there's no need to worry about getting lost. That way, it's possible to focus on your own lines, pick your own speeds, choose your own braking points and cornering lines. Most importantly you deal with hazards for yourself.
Ride at your OWN PACE: a major cause of group crashes is someone over-riding to try to keep up with the rider in front. Once you begin to stress over speed, you tense up, stop scanning ahead but fixate on the bike in front, and your riding will go ragged. Let them go. Similarly, if a rider behind catches you up, don't try to speed up. You can move over on straights, but don't make silly efforts to let them past, so hold your own line where necessary - it is up to the rider behind to overtake safely, not for you to make things easy. The moment things start to surprise you and scare you, slow down!
Don't hassle other riders: so you're quicker than the rider ahead and you'd like to pass. Hang back and wait for a safe overtaking opportunity. Don't hassle slower or less experienced riders, because if they feel they're being pressured, they'll often either speed up and over-ride to avoid holding you up, or slow down and pull over in the daftest places. And if the rider ahead is trying to pass another bike or a car, wait your turn, however long it takes.
Whilst it's important not to get sucked into a copy-cat mentality when riding in a group,
And if you're not happy: maybe it's with the group's behaviour or you simply not enjoying the route - that's happened when I've joined an unknown group and the route consisted entirely of busy A roads - go home. Don't just turn off but ride to the next group stop, and let the leader know you're leaving.
Finally, don't show off. Easy enough.
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