Deciding to ride in a group has safety aspects.
The claim given for groups is that a large group of bikes is easier to see, a conspicuity benefit. If the group is well organized, riders also claim that they get more respect on the road.
We've seen situations where a following rider (Turbo Rabbit on the right) pointed out serious bike defects, such as a flat tire, and stopped the group to deal with it. In our experience, hanging out with more experienced riders is a good way to learn useful riding skills and lore.
We caution that there are some extra risks when riding in groups, mainly when bikes in the group crash into each other. Here's an example, where a pack of 26 bikers in Oregon tailgated a cage. The first two bikers managed to avoid the stopped vehicle ahead, but at least ten following bikes hit the stopped vehicle and each other, with ten seriously injured and an unknown additional number of bikes down. They were not allowing enough following distance, one of our peeves, but very common with riding groups. The point here is that a group with poor leadership or containing too many unskilled riders is a very dangerous place to be, so assess the group you plan to join very carefully.
The following sections outlines what to look out for when looking for a group to ride with.
We have had tons of run riding with groups. There is some security in numbers and it is good to have riding buddies to yakk it up with during breaks and at the end of a day's hard riding.
How Groups Work
Each group is headed by a Lead Bike or Road Captain, and tailed by a Drag Bike or Tailgunner. The group should have provided written or web instructions before the ride, study them before turning up. If a new rider is present, the ride leader should give a safety briefing, explaining procedures and demonstrating hand signals.
Most groups use a staggered formation, where the lane is shared by two rows of bikes alternating at usually one-second intervals, the 'State Trooper' formation. Some groups use a side-by-side 'parade' formation. Unless you are very experienced and know your partner, avoid side-by-side formation rides.
When joining a new group, judge it by the clarity of the way the riding instructions are presented. Lead and drag riders should be skilled. There should not be too many novice group riders, and the lead rider should engage them, assess their group riding experience, and provide any coaching or information the new riders need.
Once on the road, the safety and cohesion of the group is maintained by fixed procedures for group maneuvers, and signalling the lead rider's intention using hand signals. You can download a simple guide to standard hand signals here. The hand signals are relayed back, and everyone knows what to do.
As the ride leader will tell you, you are riding your own ride. If, at any time, you are uncomfortable with the way the ride is being conducted, the speed or any sloppiness in the riders near you, you can and should leave the ride.
You also have the ability to initiate a signal yourself. An example of this would be someone needing more room passing a truck. The left-index-finger-up 'single file' signal can be done, and all riders behind you should lose the stagger and go to full 2-second, single file intervals. We at BikeSafer.com are very wary about passing trucks in staggered formation, as the sublane near the truck is a dangerous place. See our highway strategy page for more on that. Feel free to express any reservations to the lead rider prior to a ride and request single-file when passing trucks. It is the only safe way to go.
Except for the overview above, we are leaving our description of group riding at this purposely high level. We are not providing detailed instructions on group riding. This is because each group has slightly different practices, and it might be dangerous to make assumptions. If you want to ride with a group, find the group and study their printed or on-line group riding instructions very carefully before joining a ride. Seek out the ride leader, inform him of your experience in group riding and give him or her a chance to coach you. Your first group ride is not a place and time for machismo.
How to find a riding group
If you are looking for a local group to join, ask your local bike dealers. They might sponsor a local chapter of the manufacturer-affiliated riding group, or refer you to the local chapters of national riding groups. There are groups for special interests and particular styles of riding. They are not hard to find. Check for a clear safety policy before you turn up for a ride, and assess the competence of the ride leaders and other riders. Here's MicaPeak.com's rather complete list of riding groups. A bunch of my riding buddies like Southern Cruisers Riding Club, which has local chapters all over the US and abroad.
Be aware of the difference between a Motorcycle Club(MC) and a Riding Club(RC). MCs wear colors, induct pledges and are sometimes one-percenters. Riding Clubs sometimes wear patches (never colors), don't require a pledge process, are never one-percenters, and often support a charity. Read Wikipedia on MCs. Be careful out there, sometimes knowing a little about colors protocol can save your ass. Be aware of any MC affiliations your riding club might have, and which other MCs might take exception to your patch. And don't run your mouth or engage in any body contact if there are MC guys around, unless you know about MC protocol.
And don't be the rider behind the loud guy with straight pipes, your ears will ring by the end of the day.