“You may be asked to slow down today,” read my horrorscope. “Whether this comes in the form of a speeding ticket or a scrape on the knee, you must listen to this message.”
Normally I’d take such astrological advice with a grain of salt. But this time it hit too close to home: I read this on the final morning of our “Class of 2011” sportbike comparison, as we were preparing to ride home from two days’ testing at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. Just to make sure we were all on the same page, I read it to the other guys as well. You should have seen the color drain from their faces!
Riding in a pack can be fun, but riding with a pack mentality can be downright dangerous.
Everyone who rides a motorcycle knows the risks, and accepts them. But no one wants to be reminded of them as they’re preparing to saddle up a 150-horsepower superbike and embark on an, ahem, spirited ride over twisty mountain roads.
Call me a wuss, but I decided to heed this nugget of wisdom and dial things back. Because the Ducati 1198SP had been rendered inoperable the day before, we were one bike short. A lesser man would have climbed into our box van and ridden shotgun. But we also had a couple of naked bikes in back (because we needed quarter-mile times for an upcoming comparison), so I unloaded the Honda CB1000R and followed the others home—at a safe distance. And from that vantage point, I watched the ride unfold…
As we were getting gas in Palm Desert, a large group of motorcyclists rode by: mostly BMW GSs with the odd Ducati Multistrada, Triumph Tiger and a few Harleys mixed in. Then, a few minutes later, came a second wave: mostly Harleys, at least one Victory, a Gold Wing or two and even a couple of three-wheelers—one Harley and one Can-Am Spyder. The majority wore proper gear including full-face helmets, and many had dayglow safety vests on. Clearly they were experienced riders, or were at least following the example set by someone who was.
After topping off our tanks, we headed up State Route 74, eagerly anticipating sweeping back and forth through the switchbacks climbing up the mountainside. And for a few minutes, we did just that. Then we came upon the other group.
I’ve witnessed this scenario many times, and it never plays well: one group of riders on cruisers or tourers out for a relaxing ride at an unhurried pace; another group on sportbikes looking to go faster. Something’s got to give…
For the record, nothing bad happened. There were no collisions or near-misses, no one got run off the road or fell, no speeding tickets or scraped knees even. But I’m certain a few nerves got rattled, and the lunchtime banter was bound to be riotous—I know ours was! In retrospect, while most everyone did everything right, there were a few things both groups could have done better...
I’ll start with the other group: It’s your business if you want to dawdle along at 15 mph under the speed limit admiring the scenery. Go ahead and ride in staggered formation; just not in the twisties, okay? Spread out a little: Riding too close together not only compounds problems—one rider’s mishap can quickly becomes another’s—it also makes you nearly impossible to pass.
Better yet, why not break the one big group into several smaller ones? This group had already started to do that, riding in two waves—whether that was intentional or they just got separated at a traffic signal or gas stop, I don’t know. In my 25 years of riding in groups at press intros and on comparison tests—not to mention Daytona and Sturgis—I’ve found large groups unmanageable. I try to limit my outings to four riders; six max.
Our group wasn’t above reproach, either. We sped. We passed over the double-yellow. And while we did this with great care and respect for those being overtaken, we sometimes did it at too high speed, too close together.
I’ve ridden with this same group of test riders for five years now, and I know they’re very experienced, highly skilled and don’t take chances. But from my vantage point in the rear, some of the things they did looked risky. Sure enough, I saw a few heads shake in disbelief as they passed.
Thing is, the wagging heads were all fellow motor-cyclists who at least partly “get it.” I can’t imagine what a car driver would think...