Indoctrination of a Road Captain Prospect

Me in my Harley Davidson Jet II helmet at Skyline Drive

Although many of you on the Internet know me as Road Captain, I am not yet officially a HOG Road Captain. As the Activities Officer for First State HOG I have been put in the position of leading some of of the rides I have planned. Leading members of my own club that I ride with often is OK with me. Today was different. Today I had to lead a group of strangers who I have never met through a poker run course in southern Delaware. I don’t know the backroads of southern Delaware that well. I have been through the course 3 times, but still I worried that I might miss a turn with 20 bikers following me. Those backroads are too tight to pull a U-Turn on with a group that big. The pressure was on! Here are some of the questions and situations I experienced:

Through the first intersection I lost some riders at a traffic light. Should I pull over? Where should I pull over? If I don’t pull over, will they catch up? Is this a safe place to pull over?

At many stop signs I would come to a stop. Wait for all the riders to stop. Wait for cars to go by. Should I wait for that car way down in the distance to pass? If I pull out will everyone make it before that car gets here? If I wait longer is everyone going to grow impatient?

I came to a 4 way stop. One car  coming from the right was waiting for me to take my turn and go through the intersection. Do I go? Do I wave him through? If I do go, will he let everyone go through?

I am approaching some stop signs out in the country with a clear 180 degree view left to right. No cars for miles. Should I roll through the stop sign and get everyone through the intersection while the opportunity presents itself?

I approach some turns that are marked with a big yellow turn sign but no reccomended speed. Does that mean it is an easy turn? Should I throw the single file signal?

One member complained I was going too slow. This is a usual occurance. I tried to pick up the pace a little. We come up on some S-turns, sweepers and blind curves. I love this stuff. I like to go quickly in the turns. We are in single file formation so everyone can go through the turns with plenty of space. So, do I go through at my quick fun pace? Or should I be concerned about the skill level of the people following me? Maybe I should go slow so no one rides over their skill level. Maybe I should just trust them to ride their own ride.

There must be a million things going through the lead Road Captains head every minute, especially when leading a group of strangers on a course he is unfamiliar with. If like many bikers, you will be participating in poker runs this summer… keep in mind the mental focus and decision making being exerted by your Road Captain. Take the time to thank him, he will appreciate it.

For those of you thinking about becoming Road Captains… after today I would say that leading a poker run in unfamilar territory has got to be considered the indoctrination of Road Captainhood.

Special thanks to my wingman and sweep for an excellent job and helping me get through this adventure.

18 Responses to “Indoctrination of a Road Captain Prospect”

  1. I lead most of the rides for my club, as well as another riding group that I lead. First, 20 bikes in a group is too big. It should be broken out into two smaller groups, each led by its own leader and tail gunner. Furthermore, the tailgunner should know where you’re going, so that if some riders are caught behind the light, the tail gunner can move up and lead them along.

    It’s ok to pull over to the side if the number of bikes in your group can get over far enough to be away from the traffic. If you keep your groups smaller, this becomes less of an issue.

    At four-way stop signs, the wingman, or shotgun, should move into the intersection and block traffic for the rest of the group.

    Regarding throwing the single file sign, first ride at a speed that is reasonable for the road conditions. People will naturally create more space between them and the bike ahead as they need to.

    And if anyone complains that you’re riding too slow, tell them that it’s illegal to ride faster than the posted speed limit. 🙂

  2. All this time Jay I assumed you were a Road Captain because of your blog’s name. I was really surprised when I read this post.

    In my Chapter, nobody may lead a ride unless they are an official Road Captain who has completed the Advanced Riders Course, even if that person planned the ride. Also, all our RC’s are required to ride the route the day before to make sure they know where they’re going, and are aware of any road hazards or construction on the route. I’m a new Road Captain myself, but I can’t lead my first ride until I take that ARC.

    I have to disagree with Steve’s comment about the size of the group. Most of our rides have 20 or more bikes, and we’ve never had a problem. The RC will either throw a few blockers out, or if we lose a few at an intersection, will pull over until they catch up. Splitting the group up means you’d need 2 RC’s who’ve pre-ridden the route, and in most cases that’s not realistic. I’m not saying that splitting up is wrong; if it works for you that’s fine. I’m just saying that a group of 20 or more bikes can easily be led safely by an experienced, prepared Road Captain, because I’ve witnessed it many times.

    Before we leave, we gather around the RC, who goes over the ride route and destination so everyone on the ride knows what’s up. He or she will tell everyone in advance whether or not blocking will be used on the ride, and provide any other needed details, such as rest stops. Another RC is always chosen to ride sweep. This seems to work well for us. We are lucky to have the great Road Captains we have in Blackstone, and they set a high standard.

    I hope I can measure up when my time comes, because like anything else, it always looks easy when someone else is doing it. Knowing I’m learning from some of the best there are makes me feel better about it.

  3. Excellent comments by Steve and Joker! I would like to take this blog more in this direction and discuss “Road Captain Stuff” in more detail. I think Steve previously wrote a post that said riding a motorcycle is not safe. You will eventually crash. riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous. You have to accept this risk and manage it. Seeing how you both have crashed your bikes, I guess you both would agree to this point. The only thing we can do is reduce the amount of risk. I think everyone will agree that the more bikes you have, the higher amount of risk you have. It is only logical. HOG events usually have more than a dozen bikes. Less than that seems like a failure. Poker runs can get some insanely large groups. Lets not force each others oppinions on each other but try to learn from each other to better the riding experience. There is a lack of information about being a Road Captain and leading rides so the more you comment on this subject the better. Thanks!

  4. I have to admit that the club I’m in is small, and our members and associated hang arounds are all people that I know very well. We all know the roads and destinations around here, and if some of us get separated we all still end up at the same place. My experience in group leading is different than yours because of that.

    What’s more is that we’re all good friends. If a newcomer walks in and disagrees with our philosophy towards riding, the riding style, etc., they end up leaving and don’t come back. That means everyone who remains in the club are people who all see things the same way, and agree with each other on riding style.

    It’s because our members share the same philosophy on riding style that we can find safety. We can anticipate each other’s moves. We know what to expect of each other. That lets us open up, be more loose and freewheeling, and everyone has more fun riding. And for me, group leading become less of a task.

    If I had to lead a group of 20 bikes, with people that I didn’t know, that would be work, and I’d be worried just like you.

  5. That’s an excellent point Steve, and something I left out of my previous comment. That was a mistake, because what you say is a huge part of it, and I appreciate you pointing it out.

    Blackstone is like a family. We also share the same philosophy on riding and safety. We know how each other ride, and anticipate each other’s moves to a point where 10, 20, or however many bikes effectively choreograph into one. When we participate in “open” events, we immediately notice how undisciplined and downright dangerous some riders are. Our reputation for safe, professional riding has gotten to be “known” among other local clubs and HOG Chapters here.

    Last year, over 500 bikes showed up for the annual Westport HOG MDA run, and we were asked to ride up front behind the Westport HOG officers, because they know we can handle blocking safely. As a fairly new member of the Chapter, I spent much of last season being amazed at the respect our Chapter is extended when we attend other club’s events. It’s a nice feeling, and I guess I’ve gotten a little spoiled.

    You made me stop and think, and yes, I definitely would be nervous about leading a ride of 20 or more strangers. Good point Steve.

    Don’t worry Jay, we can have a difference of opinion and talk about it like men, with respect for one another. I’d like to think we’re sharing opinions, not forcing them. That’s how we all learn from each other and become better riders and bloggers. Hell, every time Road Grits Dave mentions riding side-by-side, I cringe. We would NEVER do that. But, I don’t respect him any less as a biker. If he knows who he’s riding with, and is comfortable in that formation, I figure that’s his business. Somehow I don’t think he’ll mind me saying that. Sorry this was soooo long!

  6. There is a lack of information on this stuff, so please type away. The more the better. Both of you mention blocking. I think blocking is illegal here as I have never seen it done at a HOG event in Maryland, Delaware or Pennsylvania. I went on a non HOG event once where they did it and it felt uncomfortable to me. I could feel the tension it was causing with the cagers. By disrupting the normal flow of traffic we are asking for an accident. Are people in California and Massachusetts used to this occurance and it all works out fine for everyone?

  7. Jay,
    I’d kind of like to share some information from a professional trainer’s perspective. Also from a motor officer slant. It might be a little long for a comment. That’s why I’m asking permission first. I’d hate to appear rude by taking up space without approval! Is it all right with you?

  8. Yes, please share. We are all eager to learn as there is a lack of information in this area.

  9. I’ll have to check about the legality. My guess is that it is not legal. It’s also not legal for the State Police to drive 100 mph on the highway when they’re not on an emergency call, but they do it all the time anyway. It’s a gray area. I don’t think the State has the stones to sanction it, even though when used properly, it’s a very useful tool.

    I’ve actually had cruisers or motor officers pull up and relieve me on blocks – and always with a friendly nod and wave. I have never seen or heard of the police stopping and citing a rider for blocking on a large ride. As far as the cagers go, it’s tough shit for them if they have to wait. Nobody likes to get stuck in traffic, no matter what you drive, but it happens. As far as it making an accident more likely, I disagree. The most deadly recipe for death on a big ride is A) A gap left in the formation by a rider who can’t keep it tight, and B) An unblocked intersection with an impatient ass in a cage who thinks he has enough room to cut in.

    In my experience, the folks in the cars know what is going on, and they understand we’re blocking for safety. Once in a while you get someone who may get annoyed, but they generally don’t have the balls to make an issue out of it with a bunch of bikers. That’s one circumstance where the stereotypes help us. Like I said, I’ve been on plenty of big rides where blocking is used, and I’ve never seen a problem. I really don’t know what else I can say – when done properly – it works.

  10. I’m not arguing here against blocking, but it may not be 100% neccesary. When we do get split up by a traffic light or any obstruction it doesn’t take long before we are reunited. When I was new and going on rides where I had no idea where I was this was a big stress factor. I didn’t want to be lead bike and not know where I was going. But when it happened it was not a disaster. Then I found out some of our guys have CB radio and are usually in radio contact anyway. The sweep rider will not let us get lost. Need to remain calm and stay the course. We tell people that we will not leave them. We will pull over when safe. This reduces the stress for the beginners and new riders.

  11. I have also found that very often when cagers approach an intersection and see a group of riders at the alternate stop sign, they yeild right of way and let the riders pass together as a group. No, it doesn’t always happen, but I am always impressed by the courtesy when it does! (Or maybe like you said Joker, it is more fear of dissing the stereotype than it is courtesy…but regardless, I am not complaining LOL)

  12. You thought wrong Joker!, I know where you live! …LOL pfffttt…you can say anything you want about me brother, you have a license. It’s always safer to ride staggered. I don’t ride “outlaw” formation unless I am riding a M/C sponsored run. I love the M/C sponsored rides so out of respect I’ll run with the program. If I can’t hack it I’ll stop going to them. It’s not uncommon for 100 to 200 bikes to stay in formation and never get split up or experience any close calls. Usually it’s the guy who can’t keep up or in formation is the one that causes all the problems. Road Guarding works, besides, what cager wants to be right in the middle of a bunch of bikes. Most of the time they would rather wait until you pass anyway. Not legal but cops here will escort and road guard for runs, just to keep the peace. Parades and Funeral Procession might provide a loop hole I suspect, but your still in for a fight. I have never seen a biker road guarding harrassed by the P.D.

    RC, it takes a guy with balls to be a road captain. You have to be in charge of a group that really doesn’t want to be told what to do. You seem pretty level headed and I would trust you as a Road Capt. simply because you brought up the questions you did, which means you have the groups safety in mind. Sometimes all you have to go on is common sense and gut, something you possess from what I can tell. Oh yeah, tell that peckerhead who said you were going too slow he can ride solo if he doesn’t like your leadership. He will either leave or shut the hell up and stay with the program. Either way you did your job. Know your group, let them know what to expect right up front and the rest pretty much takes care of itself.

    Great post.

  13. I believe the last place a car wants to be is in the middle of a pack of bikes. I think they will get out as soon as they can. Although it is good to keep the pack tight enough to keep cars out. If a gap should occur and a car gets in, it is not the end of the world. You might be traveling up a right hand lane with a lot of on ramps. A car may merge with traffic in the middle of your pack. I think we should just be calm and they will get out fairly quickly. Not a big deal. I try to resist the urge to pass the car to unite the group. I trust the car will get out sooner or later.

  14. Dave,
    You have such a way of putting things…you crack me up!

  15. Here’s a couple of cent’s worth on group riding. Sorry if it all runs together. I’ve noticed that when I try to do paragraphs here, the template doesn’t recognize them.

    First off, this is in no way an attempt to suggest how H.O.G. should run rides. I recognize that there are years of tradition and bylaws working here. I do know that a lot of the rides I see are run as “parades”. That is, all the bikes stay tightly in formation, no matter how many are in the group. I can understand the feeling. It’s the same for me when riding in a large group of police bikes. “Feel the power, folks!”

    My comment is based upon what I would tell someone who asked me how a group ride should be done. It’s based on a couple of decades as a trainer and former motor cop.

    Firstly, if a ride is to be done as a parade, or what Dave calls “Outlaw” formation, recognize that this is a different animal than a true group ride. Without blocking, escorts, etc., there is a potential for problems. Not everyone in cages is courteous, or even smart. In order to keep everyone together, some laws will end up being broken if there’s no “official” presence. The good news is that riding in pairs is legal in every state but Virginia and Vermont. Virginia is considering legislation that would make it legal there, too. I’m sure that ride leaders and organizers for organizations such as H.O.G. have taken these things into consideration. There’s a lot of people in these organizations who are dedicated to keeping things safe.

    So back to the other animal, the normal group ride. There should be a couple of general guidelines followed. Firstly, everyone should be informed of the riding protocol, hand signals that will be used, and the destination. This also includes planned stops. I can’t stress this next thing enough. Everyone should ride their own ride and not be pressured to do differently. Despite the fact that it’s a “group” ride, everyone’s responsible for themselves.

    Keep the groups small, preferably four or five riders. Riders at the rear of large groups can get separated and feel an urgency to catch up. Drivers can get frustrated by being blocked and do stupid things that endanger themselves and the riders.

    Beginning riders should be up front, right behind the leader. If new riders are put at the rear, they may have to exceed their abilities to keep up. This isn’t a good thing to do to new riders, obviously. Encourage everyone to ride within their limits. If people aren’t willing to ride at the pace set by the newer riders, maybe they should be out riding by themselves. Does anyone remember when they were new at this?

    Like I mentioned before, everyone should know the route and stops. As a Road Captain ( not H.O.G., but Blue Knights ) I gave everyone a rough itinerary and maps. If somebody gets separated either on purpose or by accident, they don’t have to stress out. The next place to catch up with the group is spelled out.

    Be responsible for the rider directly behind you. When making a turn, passing through a signal or changing lanes, check to make sure that riders following are still with you. If not, slow down and wait. Also, the rider ahead should notice that you are missing and wait. This strategy helps keep the group together.

    Yes, keep the group together. Traveling as a small, tight group increases your visibility and reduces the likelihood of becoming separated. It also takes up less space on the highway. To help with this, ride in a staggered formation. This allows the group to stay compact while allowing a space cushion and escape route. Maintain a two second following distance behind the rider directly in front of you. The bike that is staggered to the side and front of you will be a little closer. That’s ok. The following distance is figured from the bike directly ahead of, and in line with, you. At stops, pair up. When the wheels start rolling, return to staggered formation. Avoid riding in pairs. You can see what this would do to your ability to maneuver out of harm’s way. Not too long ago a woman took out 6 riders who were in pairs. Nobody had a place to go except into each other.

    Most riding will be in staggered formation. When should riders break this formation?

    The lead rider should take responsibility for signalling changes in formation. Ride in single file and maintain a safe 2 second following distance when passing other vehicles, entering or exiting a highway, approaching a corner, or when the group encounters limited visibility.

    Speaking of passing cars, here’s the sequence for a group to do it safely.

    Passing should be done one bike at a time. The lead passes when a safe opening exists. The lead pulls back into correct formation position ( this would be the left position ) to open up space for rider number two. The second rider moves from the right position to the left ( lead ) position and completes their pass, pulling into staggered formation behind the leader ( behind and to the right). The rest of the group follows this routine. Pass from the left position and return to the proper formation. The lead rider returns to cruising speed when the last rider has completed the pass. Remember, this wil usually be a small group of bikes so it shouldn’t take too long for everyone to complete the pass. Never compromise safety by passing from a position that doesn’t afford the best line of sight. Take your time. This is supposed to be a fun, relaxing, ride! Not to mention one that everyone wants to get home safely from.

    So that’s my take. Just a reminder that I’m only sharing from my professional experience. This is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. Thanks for indulging me, Jay.

  16. Excellent, you cover pretty much everything. I ride with HOG and large groups comes with the territory. The larger the group the more successful we feel the event is. Besides that, we pretty much adhere to the above guidelines including pre ride speech, signals, and staggered formation. Thanks Dan.

  17. Irondad,
    Your description of passing sounds exactly like the question I missed on my motorcycle endorsement test because the darn computer matched it up with this stupid picture that didn’t make any sense with the question!!! (grrrrr….I was only one question short of passing, too!) I went home and memorized that answer so I would get it right the next time…which I did. (Then I told the guy at the DMV to get the computer program fixed!)

  18. RC,
    Stop stressing so much…no doubt you are the sexiest road captain ever!

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