I’m planning a six day group ride right now, and this will make a few years in a row that I’ve done this. It occurs to me that before, during, and after each trip my friends are sure to thank me for doing the planning. I plan the rides so I have people to go on rides with, not for high fives or to be known as some Exalted Road Captain, but maybe others could benefit from my experience? Here goes: you’re planning a group ride that stretches more than a day and a lot of miles. What do you need to think about?
Use the Tubes
Everything you’re about to read below, I coordinate using email, Facebook, Google hangouts, Meetup.com, whatever. Our lives are too nutty to have a single phone call or in-person meeting and assume everyone will show up on the day of the trip. Make sure everyone has everyone else’s cell numbers and email addresses.
Preview and Circle Back
I tend to start out with a big group of people that I tell I’m planning a trip. This will always be a big initial group because shit happens. Seventeen people saying “Hell yes!” 3 months away will turn into 2 actual travelers by the time the day rolls around. Life happens, people make choices. Additionally, even your friends who’ve never ridden 300 miles in a day will still be pissed if you pass them over for the invite, so invite everyone who would theoretically like the trip, not just those who might actually do it.
I tend to let my friends know vaguely and then tightening it up as time passes:
- These are the trips I’m thinking about this summer…
- …OK we are doing the Moonshiner 28 in July!
- All right I’ve got these dates off work and here’s a potential route, who’s really in?
I like to be at step 3 2-3 months out. Maybe your friends are different, but trekking across the country for 6 days is a lot different than meeting up for a Sunday afternoon bar hopping run. This kind of vacation is highly individualistic and sometimes takes some finessing with the family if one parent is leaving the other one home with the kids and the chores.
Get the Gear if You’re Going To
Gear for YOU is whatever you’re comfortable in. If you don’t mind riding in wet denim, you should be aware that some people do mind very much. Talk about what your rain plan is going to be: wait it out in an underpass, get to a gas station and put on rain gear? Stop and put it on when the radar shows rain ahead? Is everyone OK riding at night? Rain plans are good but what about your “shine” plan? Will your planned gas stops be enough sunscreen for everyone?
Do some people Bluetooth headsets? I’ve ridden a lot of miles without them but maybe I’ll try it some day. Different Bluetooth systems are likely incompatible, and you should experiment before the time has come to put home far behind you. What about tolls? If you’re all leaving from the same area then tolls are a fact of life in a lot of the USA. For me getting around Chicago can be a shitshow so I carry an iPass and I get the people I’m headed south with to get one as well, or I add their plates to my iPass. Parts of Indiana, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and others also have tollways. Be ready.
This is the #1 thing. Weather, humans, tires, and hotels won’t always cooperate. People you know well will act out of character for reasons that aren’t apparent. Be committed to the spirit of the trip, not the agenda you planned out. You can always go another direction, arrive late, leave early, skip a stop, or take a long lunch to keep the group from melting down.
Be ready for something to go wrong. Who’s bike leaks oil? Does someone carry both metric and standard tools? I carry a flat kit and two flashlights. I carry aspirin, a knee brace, an elbow brace, an ACE wrap, and a small towel in case bodies get sore. Depending on what direction I’m going, I carry an Octane Booster as well. Sure, modern v-twins have anti-knock capabilities, but it seems to me that my bike isn’t quite the same (until the next tune up) after running 1,000miles on low octane in South Dakota.
Communicate the Pace
I’m an Iron Butt. That’s part of the life for me, but I don’t expect the same from everyone and I sure as hell don’t look down on anyone who doesn’t push it that far. You need to look at how you’re carving up your precious vacation time and what you’re trying to do vs. what’s realistic. I find a 500 mile day is about perfect when it comes to multi day trips. You cover a lot of ground and you can stop in time to have a relaxed dinner and maybe recover from any aches and pains your body discovered during the day. On the trip I’m planning right now our second day puts us at nearly 700 miles of freeway time. You can avoid a lot of pain and suffering by communicating things like that up front and confidentially: no one wants to bow out in front of a bunch of friends who are gung ho to roll hard.
A lot of us smile the widest on two-lane roads going no more than 55, but you have to balance your desire for two-lane America and family owned gas stations in the middle of nowhere with the size of the country. It’s best to use the freeway system to get close to where you’re going and then slow down and enjoy the curves. I’ve learned this the hard way: just start in Milwaukee and try to get around Chicago with the Harley nav system’s “Avoid highways” setting on. Stoplights every block for hours will suck the good time out of a trip as much as a bad rain.
Don’t just assume everyone in your group is happy to ride 80mph either. Depending on the size of your machine and the gear you’re wearing faster speeds can mean more wind buffeting on your body and you’ll wind up taking longer breaks and losing the minutes you were trying to gain back. Personally I tend to go about 4 over the speed limit unless I’m in SD and the speed limit is already 80. Just make sure your group knows what to expect so no one is getting frustrated at your slow riding or worried that their riding faster than their experience.
The Pace also includes stopping frequency. Again, someone on a soft tail and used to doing poker runs may have different expectations than the Road Glide and Gold Wing riders they wound up traveling with. At the very least the leaders should be aware of the range of everyone they are traveling with, and expectations of how often you’re stopping. Personally, I have a hard time staying off my throttle and wind up stopping about every 120 miles even if my whole group have big-tanked touring bikes.
Bottom line: make sure everyone knows what they’re getting themselves in to.
Plan the Formation
Every biker I know is comfortable riding staggered formation from gas station to lunch station on a rustic road, but don’t assume people are comfortable riding side by side in a lane on the freeway. That being said, a tighter ride formation can save a lot of frustration with the cages on a long day of freeway riding. Even if the cars see you, they are likely not familiar with group ride concepts and will try to cut in between bikes if there appears to be a car-sized gap in your formation. Encouraging a little bit tighter formation to discourage misbehaving cages is maybe the one place where I try to get people to ride a little bit out of their comfort zone.
- At every leg of the trip, make sure there’s a leader (road captain) and tail (sweep). Make sure the sweep understands when it’s appropriate to help block traffic to help riders merge together.
- Make sure everyone understands the common hand signals as well as the “tighten up” signal found here.
Plan for & Personalities Activities
You just have to know the group you’re riding with. Who drinks? Who doesn’t? What are the meal expectations? Personally I skip breakfast nearly every day and don’t eat until noon: that won’t work for a lot of people. Who drinks a shitload of coffee and is going to have to stop 80 miles down the road? Which two people are you going to have to warn ahead of time about the other so they don’t get into a political or religious argument and bring everyone down?
Framing the “Personalities” consideration is the activities. Yes, activities. Sure, the whole point of this trip is to ride, but man cannot live entirely on two wheels.
- Were you planning on hitting a brewery tour or a distillery on the way?
- Does the group agree about camping vs. hotels for each night of the trip? Are you going to book hotels ahead of time or wing it? If people want to try sharing rooms can they do so without killing each other? (see below)
- Is one person in the group going to be on their bike itching to ride while everyone else is ordering pancakes inside the greasy spoon?
The down time is an important part of the trip. This has never happened to me, but I can imagine a group being too tired to ride further and yet bored with their surroundings for the evening. I carry some small electronic gadgets to play movies on hotel TVs, some playing cards, and a flask of bourbon just in case things get gloomy. I’ve never really needed to dig into my bag of tricks though: there’s something about riding and sunshine that puts folks into a pretty good mood.
Plan Where You’re Staying, or Agree to Plan not to Plan
From “Communicate the Pace”, above, I like to use the good ole US freeway system to get close to where I’m going before disappearing to the 2-lanes. I tend to plan places to stay in the middle of a trip, but maybe less so on the to-and-from legs. Personally, I’ve lived out of my car for week and have had some of my best sleep in a pile of leaves. I can lean towards pulling over to a rest area and sleeping on a picnic table if need be. Talk with your group about what happens if there’s no room at the inn.
The perfect kind of place to look for is one where you can park your bikes at a hotel and you’re a short walk to food & drink so there’s no getting lost in an unfamiliar town at night after everyone’s had a couple of drinks.
Consider Capturing the Route
I’m going to get in trouble from Mrs. Roadrunner for this one, but here it is: your family might want to hear that you’re OK. They might even want to tell you about the mundane every-day-shit that’s going on back in reality. That sucks. Anything beyond “I’m fine, love you, lookitwouldberudenottodotheseshotsbye” can break the spell of a trip. One compromise I have with my family is that I use a phone app and Spotwalla to track where I’m at. It’s passive, so I don’t have to check in, they can see me rolling and assume a moving bike means a still-alive Roadrunner is making his way in this topsy-turvey world. Later, when I run into my “bar hopping or poker run only” friends, I can watch them weep as they count the number of state lines I crossed on my last adventure. Really, it’s win-win.
Bring a Real Fucking Camera
This is one I wish I’d realized earlier in my journeys. Cell phone cameras are just too fucking decent and convenient, but they are not good, and there’s real value in taking a picture and then moving-the-fuck-on. My daughter is 15 as of the time of this writing and until recently had never held a real camera. After 15 seconds with my basic DSLR she was amazed. “Wow, it takes pictures so fast, and you can zoom the lens in and out!” Truly, not everything is made better being moderner and smaller.
If you can pack it without your bike rattling it to pieces, bring a real camera. They take better pictures, and more importantly: most of them don’t upload to Instagram. Imagine: taking pictures that you will later edit into an album and maybe upload or print after your trip is over. Imagine one less thing to break you out of the magic of the journey. This is what we used to do, and you’d be hard pressed to find a different blogger out there writing about how we used to be less happy than we are in 2018. Something about the character of our lives has changed, and I don’t think being ever-connected to everyone else’s carefully curated narratives about how great their lives are is helping us. Take the pics, post them later.
Don’t break the spell until you have to. If you’re worried about losing memories, take notes on your phone or bring a notebook to write in.
You’re Making Memories, Not Checking Boxes
Just to dive home points already mentioned: be flexible. You never know when someone’s shortcut to a flea market or an off the grid bar will turn out to be either the coolest secret you ever experienced, or the disaster you talk about for years to come. When people go through some uncomfortable shit together they bond over it. Remember that most Americans are really, really good people, and it’s a really safe place to be. Take a chance, take the road less traveled. Be real. You’ll recover from the mosquito bites and the skunky beer. Get out and live a little, be uncomfortable, and tell your kids stories about it.
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