In about 24 hours, I would be leaving for a long distance motorcycle trip, the biggest one of my life. My Ladakh ride was about 3000 odd kms, the Mumbai-Himachal-Mumbai one about 4000, this would easily be around 8000, and I’m happy I have some experience to rely on for this ride of a lifetime! 6 riders, 2 countries, 1 aim – to squeeze every little moment and enjoy it like there’s no tomorrow, because there might as well not be.
Riding a motorcycle is dangerous. Riding a motorcycle over long distances is very dangerous. Riding a motorcycle over long distances in India is dry-butt-fucking-extreme-ly dangerous. Even though this would be a rather “safe” trip as compared to my previous solo rides, since there would be people around for help and support, you can never be sure what’s gonna happen. I could die, but that’s part of the charm. As Alistair Farland said:
Death is temporary, regret is forever.
OK, enough talk about death! Any long ride is a challenge in itself, and requires at least some basic planning and preparation. But long trips with other riders require special attention to certain items, which I thought I’ll discuss here today. It’s quite possible I might add/subtract things here once I come back from this ride, but then who gives a shit, we’ll see what happens. Here are my 10 long distance motorcycle group riding tips for a fun yet safe trip.
1. Start early, end early
One of the major issues in handling a big group is getting everyone up and ready in the morning. Someone takes a decade for a shit, someone takes a century to put their clothes on, and someone’s early morning starts at 11 AM. Someone needs to take the lead here, set a deadline and then make sure everyone sticks to it. Best time to start is an hour before sunrise, since there is little or no traffic and enough sunlight.
If you don’t start early, you’ll probably find yourself stuck in traffic somewhere at night, still a few hundred kilometers away from your intended destination. The time before sunrise and the time after sundown is more or less the same as far as ambient light goes, the only difference is the other stupid people on the road, which can be a giant pain in the ass. I always prefer to start just before sunrise, and stop just after sundown, for a relaxed, safe and disciplined ride.
2. Slow and steady
Long distance riding is a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve done this mistake in the past, of pushing myself to my absolute limit the first few hours of the ride, thinking I’ll cover a big chunk of the distance and then ride leisurely the rest of the way. Part of the reason people do it is because they think it’ll give them buffer in case something goes wrong, and they are right.
The problem is that pushing too hard in the beginning makes the entire ride much much harder and unsafe. What happens is that you go over your limit the first few hours, which is not a good idea at all. After those few hours, your body and mind is tired, but you are still riding, which is not a good idea either. In the final few hours, you end up taking a lot of stops, barely clinging on to the handlebars, and completely frustrated with yourself, all a recipe for disaster.
I find that maintaining a steady pace throughout the ride makes a much more enjoyable, safe, and easy trip. My bike does about 270 kms on full tank (if ridden nicely), so I try to take 1 snacks/piss stop (10 minutes) every 135 odd kms, and then the fuel stop (15 minutes) comes at the 270 kms mark. At every stop I get off my bike, and remove my helmet and gloves. This maintains the blood flow all through the body, and I feel fresh as a horse in heat even during the last few hours! Don’t rush, take it slow.
3. Ride with people you trust
I’m new to group riding, been doing it only for the last year or so. Always rode solo because I didn’t find the right people. Biking is fun, biking with good people is more fun, but biking with assholes is a nightmare. Even 1 bad apple in a big group can spoil the experience for each and everyone of the poor bastards. NEVER ride with people that you don’t trust and have not ridden with, don’t just go by reputation, you can never be sure what kind of a guy he could be.
Long distance motorcycle trips don’t just involve riding, there are hotels and food and emergencies and deadlines and shit, life and death situations happen. Monetary transactions are also a big part of the equation, and they aren’t always straightforward. The point here being that if you go out on such an important trip with people you now nothing about, chances are something will go terribly wrong somewhere and you’ll want to strangle them with your greasy clutch cable.
4. Ride with similar performance bikes
It is very important that all the bikes in the group are more or less similar as far as top speed goes, too much gap and someone will push over the limit and crash. A 100 cc bike can never keep up with a 500 cc bike on a highway (unless it is a Bullet), and any attempt to keep them together will spell doom for both. Some people might think this is discriminatory, or this is bad attitude or something similar, they are welcome to kiss my ass from 7-9 pm Monday to Friday.
Any bike which can go over 150 kmph easily can keep up with any bike with even much higher top-speeds, simply because you can rarely go above 170-190 kmph in India. My Duke 390 kept up with a CB1000 during our Mumbai-Bangalore ride, although my tire did go totally bald and then just completely fell off the traction cliff. So engine capacity is not really important, nor is acceleration, but top speed is!
5. Stay in formation
Staying in formation is not just for looking cool, although a group of bikers going around in a tight formation does totally give me a boner. Stay in a staggered single or double file formation with a 2 second gap to the guy in front, no complicated stuff. You could learn those weird hand signals and other voodoo magic, or your could just use your brain and invent signals on the go. Staying in formation requires discipline, and respect for each other, something that is hard to come by nowadays.
It is generally a good idea to designate someone as the leader, and someone else as the sweeper. The leader goes out front, warns about any dangers and takes care of the route. The sweeper picks up the fallen parts and luggage from the riders in front of him, and also makes sure that no one is left behind. It is also a good idea to always follow the same guy, since you’ll get used to their braking and acceleration styles. Small thing, but may make a big difference.
Bluetooth communication systems like Scala or Senna are extremely useful here, but don’t fret if you can’t own one. Riding in formation is all about using your head, it’s all very simple and logical. Understand the situation and act accordingly. I don’t like too much technology, and this would be the first time I would use a Scala, although I’ve grown fond of it in city riding the past week. Let’s see how it holds up on such a long trip.
6. Stay together
I once went on a ride from Mumbai to Saputara and back. We were 4 riders on 4 bikes. 3 of us would always stay together, while 1 guy would just start and stop randomly. At one point he suddenly accelerated, totally went away from our sights, and was nowhere to be found even after 15 minutes of spirited riding. Turns out he had stopped at some random paan shop on the way, and was enjoying some cheap tobacco as we were getting worried.
Staying together is not just fast, it is also safe. You now for sure that if someone has stopped, something is wrong somewhere. A group must go as one entity, on the road or off it. Going too far forward or staying too far back is just stupid and useless. Stay in line of sight of each other, keep an eye on the guy in front of you, and learn from his mistakes. If he goes into a pothole, you can avoid it and warn others behind you too, but only if they are there to begin with!
7. Stay calm
I’ve seen this happen many a times, and I’ve done this too. Let’s say you are following someone in a group, and someone else if following you. The guy in front of you overtakes some vehicle, and you are not able to. A gap now opens between you and the guy in front. You feel the pressure of the people behind you, like you are trampling their hopes with your riding boots, as you see the guy in front moving farther and farther away.
You then take risks. You try to push through, move out of your comfort zone, do some stupid overtake, or go over your personal speed limit. Don’t, just don’t. Like I said before, long distance motorcycle trips are marathons, it doesn’t matter at all if you lost the group for a few minutes. Just stay calm, keep riding, and you’ll be reunited soon. Always stay under your limits, no matter what the situation may be.
8. Keep yourself and your bike ready
This is something obvious, but ignored by a large number of people. When you are riding with other people, it is your moral responsibility to ensure that your bike is in good shape. I’m not talking about things like a puncture or a broken cable or a crash, I’m talking about things that are in your total control. Make sure your tires have enough treads/pressure, make sure you show up with a full tank (so irritating when you have to stop 2 kms after the start of a ride), make sure all your fluid levels are where they should be, make sure you have all your bike documents and so on. General stuff, no rocket science.
Also important is your own health. Riding in a bad state of mind or body is only going to jeopardize the trip for the entire group. I understand you don’t want to miss the ride just because you have 104 degree fever, and I’m not saying you have to. If the people riding with you are nice, they’ll understand. Keep them informed, keep yourself medicated, and monitor yourself. I’ll say again, never cross your personal limits, no matter what the situation may be.
9. Be prepared for emergencies
Have you ever wondered just HOW unsafe it is to ride a motorcycle? An accident that would probably lead to a small scratch on a car could mean death on a motorcycle. You can’t be prepared for everything, but you can do some basic things to be ready for what will inevitably come. Carry first aid kits, general medicines for fever, loose motions etc. basic bike and puncture repair kits, and anything else you feel will be useful in case of an emergency.
I’ve written a detailed post about things you can do BEFORE a crash to make sure you are totally prepared for it, and I would highly recommend you take at least some, if not all the steps mentioned in that post. Always ride like nothing will go wrong, don’t be paranoid, there is no fun riding with fear, but be prepared for the worst. Keep your eyes open, use your brain, and you’ll always come out winning, no matter how dire the situation gets.
10. Keep buffer days
Long distance trips involve meticulous planning, unless you are Ed March. You’ll have planned to reach a certain place on a certain date and then move on to another place and so on, but not everything happens according to plan. There are things you can’t control, and when they happen, even the best plans go to shit. It is always a good idea to keep at least a 1 day buffer in your plan, although 2-3 days extra would be awesome.
If you don’t have a buffer, and let’s say you lose 2 hours on a puncture, what happens is that you push too hard in trying to make up that lost time. This pushing too hard again leads to crossing of one’s limits, and entry into the danger zone. Major problems are rather good in this sense, since you are sure your day is gone and you don’t really have the option of doing anything else! Whatever may happen, just go slow and steady, buffer days will absorb any plan changes with total ease.
So yeah, these are some 10 points that I think should be followed during any long distance motorcycle trip. I think you would see the following repetitive points throughout this article:
- Use your brain
- Never cross your personal limits
- Be disciplined
This is all there is! You just have to stay in control, be calm, tackle the situation, without pushing yourself too hard. Long distance motorcycle group riding can be a fond memory that you someday tell to your grandchildren, or it can be a frightening nightmare that you someday tell to your psychiatrist, while in a session of shock therapy at some mental institution somewhere.
These tips are meant for group riding scenarios,for individual riding tips in different conditions, check these out: