Rolling Thunder riders won't be setting any speed records or dealing with distracted motorists during their May 28 ride from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
But first they'll have to get to the Pentagon, with some covering thousands of miles. Some riders may break out their touring bikes for the first time in months, or longer, for the event. And some may be new to the demonstration, or be taking on roles like "road captain" or group leader for the first time.
Military Times talked with three Army motorcycle experts as part of the service's Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month about how best to prepare for hitting the road, both for riders heading to the Washington, D.C., demonstration – now in its 30th year – as well as for general safety advice. What you should know:
1. RESPECT THE GROUP. "I've been riding motorcycles for a long time, and of all the different ways of riding … one of the most difficult things to do, and one of the things that requires the most attention, is group rides," said Steve Kurtiak, a 22-year Army veteran who is a safety and occupational health specialist with Army Combat Readiness Center. "You're at a heightened state when you're riding in a group ride, and if you're not, you need to get that way."
2. DON'T JUST JUMP ON. Even for the most experienced riders, motorcycle skills will atrophy after a matter of weeks, not months, said Command Sgt. Maj. Micheal Sutterfield, brigade command sergeant major for 1st Aviation Brigade and part of the Army's motorcycle mentorship program. If you've been off the bike for a bit and won't take a refresher course – something recommended by every expert we spoke to – at least get in some short rides before doing anything complicated, like covering long distances or riding in formation.
3. USE YOUR RESOURCES. Service members making the ride after some time off their bike have access to refresher courses through their installations. Those covering long distances should use the Travel Risk Planning System, better known as TRiPS, to plot their route and plan for potential trouble spots.
If several troops are planning a ride, Kurtiak said, find your nearest motorcycle mentor or safety officer and go over the plans.
4. TIPS FOR GOING LONG. "If you're on an interstate system, it can be mind-numbing," Sutterfield said. Don't cut corners – plan your fuel stops, but don't forget "comfort breaks" to re-engage body and mind.
There's also the matter of your ride itself: "Make sure your bike has a clean bill of health," said Staff Sgt. William Pendleton II, longtime Army motorcycle safety mentor and 2015 Outstanding Road Rider Award honoree from the American Motorcyclist Association. "Maintenance is often overlooked, and you do not want to be stranded hundreds of miles from home."
TIRES, TIRES TIRES.
If your bike has just come out of the garage after a long period of disuse, don’t assume that your tires are good to go just because they’re holding air. Newer motorcycle tires can start to wear down after 12,000 miles in normal conditions, Sutterfield said – faster if you’re an aggressive rider.
"The amount of tread that's in contact with the ground at any moment is probably smaller than a deck of cards," he said. "That's why it's important to get tires as good as you can get them."
There's also the matter of age: Regardless of miles, if your tires have been on the bike for seven years or so, it's probably time for new ones, Kurtiak said.
6. OTHER PREP PIECES. If it's rubber, it can rot, Pendleton said – a rotted-out brake line can turn a short stop into a disaster. Also, swap out the fuel after six months and the oil after a year or so even if the bike hasn't been used much.
And don't forget the battery. Bikes not stored on battery tenders may start, but the battery life may be limited – just ask your tow truck driver.
7. DON'T GO IT ALONE. One of the easiest traps for experienced riders is to overlook a problem with the bike because of confidence in your ability to overcome it. Maybe it's a long-term issue or a seemingly small defect, but before a big ride, it's good to get a reality check. Service members have inspection services at the ready, but other riders may just want to find an experienced friend to offer a fresh set of eyes.
"You may think, 'Oh, you know what? I can deal with that,' " Sutterfield said, "whereas somebody else might be a little more critical of your equipment."
8. LEADERSHIP 101. If you're in charge of a group of riders heading to Rolling Thunder, Pendleton said, make sure you don't fall into a common speed trap.
"Even though it's not good practice, oftentimes experience riders in the group go faster than the new rider has the skills for," Pendleton said via email from his duty station in Turkey. "This promotes a 'catch me if you can' mentality, and could quickly get the new rider into trouble."
Check intercoms if your group has them, or go over hand signals. Try to pair up riders so new ones can learn from experienced ones, Pendleton said, but don't get caught up in "I've been riding for years"-type speeches – find riders with miles under their belt and a "mature mentality," not just gray in their beard.
9. THE HEAT IS ON. The Rolling Thunder demonstration itself may not cover a long distance, but riders will be on, and surrounded by, air-cooled bikes for several hours. The average high temperature for Washington, D.C., on May 28 is 79 degrees, according to Weather Underground.
Sutterfield's suggestion: Don't skimp on the personal protective gear just to cool down, but know what you're getting into. "If somebody's going to do it for the first time, I would suggest they walk their bike for a quarter-mile," he said. "See how that affects them, so they know what to expect."
10. CONSPICUITY. Not only is it going to win you some serious Scrabble points, it's a word that riders should live by when they're on the road, Kurtiak said. Part of that comes from the recommended brightly colored safety gear, but if you're sticking with black leather, there are other things you can do to make sure you stay on the radar of other travelers – don't tailgate, for example.
The rule is the "reverse of the military," Kurtiak said. "We wear and do certain things to make sure we're seen by the 'enemy,' if you will – the other vehicles on the road."
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.