The Motorcycle Wave
D. B. Ryen
I’d just bought my first motorcycle and was riding it home, exhilarated. Ever since catching the “Two-Wheeled Fever” riding around on my dad’s dirt bike, I’d dreamt of owning a sport bike. When I found her, it was love at first sight - a 1984 Honda Interceptor, with 750 cc’s of growly, four-cylinder power. After the test drive and trying to play it cool with the salesman (who could read my adolescent infatuation like a book), I paid the bill and rode her away. That’s how I found myself flying down the highway on a perfect afternoon in June with the engine barely cracking a sweat at 6000 rpm. Words couldn’t express my glee. In fact, I was so caught up in my own unbridled excitement that I was completely surprised when I saw it for the first time.
Anyone who rides will know exactly what I’m talking about, but as a twenty-one-year-old nerd who’d never ridden (legally) on pavement, I was clueless. Nonetheless, four minutes down the road I passed another guy on a motorcycle. He was on a big Harley-Davidson. Skull cap, black sunglasses, leather chaps, riding vest, permanent scowl framed by a handlebar mustache. You know, the kind of guy you’d expect at a sketchy roadside bar shooting pool. But as we passed, he dropped his left hand from the high handlebars it was resting on and casually extended a couple fingers my way before carrying on his way.
Wait, what the heck? Did he just wave at me?
Startled, I craned my neck as he flew by and reflexively waved back, but he was long gone. I had no idea why someone like that would wave to me. Did I know him from somewhere? How would he even recognize me with a helmet on? Little did I know that upon purchasing my first motorbike I’d unwittingly joined a secret club. Our machines were worlds apart - his was a low-riding, outrageously loud, black and chrome monster, while mine was an ancient red and blue crotch rocket with a goofy-looking square headlight - but our souls were equally driven by premium gasoline, chain grease, and the wind howling by.
Two minutes farther down the road it happened again. This time it was an old timer on a huge Honda Goldwing. Hard-case saddlebags, fluorescent riding gear, and a bulky helmet with a microphone for talking to the passenger behind him (a similarly-clad old gal). Same as the Harley guy, he dropped a hand four inches below the handlebar and extended a couple fingers to acknowledge we were both a part of a two-wheeled brotherhood.
This time I was ready but completely botched the delivery. You know that geeky kid in school who yells “hello” and waves frantically to his only friend across the playground? That was me. Full hand up, all five fingers spread wide, shaking my forearm like it was on fire. Big mistake. Goldwing guy was clearly taken aback, confused by the nincompoop waving back at him. I’m sure he was thinking there must have been some sort of mistake at the motorcycle dealership. They’re not supposed to sell bikes to clowns. Sigh, I had a lot to learn.
At home, I consulted my two-wheeled guru. “Dad, two guys waved at me while I was riding home. Is this a thing?”
“Oh yeah,” Dad replied. “Every rider waves to one another. Didn’t you know that?”
How the heck was I supposed to know about it if I’ve never ridden a bike on the open road?! Thanks a lot, Dad.
However, I can’t really blame him. I mean, what father doesn’t enjoy laughing at his kid who’s just learned a lesson at the school of hard knocks? And besides, this wave thing was cool. I was now a part of the “in” club and quickly caught on to the rules of The Motorcycle Wave.
Rule #1: Don’t wave like an idiot. You’re not waving to your mom as you get onto the bus for your first day of kindergarten. Instead, a motorcyclist simply extends one or two fingers with minimal effort underneath the handlebar. It’s not a left turn signal, so get that arm low. Also, the Wave involves no actual shaking of the hand, just a subtle gesture to acknowledge a brother (or sister) with the same free spirit. Under no circumstances should more than three fingers ever be used. Keep in mind that the direction of the palm is critical - down or rotated forward are both acceptable. Also, the elbow remains extended (i.e. keep your arm straight-ish). The hand is relaxed - again, minimal effort is essential. A stiff, flat hand will make you look like a dork, which is basically the worst thing that could ever happen to a motorbiker.
Rule #2: No waving at high speeds. Like, anything over 100 km/h. Too fast and the wind yanks your hand backward like a little sail, threatening to pull your shoulder out of its socket and send your bike flying out of control. Easy Does It, that’s the guiding principle of The Wave, and motorcycle lifestyle in general. Same goes for heavy traffic - we’re just trying to stay alive with idiotic four-wheeled drivers all around us. No need to acknowledge every other poor soul hanging onto his handlebars for dear life.
Rule #3: When you can’t use your left hand, a nod will suffice. If you’re holding in the clutch at an intersection, you have to frantically kick it into neutral just to wave. This violates the Easy Does It principle. Now, in terms of the nod itself, don’t be dramatic and give yourself whiplash throwing your head up and down. Just a noticeable dip in the helmet, or even a little cock to the side like you’re winking inside your helmet. However, make sure you don’t nod and wave. That’s overdoing it. If you routinely wave while performing any head movement whatsoever, consider trading in your bike for a more appropriate vehicle. Like a smart car or electric scooter.
Rule #4: Wave when you’re traveling in the opposite direction but not when you’re going in the same direction. If you’re passing someone on your right, your throttle hand is busy and you can’t easily turn your head all the way back to nod, so the whole ritual is forgiven as long as you use your turn signals appropriately and don’t crowd the line.
That being said, if you stop alongside another rider at a red light, it’s considered good etiquette to flip up your visor and strike up a quick conversation. Acceptable ice-breakers include:
“That’s a gorgeous machine. How many cc’s?”
“Beautiful day for a ride, eh?”
Unacceptable comments include anything disrespectful or lasting longer than eight seconds.
“My bike is faster than yours.”
“Suzukis suck. Get a real motorcycle.”
“So this one time, I was riding along and a Harley guy waved to me but I didn’t know about The Wave so I missed waving back because it was my first day and my dad didn’t raise me right and thinks it’s funny when I learn the hard way but when then I… Hey, wait! I haven’t finished my story yet!”
The same rules apply to parking alongside another bike, but without the eight-second rule. You can laugh about whatever motorcycle story you want but don’t go touching another bike without permission. And for heaven’s sake don’t you dare sit on someone else’s seat, unless of course you want to get your helmet punched in.
Finally, Rule $5: The Wave is only required when passing actual road-legal motorcycles. Bicycles, mopeds, and e-bikes don’t count. It’s expected that any self-respecting motorcyclist will ignore such phony riders. Dirt bikes and three-wheelers are up to each rider’s discretion. Ignoring uncool people is how cool people stay cool - one lesson I never could learn as a geeky kid.
Bonus Points: If you want to take The Wave to the next level, try doing it when your left hand is resting on your hip, then casually replace the hand back on your hip. Super cool. Nothing says “Expert Rider” than only needing one hand to control such a powerful machine. Even more bonus points for a right-handed wave. When you’re chilling in the saddle with cruise control engaged, a wave from the opposite side basically screams, “You may be going fast, but dang I’m comfortable.”
It took me a while to get the hang of The Wave - countless hours of practicing in front of the mirror to get my technique just right. But now that I’ve mastered it, I use it all the time. It’s the best when I meet a whole gang of bikers on the road and just hold my hand out, as per protocol, for twenty seconds or more as every single person I pass acknowledges me back. Awesome, I’ve never been cooler.
However, I have to be careful when I’m not on my motorcycle. There’s nothing more embarrassing than when I’m driving along in my wife’s minivan and reflexively wave out the window to a passing motorbike. I’m sure I’ve almost caused a couple crashes as the assaulted riders start cursing me inside their helmets. I’m just thankful they didn’t chase me down and lecture me… Who do you think you are doing that from a minivan?! You’re gonna get someone killed! It doesn’t matter how good your technique is, a four-wheeled driver has no business replicating such a sacred gesture to any two-wheeled rider.
Now, in terms of getting waves back, there are some snobs out there who are too cool to return The Wave. Don’t worry, they’re just jerks. Other times, a rider doesn't notice until it’s too late. Or maybe he (or she) just doesn’t know the ropes yet. We’ve all been there. Either way, not every wave is reciprocated. Whatever. Keep waving anyway. A little friendliness makes the world a better place.
In summary, The Wave is a rite of passage for every new rider. It caught me off guard the first time I saw it, but buying a motorcycle was by far the easiest way to become cool - The Wave just solidified my instant street cred. I just have to keep following the rules to make sure I don’t look like a clown saying hi to all my new friends down the highway. But for a lifelong nerd like me, easier said than done.
© D. B. Ryen Incorporated, March 2023.