The "Biker Wave" or "Biker Salute"

On the SabMag e-mail list that I belong to, a newer member and beginning rider asked a question about the "biker salute" or "biker wave," and why bikers do it, and why do some not return the wave, and what's the proper way to do it, etc... Personally, I'm wave happy. If I spot another bike and it's safe to do so, I wave; I nod if it isn't safe to wave.

Why Wave?
Historically, I think that waving at other bikers stems from back when motorcycles weren't as common. That motorcycles were rare led to the same sort of forced teaming that happens when you're stuck in an elevator with someone. Normally, you might not ever talk to that person, but due to the rare circumstance of being stuck, you feel compelled to acknowledge and strike some level of amiability with the person. In the same way, motorcycles were such a rare circumstance that their riders likewise felt compelled to strike a level of amiability with each other.

The negative social stigma that was associated with motorcycle riders or "bikers" only served to enhance this sense of community and connectedness in an "us against them" sort of way, or more accurately "them against us."

The wave was a sort of acknowledgement of their solidarity against convention and the shared experience of being on two wheels and all the joys and occasional discomfort involved.

Today, the solidarity is as strong. There are many more bikes on the road, and the riders range from genuine bad boys, to lawyers, to college kids, to soccer moms, to me. The negative stigma has decreased greatly and the need to present a unified front against "the man" has decreased with it.

Even so, I still wave. I'm still trying to tell other bikers that I appreciate that they've made the choice to forego the safety of an enclosed cage on four wheels in favor of the free feeling that comes from being on two wheels in the wind.

I laid my bike down about a year ago and slid thirty or so feet across an off-ramp. Another biker stopped to check that I was okay and to help me pick up and assess my bike. None of cages going by did. Another biker did.

So I also wave to say thank you for the community of riders who are willing to stop and help a brother (or sister) out. I wave to let them know that if I see them drop a bike or broken down on the side of the road, I'll stop to help.

Why Do Some Riders Not Wave?
In my experience, the vast majority of folks I wave to will wave back. Once in a while, I encounter those folks who don't. It seems that the majority of the non-wavers are the "hardcore" cruiser types. I've had it explained to me that Harley riders should only wave at other Harley riders. I understand brand loyalty. Right now there are five vehicles titled to me and my wife. Three Honda CR-V's, a Honda Civic, and a Honda V65 Magna motorcycle. In spite of my bias towards Hondas, I still wave at everyone.

In the end, I think that the choice not to wave has little behind it other than a bit of snobbery. Someone doesn't believe that you're worth the effort to wave.

There are those folks, however, who don't see you, don't know that bikers wave at each other, who are in the middle of a shift and need their left hand for the clutch, etc...

It doesn't matter all that much to me. I'll wave regardless. If they don't wave back, I'm still happy to be on Rocinante's back enjoying the road, whether it's a commute, or slabbing, or just a ride to free my soul a bit.

What's The Proper Way To Wave
There's a lot of different ways to wave and some riders attach meanings to various methods of waving.

The Low Wave - Extend the left arm downward at a forty-five degree angle (straight out is the signal for a left turn). I've seen this most often used by folks on cruisers, especially Harleys. There are variations of the low wave:

  • A fist with index and middle fingers extended together - The low wave if you're on a two cylinder bike.
  • All four fingers extended - The low wave if you're on a four cylinder bike.
  • A fist with the index and middle fingers extended but spread apart - A peace sign meaning "peace on the road."
  • Thumb and index finger making a circle other three fingers extended - The "OK" sign saying, "I'm okay, you're okay." Can also be a question asking if the other rider is okay.
  • All five fingers extended, palm facing forward - the "low five."

The Two Finger Flip - Left hand remains on the grip, but the index and middle fingers come up. This is often used by crotch rocket types because the forward leaning position can make it a little awkward to take the left hand off the bar. Also used by bikes of all types in traffic when they don't quite feel safe taking a hand off the bar.
The Four Finger Wiggle - Left hand remains on the grip, but all four fingers come up and are wiggled side to side a little. Used in the same situations as the Two Finger Flip.
The Mini-Wave - The left hand comes a couple inches off the grip to flash a wave before going back to the grip.
The Full Wave - the left hand comes up to shoulder height or higher to wave.
The Vigorous Full Wave - The left hand comes up to shoulder height or higher and is waved back and forth vigorously.
The Biker Salute - Left fist held up high. I've only ever heard of this or read of it, but never seen it. The references that I have heard or read indicate that it's an old-time biker gang thing. I dunno how true that is or isn't.
The Peace Sign - The left hand makes a fist with the index and middle fingers extended and spread.

Personally I use the peace sign mostly. If I'm not the initiator and am returning someone else's wave, I'll tend to mimic the wave that they used.