Opinion: To wave or not to wave

To wave, or not to wave – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of Harley riders,
Or to take arms against a sea of bikers,
And by opposing end them?

Somebody asked me recently why most motorcyclists wave at each other on the road. It shows solidarity, I told her, and it’s just a decent thing to do. She looked unconvinced and, after thinking about it for the first time in decades, so did I.

After all, if we are truly all in this together and watching out for each other’s backs, then we’d say hello when we pull in to a gas station. But no – if we’re strangers, we usually ignore each other completely. So why wave?

“Yo bro – keep the rubber side down.”

The misty-eyed answer is because back in 1904, Arthur Davidson and William Harley apparently passed each other while riding their motorcycles on the road in Milwaukee and, since they knew one another and worked together, each offered a wave of greeting; somebody saw this and thought it pretty cool, and next thing you knew, everyone on a bike was doing it. This is surely a wonderful, long-ago fabrication of the Harley-Davidson marketing department, but whatever. If you want to believe it, knock yourself out.

I didn’t really think about this again until I rode the BMW C400GT scooter last month, and then wondered if I should be waving at motorcyclists. I did, more out of habit, but not many waved back. It was kind of like two or three decades ago when no self-respecting Harley rider would wave at a person on a non-Harley. That does still endure, but it’s less common now to be ignored; many Harley riders, including myself, like to wave at others and be acknowledged back. Brand ownership is not quite so territorial as it used to be. But scooterists? No, they don’t get a wave.

“Hello! Will you be my friend?”

There is some truth to the element of solidarity, though. It used to be that Jeep Wrangler owners would wave at each other, but now every other vehicle on the road (and they’re almost always on the road) is a Jeep Wrangler, so that’s slipping by the wayside. It also used to be that Mazda Miata drivers would wave at each other, but only if the top was down; that’s also less common now. Nobody cares about your poxy Mazda Miata, except your kids, who wonder how much it’s worth.

Motorcycle riders, though – we’re a minority on the road and we appreciate others who share our passion. A wave of feel-good acknowledgement goes a long way to making a ride better.

“I share almost nothing in common with you, but we both hate The Man, so Yo.”

There are some right ways and wrong ways to do it, of course.

• Use your left arm, because you want to keep your right hand on the throttle and ready for the brake lever – yes, even if you have cruise control. A right-handed wave is just a dick move.

• Don’t even think about waving if you need both hands on the bars, like while going through intersections, or around corners.

• Don’t bother waving on a divided highway, or during a rally, or in traffic, or at night.

• Don’t let your wave be mistaken by others for a left-turn hand signal. Either raise your arm up at  least 45 degrees or more, palm forward and one or two fingers extended, or lower it to 45 degrees downward, pointing toward the roadway. This is supposed to mean that you’re pointing at the other bike’s tires, and saying “keep the rubber side down.” Riders with big fairings, like Gold Wings, tend to point up for better visibility while cruiser riders tend to point down. Sport bike riders just flash a finger wave, barely lifting their hands from the bars. To each their own.

“Hi there! Hey – why’s that car starting to pass me on the right?”

• If you’re going to wave, then wave at all makes and models of bikes. Don’t be ignorant and acknowledge only the same brand or style as you.

• Do wave at trikes, and Can-Am Spyders and Rykers if they’re outside Quebec — their riders have a motorcycle licence. In Quebec, where three-wheeled Can-Ams are legal to ride with a car licence, waving is optional.

• Do not wave at Polaris Slingshot drivers, who probably have only a car licence, unless it’s raining and they’re getting soaked and we’re all in it together.

• Don’t wave at 1%er bike gangs (unless they wave at you, which means they’re not really 1%ers but probably a group of dentists with tattoos on their way to Starbucks).

• Definitely do not wave at electric bicycles, especially when their riders are on the daily beer run.

• Don’t wave at sportbike riders with mohawk helmets, either. They’re in their own world and have no idea what you’re doing.

• But do wave at scooter riders. Trust me – it makes their day.

“Yo bro – catch you on the rebound.”


  1. I’ll return a wave to be polite, but would only initiate if it’s in miserable weather or some other shared-suffering or middle-of-nowhere situation. On nice days, I do wave at bikes with loud pipes, but only with one finger.

  2. As a scooter rider for 7 years. I remember that first wave. I Felt so PRIVILEGED to be acknowledged. But also figured it was because my Kymco Movie 150 resembled a bike from the front. I also acknowledge all riders (except ebikes, those guys Im ashamed that my 50cc scooter gets lumped in like them)

    I also do the head nod if I cant safely take my hand off the handle…

    AND I find sport bikes are the ones that NEVER wave back

  3. Top Ten Reasons Why Gold Wing Riders Don’t Wave Back

    10. Wasn’t sure whether other rider was waving or making an obscene gesture .
    9. Afraid might get frostbite if hand is removed from heated grip .
    8. Has arthritis and the past 400 miles have made it difficult to raise arm .
    7. Reflection from etched windshield momentarily blinded him.
    6. The expresso machine just finished .
    5. Was actually asleep when other rider waved .
    4. Was in a three-way conference call with stock broker and accessories dealer .
    3. Was distracted by odd shaped blip on radar screen.
    2. Was simultaneously adjusting the air suspension, seat height, programmable CD player, seat temperature and satellite navigation system .
    1. Couldn’t find the “auto wave back” button on dashboard.

    Top Ten Reasons Why Harley Riders Don’t Wave Back

    10. Afraid it will invalidate warranty.
    9. Leather and studs make it too hard to raise arm.
    8. Refuses to wave to anyone whose bike is already paid for.
    7. Afraid to let go of handlebars because they might vibrate off.
    6. Rushing wind would blow scabs off the new tattoos.
    5. Angry because just took out second mortgage to pay luxury tax on
    new Harley.
    4. Just discovered the fine print in owner’s manual and realized H-D
    is partially owned by Honda.
    3. Can’t tell if other riders are waving or just reaching to cover
    their ears like everyone else.
    2. Remembers the last time a Harley rider waved back, he impaled his
    hand on spiked helmet.
    1. They’re jealous that after spending $30,000, they still don’t own a
    Gold Wing.

    Top Ten Reasons Why Dual Sport Riders Don’t Wave Back

    10. Vibration of knobby tires prevented the rider from taking his hand
    off the bars.
    9. MX style safety gear was too bright to see you wave.
    8. His front fender prevents you seeing him wave back.
    7. Was too busy configuring his GPS/Enduro Roll/FishFinder.
    6. His rain/wind/thorn/bug/bird proof thousand-dollar jacket won’t
    allow it.
    5. Was too busy re-arranging his 500 pounds of soft-sided luggage.
    4. Doesn’t recognize a wave in any language other than German.
    3. Too busy splitting lanes/filtering through traffic.
    2. One handed wheelies are not easy.
    1. On single-track trails you stop, not wave.

    Top Ten Reasons Why Sport Bike Riders Don’t Wave Back

    10. They have not been riding long enough to know they are supposed to.
    9. If they took one hand off the bars they would break their teeth.
    8. They look way too cool with both hands on the bars.
    7. It’s hard to put their hand in the air doing 175.
    6. Their skin tight-kevlar-ballistic-nylon-goose-leather suits prevent
    any position other than fetal.
    5. One handed stoppies are ill advised.
    4. They are waving, but you can’t see it behind the neon green speed
    3. They were slipping their flip-flop back on.
    2. Raising an arm allows bugs into the armholes of their tank tops.
    1. They don’t know how.

    • You left out the BMW riders:
      Top 10 Reasons BWM Riders Don’t Wave Back

      10 – New Aerostitch suit too stiff
      9 – Removing hands from bars is considered “Bad Form”
      8 – Shoulder is too stiff from camping on the ground the night before
      7 – Too sore from an 800 mile day on a stock “Comfort” seat
      6 – Too busy programming the GPS, monitoring radar, listening to IPOD, XM or talking on cell phone
      5 – He’s an Iron Butt rider and you’re not
      4 – Wires from the Gerbings are too short
      3 – You’re not riding the right kind of BMW
      2 – You haven’t been properly introduced
      1 – Afraid it might be mistaken as a friendly gesture

  4. Never heard of the two finger bit before and don’t intend to start. I don’t wave at e-bikes but do wave when meeting other riders whether riding scooters, cruisers, sport, adventure or something in between. The look of surprise on the faces of two OPP officers riding the police bikes is a memorable event. I guess riders don’t wave to them often if at all.

  5. I wave to all motorcycle and big scooter rider. And at a gas station, rest stop, i just nod, whatever the kind of bike or the rider’s age. I’m 50. i can’t say that a notice a difference with different generations. Why do i wave? It’s a habit. And i way to show solidarity. I see that like a way to say, glad to see that you’re ok. And if i see you on the side of the road with trouble, be sure i’ll stop to give you assistance. Yeah, old school, pre 911. lol

  6. I wave, and will keep doing so. I’ll wave to any motorcycle, Can-Am, or scooter. But not those e-bike scooter things, which you don’t need a license for. Some people seem confused when I wave to them from my R1200RT, though – guess they’ve encountered too many snooty BMW riders, LOL.

  7. It’s so confusing these days. When approaching, metric cruisers look like Harleys, maxi scooters look like sport-tourers, and some dual-sports look like scramblers. Gone are the days when one could immediately distinguish visible differences and act accordingly. Visual segregation was very easy and effective. Now, things aren’t always as they seem. This solidarity thing is hard. Even more frustrating is sometimes I forget which of my bikes I’m currently riding and accidentally throw the wrong wave to the wrong motorcyclist – Hey, can I have a do-over?

    Thanks to the author for clearing up this issue, or not.

    Enjoyed the read. Well done.

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