A few years ago there was clickbait circulating on Facebook with a photo like the above and the comment “‘Like’ if you know what this means.” It occurred to me then that the wave, and all it represents for bikers, may not be universally known. I guess if you don’t ride, you wouldn’t know. It’s not like bikers wave to drivers, because they don’t. They wave to other motorcyclists they pass on the road.
I imagine this goes back to the earliest days of motorcycling when motorcycles were less popular, and therefore more rare on the road, than they are today. I imagine in the early 20th Century you could ride for quite a while before you passed another biker, so the wave was like a happy greeting to a rare bird. And I imagine that even today, despite the growth in numbers of motorcycles on the road, there is still a vestige of that sentiment in the wave, an acknowledgment of a kindred spirit and political ally.
Bikers have always been on the periphery of society, seen as rebels. It’s not surprising that some of the most iconic images of rebelliousness include a motorcycle. I’m thinking of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, or am I confusing that iconic photo of Dean on his bike with Marlon Brando on his in On the Waterfront? In both cases, there was a rebel, a leather jacket, and a motorcycle. It’s clearly this image that the folks at Harley Davidson have exploited as the focus of their hugely successful marketing campaign. And it’s this image that the weekend warriors embrace as they head out to Timmies (or Starbucks) on a Saturday afternoon.
And so part of the meaning of the wave is in solidarity with a set of values and a lifestyle, a “Fuck the man!” attitude that sometimes gets us into trouble with the boys in blue. For this reason, motorcyclists stop to help other motorcyclists when nobody else will. Yeah, when we’re out on the margins, we’ve only got each other for support when in need. The wave is an acknowledgment of that “brotherhood,” although more and more women are riding these days, so we need another term for that pact.
Ironically, if a biker doesn’t wave, chances are he or she is on a Harley. We all know who I’m talking about here. Once in a while, you’ll pass someone who not only doesn’t wave but also doesn’t even look at you. Arms outstretched on the monkey bars, bare arms with tatts covering every inch, half helmet on, they blow past you without even a glance as if to say, “Fuck you! I’m on my Harley.” I guess they’re so on the margin they don’t even want to associate with the rest of us rebels. But I know that real Harley riders wave, and will stop to inquire if I need help, and have, as I have for them. Only a RUB (Rich Urban Biker) is too cool to wave.
The first time I tried to wave I almost got pulled off my bike. Archimedes may have discovered air resistance in the 2nd Century BC, but it took me a near accident to figure out that you can’t just stick your hand out palm open at highway speed unprepared. For that reason, most riders will do a discreet little wave down by their leg near the faring, rarely open-palmed but a few fingers only, to reduce drag. It’s also cooler. You don’t want to be the happy puppy, a little too enthusiastic in your greeting.
But I’ve seen some pretty interesting variations. One guy put his arm out, bent 90 degrees at the elbow like a right turn signal with his fist clenched. “Yeah! Fuck’n eh! Power to ya’ buddy!” it seemed to say. Some guys of course give the peace sign, which is fitting if you’re on a cruiser like a Harley, or any other cruiser, for that matter, where the name of the style of bike itself and ergonomics seem to suggest, “Lay back, smoke a dube, chill out, and don’t worry about anything. World peace is coming.” One guy gave the thumbs up in his wave. With the prevalence of that gesture online today, I think he could do with a more personalized wave, but who am I to say?
The coolest wave I ever saw was in Parc Mauricie during a club ride. Someone came smoking around a tight corner on a sport bike going the other way, easily doing double the speed limit and hanging it over the double line, one hand on the handlebar as he gave us a wave. Not that I’m advocating that kind of riding, but it was pretty cool. The coolest wave I’ve ever done was on a hairpin turn on the Cabot Trail. I wasn’t going twice the speed limit; in fact, I wasn’t going fast at all, but it was that time in the day when you’ve been riding for some time and everything is clicking and you feel really comfortable on the bike. Just then, at the apex of a switchback, just when I was getting on the throttle with the bike leaned over about as much as I’ve ever leaned it, another bike passed me the other way. So I gave him a wave. It was, after all, the Cabot Trail.
But there are times when I’m confused about whether to wave. Last year as I rode down to an Americade rally, the incidence of bikes on the road increased as I approached Lake George, to the point where I just realized, “This is stupid. I’m not waving anymore. We’re in the majority here.” And sometimes I find myself starting to wave to a scooter and catch myself. Do they get included in our club? What about cyclists? Both have two wheels, like motorcycles; but would I be watering the coolness wine in waving to them? Not that I have anything against scooters or bicycles!
Nah. I don’t think I should. They’ve got their own community to wave to, like when I run and wave to other runners going the opposite way. We can’t wave to everyone, despite desiring world peace. Maybe one day there will not be any need for the wave, like John Lennon sang in “Imagine.” Until then, I’ll continue to say hello to any other human being who risks the beauty of living for the thrill of riding.