How to Spot a Biker in Wintertime

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Photo Credit: Mikey Angels

We all know how to spot a biker during the riding season. For one, the gear—leather jacket, riding boots, neckerchief, helmet tucked under one arm—are dead giveaways. If you miss those signs, there are some more subtle ones: bugs splattered over said jacket, the distinctive smell of grease and exhaust, and a certain spring in the step upon leaving for the office. But where I live, the riding season is only eight months long. We still pay registration and insurance for the full twelve months, mind you, and it’s a lot more than our southern riding friends too. But don’t get me started! That is a topic for another post. This one is about how to spot a biker once the snow flies and the motorcycles are safely stored away for the winter.

So with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek and a nod to twotiretirade, here in no particular order are ten signs that you are in the presence of a motorcyclist.

1. When driving a manual car, they rev match when slowing.

Don’t know what rev matching is? You obviously aren’t a biker. Rev matching is used to slow the vehicle smoothly using the engine rather than the brakes, and it’s the common method of slowing a motorcycle. Yeah, you can push in the clutch, downshift, then let the clutch out, but that will result in the car lurching and putting a strain on the engine components. Not cool. The proper way to engine brake is to disengage the engine using the clutch, then, while downshifting, blip the accelerator to bring the revs up a bit, then gradually let out the clutch. Matching the revs to the corresponding speed of the desired gear ensures smooth deceleration, puts no unnecessary strain on the engine, and makes you sound like an F1 driver. Cool. 

2. They refer to highways using the definite article. 

Because bikers are more concerned with the route than the destination, they talk a lot about routes, which they don’t call routes but “rides.” Nobody knows your local network of highways better than a biker. And because they are always talking about roads, they adopt a kind of shorthand in referring to them. You’ll never hear a biker say “Highway 148”; rather, it’s “the 148.” Or maybe that’s “The 148.”

A typical discussion about a proposed ride goes something like this: “So I was thinking we could take the 40 and pick up the 342 in Hudson, then left onto the 10 in Rigaud to the 14, then the 4 all the way to . . .” You get the idea.

3. They prefer secondary highways.

There are two types of travellers: those who want to get there, and those who want eventually to get there. It should be evident which bikers are from Number 2 above. If you are driving with someone and they suggest taking “the scenic route,” chances are you are in the presence of a biker, or a biker at heart.

4. They shoulder check when driving.

When I was learning to drive, my dad taught me how to set up my side mirrors so I wouldn’t have to shoulder check. Most people have them set to view down the sides of the car, which is useless. You want to angle them further out into your blind spots so a glance is sufficient to check. That fraction of a second to turn your head may be crucial if traffic in front suddenly slows.

That said, I had to learn to shoulder check when I started motorcycling. With a helmet on, you feel like a horse with blinders, so you have to make a quick glance over your shoulder before changing lanes, just in case. And because the stakes are a lot higher on a bike than in a car, I always shoulder check. In the back of my mind is Murphy’s Law that states the first time I don’t is when there will be some idiot driving happily in my blind spot. Now that it’s a habit, I continue to shoulder check well into the winter months of driving. I can’t help it.

5. They sometimes mistakenly refer to the windshield as the windscreen.

Windshield, windscreen: what’s the difference? They are synonyms, you say. They are, but there’s a world of difference in biker parlance.

6. They are a bit obsessive about tire pressure. 

Most people check their car’s tire pressure once or twice a decade, if at all. In fact, if you are required by law or good sense to have winter tires during the winter months, you might just leave this essential bit of maintenance to your mechanic twice a year when he or she swaps them over. Bikers, on the other hand, check them before driving to the corner store to pick up milk. It’s just something that is so crucial on the motorcycle that, again, it becomes second nature.

7. They carry tools in the trunk.

Okay, not everyone who carries tools in the trunk is a biker, but most bikers will carry tools. For the same reason as above, bikers feel naked on the road without tools. Did your car come with a set of tools? Probably not. But most bikes do. Maintenance on these temperamental beasts is part of the cost of riding, so a smart biker is always prepared. In the winter months, I just thrown the tool roll I use with my bike into the trunk of my car. If there’s a socket set, a pair of channel lock pliers, and some safety wire and zip ties in the trunk, you are in good company and the company of a good travel partner.

8. They have a radar app on their phone.

You probably have a weather app on your phone, probably one with click-bait and forecasts into the next fortnight. That weather app might even have a radar component that you never use because you don’t know how to make heads or tails of that mass of coloured pixels moving across the black screen. But just as bikers are amateur mechanics, they are also amateur meteorologists. Again, the stakes are so much higher on a bike. Sudden rainstorm? You can run to the car, but a biker has to ride in it all the way home, arriving soaked to the skin, with hypothermia.

The radar app is an essential tool for ride planning, not just to choose your gear but also your route. Knowing where the precipitation is and where it will likely be at any given time of the day means that with a little planning and a lot of luck, you might just be able to skirt it.

9. They think motor oil is an appropriate topic for dinner-table conversation.

There are motorcycle forum threads on motor oil that, if compiled, would rival War and Peace in length. Motorcyclists are a little crazy about their oil, and I mean “their” oil. Everyone has a preferred brand and is willing to duel or flame the idiot who puts a far inferior brand into his or her machine. Synthetic or mineral? Asking online which you should put in your bike is like throwing a french fry to the lurking seagulls at a food truck. Motorcyclists may have only a high school understanding of Chemistry, but can pull out of their arse such arcane information about motor oil that you’d think they were short-listed for a Nobel Prize.

10. They know that a wet clutch is not a form of sexual assault.

It may sound creepy, but a wet clutch is something most motorcyclists have. It’s a clutch bathed in motor oil, often the same oil that lubricates the engine. Because we ride the clutch so much as an essential way to regulate speed, a wet clutch ensures we don’t burn it out. Most cars, on the other hand, have dry clutches, which are known simply as clutches, or just “the clutch.”

* * *

Why should you care, you ask? Well, bikers tend to get a little down in the wintertime when they are not able to ride. So if that acquaintance beside you exhibits any of these signs of motorcycle culture but weather does not permit them to exercise this passion, cut them some slack. Once spring comes round, they will transform from grumpy cager (i.e. driver) to cool biker, able to withstand all that the cruel world throws at them like the superheroes they secretly are.

The Wave

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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.

Marlon BrandoBikers 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.