Bicycles & Motorcycles… More Alike Than Folks May Realize

It’s kind of funny to lurk on various different types of cycling and motorcycling discussion forums where you can see common themes come up from time-to-time.

For example, one of the very common “off-topic” or “general discussion topics” on the motorcycle forums has to do with “The Wave”.  That’s right, that very simple gesture where two passing motorcyclists may from time-to-time give the rider headed in the opposite direction a friendly wave.  Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg since there are all kinds of unwritten rules about waving, never mind the real crux of the debated: do YOU wave and if so when?

I’m not really sure who to credit with this as it shows up in different places with presumably different authors.  One of the was on Cruiser Cutomizing’s forums and another was on a personal blog.  Regardless, someone did a great job of capturing the essence, intricacies and sometimes silliness of “the wave” as it pertains to motorcyclists.  But, I gotta tell ya, as you read you’ll begin to see that it’s not all that different from the bicyclists “Wave” issues and protocols, particular when you get to the Equity and the Odds of Engagement section:

The Secret Motorcycle Wave – primarily for noobs

Those of you who ride motorcycles will know exactly what I’m talking about here. Those of you who don’t – will hopefully learn something.

I’m referring to that secret “wave” that oncoming bikers may or may not flash each other as they pass on the highway. Oh sure, it seems customary enough – two fellow riders politely saying “hi” to each other as they approach… but is it? Is it really that simple? Actually it’s not.

I’ve been riding a motorcycle my entire adult life and I’ve been paying attention. And if you think you’re going to get a salutation from just any biker coming your way, then you’re wrong. Believe it or not, there are some very subliminal and undocumented rules regarding this situation – and I’m going to share them with you now.

Here’s how it works:

First of all, we’ll need to establish some terminology to make this tutorial easier to follow.

The person initiating the wave will herefor be referred to as the “initiator”. The other person will then automatically be known as the “receiver,” and if he responds to the wave, will also be known as the “replier.” Note that any reference to said replier assumes he is also the receiver and therefore will not also be referred to as the receiver because otherwise he would have to be known as the receiver and the replier – which just doesn’t make any sense.

Next, to avoid any unnecessary political or grammar faux pas, all motorcyclists from this point on will be referred to as “riders” and all persons shall be referred to in the male context, just to make it easier.

Ok, now on to the tutorial…

Equity and the Odds of Engagement
The odds of receiving a wave from an oncoming biker are first and foremost governed by the “laws of equity.” This means that the more things you have in common with him the better chance he will engage as either the initiator or the replier.

There are basically three categories in the laws of equity:

1. Brand equity. This means that if you both are riding the same brand of bike, the odds of a wave transaction are increased.
2. Style equity. If you both are riding the same “type” of bike, such as chopper, rocket or touring motorcycle, then your odds are increased as well.
3. Helmet equity. If you both are either wearing or not wearing helmets – odds increased again.

To further illustrate this concept:
IF you both are riding hardtail Harleys and not wearing helmets, the odds of a hand gesture between the two of you are VERY high. Conversely, the odds of a nonhelmeted hardtail rider waving to a helmeted Suzuki rocket rider are almost next to none.

The Big Five
When a fellow biker is approaching, his left arm and hand will tell the story. Whether he is the initiator or the replier, the signals are the same. Following are the five main hand gestures you may encounter:

1. The Nothing – This is the “default” hand position of most cross-encounters. Simply leaving his left hand on the handle bar can mean anything from “not paying attention to the fact you’re approaching” to “I see you but I’m not interested in exchanging a greeting” – to the harsher, “I see you but since we don’t enjoy any ‘equity,’ I’m not going to acknowledge your existence.” Of course since no words are ever exchanged to clarify, all the rider can do is simply speculate.

2. The Two-finger Flip – The most casual AND most common acknowledgement. Left hand still on the handgrip, but the index and middle fingers raised briefly. This one simply says “dude, how’s it going?” Most of the time the receiver will respond just out of courtesy. Of course the whole issue of who goes first really boils down to nothing more than a game of greeting chicken – or whoever’s in the better mood at time.

3. The Big One – This is the granddaddy of all greetings. Left hand down off of the handlebar and out to the side. Fingers may either show a “peace” sign or be spread open palm side out. Here, the initiator is sending a clear signal that he acknowledges you. Not replying to this blatant plea for hospitality may be considered rude – and could possibly be interpreted as a strong message of inequity.

4. The Dis – Left hand down and resting on the thigh. This could be viewed as a request to treat the opposing party as a hostile witness – ESPECIALLY if it is moved there while you are approaching. Dating back to the days when rival motorcycle gangs roamed the streets, this signal indicated disrespect to the other rider(s) and was clearly meant as negative and often times led to confrontation. Today, however, the old cultural significance has been lost, and could simply just mean your arm is tired and resting on your leg.

5. The Geek – Left hand raised high in the air as if to say, “Hi mom!” This one is specifically reserved for the new rider, who is “SO excited to be one of the gang!” Also may be seen being used by Moped or scooter riders. Recommendation: Just don’t.

So there they are. All the secrets behind those mysterious motorcycle hand greetings revealed (not to be confused with the standard hand “turn” signals). So the next time you approach an oncoming rider, take note. He could be sending you a very intentional message!

So, where’s the cycling connection you ask?  Well then, I guess you’re not one of the cyclists who acknowledge each other as they pass.  Again, taking from something I’ve previously found on the net regarding the subject, but this time from the cyclists perspective and taken from the Unofficial Guide to Biking In Boulder blog:

The Wave 

Not too long ago, I was reminded of a particularly special rite of the cycling world: the cyclist-to-cyclist wave. In our fast-paced, frenzied, commercial, high-tech world, sometimes things can seem a little impersonal, a little unfriendly. Once again, cycling comes to our cultural rescue!

I’m sure we’ve all felt the heartwarming glow that results from the brief interaction that is the cyclist-to-cyclist wave: two cyclists pedal down their respective bike lanes heading in opposite directions, brief eye contact is made, the distance separating the two is bridged with a quick smile of recognition, a friendly wave, and the two have passed each other by, each going their separate ways but now much happier for having participated in the hallowed ritual.
Sadly, this tradition has begun to disintegrate. All too often, I notice cyclists performing the cyclist-to-cyclist wave discriminatorily. Fixie-riding hipsters only give super-hip waves of acknowledgment to their like-minded counterparts, spandex-clad roadies turn the cold shoulder to those lacking the form-fitting fabric, hardcore downhillers stoke only on other bombers, and so on. Fortunately, there are still a solid core of cyclists of all styles who gladly and cheerfully wave to any and all bicycle-riders, and it is precisely this equal-opportunity waving that needs to again find its way to roads, trails, and bike lanes around the bike-pedaling world!
Just recently, the decreasing frequency of the cyclist-to-cyclist wave was brought home to me in a particularly harsh manner as I found myself the guilty perpetrator failing to wave. While pedaling north on Folsom, another biker passed me heading south. We spotted each other, he waved, and before I knew what was going on, we had passed each other forever. I had failed to reciprocate his bikerly kindness. Struck by my own complicity in the deterioration of the cyclist-to-cyclist wave, I vowed to never again fail in my duties of pedal-driven positivity!

Who knew?  Well, I knew. I’m pretty good about acknowledging fellow cyclists and motorcyclists and I got to tell you, cyclists tend to be far more discriminating and selective about who and when they’ll acknowledge “someone else on a bike”.  Note the emphasis on “someone else on a bike” vs. the use of “other cyclists”.  I say that because anymore it really does seem that if you’re not from the exact same tribe of another cyclist you’re just someone else on a bike, not a fellow cyclist.

Taking this a step further cyclists and motorcyclists have something else in common, and that is motorists who look at people who ride “bikes” as overgrown kids out playing on their toys who simply screw up the flow of traffic.  Of course, there’s a pecking order here and a lot of hypocrisy as well, on both groups.  For example:

  • Blocking traffic: Yup, there’s nothing more irritating to a motorcyclist than running into a large group of cyclists who have decided they have not only a right to share the roads, but a right to block an entire lane with their “pseudo-peleton” during training rides.  Of course, after their ride, they hop in their cars adorned with the ubiquitous “Share the Road” bumper stickers and license plates, conveniently overlooking that “share” goes both ways.  While common courtesy would dictate that even though the law says bicycles “may” ride two abreast, if it’s clear that as a “slow moving vehicle” you’ve tied up following traffic you have an obligation to move to the right and allow those vehicles to pass at some point.  Yes, some will take exception to this, but if you read the law it’s merely a matter of time before someone figures out cyclists should have a big old Orange triangle on their backside just like other “slow moving unlicensed vehicles” that use public roads, e.g., farm equipment, horse draw buggies, etc.   But, here’s the rub.  Motorcyclists participating in “their” organized rides tend to have the same effect on traffic when they do a formation ride.  Want to guess who doesn’t care what kind of a “bike” you’re riding when you’ve got traffic screwed-up?  That’s right, motorists.

What else to cyclists and motorcyclists have in common?

  • Tribal behavior — we’ve already touched on this in the Laws of Equity from the first article. In the motorcycle world you have Harley riders (and 20 sub-categories of Harley riders), Metric Cruiser Riders, dual sport riders, sport touring riders, crotch rocket riders, stunters, AGATT riders, NO-GAAT riders, motard riders, ricky racers and the like.  Cyclists are no different, you have racer-boys, real racers, wanna-be racer boys, hipsters, trackies, single speeders, roadies, cyclotourists, randoneers, bent riders, tandem riders, messengers, mountain bikers, downhillers, BMXers and the like.
  • Silly outfits – OK, by a show of hands who looks at “bikers” in a group and thinks they look like a bunch of wanna-be bad-ass, modern-day pirates in their do-rags, leather vests, denim jeans, engineer boots and the various other trappings?  And then there are the sportbike riders who put on a one-piece leather racing suit when they head off to the mountains: cops should simply arrest them all for probable cause.  OK, want to take a guess what “cyclists” look like to non-cyclists dressed in form-fitting lycra from head to toe?  It ain’t flattering.  Of course, the wardrobe follows the norms of both the motorcyclists and cyclist tribes, so there’s a target rich discussion topic for another day.
  • Helmets or no helmets – Cyclists have, as a group, bought into the helmet scene in a big way with one glaring exception: hipsters and “real people” who occasionally hop on a bike. Yes, there are places like Georgia where kids under 15 are required to wear a helmet, but 9 times out of 10 when those kids are riding on a bike trail with parents, the parent aren’t wearing a helmet.  Motorcyclists are, by nature, a bit more resistant to laws that restrict their behavior.  Beyond that, the tribal norms come int to play to dictate what type of helmet that’s acceptable to wear in the presence of other tribe members.

Again, this is just a sampling.  It’s really quite eye-opening to see all of the parallels.


About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
This entry was posted in Bloggishnish, Whimsical Or Entertaining. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Bicycles & Motorcycles… More Alike Than Folks May Realize

  1. Chris says:

    One of the better web resources I refer to for group riding dynamics and bike handlng is a motorcycle site:

    The info doesn’t transfer over 100% to bikes, but it ain’t bad.

  2. Peter Leiss says:

    I usually always wave to fellow cyclists on the road and most wave back I really don’t give a toss as to what they are riding or what they are wearing…they’re out riding…nice

  3. John and Sonya says:

    I always wave to cyclists here in Maine regardless of what they are riding, and I usually get a wave in return. What I have noticed is becoming more common is motorcyclists waving to us when we are on our tandem, and they are almost all Harley riders.

  4. TG says:

    Good resources Chris…

    I also fall into the “I wave” category on anything I’m riding that has two wheels. Of course, that’s also one of the reasons that this subject got stuck in my head. We seem to have an inordinate number of “roadies” that can’t be bothered with acknowledging a friendly wave when we’re on the tandem, but aren’t as tight-a**’d when I encounter them on my single bike. Weird. Like John & Sonya, we also find that a lot of motorcyclists — and folks on Harley’s in particular — tend to offer a friendly wave when we encounter them on our tandem.

  5. Paul & Rachel says:

    Lancaster County PA has great roads and and tons of bike riders. It always amazes me when I don’t get a wave from other serious riders. It’s just weird when your on a quiet little road with only about 10 feet separating you and you can’t get a wave. It’s usually a too cool for school roadie. Tandem riding is the best, we get waves from almost anyone (except the before mentioned roadie). One guy I’ve just decided is just a tool, no wave on the tandem, my 30 year old Eddy Merckx or the modern racer. 🙂

  6. Shirley DiLorenzo says:

    LOL at The Wave (we caught up with you at 3:00 a.m. on Aug. 19!) thinking
    about our new BMW RT1200 and looking back at the 1969 600 we had when first married. We couldn’t sleep on one typically hot Indiana summer evening and decided to go for a ride about 60 miles away to Indianapolis at midnight. Wearing my sparkling half helmet excited to be out on city streets with my honey and so late at that, I was thrilled when a couple of chopper riders with chains across their chests waved to us feeling so cool that they did…that was a raised fist salute which I thought meant WE were SO cool! Not sure why they waved, but the acknowledgement was probably because it was dark, no one else was around and they thought they’d give us a thrill, don’t you think?! In daylight…probably not!

    • TG says:

      You meet the nicest people on a Harley! Really…

      We look forward to seeing the new R1200RT and reading about your adventures.

      Having stuck with the tandem bicycles should help bring you both up the re-learning curve on the motorcycle rather quickly. The R1200RT’s ABS will also reduce the slope and total height of that learning curve.

      Just remember, even as big as that bike is… never forget that the safest bet is to assume that you’re invisible to motorists and do what you can to make yourself more visible in how you ride / position yourselves / use lighting. MotoLights or similar “conspicuousness lighting” options are a very good idea as they increase the likelihood that you’ll be seen in the first place, and provide the right type of lighting to help motorists determine your distance and closing speed…. something that single or closely spaced headlamps don’t provide.

  7. Shirley DiLorenzo says:

    Thanks, TG…will pass all that along to the captain! So far just mastering getting my very heavy helmet on and off and breathing while in there…need to practice while looking in the mirror at those vents and shields. So much different than the tandem helmets for sure. Meanwhile, we’re off to the MTR with lighter gear and harder work to make our bike go up those hills! Stoker D

  8. Mark Mulligan, Annapolis MD says:

    I ride a triple tandem with two blind stokers once a week. Last Thursday, I had it on the roof rack and a motorcyclist came across three lanes of traffice to get up alongside and give me “the wave.” I have found motorcyclists universally supportive of bicyclists on the road. Around here, bicycle clubs and motorcycle clubs ride the same scenic roads leading to mutual respect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.