Courtesy Nick Wehrli

The pavement stretches for miles off into the horizon. You’ve been riding your motorcycle for hours, the wind rushing around you, the road humming under your wheels. You pass car after car, the occupants entrapped in their capsules, rushing through the landscape to their next destination. Suddenly, you see another motorcycle approaching. You lower your left hand down to the ground, extending two fingers. He reciprocates, and for a moment, you are connected by The Biker Wave.
It doesn’t matter what bike you ride, where you’ve come from, or where you’re going. It doesn’t matter if you’re a male or female. It doesn’t matter what your political affiliations are. Bikes are a unifying force. And for many bikers, there is a well-known tradition known as The Biker Wave to acknowledge that force as you pass another rider. But what is it exactly?

What is the Biker Wave?

The Biker Wave is a sign of acknowledgment between two bike riders. While the meanings seem to differ depending on what website or biker you ask, it is generally accepted as a part of bike etiquette. It is one of several accepted hand signals to allow bikers to communicate with each other as they pass or are riding in groups. The other signals include things like ‘cop ahead’ or ‘warning – stuff on the road.’

The accepted form of the wave usually consists of extending only the middle and index finger (like a peace sign) on the left hand, lowering the hand towards the ground and angled slightly away from the bike. Variations can occur, such as the peace sign raised high or even just a nod of the head, but the two fingers to the ground seems to be the popular choice that will get the most responses from other riders.

What the Biker Wave is not is a normal wave a person would do greeting someone. It is not exuberant, just a subtle “Hi.” It is not done when doing so would endanger you or the other rider (going around a curve, heavy traffic, or bad conditions, for example).

Opinions and theories vary on how the salute formed or what it means. But most bikers can agree that it is a sign of respect and admiration. Even though you do not know the person in the other lane, you are joined by a love of motorcycles. A love of freedom and of feeling the road under your tires. An understanding of the dangers you face every day from other vehicles on the road or losing control. The wave is an acknowledgment, a hello, or anything else you want it to be. Hello, brother (or sister). Nice bike. Keep your wheels on the ground.

Where did the Biker Wave originate?

Type in the words “Biker Wave,” and you will find several blogs and other websites that claim to know where the Biker Wave came from. However, there is little solid information as to the actual origins. There are, however, several theories.

The main theory puts forth that the Biker Wave originated with William Harvey and Arthur Davidson. As the story goes, one day in 1904, they passed each other on the road and waved. According to the story, it became a way to acknowledge other Harley and Indian riders on the road and somehow worked its way into being etiquette for all bikers.

Courtesy: Vincenzo Malagoli
Another theory states that the truth lies in the peace or victory sign, created in Europe during World War One and that it was adopted by bikers to show respect for other’s military service. Another theory is that it came from knights on horseback who would raise their visors when passing another knight to show that they were a friend.

We may never know how the wave truly originated, but it stands today as a way for riders to acknowledge each other.

How do you do the Biker Wave?

The biggest how is not the Wave itself, but when to do it. As there are variations, it is up to you to decide how and when to Wave. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the standard two-fingered lower-left salute.

Take your left hand, and make a fist. Then extend your middle and index finger only, creating a ‘V’ or ‘Peace Sign.’ Now lower your hand to the ground, making sure to keep the arm away from the bike but not exaggerating the angle. The palm should either be facing the oncoming rider or facing down towards the road.

That’s it.

The common theme in all the research was that the Biker Wave is a sign of respect, and other bikers will be quick to pick up on if you are sincere or not. They can also tell if you are a rookie or inexperienced. However, the only way to get experience doing the Wave is to start.

Remember, only perform the Wave if you are in control of your bike. Do not do it in dangerous situations where you shouldn’t take your hand off the handlebar. Unsafe situations would include (but not limited to) severe curves, bad weather conditions, surrounded in heavy, fast, or slow traffic that could stop suddenly or require evasive emergency movements. No biker will thank you for taking them out trying to wave. No one wants to see you fall trying to wave.

Whatever personal meaning you assign to the Biker Wave, or what variation you do of it, it is a part of biker etiquette that can be seen on the road every day. It is an acknowledgment of your fellow rider, a greeting, a wish for safe travels, and to keep your wheels on the road. Because unlike cars, bikers share a history rich with tradition and meaning. We are not simply going from A to B. We are kings of the road, sharing in freedom, and flying along on two wheels. We are not driving; we are experiencing. We are all family. And the Biker Wave is the greeting that unites us all.

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