The Motorcycle Wave: Banging Heads Together!

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The motorcycle wave now deserves a post, it seems!

When I started this little venture into the motorcycle writing world, I never thought I’d be writing a post on the etiquette of the motorcycle wave.

Let me explain how all of this came about.

motorcycle wave - 2 bikers urban environment
Image: Roberto Nickson

The Sunday Morning Ride Out

It all started on one of my regular Sunday ride out’s with a group of friends.

We’re a mixed bunch. I’m the youngest, then there’s probably a 20-year jump to a few blokes in their fifties. Then there are a few older ones who are well into their sixties and seventies.

Some of us are working-class from up north, and a few are middle-class folks from down south.

There are architects, physios, tattooists, civil servants, police officers, and those who worked in sales – most of them retired from whatever profession they hail from.

group of bikes in carpark
Image: Motoculturel

For more like this, check out our Touring category!

The Obligatory Bacon Butty

A conversation started surrounding the motorcycle wave during our bacon butty stop. And I was surprised at the variety in opinion over what I assumed was quite a trivial matter.

I must admit, I’ve always been partial to a motorcycle wave or a nod – usually a nod.

I particularly enjoy it around April/May when people get their bikes out again after the crap weather.

Spirits are high, and people are pleased to be back on two wheels. There’s that lovely feeling of comradery when everyone acknowledges each other.

Of course, we all get sick of it by July, and the novelty starts to wear off. By October, it’s all but gone until next Spring – when it starts all over again.

group of bikers - motorcycle wave
Arguing about the motorcycle wave on our bacon butty ride!

The Origin Of The Motorcycle Wave

Legend has it that this whole motorcycle wave thing started off with Mr Harley and Mr Davidson. I don’t know how true this is. But it’s what I was told years and years ago.

Apparently, Mr Davidson rode past Mr Harley. And because they knew each other, they exchanged a wave.

Being biking legends of the day, Mr H & Mr D were often looked up to.

So when a mere mortal witnessed this exchange between the two big fishes, he assumed it was etiquette between bikers. So he started to do it, too.

And so it was born – the ubiquitous motorcycle wave.

harley-davidson bikes crossing bridge
Image: Harley-Davison via Unsplash

Related: Motorcycle Etiquette: 11 Unwritten Rules!

Variations Of The Motorcycle Wave

Fast forward a hundred years, and riders worldwide have developed their own greetings between themselves.

Those who ride on the left (like us in the UK) have different waves to those in Europe and the US who drive on the right.

The frequency and exuberance also seem to vary between age groups.

And perhaps worst of all, there are little cliques where some riders ignore other riders – usually because they disapprove of their bike.

2 bikers high-fiving - motorcycle wave
Image: Labskiii

Advice For New Riders

You were likely privy to the odd biker welcoming you to the clan with a motorcycle wave even whilst taking your riding lessons. 

You probably ignored them at first, and that’s okay. We appreciate you’re learning and have a million things on your mind, so we’ll forgive you for the lack of reciprocation!

But now you’re out riding by yourself, what’s the etiquette?

Should you wave first or wait to be waved at?

Is there a certain motorcycle wave you should/shouldn’t do? And are there times when you shouldn’t wave at all?

Doing My Motorcycle Wave Research

During our bacon butty stop, I was taken aback at the level of interpretation around this subject! So much so that I came home and started Googling.

And can you believe that the motorcycle wave even has its own page on Wiki?

Can you imagine my surprise when I started reading through the comments in various forums? The ferocity in which people defended their opinions was astonishing!

There were staunch wavers berating non-wavers. And non-wavers telling the enthusiastic wavers to get over themselves.

Some even argued what the appropriate wave was and when it should/shouldn’t be performed.

And then some would only wave to riders as long as they were riding particular makes or styles of bikes.

2 bikers off-road in desert
Image: Rachel Claire

For F**k Sake!

Are you serious???

As my teachers at primary school used to say, you need your heads banging together!

So many people getting irate over something so silly made me think there was a post to be written.

If there are any newbies out there who are wondering what the craic is, here it is.

Types Of Motorcycle Wave

As mentioned above, this largely depends on the country and the side of the road you ride on.

In the UK, for instance, we drive on the left. So it’s difficult for us to wave with our right hand – seeing as though that’s our throttle hand.

With this in mind, the status quo of biker greetings is that of a nod.

Some people will do a downwards nod. And others (myself included) do a sort of sideways nod (akin to the motion of a wink.)

Sometimes I will give a motorcycle wave with my left hand – usually if I’m at a standstill or in a particularly happy mood.

The Motorcycle Wave: Europe And The US

If you travel to Europe or the US, the variation of waves is greater because they drive on the right. This means they have their left hand free to wave.

Most common is two fingers pointing outwards and slightly down from an outstretched left hand.

Sometimes you will get a proper wave.

Some will extend just a single finger whilst others will give you a variety of signs – from one finger to multiple fingers, to peace signs, a thumbs up or even devil horns!

I once even fist-pumped a rider who was coming in the opposite direction simply because he was riding the exact same bike as me.

So when it comes to the motorcycle wave, my advice would be that it doesn’t really matter what you do.

If someone gestures to you and you want to gesture back, go ahead in any way you like.

motorcycle wave with pillion
A pillion on motorcycle wave duty. I like these ones – they make me smile! Image: J Arron Farr

Related: 22 Riding Tips That Nobody Ever Told You!

Unacceptable Variations Of The Motorcycle Wave

I don’t buy for one second that there are unacceptable variations.

People in my riding group (and various ramblings on the internet) have mentioned how NOT to wave. Like it really matters.

Bullsh*t. There isn’t an unacceptable way to go about the motorcycle wave.

People have made out that you can be too enthusiastic about the whole thing in a “too cool for school” sort of way.

What nonsense!

I’ve had people (usually older riders) who have waved at me so enthusiastically that I thought for a minute that I knew them.

But then I realised they were enthusiastic because they were happy to be out on their bike. And that happiness was transferred to me via their motorcycle wave.

I smile, wave back, and get on with my day feeling a little bit warmer inside after seeing someone having a nice time.

So yes – wave however you like!

Related: How Motorcycling Benefits Mental Health

The Non-Wavers

You will, on occasion, come across someone who refuses to nod/wave back at you.

Now, there are reasons when it would be unsafe to wave. But we’ll get on to that in a minute.

For the purpose of this section, let’s just say that these riders don’t wave back at you for no other reason than they don’t want to.

And that’s the end of it. They don’t have to wave, so they choose not to.

There’s no need to be upset about it!

Worst of all, if you’re a serial waver, don’t NOT wave the next time a rider comes past you. Because I guarantee that if you don’t wave and they do, you’ll feel guilty for the rest of your ride.

Plus, you’ll just make the other rider feel like a bit of a dick.

The Hollier Than Thou’s

You will come across riders on your travels who won’t wave at you simply because you’re on the wrong bike.

Sportsbikes Riders

There’s a general belief that sportsbike riders only wave to other sportsbike riders.

From experience, I have to say that this is NOT true.

Sportsbike riders wave (or don’t wave) just as much as any other riders on any other genre of bike.

rider on red ducati sportsbike
Image: Karthegan Padmanaban

Harley-Davidson Riders

Another common conception is that cruiser riders (particularly those on Harley-Davidson’s) won’t wave/nod at you as you ride past.

In my experience, this does tend to be somewhat true.

I have received plenty of nods and waves from those riding cruisers (including HD’s.) But I’ve been ignored a fair few times, too.

old-school harley-davidson rider - motorcycle wave
Image: Oleg Magni

BMW Riders

Going back to my Sunday morning ride-out group, only one of us rides a BMW. His name is Mike, and he’s an all round lovely chap.

One day, however, we all rode past him on a Sunday when he wasn’t with us. And the arsehole ignored every single one of us!

Naturally, we picked him up on this matter the next time he joined us, and he said he didn’t realise it was us.

Which is probably true.

But that only strengthens the case that he ignored us simply because none of us were riding BMW’s.

Funnily enough, a few weeks after, he sold his GS in favour of a Triumph. And he noticed almost immediately that he was starting to get ignored by GS riders!

bmw with ocean
Image: Sherman Yang

Related: 10 Biker Code Hand Signals You Should Probably Know!

Gotta Love A Bit Of Banter!

There’s a joke that goes around about why BMW riders don’t wave; apparently, it’s because waving voids the warranty!

I really should add here that this doesn’t apply to every single BMW rider.

I’ve ridden with a lot of perfectly nice BMW riders. But there are quite a few that won’t acknowledge you if you’re riding something other than a BMW.

cruiser and sports bike acknowledging - motorcycle wave
Sportsbike and cruiser all playing nice

When Not To Wave

There are legitimate reasons why someone won’t return your wave.

Sometimes it’s because they don’t feel like it. And like it not, that is a legitimate reason for not returning your motorcycle wave.

But more importantly, it might be because they can’t.

If they’re mid-bend, for instance, they have more important things to look at.

If they’re approaching a set of traffic lights or a queue of traffic, they may choose to ignore you to concentrate on the cars in front.

They may choose not to respond if they are in the middle of changing gear. And you may not get a wave simply because they haven’t seen you!

Commuting and filtering is often another time when bikers ignore each other. Again, you both have more important things to concentrate on.

And finally, I’ve seen nods and waves that have been so over-the-top that it has caused the rider to lose control.

If you’re veering offline or having to quickly get your hands back on the bars, you’re either mistiming it or it’s a bit too much.

The Motorcycle Wave: Groups / Clubs

Another awkward one is when a group of riders come past you. So what’s the drill here?

If you’re riding in Europe, it’s easy because you can use your left hand.

I point out and down with two fingers on my left hand as I reach the lead rider. And then I leave it hanging out until I pass the last rider.

In my experience, almost all of those riders will return the greeting.

In the UK, however, (where we usually nod), it’s perfectly acceptable to nod only at the lead rider of the group.

If you nodded at every rider in the group, you’d probably look like a bit of a tool. And give yourself a headache in the process.

group of riders riding through mountain landscape - motorcycle wave
Image: Mike van Schoonderwalt

The Motorcycle Wave With A Pillion

It is also perfectly acceptable to not wave if you have a pillion on designated waving duty.

It makes perfect sense for your pillion to wave so you can maintain both hands on the bars at all times.

Related: Motorcycle Touring With A Pillion: How-To Guide!

Not Waving At Mopeds

I know a LOT of bikers that will ignore mopeds.

Personally, I treat everyone equally. And I’ll happily exchange waves with a moped rider.

The only time I draw the line is when some local chav starts nodding at me because he thinks he’s in the big boys club. Whilst on his stolen and uninsured 125. Without a helmet.

Na, jog on mate. I don’t want to be associated with you.

woman waving enthusiastically on a moped
Image: Taylor Wilcox

A Friendly Tip

Don’t ignore older folk on mopeds or smaller bikes – and especially those on trikes. Quite often, these people are veteran riders who have ridden bikes all their lives.

But now – either due to age, illness or both – they can only ride mopeds or trikes.

Never judge a book by its cover.

You might one day be neglecting to acknowledge a life-long biker just because they’re on a 250cc moped or a trike.

cruiser and trike - motorcycle wave
Image: Quintin Gellar

The Motorcycle Wave: Conclusion

So if you’re new to riding, I hope this clears things up a little bit!

There is no obligation for anybody to wave at anybody else. However, most people do, and it would be nice if you did it back.

It doesn’t matter if you nod, wave or point – do whatever feels right at the time.

We’re all one big family when we’re on two wheels. And that’s actually a really nice feeling when you think about it.

A biker from the other side of the world will smile, wave and communicate with you simply because you’re on a bike.

You probably don’t even speak the same language. But if something ever went wrong, you can always count on your extended two-wheeled family to come to your rescue.

And that’s actually pretty special.

Top image: Labskiii

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