My brother and I took a long motorcycle trip a couple of weeks ago from Texas out to the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. It was a great trip with cool camping weather at the higher elevations, but we had to cover a lot of miles to get there and back home again. Along the way we encountered many other bikers on the road. There was a huge rally scheduled for that week in Red River, New Mexico. They were anticipating a crowd of over 20,000 bikes of all sorts. Since we were looking for quiet places to camp rather than a party, my brother and I veered away from the little town. So we passed many of the folks rumbling along the highway in the opposite direction. These frequent brief encounters got me to thinking about the rather unique “code of the road” that many, but not quite all, motorcycle riders observe when encountering fellow bikers travelling in the other direction.
It all has to do with waving—or not waving. I know, it sounds pretty trivial, just a simple friendly gesture toward a stranger out on the road enjoying the same recreational pastime as yourself. But surprisingly it involves some rather quirky decision making. The vast majority of riders you meet (and their passengers) wave with the left hand down low in a sort of muted “low five” with open palm toward the oncoming bike. It’s a sensible gesture that shouldn’t be misinterpreted by a driver behind you as a turn signal. If there is a group of oncoming bikers I simply hold that pose until they have all passed by.
Occasionally you encounter the really enthusiastic rider who puts a lot more into it. These guys are usually flying along at a fast pace, hunched down over their gas tank. In this case the left arm is fully extended and blown back by the wind for a sweeping wave as he flies past.
And then, as I mentioned, there are bikers who for whatever reason choose to not participate. This is where the decision making part comes into play. As the bright single or double headlight gets closer, do I initiate the interaction myself or wait for some sort of clue? I actually feel a little bad when I decide not to acknowledge the other rider, but then notice too late that he or she did have a hand out down low. And of course I feel foolish if I give a big old obvious wave and the other person just looks away. In doubtful situations I sometimes do the “almost wave” as in the photo below. For this you just tentatively take your left hand off the handlebar. The advantage of this move is that the gesture could be interpreted as a small rather noncommittal wave, but you can also do something else with that hand if the other rider blatantly ignores you: flex your fingers like you were relaxing a tired hand, reach up and pretend to adjust your side mirror, or even pick your nose. Don’t try that last move if your helmet has a full face shield—you’ll look pretty silly.
This usually all happens at high speed. So, how do you decide what to do in time to do it? Sometimes you can rely on the appearance of the approaching bike and rider. But stereotypes don’t always hold to form. The helmetless guys on choppers with loud straight exhausts do sometimes wave at people in full safety gear on a touring bike loaded with camping gear. I have noticed that riders on bikes with those high “ape hanger” handlebars usually don’t take a hand off. I think maybe their arms could be too numb from holding that awkward position. But stereotyping often fails. And that works both ways. I ride a Honda Gold Wing Motortrike rather than a two-wheeler. With more baby boomers returning to riding, these are becoming more popular with both male and female riders, but when I first switched to three wheels they were unusual to see on the road. Back then, as I was cruising along behind my brother on his high powered sport bike, I think guys would occasionally assume that I was a female rider. In cool weather, I wear a bulky jacket along with my helmet. I noticed that some guys would not acknowledge my brother’s wave at all, but give me a big obvious waggle of the hand. This never embarrassed me at all, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they were trying to flirt a little with what they thought was something other than a sixty-something year old guy. Which raises the age old question: “Does a snicker inside a full face helmet actually make a sound?”
Wave or not, my fellow travelers, but ride safe.
Norm Brown is the author of the suspense novel Carpet Ride, published by Secondwind Publishing, LLC.