If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Thursday, 16 July 2009

A nod and a wave

Motorcyclists have always acknowledged each others' presence on the road. Comradeship, shared suffering, recognition of a kindred spirit, who knows? But we all do it.

There was a time when everyone on a bike gave a wave when they passed another bike going in the opposite direction. I think bikers have always been a bit tribal, so a guy on a Manx Norton wouldn't always wave at a guy on a Lambretta (perhaps in the pre-Mods-and-Rockers days they did, who knows?). But generally speaking, bikers waved at bikers.

Until recently, that is.

When I learned to ride in the early 70s, it was a proper wave. Left hand off the bar, quick wave. In them thar days, the riding position of most bikes was fairly upright, and a wave was easy. As riding positions got to be more of a racing crouch on some bikes, this became more difficult, but at the same time many bikes got a flasher switch. This was a little trigger, usually yellow, on the left switch cluster, just in front of the index finger. A quick squeeze on this (just like firing a gun, which made it a bit more fun) and your main beam flashed and oncoming bikers were duly greeted.

Then came 2004, and EU legislation that all new motorcycles had to have the headlight hard-wired to be on at all times, so the effect of a flashed headlight in daytime was hard to see. Possibly this is the reason why people stopped doing it. Nowadays, the most common greeting is a nod. Unless it is exaggerated to the point where it looks deranged, a nod is sometimes almost invisible. A nod, however, leaves both hands on the bars, which is probably a good idea in modern traffic.

But I certainly notice, and with some regret, that the habit appears to be dying out. Out of sheer force of habit, I nod (or wave) at every other biker I see. And quite often I get absolutely nothing in return. I decided to test this, and did my own (highly unscientific) survey on my morning commute. Apart from the odd random visitor, the riders I see regularly are of three types:
  • Commuters like me, on the way to or from work, out in all weathers
  • Tourists going to or from the Irish ferry at Fishguard
  • Youngsters riding into College - often scooters or those little twist'n'go things.
The results of a couple of years' observation are:
  • Commuters: ALWAYS acknowledge. An obvious nod of the head (often slightly to the side for emphasis) and in one case - a guy on a large sports tourer who wears a race-replica helmet - a very obvious and cheery proper wave of the hand.
  • Tourists: hardly ever acknowledge. Some (often the sports bike crowd) will give a nod, but there are two groups who I have never had a nod from yet - Big Adventure Bike riders (following Ewan and Charlie to deepest Wexford) and the Big Expensive Tourer lot - huge full-dress Harleys and fully-loaded GoldWings. A wave from a friendly chap on a ratty trailbike is treated with utter disdain. Well, if that's you and you are reading this - fuck off. (When I shout it at you inside my helmet, it's always too late. I feel better now.)
  • Students: usually react with surprise when someone on a 'proper' bike says hello, but they often nod back with an uncertain air, and some of them are now becoming regular nodders. No cheery waves yet, but we are working on it.
Here's my reasoning on the phenomenon.

Students and youngsters on entry-level bikes either don't feel part of a community (perhaps the bike is all they can afford until they can get the modded Clio with the boom-box in the boot) or are part of a sub-set that don't feel part of the motorcycling community as a whole. But they can all be encouraged, and there is nothing wrong with teaching young people a few manners :)

Tourists don't feel part of a community either, unless it is a community of people who dress identically to them and ride identical bikes with the same mythical Round-The-World image. After all, if your bike cost you 12 grand and you ride it twice a year (wearing your Ewan and Charlie desert suits and those impossible peaked off-roady helmets that cost half a year's wages), then you are hardly going to feel kinship with some guy who just happens to share the number of wheels you have. The Big Expensive Tourer brigade are too busy talking to their wives on Bluetooth in the his'n'hers matching helmets through those dinky microphones that look just like pilots have in those fighter jets, cool, huh? and deciding whether the paunch should go above or below the belt of the waterproof, heated, Kevlar/Goretex/titanium jacket. To a GoldWing rider, his community is other GW riders and no-one else. They have rallies, where you have to have a Wing to go there. A pox on them all.

Commuters ride anything. I would offer myself as the lower end of the spectrum, a 14-year-old trail bike that is missing lots of its body plastics and has had a hard life. The guy I see every day rides a big tourer with full hard luggage that's probably set him back well over 10 grand. But we are both doing what we like doing, every day, in all weathers and all traffic conditions. We know how cold it can get, and how the rain gives motorists get-home-itis which makes them even less observant than usual. We both know that our partners and colleagues think we are crackers, but we do it anyway. Most importantly, we both feel that we are part of a community, which covers all ages, all strata of society, all levels of education and income, male, female, gay, straight. And that's why we wave at each other.

If you read this, man in a stripey helmet on a silver big tourer somewhere on the A40 about 8:15 am, just be aware that you make my day a little bit brighter. And to the guy who passed going up a hill I was going down the other day, doing at least 120 past a line of lorries and caravans, you're forgiven.

(By the way, Hell's Angels and their many imitators never wave, nod or smile. A surly grimace is the only acknowledgment that you even exist. I've given up with them. Piss-pot helmet, shades and beard - look the other way and whistle.)


  1. I haven't ridden a bike other as a pillion since shortly after some perlonkah knocked me off my Honda many moons ago. However I have noticed on the few occasions that I have been on the back of a big bike that the nodding of the head in front is virtually involuntary and pretty standard : so at 100 metres and closing:-movement like a cross between a short, sharp, straight in front nod a la flag change at Trooping of the Colour and the sideways movement you get if you tease a spaniel with a very high whistling noise. How is this? Maybe the same mind merge thingy that gets a Mexican Wave going??

  2. Well, I always think that a front nod is a) a bit curt, like wot the Nazis do in front of the Fuehrer and b) easily mistaken for a missed gear change or a sneeze. And yet a sideways nod involves taking one's eyes off the road. I compromise with the 45deg nod - keep the head facing forward but incline the head to the right as if dodging and incoming missile at head height. I'll leave Spaniel-teasing to the experts.

    Welcome to the blog, by the way.

  3. I am glad to say the nod & occasional wave is alive & well in sussex. It always makes me smile when I get a nod back.

  4. Hi Wilf - glad to see that Sussex is keeping the flag flying. You're right about the smile. It starts the day well to exchange greetings with a total stranger. We do too little of that these days.

  5. endemoniada_8819 July 2009 at 16:06

    Way back when, in my L-plate days, it was always a bit special to be acknowledged by a "proper" biker. Made you feel like you belonged. It's something I've always kept up: wave if it's appropriate to let go of the bars, nod if not. Spot on with the categories of response: commuters, especially in winter, always like to share a (probably commiseratory) acknowledgement. Makes me grin every time. Cruisers and tourers are, in my opinion, an antisocial bunch across the board. Nod, but don't expect much more than disdain back. Ordinary motorcycles obviously don't fit in with their off-the-peg lifestyle package!

  6. Things is, when I am touring I always wave. Unless there is a good reason not to, of course, in which I would include an overloaded bike that needs both hands on the bars at all times, or heavy traffic. But being on a bike in 'foreign territory' is a chance to wave at some different people, really. Why the miserable bastards coming off the Irish ferry can't do it is beyond me. Mind you, it is primarily the Ewan 'n' Charlie lot and the GoldWhingers. Sprotsbike riders, even in in touring mode, seem to wave a bit.


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