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It happens thousands of times a day on American roads: motorcycle riders pass one another and exchange a brief wave. The motorcyclist wave, or biker wave, is a time-honored tradition among riders. However, there isn’t some convoluted motorcycle hand signal explanation behind it. It’s a gesture to communicate support and camaraderie to your fellow riders, we delicate two-wheeled risk-takers.

The motorcyclist wave connects riders with a visible, time-honored gesture

The motorcyclist wave, also known as the “biker wave,” or “motorcycle salute,” is just as it appears: a greeting. An American rider will, more often than not, extend their left hand perpendicular to their body. Two fingers is the most common variation, not unlike a peace sign. However, to each their own, and some riders will flash their entire palm, not unlike a conventional wave. 

It’s a courteous, reciprocal gesture to let both riders know some derivation of  “I see you, be safe!” Of course, it doesn’t always have to be a wave. Sometimes, a simple nod to an oncoming rider gets the point across.

A motorcyclist performs a biker wave with their hand to signal friendliness to another rider.
A motorcyclist waves | vtwinpixel via iStock

Better yet, Pirelli asserts that the biker wave is well over 100 years old. It reportedly got its start with William Harley and Arthur Davidson, the men behind Harley-Davidson. The two would greet each other on their motorcycles. 

What the biker wave isn’t, however, is some “you have to be in the know” motorcycle hand signal. Of course, those do exist. For instance, if you see a rider extend their leg to one side while riding in a pair, they could be signaling an obstacle in the road. What’s more, a rider tapping their helmet with a flattened hand is an indication of a speed trap or police officer up ahead. 

Some riders, however, reserve the biker wave for dedicated motorcycles. That means two wheels and enough power to hit the highway. As such, don’t be surprised if you don’t always get a return wave on your moped or Polaris Slingshot three-wheeler. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; rider camaraderie is a powerful thing. 

Ride safe this season, and don’t forget to let your fellow riders know that you’re chuffed to share the road with them.