Who invented the biker wave, and why do we do it?
We all know the wave. It’s a part of rider etiquette, an accepted and expected form of acknowledgment from rider to rider. But what is the biker wave origin? Where did it come from? What does the biker wave mean, really?
There are a couple of theories out there, so let’s dive into some motorcycle history and see if we can debunk this mystery.
What is the wave?
Just in case you don't know, the name of the wave varies and has been called the “biker wave,” the “motorcyclist salute,” and the “motorcycle wave,” among others. There are also variations on the type of wave, depending on where or what you’re riding. It can range from a head nod, a single pointed finger, a palm-out V-sign, or a good ol’ fashioned, chest-high, “I’m so excited to be here” type of wave.
The greeting is popular among most riders in North America, while in Europe it’s not nearly as common. The wave is almost non-existent in Germany; in Australia, they nod, and the French stick out their foot as a way to say thank you to motorists.
Waving is widely accepted, but I’m not saying that all riders must wave. For example, when you're riding in heavy traffic or at high speeds, and especially if you’re a new rider, you may not feel safe enough to take a hand off the handlebars. That’s perfectly understandable. After all, as a rider, your safety and full attention are first and foremost since the road is full of distracted cagers who seem to want nothing more than to text while driving (a.k.a. murder you with their two-ton death machines).
So, let’s look into some possible theories regarding where the biker wave came from.
Theory Number One: William Harley and Arthur Davidson invented the biker wave.
Photo Source: Rentomo Guide
Since the wave seemed to be most common among Harley and Indian riders in the 40s and 50s, the origin of the wave was speculated to have started in 1904 when Arthur Davidson and William Harley passed each other and waved. Supposedly, this exchange was seen by a passerby who assumed it was part of rider etiquette, and the tradition continued among Harley riders.
I don’t think this theory is likely. While it is true that the wave was mostly attributed to the American Harley crowds in the mid-20th century, it’s probably because the majority of motorcycles on North American roads after WWII were either Harleys or Indians. British motorcycles were only just beginning to make inroads in that market. So, naturally, it was Harley and Indian motorcycle riders who maintained the tradition. The wave was not intended to associate with brand specifics, but the idea likely stuck.
Theory Two: The wave was used as recognition of military service between bikers.
I really like this one. The V-salute, which became the peace sign in the 60s, was created in Europe during WWII. As is a way that was only appropriate during war-time, the gesture simultaneously meant "Victory over the Germans" as well as "Stick it up the Germans." The ambiguity of the sign allowed Churchill to insult the enemy in public without them even being aware of it, which is amusing.
Used as a sign of victory among the Allies in WWII, the V-salute became a common greeting in post-war America before war protesters took it over in the 60s. Even if this isn’t the actual origin, I like to think that the wave really began as a veteran acknowledgment of valor and service while on the road. So, I’ll mark this theory as plausible.
Theory Three: Knights in medieval Europe invented the traveler’s wave.
Two knights on horseback approach each other on the narrow trail. Both are clad in heavy, metal plating, their faces covered by the thick visors of their armor. Be these friends or foes? The knights pause long enough to raise their visors to their foreheads, revealing their identities in a friendly fashion.
Could this be the origin of the traveler’s wave? Nah. This is actually the origin of a military salute. Knights’ visors were raised to the forehead as a courtesy to reveal their identity when they approached another knight or superior. In later centuries, this turned into removing hats or headgear in the presence of officers. Over time, the motion to remove a hat was gradually converted into a courteous salutation through a gesture to grasp a visor. Though interesting, this motion is very different from the motorcycle wave and is not the correct origin.
Theory Four: The wave is nothing more than a common practice among all motorcyclists because of the unique bond and camaraderie we share as riders.
This is very likely. In my opinion, the wave is seen as a benediction, a friendly wish for each other to keep the dirty side down. Skydiving actually has a similar system: before making their jump, skydivers will always fist bump as if to silently say, "good luck, see you on the ground." I think it's safe to say the official origin of the wave will remain a mystery, but I believe the wave is simply a signal that we share something in common, something that most people probably won’t understand.
Historically, motorcyclists have been defined by our fierce individualism. Back when motorcycles were rare forms of transportation, those who rode them were seen as rebels, as someone who couldn’t be contained in the confines of a car, or anything else for that matter. The boldness of the lifestyle made bikers outcasts in a complacent society, and the continued refusal to adhere to social norms united riders into biker communities.
Today, there are many more bikes on the road, but the solidarity among riders is just as strong. We aren’t really seen as those “raging misfits” the nuclear families stigmatized us as during the 1950s and 60s. No, these days, riders range from genuine badasses to soccer moms; from filthy rich doctors to starving college students; from big, tough manly men to, well, me. Yesteryear’s negative stigma surrounding motorcycles has decreased, but along with it went most riders’ need to flip a unified, violent bird to the status quo.
So, who invented the motorcycle wave? I believe it wasn't one person, but a community of people.
It's this reason that I always wave, and I always will. I think of it as a way to tell other riders that, yeah, we’re cut from the same cloth. Just as I’ve chosen to forego the safety of four wheels, a seatbelt, and airbags, so have all bikers on the road, basking in the freedom of two wheels in the wind together.
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