Sunday, July 8, 2007

Apple #252: Motorcycling Signals

Just got back from my trip. Norton has been giving me the hairy fits, and Blogger has a new bug all its own, too. You now have to move the mouse verrry slowwwly over the top portion of the title field until the pointer changes to a cursor and allows you to begin typing in the title field. Otherwise, you get no title. Gee, thanks for that update, Blogger!

Driving back here from my trip, I happened to wind up behind a cluster of three motorcyclists for a while. Many times, other motorcyclists passed us going the opposite direction, zipping by on the left. I noticed that as the oncoming cyclists approached, one of the cyclists in front of me lifted his left hand slightly in a very casual hello. The cyclists passing by all returned his greeting. It was not a typical wave, but something sort of specialized. And all the cyclists knew the signal.

Aha, I thought. A secret code. Maybe there are more secret hand signals, known only to motorcyclists.

The view from behind a group of Harley riders can be quite educational.
(Photo from Motorcycle Cruiser)

  • First thing to know, apparently, is that there is a hierarchy among motorcyclists. People who drive the same motorcycle as you (Harleys especially) are more likely to return your hello. People who wear similar gear (helmet or no helmet, leather chaps or denim only, do-rag or braid, etc.) will also be more likely to return your greeting.
  • But this is not to say that people with different bikes, braids, or bottoms will ignore your hello. The bikers I saw exchanging greetings all drove quite variously different motorcycles and, though there was a lot of leather and denim, not everyone they waved to wore the same.
  • It is also reportedly true that some bikers will never return a hello, regardless of your equipment or your gear. In some cases when traffic is heavy or tricky, it might be too difficult for a biker to wave. So bikers are cautioned not to over-interpret another biker's failure to return a wave hello.

That said, here are some of the signals I found described and explained online:
  • Two-Finger Peace - biker keeps hand on the grip but raises index and middle finger in a peace sign. Safe but also very casual. Like saying, "Hey, dude."
  • Down Low Peace - biker drops hand off grip below handlebars and flashes the peace sign. Since the biker took the time to remove his or her hand from the grip to greet you, this is a true hello.

I had trouble finding a picture of the down-low waves I saw bikers trading with each other. But this Christmas card shows exactly what I saw. Santa's flashing the peace sign, and the mystery biker going the other way is giving the casual wave in return.
(This motorcycle Christmas card is from 2006, but I bet they'll have new cards for '07)

  • Casual Wave - variant of the Down Low Peace. Biker drops hand off grip below handlebars and gives an open-palm wave. The return of the greeting is sometimes held as the bikes pass so that it appears as though the bikers would give each other low-fives but for the extra necessary distance between them.
  • Sport Bike Point - biker raises hand without moving the arm and points at fellow biker with a flick of the wrist.
  • The Geeky Hi! - biker lifts hand from grip and raises hand into the air and waves. This increases wind resistance and could result in injury. It is also how newbies or nerds -- or I who have never driven a motorcycle -- would wave. Serious motorcyclists say that drivers of mopeds and motor scooters greet each other this way. In other words, if you want to be cool -- and don't want to slow down -- don't wave like this.

Oh, dear. So many things wrong with this picture.
(Photo from Jupiter Images)

  • The Dis - biker removes hand from grip and lays it flat on the thigh. No peace sign, no open palm, just a big obvious nothing. Supposedly, this comes from motorcycle gangs and some riders will still interpret this as an open sign of disrespect. Newer riders might instead see this as a sign of tiredness and that a driver is merely resting his or her arm. If it were me, though, I wouldn't take the risk.
  • Debris Warning - biker points one finger repeatedly down to the ground to warn of debris on the pavement ahead.

Pointing straight down indicates a hazard in the road
(Image posted at Ohio X-Riders)

  • Smoky Alert - palm of hand taps top of helmet several times in succession alerts other bikers to a police officer ahead.
  • Ticked Off - middle finger proudly extended. No guide to hand signals would be complete without this one.

Other types of signals:
  • Helmet on the ground in front of or behind the bike - sign of distress. This is like popping the hood of a disabled car.
  • There are also lots of signals used to communicate with other members of your biking group: everybody speed up, let's all slow down, let's ride staggered, etc. Flash-based images demonstrating these signals have been reproduced at several sites, but I think they're easiest to read at the Ohio X-Riders site (which also provides additional, extensive tips on group riding).

  • Cage - automobile or other non-motorcycle vehicle. Some bikers think of "cagers" as "the enemy."
  • Squid - motorcyclist who takes more risks than necessary. A show-off and, in the end, probably not that good a rider. Some think that cyclists who hardly wear any safety gear and only skimpy things like flip-flops and a flappy sleeveless T-shirt are squids by virtue of their dress alone. There's even a way to signal another biker that a squid is on the way: drop hand with palm down, and wave the fingers in a tentacle-like fashion.

Sport bike riders wearing helmets so they don't get pulled over, but eschewing shirts altogether and leaving their legs and ankles bare. Some refer to riders like this as squids; others refer to them as "future body bag occupants;" still others simply wince at the thought of skin grafts.
(Photo from the blog of the highly opinionated Nealz Nuze)

I'd give people the Down Low Peace sign, but I doubt it would work too well from inside my car -- er, cage.

View from the Cloud, Secret Motorcycle Hand Greetings: Revealed!
VTwin Mama, Biker Symbology, 2004-2007
Motorcycle Tips and Techniques, Forums, Greeting Other Riders
Timberwoof's Motorcycle FAQ, Cages and Other Vehicles also includes some ideas on the origin of the term "squid"
Road Carvin, Squid Row


  1. Hey, nice site! And very nice compilation, thanks for referencing my blog.

    I think you'll find that people are very interested in this topic. Since I wrote my story a year ago it has become the single most accessed post I've written so far. In fact, I still receive 30-40 hits per day just on searches for motorcycle hand signals alone.

    But then again there are a lot of bikes out there and a lot of motorcycle web sites and forums, so it makes sense.

  2. Thanks, Harmonica Man. And thanks for the helpful information!

    I bet one of the reasons your page gets a lot of hits is because of your photos -- which are very helpful, by the way.

    I've found that most of my traffic comes from people looking for images. I'm not sure why some of my pages get to be more popular than others. Right now, the page most of my visitors want to see is the one with pictures of damage to the lungs from smoking.

  3. Very nice insight and description of the 'waves.' You mentioned the "geeky wave" and I had to smile. Waving with arm in the air is certainly a little dangerous and causes a great deal of wind resistance.

    After riding the US once I discovered a certain type of rider that does routinely wave like this, and they aren't newbies. The long distance rider.

    Seems to me that they wave like this to indicate a sort of 'hell ya' attitude. And returning those wave is rather tough. Balance is thrown off and it does require a bit of energy.

    At any rate, thanks for the post and being a knowledgeable 'cager' :-).


  4. Thanks for the props, Ken! If I can impress the experts, then I am doing my job.

    Thanks, too, for adding on and improving the information here. Without the input of experts like you, this blog would be pretty worthless.

    Safe travels!
    --the apple lady


If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!