Not waving but frowning

Biker etiquette | Tribalism | Waving | Flashing lights | Motorcyclists




I never wave at passing motorcycles, classic or otherwise. I don't flash my lights, nod, gesticulate, grimace or perform any of the contemporary ritualised vehicular theatrics. I used to, a long time ago when I was younger, when there was still some colour in my hair other than the ubiquitous grey (and, okay, when there was still some hair).


But now that I'm older (read: wiser, or just more jaded, things are less certain. The government. The changing world. The inexorable march of the EEC. Television. Billboards. The road ahead.




Like a lot of people these days, I'm not waving at anyone very much largely because I'm hanging on for dear life to the handlebars of life, unwilling to honk the horn except in the most dire emergency, and afraid to give even hand signals for fear of them being misinterpreted (or, more truthfully, for fear of them being interpreted correctly and then being arrested by morality police who creep closer and closer every day).


But as you've guessed (because you're older and wiser too) there's more to it than that, isn't there? There's another reason why I never wave/flash/nod at other motorcyclists, classic or otherwise.


The underlying reason why I don't do any of the aforementioned is because some time ago it occurred to me what all this waving, flashing, nodding, etc is really all about. It's not friendliness and it's not harmless camaraderie either.


It's just snobbery. That's the truth of it. It's an uncodified tribal ritual; a divisive social response that selects a few among the many, the righteous from the unworthy, the biking faithful from the hordes of automotive infidels.


You're not supposed to think of it that way, of course. You're not supposed to consider the deeper implications of what, on the face of it, is simply harmless goodwill. You're supposed to simply get "on-message" and wave/flash/nod etc in much the same way that, say, Hitler youth were obliged to goosestep on demand and spit at Jews.


Questioning the prevailing orthodoxy is always a crime. It's subversive, and you can get booted out the tribe for it - and exile is, after all, the ultimate tribal sanction. And anyway, it genuinely pains me to be on the receiving end of those split-second withering looks that come my way as my ship passes in the night with me on the bridge focussed only on the distant horizon oblivious to the beckoning of my biking brethren.


Yet I still I can't seem to get that hand a-waving or set those lights a-flashing. The flesh is willing, but the spirit is not merely weak, but flaccid.


But get this, not so very long ago I was riding down one of my least favourite stretches of dual carriageway on my way back from somewhere or other. Up ahead was some guy standing beside his bike looking ... well, looking like a guy standing beside his bike. It was a familiar marooned breakdown pose, rather than a familiar making-a-phone-call pose, or having-a-fag pose, or just-taking-in-the-scenic-view-of-passing-traffic pose.


Naturally I stopped (I don't wave/flash/nod etc, but I always stop for a breakdown - for car drivers too, I hasten to add).


"What bothers me is the superficiality of this comrades-of-the-asphalt business ..."


This particular guy had a broken clutch cable and was minus the means to fix it. Being a BSA WDM20 and Triumph T140 pilot, I'm never on the road without a fairly comprehensive tool kit - which includes half a dozen screw-on nipples and various lengths of emergency cable suitable for everything from a BSA Bantam throttle to a Boeing 747 control line (why take chances, huh?).


Fifteen minutes later (okay, thirty minutes later), this guy was on the move with me hot on his heels anticipating a failed bodge and another rescue mission. But ten minutes after that all seemed to be going well, so we parted company (he posted back the screw-on cable nipple together with a T-shirt from the Ace Cafe).


Two weeks on, my trusty BMW R80ST (supposedly the most reliable of my mounts) broke down in the wilds of Essex. The battery shorted internally, and that was that. End of story. Going nowhere. Call the recovery people. Goodnight.


But guess what? While I was standing at the side of the road, girlfriend in tow, tools in hand, chin on chest, temper in the red zone, no less than four motorcycles passed and (barely) gave me the once over. And how many of those bikes stopped?


That's right. None.


I suppose I might have flagged one of them down, but there wasn't much point (not unless they had a spare BMW R80ST battery on board). And anyway, as I've already confessed, I'm not exactly a willing exponent of social semaphore, especially when I've still got a mobile phone in my pocket and an on-going breakdown recovery deal.


Now, I'm no gambling man (except when it comes to my life on the M25 or making an emergency pit stop at McDonalds), but I'm betting that had I passed on the open road any of those aforementioned riders and flashed/waved/nodded etc, I would have got a flash/wave/nod in return. It's the rules, after all (you can be exiled for failure to comply, remember?).


But expecting one of those riders to voluntarily stop to see why I was loitering at the side of the road with a bored-looking girlfriend and a bunch of tools littering the grassy verge (with night falling around my ears) was evidently something else.


It's not the being sociable that troubles me. I can be as friendly as the next miserable git. And I certainly don't mind stopping to lend a spanner when the need arises. What bothers me is the superficiality of this comrades-of-the-asphalt business, the underlying elitist thoughtlessness, the notion that a handful of passing fingers or the flicker of headlight electricity is sufficient glue to bond the biking community together.


Which it isn't.


Moreover, I've got the sneaking suspicion (although I can't forensically prove this) that the amount of mobile hand waving/flashing etc is inversely proportionate to the real world support you're likely to get when the you-know-what hits the fan.


But look, I've made my point, and we don't have to be silly about it. I'm prepared to compromise. It's the British way, after all. So from now on, I won't wave or flash or honk as we pass. But I will raise an eyebrow; the right one, probably - unless we meet at a junction or roundabout, in which case it could be the left.


The eyebrow in question will go up for exactly one second and will come straight down, so you'll have to be quick if you want to cop a feel. You can wave, flash or honk, or do whatever it is you feel you have to do to tighten those tribal bonds.


But the next time I conk out at the roadside with my tool bag on the deck, my battery fizzing like an anarchist's bomb, and count 3 or 4 riders passing me without so much as a sneer, all bets are off.





óDanny DeFazio



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