Motoring Monday – Rules of the road and terminology

There was only one logical choice to kick-start this series with, and that’s the very basics – the unwritten road rules and the lingo that goes along with it.  This post will mainly concentrate on American jargon, but I will add some British slang just because I think it’s cool.  Aaaand we’re off…


Long before straddling a motorcycle, bikers need to procure the proper wardrobe.  (I know, I really just used the word “wardrobe” when describing biker clothing.  For the sake of this post, just let it go.) 

As far as I’m concerned, the single most important article of riding gear is a good-fitting pair of glasses.  Without them, the wind will tear at your tear ducts and you will not be able to keep them open long enough to see anything.  Ever tried riding a motorcycle with your eyes closed?  Don’t.  You can’t get where you’re going, if you can’t see where you’ve been. 

Next up – a helmet.  And I already know…some people absolutely refuse to strap one on.  Helmet laws are not instituted across the board; some states require a helmet, some states don’t.  As a logical-thinking person, I plead with all bikers – PLEASE wear a helmet.  People complain that they’re uncomfortable, restrict peripheral vision, or limit hearing.  I have two responses.  1.)  There are many different helmet styles that offer different fits and feels.  I guarantee there’s one out there that won’t inhibit your vision or hearing.  2.)  Deal with it!  It’s all about safety.  Wearing a helmet is a lot more comfortable than being in traction with steel plates in your head because you wanted to “look cool.”  Going for a ride is only fun when you are able to return from it. 

Don’t forget your feet.  People often ignore their footwear, or only make it an afterthought before hopping on their hog.  Fact is, your feet are what keep the bike upright when you’re not moving, and they also help steady your bike as you come to a stop.  I can never believe it when I see people wearing flip-flops.  Aside from not being good for traction, they also offer no ankle support or protection in the instance that you lay your bike down. 

Speaking of which, that’s where all the leather comes into play.  Bikers and leather go hand-in-hand.  I’m sure when you think of a biker, you think of a big, burly, bear of a man with tattoos covering his arms and wearing jeans and a leather vest and/or jacket.  If you disagree, then clearly you are a liar.  “Leathers” are worn for two main reasons; to keep warm when riding, and to act as protection in case you lay your bike down.  Leather is a biker’s armor.  It staves off the chill of the wind when you get up to speed on the highway, and its thick padding offers protection from road rash if you find yourself sliding across the pavement.  Denim is also a good layer of protection, but doesn’t quite offer the strength or padding of leather.

The only thing that is prohibited from this list is a watch.  The sure sign of a poser.  When you are riding, time is irrelevant.  It’s not about the destination, but the journey.  If you’re worried about the time, then take a plane.

The rest is pretty much all optional.  Gloves help protect your hands from bugs and rocks, but are not required.  A bandana is a good idea to help keep your helmet from soaking up all of the sweat from your forehead, but again, it’s only a suggestion.  A good rain suit is a great thing to have, but if you don’t have one then it’s not the end of the world.

Once you’re geared up, then it’s time to hit the road.  This is where you probably make most of your observations, since I highly doubt you spend your free time hanging out in biker bars. 

“Why do bikers have to hog the road so much and crowd the center line?”  I never understood this either until I started riding.  Whenever I rode with my dad or uncle, I was always scared of hitting oncoming traffic.  The reason for this is simply to be seen.  Motorcycles are a fraction the size of an automobile, and are a fraction as noticeable. 

“Also, why do motorcycles crowd next to each other instead of riding in a single line?”  Look closely and you’ll see that they aren’t quite right next to each other…at least they shouldn’t be.  Bikes should be a little staggered and not directly side-by-side.  They do this because if you’re riding in a single file and the guy in front of you lays his bike down, then it’s all happening right in your path of travel.  By riding in a staggered formation, you give yourself the most amount of space and time to react to obstacles.

If you have ever followed a motorcycle and noticed them pass another motorcycle going the opposite direction, then you have undoubtedly witnessed my single favorite part of being a biker – the phenomenon I like to call the “low five.”  This is a simple act of acknowledging your biker brethren by dropping your left arm from the hand grip and giving a slight salute.  But even here, there are rules that come into play on when, where, who, and why. 

By and large, the motorcycling community is pretty supportive.  However, there are those that don’t seem to get it.  You may notice certain bikers snub other bikers.  For some, it depends on what you’re on.  There’s a bit of a hierarchy, or caste system, if you will.  If you’re riding a Harley, you may not be inclined to acknowledge a sport bike, or “crotch rocket,” and vice-versa…that just comes down to personal preference.  Nobody signals scooters.  Period.  That’s just the way it is, and rightfully so.  This attitude goes back as far as the early 1960s and probably beyond.  England saw a terrible turf war pitting the “rockers” (bikers) versus the “mods” (scoot riders)

Further rules apply to divided highways.  If your lane is not connected to the lane with oncoming traffic, then there is no obligation for a low five.

Low fives may be inhibited from bikers by natural riding duties such as shifting or slowing to a stop.  If you’re pulling on the clutch lever, you can’t very well throw out a low five.  You may forget and attempt this at some point…but you’ll only try it once. 

Conversely, passengers are another section in the rule book.  Back-seat riders have no excuse not to signal other riders, unless they are observing the caste system by-laws.

Ultimately, it’s all up to the rider.  These rules can easily be completely thrown out at any point if the rider so chooses.  Typically bikers will acknowledge each other regardless of the hierarchy, but it is generally understood nonetheless.

Having a basic understanding of those until-now-unwritten rules, it’s time to move on to the biker glossary.

1 %er (One percenter) – Refers to outlaw bikers.  It was once noted by the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) that 99% of all bikers are good, law-abiding, upstanding citizens, leaving the outlaw biker as the remaining one percent.

cage – A car.  As in a metal “cage” wrapped around the passengers.

colors – Patches designating motorcycle club affiliation.

drop – also known as “laying down.”  The act of wrecking a motorcycle.

iron ass – A trip that is a minimum of 1,000 miles in length.  Sometimes this is further qualified by having to be within a 24 hour period.

leathers – Clothing made of leather – jacket, vest, chaps, etc.

MC – Motorcycle club.  Almost any organized group of bikers.  Not synonymous with outlaw biker club.  NOTE:  NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, MAKE A COMMENT REGARDING OUTLAW MOTORCYCLE CLUBS.  Seriously.

riding b***h – Simply referring to the passenger seat.

Rocker – British slang for biker.  Generated in the early 1960s.  American interpretation refers to a style of patch.

saddle – The driver’s seat often mimics the appearance of an equestrian saddle, and sometimes is referred to by the same name.

saddlebag – Set of bags used for luggage space.  Placed over the rear fender and secured behind the saddle.

sissy bar – Backrest.  Typically padded for the passengers comfort.

ton – British slang referencing 100 miles per hour.  “Doing the ton,” or “Pulling a ton.”

twisties – Curves or bends in the road.

So now you have a general idea of what it takes to step into the rough and tough world of the modern biker.  If you’re a noob, at least now you don’t have to sound like it.  If I forgot anything, fire away in the comments section below.

Thank you, that is all.


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