There is, unbelievably, a subject more contentious in cycling circles than that of wearing a helmet... and ironically, for all of its friendly intentions, is the one most likely to lead to fisticuffs.
It is the simple act of waving.
Some people get very very angry about waving. Or to be more precise, not waving, and even more specifically, not being waved back at.
The post-ride grumbling chatter, be that in the virtual world or in real life, is full of stories from people incensed upon returning home from a bike ride where someone else on a bike they didn’t know dared not return their cheery wave. Then, they have to let anyone that’s sat still for long enough know how much this has completely ruined their life. Maybe these days you can rant straight into your Wahoo and it instantly uploads your ire to your social echo chamber of choice whilst on the move. I’m not so up to speed on modern tech so who knows? Can you buy a Boohoo?
Let’s get this out the way early: I’m not a waver (feel free to comment with your thoughts on this very pressing matter below). I do, however, favour an understated and possibly barely imperceptible to some nod of the head, or a subtle yet casual raising of the fingers of the right hand; just unfurling enough away from the bars to register and be acknowledged if you know what to look for. The cycling version of the country wave if you will.
That’s enough for me. A brief in passing register and appreciation that someone else is out on their bike is all that I need to broadcast. Most often it is returned in mutually muted kind, and that’s fine, yet if someone doesn’t notice or doesn’t reciprocate in whichever way then that’s fine as well. If my low-key gesture is greeted with an over exuberant wave in reply, it does feel a little excessive in the circumstances even if I do recognise it as a polite courtesy. Maybe they’re an excitable children’s TV presenter out on a bike? I’ve seen pictures.
I have been very ostentatiously waved at, most certainly performed to make a point, and it looked a little… odd. Well, strange enough for me to realise that they were making a point, and as soon as they got home were going to tell everyone that they’d waved at a roadie who - true to stereotype - hadn’t waved back because "They’re all grumpy and up their own arses and too obsessed with chasing a Strava segment, aren’t they?"
I would have raised my hand and smiled back at them, but it took a while to work out if I knew them or not. From the OTT waving they appeared to be a very close friend who I hadn’t seen for years, and then it was too late. Sorry to whoever that was (I don’t do Strava by the way.)
I have been accused several times over the years by various people of not waving back to them, which is interesting because in each instance I’ve never been able to recall being waved at by them. I’ll happy put my hand up (not waving) and say I didn’t notice. I might have had my attention on the road or something, or not just staring at the person on a bike coming the other way to check to see if I might recognise them, or if they might be attempting contact across the tarmac.
Upon further investigations as to where and when this heinous social transgression occurred, it has emerged that actually, it might not have been me at all. I’ve had enough people mistakenly see me out on the bike when I’ve been sat at home, because there are a lot of cyclists that look the same at blurry speed under a helmet and behind glasses. I recently did a proper wave and a "hiya" at a rider coming the other way who I recognised without a shadow of a doubt, and amusingly it was one of the people who have accused me of not returning their greeting in the past.... they totally ignored me. True to the non-waving back type, they did look grumpy. I’m going to wait for maximum irony and comedy points before I raise this with them.
But... this isn’t necessarily about the etiquette and politics of waving or the waving back, andI entirely understand the reasoning behind The Wave and its good intentions. Cycling needs to become more welcoming and inclusive and break away from its historically cliquey and exclusive history. It's nice to recognise and encourage each other on the road, yadayadayada, but trying to insist upon both The Wave and The Return as a compulsory action between cyclists is peppered with problems.
One of the things that interests me most is: when is The Waving supposed to start? If you live in a large urban area or have a daily cycle commute then waving at all other cyclists on the road is going to be impractical, dangerous and just a bit bloody weird.
It’s a recipe for at least a few awkward looks, and maybe something more hostile if you wave at every single person on a bike who is pedalling the other way. I suspect that even the most evangelical proponents of The Waving keep their smiles and eager hands down when a yoof in a hoodie dragging on a fag is expertly piloting a full-suspension mountain bike-shaped object into their salutation radar.
You probably wouldn't wave at them, so there’s clearly some sort of discrimination as to when it’s considered polite and which cyclists are probably ok to wave at. If it’s not a blanket rule, what are the parameters? Do you wave at Proper Cyclists but not People Who Just Happen To Be On A Bike, and how do you make that nuanced distinction as to whom is deserving of your genial gesticulation?
If we consider the day-to-day practicalities of waving, and it being unrealistic in a busy town as you’re just going to get worn out and maybe punched on a busy bike lane, then when does it become acceptable to start finger fwapping at other cyclists? Is it just something that you save for - what we shall call for sake of argument and brevity - A Proper Ride? Is it a buildings-per-square-mile thing or a vague cyclists-per- mile measurement? Is it only allowed when streets become roads, houses turn into hedges or when the streetlights stop? Does it start at the point you might acknowledge other people when you’re walking? Unless of course habitual bike wavers like to high-five everyone when they’re wandering around the shops.
For me, the muted recognition towards other people pedalling starts at the traffic lights where suburbia finally and suddenly gives way to country lanes. In the other direction, it’s when the meandering back streets finally reach the road that strikes up towards the top of the first hill. Within those imagined boundaries, there’s too much going on to bother with any pedalling platitudes. There might be a glance and a nod if I’m in Proper Cycling Kit and I see someone else in Proper Cycling Kit spinning through town, but that’s it. Ahhh, the joys and complications of a thousand personal protocols and minutiae of considerations and civilities that don’t really matter, and yet somehow do.
I think the biggest stumbling block with the well meaning compulsion of The Waving and of The Waving Back is the assumption that everyone who rides a bike is part of one huge friendly two-wheeled society, which is in reality a delusional fantasy. While I have met some of the most wonderful people on bikes and they can be machines for great camaraderie and community, there have been other members of the bicycle tribe I’ve met who I have felt less amenable towards. Let’s say our only common denominator is our fondess for the bicycle, and I’m absolutely certain other people on bikes that I’ve shared miles with have felt the same about me.
The bike could be substituted by a favourite band, the car you drive, wearing the same trainers or any other spurious connection. Beyond that one common denominator there doesn’t have to be anything else. Just because we both ride a bike, it doesn’t mean we’re friends. If you want examples of how riding a bike doesn’t necessarily lead to instant yet lifelong shared emotional bonds, then just poke around any raggletaggle group or more organised club of cyclists and you’ll soon uncover little dislikes and animosities between the riders. Browse the internet and while you’ll find lots of people helping each other out with bike-related problems, you’ll also see that it doesn’t take long for an argument to develop. People are people and they love to find division, and then divisions within that.
There's also the tribal conflicts that can breed between different cycling disciplines, most famously between mountain and road biking, which can become neanderthal at times (I’m excluding triathletes here because no one likes them), and which can go beyond ignoring a wave into tangible disdain and quietly bubbling hatred.
Whilst some might like to fancy that there’s a common bond between anyone on two wheels, it is just a bike and nothing more. The reasons to be on one are as varied as the people on them, and we all ride bikes for a vast array of intentions. It could just be a necessary method to get to work, or the shops, or enjoying the countryside, or training for something, or a place to revel in the quiet and get away from people; and while there might be useful and beneficial moments of commonality in the group ride or like-minded ride partners, this is in no way a constant. While I’ll always stop and ask if someone stuck by the side of the road with a stricken bike needs help, I also recognise that this doesn’t mean we’re all part of some utopian brotherhood. I mean, they might have put their broken bike upside down...
To those that vehemently insist on The Wave and The Wave Back, there is an undercurrent of gatekeeping and despite its friendly intentions, it has a slight whiff of being one of cycling’s 'Rules'. While its objectives are are good and there’s an understood level of politeness, not everyone is going to realise they’re supposed to be part of a vast wheeled clan. They’re just riding a bike, and the indignation which some people feel towards some other random hapless cyclist that they don’t know who doesn’t adhere to their little cheery protocol comes across as a little needy.
Something else that has me pondering about the whole Waving thing and belief that everyone pedalling around is part of some wider cycling community is that in doing this, then we have to accept any of the “All of you lot, you cyclists…” accusations that are angrily thrown at us by other forms of transport users whenever they see any kind of bicycle based transgression, lumping us all together as one happy rule breaking family, is reinforced. This is the bit where cyclists start waving their arms about (there’s a theme here) and bleating that them as a group are not responsible for the actions of a single rider, and we’re all independent beings so shouldn’t be blamed as a nebulous homogeneous community. We need to decide if cyclists are a diffused yet united peloton, or an unrelated multitude of fierce individuals with no group accountability. Ooooh, it’s tricky.
If it makes you happy wave all you like, but if someone doesn’t wave back, it’s okay. It is, let’s be honest, none of your business. Despite your best aspirations in wanting cycling to be a freewheeling utopia, it’s an activity far far more than what you think it is or should be. If you do have a moan about it when your ride is over, then rest assured that the affirmation from your peer bubble that you were in the right and whoever it was is just plain rude and is a typical miserable stuck-up roadie yadayadayada, will do more to inflate your self-esteem and dopamine levels than any rider simply waving back at you ever could do. Take comfort in that. Maybe they didn’t notice, maybe they had things going on their head that they were dwelling on instead of looking at you. Maybe they were concentrating on avoiding a pothole, maybe they were thinking about the tea and toast at the end of their ride, maybe they don’t know you and prefer not to wave at strangers. Maybe they don’t understand this Rule Of Cycling. Maybe lots of things. Maybe respect their space. Maybe they didn’t know they were going to ruin your day, and they still don’t know they did.
Wave if you like, wave all you like, wave as if you’ve just seen a sportive photographer hiding in the bushes. Just give a nod, or a barely recognisable 7º raise of the hand off the bars if you like. But remember that if someone is riding a bike the other way, that’s all they’re doing and that should be enough. Feel free to continue berating them for their choice of head covering though...
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.