The Universal Signs

To the best of my knowledge (and I am a very, very knowledgeable person), there are only two...

Tales from the Peloton, January 15, 2006

To the best of my knowledge (and I am a very, very knowledgeable person), there are only two universally recognized hand gestures. The first - the wave - is for "Hi." The second - the flipoff - is considerably more intimate, as well as considerably less friendly.

As cyclists, we have a few more gestures, most of which are used when riding in a paceline. We can point out obstacles. We can tell a rider to take a turn pulling. We can say we're turning or stopping.

And that's about it.

Frankly, we need more. Much more. Hence, to facilitate communication, avoid accidents, and generally increase the opacity of cycling to outside observers, I hereby propose the following as Universal Cycling Hand Gestures:

Gesture 1: The Anti-Flipoff
I make mistakes while biking in traffic sometimes. And I regret them. In fact, I sometimes feel downright stupid. I want to acknowledge my mistake and apologize for it. Currently, I do this weird pantomime where I shrug my shoulders, and mouth the word, "Sorry!"

The problem with this technique is it takes too long and requires that the person you're apologizing to is no further away than six feet, and is preferably sitting absolutely still, so as to catch the nuance of the shrug and mouthed apology.

What I need instead is an Anti-Flipoff: something that quickly says, "Oops, me bad. I'm an idiot. Sorry."

To perform the Anti-Flipoff, rap yourself on the helmet three times, as if checking to see if your head is hollow. It's quick and it's self-deprecating. I worry, however, that this one won't catch on, because while people are generally happy to point out other errors, they're only rarely aware of their own.

Gesture 2: The Magnanimous Flipoff
You know, not every grievance is equally bad. Sometimes, motorists do something that's just annoying enough that you want that you want to call their attention to it, but not really bad enough to warrant a flipoff. This gesture says, in effect: "You may well deserve to be flipped off, and in fact most people would flip you off. But I am your moral superior, so I instead choose to forgive you."

To perform the Magnanimous Flipoff, extend one arm so it's easily visible, hand splayed, then wobble that hand up and down as if to say, "Your mental faculties are only so-so." My guess is that the condescending nature of this gesture will make it be perceived as more infuriating than the original flipoff.

Gesture 3: White Flag
You're on a group ride. You're not at your best today, though, and have been repeatedly spat out the back. Considerately, the group has slowed down each time, letting you rejoin the paceline, when all you really want to do is lick your wounds in privacy. You need a gesture to let the group know that this time, you'd really prefer they don't hold back and let you catch up.

The White Flag gesture needs to be visible from a good distance away, for obvious reasons, so it needs to be large. Execute this gesture by repeatedly weaving left to right as you pedal. Let your head loll.

On second thought, scratch that. That gesture may be indistinguishable from how you were riding in the first place.

Instead, hold your right hand high in the air, with a big "Thumbs Down" sign to indicate: "I'm cooked. Don't wait for me. Let me die in peace. Seriously. I mean it."

Gestures 4 - 7: Help? Help!
One of the things I really like about cyclists is that pretty much every time I've ever been on the side of the road and another cyclist goes by, they ask, "You OK? Got what you need?" Usually I don't need the help. Sometimes I do.

But the exchange is horribly inefficient. You've got to slow down enough to shout a question and hear the answer if you're the would-be-helper. You've got to make yourself understood if you're the one on the side of the road.

The following gestures allow you to continue to be a courteous cyclist - and to respond to other courteous cyclists - without shedding the precious momentum you've built up:

  • Do you need help? Stick your thumb out, as if you were hitchhiking.
  • Yes, I need help: Stick your thumb out the same way in response.
  • No, I don't need help: Stick your thumb out, but pointing down.
  • I'm just resting here by the side of the road. I don't need help. Please don't ask why. Windmill your arm once or twice, finishing by pointing in the direction the rider is going, as if you were a member of ZZ Top. (Note: This gesture must be given before the approaching rider offers the "Do you need help?" gesture, or it will be construed as horribly rude.)
  • Hey, I can see you've got a mechanical there and could use some help, but I don't have any tools at all, and besides, I'm a terrible mechanic, so I'm just going to keep going: Stick your thumb out as if you were hitchhiking, but then let your thumb and hand droop down into a thumbs-down position, as if your thumb is very disappointed in itself.

Gesture 8: I Only Seem Slow
Yesterday, you did intervals. Today, you're supposed to spin along nice and slow, keeping your heart rate below 60. So you're noodling along when some guy pulls even, gives you "The Look," and shoots off the front. Of course, you're tempted to counterattack: show this jerk who's boss. But you don't want to spoil your carefully designed regimen just for this guy's benefit.

To indicate that the cyclist is passing you only because you are letting him, put your hand - the one the other guy can best see - in the air and do a slow "walking" motion with your index and middle finger. This gesture conveys the message, "I'm letting you go right now because it's my rest day. Believe me, if I wanted to, I could attack and drop you in a hot second. Now be off with you, before I change my mind and teach you a lesson you won't soon forget."

Gestures 9 - 12: New Paceline Gestures
Riding with a group in tight formation requires a high degree of trust. By working together, you're all faster than you would be individually. And while there are already some perfectly good gestures for indicating debris and speed changes, those hardly cover the array of information you might want to convey.

  • Whoah, sorry I didn't call out that pothole / rock / broken glass we just hit: Sure, you try to call out every little obstacle on the road, but sometimes you just don't see them ‘til too late. When this happens, give yourself a quick, visible kidney punch, to show that you're aware you deserve to be smacked. If you just dragged the paceline through a really nasty patch of glass, you may also want to follow up with a quick rap on your helmet three times to underscore the point.
  • I'm about to fart. It's going to be bad. You may want to drop back: Generally, it's a good idea to keep the group together, but if you've got really vile gas, most riders are more than willing to make an exception. Wave your hand behind your butt three times to indicate the oncoming moment of flatulence.
  • Hey, you're surging every time it's your turn to pull. Cut it out: I'm not sure why some people feel it's their duty to try to up the pace for the first thirty seconds of each of their pulls, but I do know there's one in every group. To let this guy know you've had enough of this nonsense, when he drifts by you on the way to the back of the line, punch your fist forward quickly, then pull it back slowly. Repeat a couple times. If this person continues to surge at the beginning of each of his pulls, stop punching the air, and instead actually punch the person the next time he drifts back.
  • Your complete and utter refusal to take a turn pulling has gone beyond annoying. It's crossed the threshold of outrageous selfishness and will have permanent implications on your group ride invitation status unless you get your butt to the front now. Make eye contact with the offender and simply point your finger to the front of the line. Don't do it unless you mean it.

Just the Beginning
As cyclists become more and more confident with their gestures, more are sure to surface, ranging from "Hey, nice jersey" to "I'm totally out of food and water. I will name my firstborn after you if you'll just give me something to eat so I don't fall over on my side."

So please, let me know how these gestures work out for you. I'll be interested to know your experiences.

For myself, I intend to just keep flipping people off.

Elden Nelson blogs as the Fat Cyclist each weekday, where he says pretty much any old thing that pops into his head, with complete disregard for accuracy or truth. Hey, at least he's honest about his dishonesty.

More Cylingnews features

Back to top