The Universal Signs

01.9.2006 | 4:24 pm

[The following is a sneak-peek excerpt of a article I submitted this morning. — Fatty]


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:


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.


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.”


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.”


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.
  • 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

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.


PS: Over the weekend, Cyclingnews published my “UCI bans pre-season team building events” piece. Click here to read it now.


  1. Comment by tayfuryagci | 01.9.2006 | 6:01 pm

    "Make eye contact with the offender and simply point your finger to the front of the line." this is good stuff.but as for motorists I’ll keep doing my own thing. I pedal hard and when I’m next to the dude’s window I use some flamboyant words involving male-female genitalia and family members. That’s what a red light crosser deserves, or the idiot who tries to run you over with his giant Ford truck.

  2. Comment by Unknown | 01.9.2006 | 6:11 pm

    How about tying top5Bob’s story in by coming up with a gesture that says "Hit the brakes guys, I have to tinkle" Something like a thumb and forefinger together like you are holding one of those little tinkle-tinle sounding bells and wiggle the hand. This very un-macho gesture would also ensure it was only used when reallllly needed and not abused.

  3. Comment by Robert | 01.9.2006 | 6:14 pm

    I have three more:1) When you want to indicate to the cyclist behind you that the road is free and clear of obstacles, point to the ground frantically, and then flash the OK sign.2) When you’re getting ready for a sprint and you want to let your rival know that you think you’re going to defeat him, remove your pump and jam it in his spokes.3) When you want to indicate to another rider that you saw a good documentary, use the charades motion of spinning a movie reel, then act like you’re falling asleep to indicate documentary, and then stick your thumb up to say you actually liked it.

  4. Comment by Unknown | 01.9.2006 | 7:21 pm

    I had a friend, Harpic, at university. One of his favourite gestures was reserved for people who cut across him to turn left (or US right). If possible, he would catch up with the offender, smash their indicators with his U lock and say "When you get them fixed you might remember how to use them." He was from Glasgow, so I have edited out the 372 different expletives he would usually add to that sentence.

  5. Comment by Unknown | 01.9.2006 | 7:26 pm

    >>>Whoah, sorry I didn’t call out that pothole / rock / broken glass we just hit:I have to disagree with you on this one. I think that spotting duties are usually overexecuted, until they are totally underexecuted. Riders in a paceline have the obligation to pay attention to the road. That’s why the smart guys keep saying to keep an eye on the guy two or three riders up, not on the rear wheel of the guy in front of you. Wheel sucking is supposed to be a figurative term, people. I’d rather hear less calls, than more. Face it, as much as I like hanging out with the guys on the LBS group rides, the last thing I want to do is listen to the bike training version of a shop full of parrots. "Polly says slight gravel." "Slight gravel!" "Slight gravel." "Skidding! Sqawk!" Etc. At its best this is highly annoying. At its worst, everybody quits paying attention and then ignores important messages when they really need to be heeding, late in a ride when everybody is tired and sluggish. Thus, we need a set of signs to help us calibrate the calling out of hazards to an appropriate level. First, for the guy who calls every hazard, down to the .0001 micron chunk of gravel in the opposing lane – a quick one hand gesture. Place the index, middle and fourth fingers against the thumb, with the pinky extended, as if holding a tea cup in polite society, and then extend that hand gently to the lead rider. Message: "Good friend: might I interest you in a nice warm mug of STFU?"Next, for the guy who misses every hazard, the classic Three Stooges index-finger/middle finger eye poke gesture, delivered at the lead rider as he passes back to the pack. Message: "Have you ever thought of actually using your eyes for once, Helen Keller?" The countersign, of course, would be the lead rider’s hand extended vertically upwards, thumb towards the nose, palm perpendicular to the facein a blocking motion. Message: "I disagree with your assessment, kind sir. It was a judgment call." The rebuttal to this block, of course, would be to repeat the eye poke using both index fingers. Response: "No it wasn’t. You did it at least twice." There is no effective countersign to this argument. Do not, I repeat, do not, respond to the bleeding eye guy’s exasperation by extending your forearm with clenched fist outwards at 90 degrees from your body. It can only end badly for you. Finally, I suggest a subtle sign for the lead rider who delights in providing his own gaseous, viscous, and semi-solid road hazards on group rides. Don’t act like you don’t know who I’m talking about since every group ride has "the guy." This is so offensive, and so commonly a recidivistic offense, that it requires a two stage sign. First of all, the diagnostic gesture should involve a hand raised above your head making either cow milking, multiple finger wiggling, or pouring motions, depending on whether the pollutant source’s problems stem from lactose intolerance, too much fiber in the diet, or cheap beer. The second portion involves a quick two handed gesture, mimicking a choking sign. You can perform the second gesture on yourself, or on him, depending on whether he is making you choke, or whether you will choke him if he ever does that again. The alternative is, as you suggested Fatty, to just deliver a kidney punch every time somebody pisses you off on a group ride. I like that okay, but given the level of open aggression and passive agressiveness on group rides, I’m not sure that I could stomach it in the long run. Everybody would probably wind up with bloody urine and kidney malfunctions, and in the end seeing who could come up with the bloodiest urine and the worst kidney malfunctions would probably be just another way we’d try to compete with each other. "Dude, check this out! It’s as red as a stopsign!" This would be totally counterproductive. I think I’d rather deal with abraded corneas and choking bruises, quite frankly.

  6. Comment by Zed | 01.9.2006 | 7:49 pm

    I’m already practicing that ‘white flag’–summer’s only five months away.

  7. Comment by Unknown | 01.9.2006 | 8:01 pm

    An alternative to the magnanimous flipoff: The head shake. Similar to the MFO, simply and slowly shake your head back and forth to indicate what a lowly specimen the offending person is. This way you get to keep both hands on the bars in case you need to suddenly begin interval training. The HS is especially aggravating to the male of the species.

  8. Comment by BIg Mike In Oz | 01.9.2006 | 8:31 pm

    For when you get stuck behind the guy who can’t ride a straight line: rise up off the bars to your full height, point to the ground to your left and then right, shrug your shoulders and then swing the arm closest to the offender in an upward slapping motion. Whether you actually slap him/her upside the head is up to the individual but if you dislodge their helmet and it covers their eyes, at least then the offender will have an excuse for swerving all over the place.

  9. Comment by Andrew | 01.9.2006 | 8:33 pm

    One paceline gesture that should be used is to dangle one’s arm out with the hand tightened into a fist. Unclip the ipselateral foot and make a kicking motion towards the hand. This conveys: "Whatever you just did, do it again and I’m going to kick you in the gonads".

  10. Comment by Iain | 01.9.2006 | 9:11 pm

    Dont forget the infamous zip mouth gesture made famous by Armstrong. Commonly used to silence a rider who knows it was you who cracked one off at the front off the paceline.

  11. Comment by Unknown | 01.9.2006 | 10:04 pm

    I still favor throwing rocks. Here’s why:1) They are readily available2) It lengthens your striking distance3) If done properly, the recipient cannot retaliate, today4) It makes paceline riding something more like a biatholon5) It’s fun6) No memorization. You only have to remember to put some in a jersey pocket as part of your pre-ride prep7) It eliminates confusion. Folks will be clear that you are pissed about something–it’s just good communication.8) It does not presume that arcane hand gestures are intelligible or significant to someone that is already too thick to be doing it right. In the case of the "White Flag" gesture, it would offer some retaliation to the spat-or (which is almost always me so I know what I am talking about) for such egrigious offenses as having superior talent, training harder, toughing out the pain, etc. Rocks it is.

  12. Comment by Unknown | 01.9.2006 | 10:06 pm


  13. Comment by Unknown | 01.9.2006 | 10:55 pm

    rocky, how would one use rocks to say something nice? (i’m asking not for me, of course, but for a "friend.")

  14. Comment by Unknown | 01.9.2006 | 11:08 pm

    The Magnanimous Flipoff — Is that wobbling side to side or front to back? I think I prefer the side-to-side, similar to the Queen Wave but lower and faster, and with a shoulder position and a bared-teeth look on the face like ehhhhhhhhh. (Bradley’s head shake is showing a lot of promise, too.)I think Rocky and Bob have some great ideas and I’m hoping all of you will think about coming up with some good ones to be used by us when we are driving or riding 4-wheelers. I mean, like, how about a universal sign that says, from a 4-wheeler to a 2-wheeler, "I see you there, I am aware of cyclists and plan not to run over you, sideswipe you, or cut you off."And is it only coincidence that Rocky’s ideas use actual rocks?

  15. Comment by Bryn | 01.9.2006 | 11:48 pm

    I myself only ever use 2 hand gestures. One of course been the flipoff as you call it fatty. The other been similar but so much better. When you get someone such as that passenger in the green suv that screamed at you through their window or someone on a moped or such that decide to see how close they can get to you before you have to move off the side of the road, you simply (if possible) take both hands and clap, a normal clap as to say they should start a start up comedy career, but this gesture doesn’t stop their, as the clap continues you extend your middle fingers on each hand as raise them into the air in a clap turned ‘flipoff’ gesture. Ive tried many different gestures and remarks to ppl such as these and discovered that this is the best gesture to make in these such circumstances. One of the first times i unveiled this new gesture to 2 moped riding teenagers, they nearly ran themselves off the road, maybe because of my gesture, maybe because of their bad driving skills, that i shall never know. I say someone should set up a website or seomthing like that for new cyclists to discover the lost art of hand gestures, both to unruley drivers and fellow cyclists.

  16. Comment by Unknown | 01.10.2006 | 12:08 am

    dug, I mean ririe,rI ron’t rerall ranryrone raying anryring rice rin a racerine, revrer. Rhat romrent ras reird, revren romring rom rou, rir.Mumo…it’s mere coincidence.

  17. Comment by Unknown | 01.10.2006 | 1:29 am

    Rocky, I appreciate your idea about rocks. Lord knows, I’m a big fan of the rocks. Big fan. Especially of BF rocks, when meeting a dire threat like bike theft. But for all paceline infractions? Sheesh. All I can say is I’m glad your nickname isn’t "Nuke" or "the Rifleman" or some similarly macho martial moniker. I can’t imagine what you’d be recommending then to police up the peleton. And yes, I do know an Air Force guy whose nickname is Nuke, for rather obvious reasons. He rides like you’d think a guy named Nuke would ride.

  18. Comment by Nanget | 01.10.2006 | 1:44 am

    There was an article/diary in bicycling australia magazine about 5 years ago about a soldier who was in Timor. He was a racer and wanted to do riding while he was there but he had to carry arms at all times. In short he wore yellow clothes because they were non threatening. But he carried a steyr over his back and a handgun in his jersey pocket.Not much gesturing to other motorists would be needed. However a platoon of riders ridiing paceline using the same setup would be interesting.

  19. Comment by tayfuryagci | 01.10.2006 | 9:45 am

    platoon was a good movie. a platoon of cyclists wearing "livestrong yellow" skinsuits and m-16s at their backs. that sounds lovely.

  20. Comment by Unknown | 01.11.2006 | 7:41 pm

    OMG! This entry was too funny! And the comments were great as well. I gotta stop reading this at work, or you’re going to get me fired for giggling at my desk.One gesture I didn’t see was for the guy riding directly in front of you in a paceline (not lead), that cannot maintain a constant speed if his life depended on it. You know the guy – frantically spins to close the gap, so you have to spin up as well to not get dropped… he catches up so quickly that he has to hit the brakes to avoid running the guy over, in turn causing you to nearly slam into him as well… oop guy in front of him is pulling away again… rinse, repeat.I dunno what the gesture would be other than a pump into the spokes? After a few mins of that B.S., I usually jump and pass him, and then use the next available opportunity to cut in front of him in line.


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