The Art of Saying “Hey”

One of the surprising social phenomena of cycling is how important saying, “Hello” is to folks that you pass. This caught us by surprise when we first ventured out of the spinning studio and onto real bikes to cycle Bay Area roads. As we’d pass another cyclist going in the opposite direction, we’d often see them wave at us.

At first we were perplexed. Did we know those people? Did we see them earlier in the day? Did we talk to them in the parking lot as we unloaded our bikes for the ride?

Over the course of my many jobs at Stanford University I had worked with lots of folks from various departments and many folks knew me but I didn’t always recognize them (or necessarily remember their names). Sometimes when Joy and I would run into someone like that at Safeway or somewhere else around town, I’d hide the fact that I had no idea what this person’s name was by saying, “Hey, let me introduce you to my wife, Joy,” and hope that they’d say, “Hi, Joy, my name is James (or Robin or whatever).” I think I sometimes successfully hid that I had no idea what that person’s name was or how I knew them. At the very least, it offered a credible way for everyone to save face.

So, when I passed someone on a bike who was waving at me, I’d think that I must know that person, but just couldn’t place them. And then I’d wonder how they’d recognized me with my helmet and sunglasses on.

And then we realized that these other cyclists were simply acknowledging that we had a mutual bond. We both enjoyed cycling and were giving each other the thumbs up for getting out there and enjoying the road. This is akin to when you drive past someone else driving the exact same car you’re driving and you give each other a “good taste” acknowledgement wave.

As our cycling got better and we began tackling harder, more interesting roads, we began encountering more and more motor cyclists (“bikers”), and realized that while not quite the same brotherhood, we’re close enough to warrant a mutual wave. After all, we love the feel of wind and the road that you don’t get in a car.

Once we figured out the waving etiquette we took to it enthusiastically, waving to everyone we passed, whether the person was a cyclist, a biker or someone driving a car/truck. People almost always wave back and each time someone does, it’s a nice little treat. Feeling that you have a bond with someone, even if you don’t know them, is a nice change from so much of our everyday lives when we tend to travel in our own isolation bubbles. It’s also nice when you’re working your way up a steep climb and you see someone reward you with a thumbs up for your effort.

There seem to be a number of ways that folks wave. 

Cyclists typically lift a hand off the handle bars and flash you the palm of their hand. No Queen Elizabeth tilting back and forth kind of pomp. Just a quick “Hey.” If one of you is climbing a hill at the moment, it suffices to unclench your fingers from the handlebar and show the other cyclist your fingers with your palm still firmly on the bar. Sometimes it’s simply a head nod.

Bikers (motorcyclists) often give you a “low five.” Hey, you’re wearing black leather — you have to look cool. The challenge with motorcycles is that they often travel in a group. It gets really hard to wave to more than five or six bikers in a row.

Car drivers are all over the place when it comes to waving. Drivers tend to wave back much less often than cyclists or bikers. The trick with cars, though, is that you have to anticipate. There’s a narrow window when they are close enough for you to make eye contact but not so close that by the time you wave, they’re already past you. When drivers do wave back, it’s often a full hand salute. Sometimes they actually wave at you — though it seems that wavers are predominantly women.

As near as I can tell, only men drivers give the one-finger salute. I don’t recall a woman driver or biker ever greeting me that way. And for clarification, I don’t mean the traditional “F You” message reserved for your middle finger. I mean they acknowledge my wave by lifting only a single index finger off the steering wheel. This is a manly and subtle acknowledgement given by the type of men who prefer to keep emotional displays in check at all times. The type who greet their siblings with a handshake rather a hug.

And, of course, there’s waving and interacting with people sitting on their porches or front yards. But that deserves a post of its own.

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