By Laurel-Lea Shannon
It was while cycling in Missouri with my brother-in-law that I learned about waving to motorists. I was in the US visiting family when Michael invited me to ride with him. I was nervous about cycling in the “show-me” state. For one thing, I didn’t have my bike with me (at the time an older, yet reliable aluminum bike with a triple crank) but Michael said that wasn’t a problem because he had two. And like a true gentleman he offered to set me up on his new best steed, a super-light compact Moots.
My nerves were on two accounts: It’s remarkably hilly in that part of the country. Beautiful too—tree lined bluffs surround their small town and the wide Missouri River weaves through it. It’s an area of short flats running up to vertical climbs followed by precipitous descents. In fact, just heading out from my sister’s house I was immediately faced with two choices: heading up a steep hill or racing down one.
I would have felt confident riding my own bike there, with the granny gear as a backup if my legs gave out before the hills did. But riding a compact for the first time in this terrain brought up one major concern: I didn’t want to embarrass myself by having to walk the bike up any hills.
The other concern? I seldom saw road cyclists. I wondered how safe it was to share the road with truck-driving mid-westerners, unused to the concept of road rationing, who so proudly display their stubbornness on their license plates. Still, it was spring, the weather was warm, the skies clear and I desperately wanted to be out on a bike.
So early one Saturday morning Michael loaded both bikes into the back of his truck and we drove outside of town to a tiny village—no more than a store, a church and a few small brick houses— with parking on the gravel shoulder of the road. We left the truck there and took off on our ride.
It didn’t take long to see that I was in good hands. Michael is an excellent cyclist and he pays close attention to what’s going on around him. He cycled in a way that left no doubt to motorists what he was doing. He used hand signals clearly and far in advance. When making a left turn, he turned from the left turn lane. In short, he followed the rules of the road.
And he did something else: He waved. Each time a car or truck passed leaving us a wide berth, he gave them a friendly wave. “That’s brilliant,” I thought. It reinforces good driving and it fosters better feelings between motorists and cyclists.
I’m happy to report that my first ride on a compact bike was a success. On that day we went 30 miles (50 km) and I managed to slog up every steep hill and hung on down every speedy descent. When I returned home to Perth I was fitter from riding the hills and I had adopted a new hand signal: waving.
Now each time a car goes by leaving me a wide berth I reward them with a big wave and a quiet thank-you. And guess what? It works. I’ve had lines of cars pass me out on the road. The first one passes and leaves plenty of distance between their car and my bike. I wave. The next one follows the first—leaving plenty of space. I wave again. And on and on it goes.
Are motorists encouraged to leave a safe space between their car and my bike because they see me waving to the car in front, or are they taking their cue from the driver ahead of them? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Waving lets them know I appreciate the extra space, and it fosters mutual consideration and friendliness—something we can all use a lot more of out on the roads.
(Note: Don’t do this while cycling in the city. Only wave when it’s safe to do so. And if you’re a beginner, don’t wave at all. Keep both hands on the handlebars.)