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Dear Frank: Signal failure

cycling hand signals
Frank Strack
11 Feb 2019

Hand signals can be useful for avoiding calamity, but overuse can be just as infuriating as saying nothing at all, reckons Frank Strack.

Dear Frank

Can we have a rule about hand signals? I’m all for safety, but every group ride is now accompanied by so much shouting and pointing at every pothole and drain cover that the whole experience is spoiled.

Graham, by email

Dear Graham

A well-oiled group can be a wonderful thing. I think the extreme of that is watching riders peel off the front in track racing where the lead rider just flicks the wheel, shoots off up the banking to reduce their speed and then falls neatly and precisely onto the back of the line. Poetry in motion was ever thus. 

Such fluidity takes lots of practice and communication. Experience obviously counts out on the roads but in an environment with such unpredictability we can’t always prepare, so communicating with our fellow riders is vital.

I love nothing more than sitting on the front of a bunch setting the tempo for hours on end. It isn’t that I don’t like sitting in, just that I love having control over the rhythm more.

In that respect, I’m just a bit selfish. But with sitting on the front comes responsibility: the need to consider the dangers that lie in wait, unseen (until it’s too late) by those lined out behind you if you fail to acknowledge a rock or pothole. 

I am a genuinely crap person to have as hole-pointer-outer. I have a tendency to be either lost in my own mind or I wind up chatting with the rider next to me, which means that, given my inability to multi-task, I’m not really paying attention or on the look out for holes. Or turns, as it happens.

In my defence, I was discussing how to build up one of my bare frames. Some things are more important than taking the group along the right course. Anyway, I digress.

When it comes to signalling, there are four categories. These are, in broad strokes, ‘We’re turning’, ‘That’s interesting’, ‘Oh shit’ and ‘It’s too late, we’re all going down!’.

There was a small tragedy on the descent from de Kemmelberg some years ago, when Jimmy Casper crashed trying to avoid an ejected bidon on the 28% cobbled descent.

It completely rearranged his face. But when asked about the incident and the pandemonium that the stray bottle caused, Tom Boonen responded with typical Belgian practicality, ‘Well, a bidon – you can ride over those.’ 

The implication was that there was no need to panic. Whoever encountered the bidon first should have ridden through it and, apart from a potentially sticky energy drink ejaculation over the nearby riders, there would have been no problem.

You can wash sugar off your skin much more easily than getting your face fixed by a plastic surgeon. 

Pointing out of obstacles should be reserved for things that actually matter if one were to hit them. You can do more harm than good by panicking (or bringing yourself down) in front of the bunch with erratic evasive techniques for something that’s not really a threat. 

Remember that the rider behind you is on your wheel, and has a cone of visibility that is only just a bit wider than your hips, meaning anything in a 3m range should be pointed out.

If it’s farther abreast than that, they will only hit it if they are riding well to the side of you and they should be able to see it themselves, absolving you of any responsibility to point it out. 

Most signals on my rides are devoted to the ‘That’s interesting’ category, which is a bit like crying wolf with your finger so everyone in the bunch stops paying attention. Then, when there’s a boulder in the road, the group just ploughs headlong into it. 

As a final note, if it’s a really bad situation, chances are that there’s no time for the rider ahead to point anything out. They’re probably swerving or bunny-hopping the stuff you don’t want to hit. And so the best course of action is the one all the pros take: blindly do as the rider ahead of you does.

This article first appeared on ion May 2016

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