This is a column about waving. Specifically: waving hello while riding a bicycle, or going for a run. We are approaching peak season for recreational cycling and running—if you do these things all year, you may be astonished by all the newcomers out there, filling the roadways, adopting the habit, desperate to burn off the lobster rolls and margaritas—and no matter where you live, you are going to encounter someone cycling or running toward you in the opposite direction. It doesn’t matter if you live in the city or the most desolate place on earth (a Miami Marlins home game). Eventually you are going to be faced with a decision that is as important as anything in sports, in which your response says more about you and your character than your fancy-pants neon bike or your fancy-pants neon sneakers or your personal best:
Do you wave? Or do you not wave?
Let me get it out of the way: I am pro-wave. I feel I operate at about a 74 to 92% wave rate, probably a little less while running than while cycling, because waving seems to be less of a big deal to runners than it is with cyclists, and because I’m such a turtle as a runner it feels a little awkward/crazy (Hiii! Me also runnnning!!!). But still: I’m a high-ratio waver. (Yes I am proud. Yes I am awful and smug.) Obviously there are times when it’s not advisable to wave—screaming down a mountain, navigating traffic, running briskly away from the police—but even then, you can at least do “The Nod,” the subtle cousin to the wave, with its momentary eye contact and quick bob of the chin. If you wave, it doesn’t have to be a giant, exaggerated wave, like you’re Jim Carrey saying goodbye to all the giraffes at a zoo. Just a quick gesture of recognition and done. I don’t consider this a rule. I just like to wave.
I know I am not alone. Evelyn Stevens, the Olympic and professional cyclist, puts herself in the “always wave” category. “I think it’s nice to be friendly,” Stevens said, adding that she has been known to wave even when amid a serious training effort. The U.S. pro rider Ted King describes himself as “ABSOLUTELY pro-wave” (yes, Ted used all caps); fellow pro Taylor Phinney said that he waves “at everybody.” Three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar is also an advocate. “Yes, I wave for sure,” Salazar wrote in an email. “It’s a sign of respect for others.” Waving also apparently has a long tradition in motorcycling culture, but I’m going to have to take the word of other people on this, as my mother still won’t let me get within 300 yards of a motorcycle.
So waving sounds friendly. It also sounds reasonable. But then it gets stressful. Every once in a while, you come across a non-waver. You wave, then get stiffed. Some wavers take offense. I admit I get crabbed out by an unreturned wave; I have considered turning around, chasing down and yelling at a snubber, which I believe cancels the whole vibe of waving. But don’t non-wavers realize what they’re missing? It’s been proven in numerous academic studies that cyclists and runners who fail to return waves have shorter life spans, sadder weekends, and terrible taste in music. On the Internet you can find many message boards devoted to the wave question, an evergreen topic that never really goes away. There are worries that the ritual is eroding; that cycling and running have become polluted with rude wave deniers; that society in general isn’t as nice and we’re all on a slow road to a hell…in which, presumably, nobody ever waves.
It’s probably helpful here to take a step back. The author Eben Weiss, aka Bike Snob NYC, has written hilariously in the past about wave etiquette, and points out that’s it’s silly to expect people to wave all the time. Weiss describes himself as “pro-waving,” but said that normal expectations of social interaction should apply—you know, the same expectations people have off the bike, walking down the street. “If you’re walking through a quiet neighborhood, you might wave to the guy futzing around with his car, or walking his dog,” Weiss wrote in an email. “You don’t wave to everyone you pass on 42nd Street.” Peter Flax, editor in chief of Bicycling magazine, is similarly moderate. “I’m always happy to wave,” Flax said. “It just doesn’t have to be every time. I’m not offended if someone doesn’t wave to me.” Runner’s World editor in chief David Willey identified himself as “pro wave, but low-key about it.”
These guys all sound so healthy. Maybe low-key is the correct strategy. Maybe I really need to calm down about this. I will ride and run and I will enjoy my sweat and suffering but I will take my wave enforcement down a notch. I will not lose it. I will continue to wave, but I will not make sweeping declarations about the decline of Western civilization because of a wave denied. I will believe in my heart that waving is a sign of solidarity with your fellow cyclists and runners—at a time when cyclists and runners need solidarity—but I will keep a proper perspective. A wave is just a wave. I will wave at you, but you don’t have to wave back. Seriously, I’m OK with this. I think. OK, please wave. Please! Or at least nod.