I don’t know if any of this is true. This is just what I remember from what I was told over the years. But it’s not history. This is firsthand knowledge. My friend’s dad, who was supposedly a pretty successful amateur bike racer in his day, used to sit around and tell us stories. Most of these, he said, were originally told to him by his father, my friend’s grandfather, who was a professional cyclist in the 1920’s and 30’s. Back then, “cycling calls” were a fundamental part of riding. Since then, most of the tradition surrounding these calls has been lost. This is what I know about them.
Cycling calls came about in the early 20th century, essentially necessitated by urban riding. The tranquil and docile bicycle bell was drowned out on noisy, chaotic streets filled with everything from pedestrians and horses to tram tracks and motors. Cyclists had to be willing to raise their voices in the streets to get the kind of respect needed to stay alive on turn-of-the-century roads. CROSSING, WHOA, and HALT (an early predecessor to our modern day STOPPING but which, at the time, was directed as a command to drivers at intersections) were all common calls of the day. To my understanding, riders would yell these at other road users with the assumed authority of a police officer, usually seizing the right of way, and just like today, paying the price of crashing for being too stealthy or passive.
The authoritative confidence and certainty of tone found in these yells was a product of the evolution of sport, similar to what was seen in baseball. Umpires didn’t always yell. They used to dress like well-to-do social elites. Their presentation was down right aristocratic, prim and proper. It took time for the top hats to be abandoned in the name of sport and for the arbiters to squat down in the dirt with the players. When umpires started yelling, it wasn’t just an effective way for their calls to be heard by all the players on the field; it marked the beginning of a relationship between the authentic vulgarity of the people and the aggrandized characters of modern sport. It was now ok to get your knickers dirty to make a play. It mattered more to be a bicyclist behaving the way the streets demanded than to be a respectable member of society at large. If you yelled, you meant to be heard, regardless of the judgements of others. This was the birth of a street culture that still exists today.
Yelling built bridges, connecting a past of rural peasants yelling at one another in fields to their descendants, the industrial urbanites, yelling out of windows across busy streets full of noise pollution and thousands and thousands of other people, also yelling. Cycles were becoming pervasive at the time, so cackling along with the audible bonanza of the city was a natural evolution for cyclists. However, joining the crowd created a contradiction between the unique identity of their subculture and the new homogenizing mediocrity of 20th century life. This is when the calls became personal.
Anyone who’s been to a baseball game, even a little league game, knows baseball umpires have very specific ways of making calls. Sometimes, they draw out the call and let it ring. Sometimes, it’s more abrupt, like a thick black line on white paper. Some get right down to business, and some are more flamboyant and colorful.
Cycling calls were once the same. The way you yelled was a unique stylization of a universally understood word or phrase, delivered in just the right way to elicit the desired response from other road users, including en peloton. RIGHT, LEFT, and STRAIGHT were obvious enough, but it took a true leader to recite these words at a volume, and with a resonance, that communicated upcoming obstacles to as many riders in the group as possible. In fact, it took the whole mass of other confident voices to pass this info back to anybody behind that was depending on those ahead of them for safety. These riders, in turn, trusted the calls of their comrades, and diligently relayed these calls to other riders behind them. This goes back to some of the earliest calls; back when roads of varied surfaces had questionable integrity, some of which we still use today: SLOWING, BUMP, GRAVEL, HOLE!
Cycling, back then, was a social activity, and cyclists formed clubs that organized riding events. When these rides were routed through town, they took on more of a parade kind of feel. And the cycling calls had a different feel to them as well. GOOD DAY was common, as was HI HO. At the beginning of a ride, you’d hear SADDLE UP, a bicycle equivalent of “all aboard”, and it certainly makes sense that the cyclists of the time would have been influenced by their train conducting contemporaries. I’ve also been told that HOWDY, a greeting usually associated with cowboys, sounded quite friendly when yelled, by women, from atop bicycles, in the American west.
Technically, a lot of these terms still exist today. What’s been lost is the cultivation of their presentation and spirit. Sure, on a group ride, you’ll hear your fair share of communicating about turns and holes and cars. And, not to imply malicious intent on the part of some riders, but I sometimes find the strength of their calls a little lacking. We have to ask ourselves why we’re yelling to begin with, not just what we’re yelling. Except, of course, that there’s also the problem that not all of us are yelling. And our cycling calls aren’t always necessary or friendly. While there’s definitely some yelling to be heard in races, at some point the amateurs quit hearing stories about the barrelling voices of the past, and the yelling in races quit being an emblem of camaraderie and started looking more like bullying. The simple, often one word, decrees of information à la town herald were replaced by longer and more specific demands of fellow riders devolving into threats. HOLD YOUR LINE; HEY HEY HEY; YOU BETTER NOT CRASH ME.
Basically, we’re all acting like a bunch of automobilists. Simply put, we shouldn’t be like this to each other. Though I’ve never found any evidence of it, cyclists used to sing together on rides. The songs were in the spirit of the cycling calls. Everyone, chanting at the top of their lungs, like bar songs rolling down the street. A cycling chorus could exist again. This is the only song I know, again sung to me by my friend’s dad. Maybe he’d witnessed a singing peloton when he was a boy.
Holy ho, old man Joe
Rides his bike ‘til the cows come home,
Slowing, crossing, whoa we’re halting.
Holy ho, old man Joe
Rides his bike ‘til the cows come home