The Victory Salute

The victory salute is universal. The rider crosses the line and lifts their arms in triumph. But what lies behind this movement, is it something we do in imitation of others or is it a primal form of expression? Why punch the air or wave your hands?

There are some amusing galleries of victory salutes out there. There’s no history of the victory salute because it is not something unique to road cycling, it a primitive form of celebration.

ancient victory salute
"I got this"

In ancient times victorious gladiators would salute the crowd with an arm aloft. The bronze statue above is from ancient Greece. It goes beyond sport, look at anyone getting good news and the same gestures and traits can be spotted. Whether it’s someone getting good news over the telephone or a politician working the crowd the air is often punched.

The victory salute is an outward physical display but to analyse this let’s first peer into the mind of the rider, to assess the internal emotions. What does a rider feel when they cross the finish line? If you say joy and the adrenal thrill of victory then perhaps you have never won a race. No, for clues we can look at the face of many riders, it is actually rare to see a full smile. In many instances the rider looks stoic, sometimes there is a look of relief and when there is a smile, it is often gentle with only a small curl to the edges of the mouth curl. This suggests feelings of relief, satisfaction and above all, pride. Of course some riders do go beserk with joy but actually many have been winning races since their teenage days and so satisfaction and pride often top pure happiness and joy.

Pride is a complicated emotion. Psychologists list two types of pride, hubristic pride and authentic pride. Hubristic pride is where somebody gives a display of pride but in a situation where there’s little basis, imagine someone giving a high-five after ordering a takeaway pizza on the phone (“yay, here comes dinner!”) and it is more a feeling than scenario but nevertheless a genuine emotion. Authentic pride comes after a real achievement, for example winning a competitive sports event or, in times past, hunting an animal. It is inbuilt and not just feeling but displayed via body language. Research suggests primates display pride in their social group.

Some nonhuman primates—especially those with an evidenced capacity for a least minimal self-awareness likely experience a proto-pride-like emotion. This animal display seems related to the position in a group. Anecdotal evidence suggests the alpha male gorilla in a group will raise its arms in a gesture to make itself look bigger. The expanded posture and outstretched arms associated with pride may have originated as a way of appearing larger, allowing for the assertion of dominance and attracting attention.

Sounds a bit like a victory salute, no? Human body language has been analysed extensively and this includes gestures of pride and shame. In a winning situation somebody usually tilts the head back, smiles, puts their arms out, punches the air and puffs up their chest. Note this research is not related to cycling but can be found in many places. For example one cleverly-timed paper that coincided with the 2008 Olympics analysed photos taken in a judo tournament. A photographer shot the athletes during and immediately after each match, repeatedly for approximately 15 seconds, allowing for a series of images to capture each behavioural response. The researchers coded the athletes’ head, arms and body positions. They found that winning athletes, both sighted and blind and across all cultures, tended to raise their arms, tilt their head up and puff out their chest.

Perhaps most interesting is the conclusion that after analysing a blind judo tournament we saw similar behaviour. Some had thought that the body language of the victory salute was a socialised ritual, acquired through observation from the group. In other words we mimic what we see. However this study puts forward the hypothesis that it is instinctive rather than learned given the blind athletes imitate the sighted ones.

Instinctive or cultural, these outward displays of pride do play a role in the group. If you watch a race and the winner simply rides across the line with no celebration or acknowledgement then this detachment can prove almost disturbing to watch for others, suggesting that there’s almost something wrong with the rider.

There is however a less instinctive element to the cycling victory salute. Photographers and TV cameras await and this is the moment the sponsors have been waiting for. So if possible the rider will zip up the jersey because lifting the arms up into the air turns the jersey into a prime billboard for the sponsor.

Winning isn’t just crossing the finish line, the salute matters. It might suit the sponsor but the salute is an ancient tradition, perhaps even a primal instinct.

30 thoughts on “The Victory Salute”

    • Patrick, apparently Pozzo stole it from a 5ft tall italian footballer – its basically taking the micky out of his own height, at least thats what I was told yesterday…

        • Interesting, thanks – although it makes a lot more sense in a sport like football populated by many 6ft plus guys, and less in a sport where Pozzovivo’s 5’5″ still puts him ahead of quite a few riders and I suspect well within the median range.

          • You think 5’5″ / 165cm is in median range? You must live in Lilliput. Not many manufacturers make bikes to properly fit those who are 165cm or shorter for a reason.

            I can think of only two riders in the pro peloton about this size. Pozzo is one, and IIRC Samuel Dumoulin is 159cm (5’3″). Even riders like Richie Porte, Igor Anton and Purito are considered compact at around 170cm (5’7″-5’8″). Marco Pantani was 172cm.

            When I was young it was not a disadvantage to be relatively small to play football well, provided you were quick on your feet and (particularly for goalscorers) could get to the ball in the air. Maradona is 165cm.

          • @Simon E

            Well I’m 6’3″ so maybe I have a different perspective… but I meant in the pro peloton not the world at large.

            Rujano is shorter at 5’4″.

            Maybe Pozzo is not in median range – we’ll never know unless someone has a table of heights for the whole peloton. And I suspect a few of them claim some extra height on their websites.

            But still, 5’5″ is not particularly odd for a pro cyclist – most of them are only going to be 3-4 inches taller and anyone over 6 foot is considered out of the norm, unlike football.

  1. it’s also a relief to be able to stretch the torso and loosen up the back after a long race. Pantani had the most beautiful expressions when he won. I think also if you are riding solo to a win when you hit the line you are much more emotional, especially if you dug deep well beyond what you ever did before.

    • Well, I’m not sure about that. When you are alone on the break and it is certain you win for some km, it’s more like a subtle, satisfying maybe even relieved. But a win in a sprint pumped with adrenaline and not so likely ergo more surprisingly I think there is much more emotion. Only if you win sprints by a mile like Cav you have time to think of silly gestures…
      Anyway that is my personal experience…

  2. Cadel should work on his gestures when crossing the line first. It doesn’t seem very well thought trough and ends up being a bit embarrassing.
    Same goes with Hushovds celebrations and Edvalds weirdly straight arms 🙂

  3. EBH celebrates with a disco twist on the bike, very ABBA-esque. This is great stuff Inrng, I sometimes wonder what all goes in your mind…Thank you for keeping us knowledgeable.

  4. Peter Sagan has a great salute, I really liked yesterday’s at ToC. I also really enjoyed Richard Virenque’s tears of joy. Man could that guy let the emotion out!

    • @eurotodd: Sagan’s salute is one of great confidence and command, but I also detect genuine gratitude for his stage wins. The kid is so talented beyond his years and experience, and somehow I think he knows this. He’s always got a smile at the line that says to me, “I’m so damn lucky to be doing what I love the most and getting paid for it!”

      The ToC climbed through my home town yesterday and I videoed the whole peloton with its breaks as they climbed.

      At 22 and perhaps wiser than his years, Sagan seems easy-going and happy to “entertain” us fans.
      It will be interesting to see if his salute changes over time. Emotion is conveyed so well without words…the eyes are the windows to our souls:)

      One last thought: the torso and head/neck are the only body parts not attached to the bike while riding; and since the arms/hands can leave the bars while trying to balance the bike, it’s only natural to use them in the victory salute. Additionally, some riders kiss their cross or crucifix and point to the sky to symbolize thanking “God.” And still others are pointing to the sky in dedication and remembrance of a lost loved one, like Tyler Farrar’s “W” for Wouter.

      The salute is very personal. This was a nice feature that we now have historical knowledge about:)

  5. Mark Cavendish gets a lot of practice at this. He must sit in front of a mirror on the mornings before sprint stages to come up with new ones! I think Flecha’s is my favorite. It would be nice to see it again! One of my other favorites was Michael Rasmussen’s arms out “I died for you today like Jesus on the cross” salute.

    To me the most moving salute of all has to be frenchman Thomas Voekler’s, back in the “Lance Days” at the Tour. When he held onto the yellow jersey that one last day after suffering so much in the climbs, but clawing his way back over and over again. He didn’t even win the stage, but he raised one fist and you could just see the suffering on his face, and it was glorious! The whole of France must have wept that day. I know I did.

  6. The mention of Cavendish reminded me of a story about Sean Kelly – at the finish of the race he asked who had won, when informed of the winner he asked if, when the victor raised his arms in the air, was one longer than the other? This was in reference to the guy holding on to cars over the climbs – it seems this is tougher for Cav to get away while wearing the rainbow jersey this year.

    • Larry: thanks for the Kelly anecdote. I always enjoyed hearing some of the things that went on behind that stoic face. Like the trick he did with the empty soda pop can (probably Coca-Cola). I heard he would wait for a quiet time when the bunch was just rolling along and then lean down and scrape the can on the tarmac. It made a sound not that different from the beginnings of a crash…and usually woke up lots of folks around him!

      I checked out Amazon for a copy of his biography by Walsh; but they’re asking more than $100 for a copy…think I’ll wait it out.

      • $100? Wow! Geez, when we get ready to move to Italy for good, perhaps the CycleItalia library will get put up for sale….we’ve got a large collection of English-language cycling books going back many, many years, including a copy of Walsh’ book on Kelly. There’s no way we can take them to Italy so they’ll need a good home somewhere – didn’t realize some of them might be so valuable, thanks!

  7. A nice little anecdote on victory salutes:
    I watched the GP Odsherred in 2009. It rained throughout the entire race, less than 30 riders finished, and the early breakaway was never caught as nobody really wanted to do the work required. Jacob Nielsen won solo, in front of Søren Pugdahl and Aleksejs Saramotins.
    I don’t remember Nielsen’s victory salute (having looked at old pictures, it was the classic “sit up straight with arms outstretched to the sides and slightly upwards”), but I remember his then teammate Christopher Juul-Jensen (now at Saxo Bank) coming to the finish and, barely having crossed the line, asking the crowd who’d won the race. After my response of Jacob Nielsen, he started cheering as if he’d just won the race himself – and certainly appearing more enthusiastic than Nielsen himself.

  8. There’s clearly scope for some teams to sell logo space directly under the arms. Visible only in victory, being armpit sponsor would surely be a most cost-effective way for smaller companies to get on the sports sponsorship ladder.

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