Hands in the air: The best victory salutes

We take a look back at some of the most memorable celebrations in cycling history

This is the moment you’ve been dreaming of. 

The moment that makes all those sacrifices worthwhile. All those hours in the hills, all the sweat that has stained the garage floor. A victory. You’re alone and triumphant, with the television cameras rolling. Into the final kilometre, you can’t be caught now. This is your moment, so what the hell are you going to do with it? 

Images of your salute will be splayed around the world's cycling media, it's a freeze in time which will forever be remembered, be it in a frame of your parent's living room or slapped across your team's publicity campaigns, so you've got to get it right.

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Victory salutes in the cycling world have ranged from wonderful to dull, to downright strange. Here are our a few of our favourites:

Greg van Avermaet

In 2015 and 2016, van Avermaet's victory celebrations were in the classic mould, but as he won more and more, the Belgian introduced a new trademark salute. We saw it during his remarkable Spring Classics campaign of 2017, at Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix.

GvA models the single extended digit

It starts with the right arm pointed to the heavens with a single finger extended, followed by a vigourous under-arm fist pump on the left. Further celebrations follow, but no one cares about what you do once you’ve flashed past the photographers. 

The beauty of this unique salute is that it combines messaging (the single finger points out that he is numero uno) with emotion, all whilst demonstrating to his rivals that he is in control of the situation. No panicky jabbing of a hand into the air for Greg Van Avermaet. 

Peter Sagan

In contrast, Peter Sagan, once famous for his gimmicky celebrations, became so uber-famous that he no longer needed a trademark. Well, one could argue his trademark became the rainbow jersey when he wore it for seven years. In his last years in the stripes his victory salutes became casual, almost desultory. You’re lucky I bothered to turn up, he seemed to be saying, but seeing as I did, I may as well win the bike race. Sagan became the Liam Gallagher of the cycling world.

Cool is hard. Cool comes naturally, or not at all. Sagan’s early career victory salutes were funny, endearing and often baffling. He was engaged in a brand-building exercise, but no one minded because he did it all with good humour.

Alberto Contador

Anyone who wins a bike race with enough time, energy and presence of mind to do a cute salute has to be very careful. It’s easy to look like a dummy. There are some classic ways to deliver a pre-planned celebration. First, there is the illustration of a nickname, like Nibali’s Shark of Messina, or Contador’s Pistolero. Two stylish, attacking riders and who would begrudge them some self-promotion at the finish line? Yet Alberto’s firing gesture always looked so casually aggressive, cruel even.

Mark Cavendish

The second type of pre-planned salute is the homage to a sponsor. Common in professional cycling, predictable and boring, it’s the equivalent of taking chocolate into the office for your boss in the hope of getting a pay rise. It never works and just looks obsequious. But there is a nuance here. For the rider who points to the sponsor’s name on his jersey may claim that he is in fact celebrating his team, rather than the company that bankrolls the team. 

Given that cycling is a team sport, this of course would be highly commendable. Pride in one’s team is to be encouraged. Pride in the obscure Italian ceramic floor manufacturer whose marketing director once met Felice Gimondi and has managed to persuade his colleagues that professional cycling delivers a beautiful return on investment – well, that’s just weird. 

Mark Cavendish often made reference to his jerseys when celebrating his multitude of stage wins at the Tour de France, thanking his HTC Highroad team who used to provide him with faultless lead outs.

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Carlos Sastre

The rarest, type of pre-planned salute involves the use of props. Indeed, it’s so rare that we can only think of one example – Carlos Sastre’s surreal production of a baby’s dummy from his back pocket when he won a Tour de France stage at Ax-3 Domaines in 2003.

After the stage, Sastre told journalists that he always carried something belonging to his two-year-old daughter Claudia in his jersey to remind him that there are more important things in life than bike racing. Putting it into his mouth at the finish was a spontaneous act in acknowledgement of all his friends and family who’d come to the final climb to watch that day.

Some scoffed at such sentimentality – Sastre’s salute epitomised a gentle man of integrity, who stood in contrast to his more testosterone-drenched opponents. It was a unique and memorable act because it showed the human side of a professional cyclist.

And this is what we want to see – real emotion. Only at the finish line does the true passion come through. 

Lizzie Deignan

Think of Lizzie Deignan (then Armitstead) winning the 2015 Worlds in Richmond, USA. An experienced rider, one of the favourites, and yet the feeling of crossing the line first was so overwhelming that she could only put her hand to her mouth. We knew that behind those Oakleys, the tears were springing into her eyes.

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Tim Merlier

At the start of the second stage of this year’s Giro, a decade since the tragic death of Wouter Weylandt the peloton held a minute’s silence. Weylandt’s race number – 108 – has never been used in the race since 2011, but was written across the road.

At the stage finish in Novara, Weylandt’s compatriot Tim Merlier sprinted to the stage victory. He crossed the line with his thumbs and fingers forming a ‘W’. 

Bike racing is a dangerous and intense business, and perhaps only the professionals truly understand the narrow margin between life and death. A victory salute can be an opportunity to convey a public message, to tell a story.

Cadel Evans

Because the World Championships is such an important race, and usually a war of attrition, it often gives us psychological insight into its winners. By the finish the riders are exhausted, and because they’re riding for their country rather than their sponsors, there are no marketing histrionics in the finishing straight. 

At this point in his career, Evans was beginning to look like a nearly man. Having left behind a successful career in cross-country mountain biking, the Australian’s early road performances pointed towards Grand Tour success. In 2002, riding for Mapei, he enjoyed a surprisingly long spell in the lead of the Giro d’Italia. In 2005, now with Davitamon-Lotto, he finished eighth in the Tour de France. By the end of summer 2009, he had twice finished second at the Tour, but had won neither a Grand Tour nor a major one-day race. He was 32 and it was beginning to look like he would not fulfil his immense potential.

On a challenging course, under hazy early autumn sunshine, the peloton played out a fascinating tactical battle. The Spanish and the Australians got the better of the Belgians and the Italians, and on the final lap a 22-man group was clear.

With six kilometres to go, as the group eased back and looked at each other, Evans attacked. The others hesitated and the Aussie was gone. With Damiano Cunego, Philippe Gilbert and Alexandr Kolobnev chasing, his gap was never huge so he had to keep pressing all the way to the line. And when he got there? For this quiet, enigmatic man there was no bicep-pumping or yelling. He just took one hand off the bars and gave a little wave to the crowd beside the finish line. Then he rolled to a stop, kissed his wedding ring, hanging on a chain around his neck, and began to cry.

Still, such moments of raw emotion are rare. Let us be professional about this. Cycling is a rough, tough sport, all wrapped up in shiny images. This is the age of Instagram. A successful rider needs to be a brand. Successful brands need ambassadors. Riders need their victory salutes to be their trademarks. It’s all terribly confusing.

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