The psychology of half-wheeling

An unresolved discussion prompted me to consider why certain people half-wheel, so while I wait out the rain here in McDonalds, I offer three possible theories.

1)   Unconscious desire to dominate

Even the most passive of people are acutely concerned with dominance hierarchies. Most of the posturing that occurs to establish this hierarchy is unconscious, so it could be that half-wheeling is simply cycling’s version of the ‘palm-down’ handshake.

The classic study of pecking orders (literally, he studied pecking behaviour in chickens) was performed by Schjelderup-Ebbe in the 1920s, where he said “defence and aggression in the hen is accomplished with the beak.” Perhaps as the chicken does with his beak, the cyclist does with his legs; attacking and sprinting consciously, half-wheeling unconsciously?

I have a few problems with the ‘unconscious’ theory. First, many of the half-wheelers I know exhibit no other alpha behaviour; some of them are actually really quiet, polite people and I struggle to believe there is some latent yearning for dominion waging a war for their psyche.

Despite this, it’s interesting to me that I have never been half-wheeled by a female, even if they are stronger than me. Nor have I ever been half-wheeled by a world-class cyclist or an absolute beginner.  This (admittedly limited) data set suggest that those who don’t, or don’t need to, engage in a struggle for dominance rarely exhibit half-wheeling tendencies. This leaves me undecided on the unconscious theory.

2)   Conscious desire to dominate

We all know one: the ultra-alpha silverback gorilla who seeks to be the king of recovery rides. They’re in a rush. A rush to be the best, a rush to train the hardest, a rush to prove that they are the strongest. These people struggle to find training partners.

Another conscious subgroup is the ‘frustrated trainer’, whose irritation at the imbalance in desired intensity between themselves and the person next to them results in halfwheeling. These aren’t always bad people, and I think we’ve all been there at some point.

3)  Failure in spatial awareness

A decent cyclist can stare at the helmet of the person in front for hours; braking, cornering, sprinting, and never overlap wheels. There are two elements to this ability: stereoscopic vision, which allows us to see our environment and perceive depth, and spatial awareness, which is the relational knowledge of objects in a given space, with oneself at the centre. Once some objects begin moving and others stay still, things become pretty complicated.

Ever noticed how some people seem helplessly prone to overlapping and touching wheels? Or certain people are incapable of reverse parallel parking their car? What if some people have a similarly flawed understanding of how they line up with the person riding beside them? I suspect there exists a ‘spectrum’ of abilities in this area, over and above a learned skill. Issues with the half-wheeler’s lateral visual field might also compound this issue.

This explanation is attractive because if true, it’s not the half-wheelers fault and we can all be friends happily ever after.


Here endeth my halfwheeling sermon.


3 thoughts on “The psychology of half-wheeling

  1. Nice analysis! Hadn’t really thought about the spatial awareness issue before.

    There’s also the rider who finds it difficult to moderate their pace: one of the skills of group riding which us hardest to master is riding slightly slower or faster than feels natural.

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