Tour de France primer: Cycling terms

Bike racing has its own cosmopolitan dialect

July 8, 2023

Turn on the Tour de France and you might think the commentators are speaking another language.

Oftentimes, you would be right. Many of the words we use to describe bike racing come from languages other than English. French was the peloton’s first lingua franca. That’s why we call it a peloton; the word we use to describe the main group of racers comes from French. 

English has, for the most part, taken over as the racers’ common language, but cycling remains a very cosmopolitan sport. At our dinner tables, you are likely to hear Spanish, German, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Italian. We have Japanese soigneurs and mechanics. Many of our shared words and expressions come from these languages. 

Have a look at our list of our favorite cycling words and terms. It’s an ongoing collection, drawn mostly from the languages of traditional cycling nations, so let us know if there are any that we should add to it!

Our favorite cycling terms

À bloc: an all-out effort

Autobus: a group of riders who have been left behind by the peloton and ride together to make it to the finish

Barrage: a measure taken by race officials to hold following vehicles back from a group of racers so dropped riders do not benefit from the windbreak provided by the cars

Bidon: a water bottle

Bonk: to run out of fuel

Breakaway: a group of riders who race ahead of the main peloton

Bridge: to ride across the gap from one group to a group ahead.

Caravan: the convoy of vehicles that follows a bike race

Chamois: the pad in cycling shorts that provides cushioning between a rider’s butt and their saddle. Now made of modern materials, they were previously made from chamois leather

Chasse Patate: a failed attempt to ride across the gap from one group to a group ahead, which leaves the riders stranded in the wind.

Classic: a prestigious one-day race

Commissaire: a race official

Criterium: a short circuit race on a lap of less than two kilometers

Directeuer sportif: a sports director

Domestique: a rider who works for a teammate

Dossard: a race number

Draft: to use another rider or vehicle as a windbreak. Drafting can cut the effort needed to go a given speed by close to half. The faster the riders go, the greater the benefit that they will get from drafting. 

Echelon: A staggered, diagonal formation that riders use to shelter from crosswinds. Riders will take turns in the leading, windward position and then drift downwind and towards the rear, while their companions advance towards the wind in the draft behind them in a smooth rotation.

Espoir: a rider under the age of 23. There is a separate category for U23 riders.

Faire l’élastique: to repeatedly lose contact and struggle back to a group

False flat: a climb that looks flat

Flamme rouge: a red kite hung over the road to mark the one-kilometer-to-go point in a race

General classification: the overall standings in a stage race. Riders’ finishing times from each stage are added up and the riders are ranked accordingly. 

Gutter: the very edge of the road on the downwind side where riders have no shelter from crosswinds.

Grupetto: a group of riders who have been left behind by the peloton and are riding together to make it to the finish (see autobus)

Hors catégorie: Beyond rank. Climbs are classified fourth, third, second, or first, according to their difficulty. A first category climb is harder than a second-category climb and so forth. Hors catégorie climbs are the most difficult of all.

Hors delai: Outside the time limit. Riders have to finish within a certain percentage of the winner’s time to be ranked and start the next day in a stage race. The percentage is determined according to the difficulty of the stage. A rider who finishes hors delai has failed to make this time cut.

Keirin: a motor-paced track race where the riders sprint for victory after a speed-controlled start

Kermis: a local circuit race, held on a short lap of ten to 15 kilometers. Kermis is the Dutch word for carnival. Kermis races are often part of these festivities.

King of the Mountains: The leader of a climbers’ competition. King of the Mountains points are awarded on set climbs in a race. In general, the harder the climb, the more points riders will be able to win. The King of the Mountains is the rider who earns the most points during the race.

Klasbak: A smart, powerful rider.

Lanterne rouge: the rider ranked last on the general classification in a stage race

Maglia rosa: the pink jersey worn by the leader of the Giro d’Italia’s general classification

Maillot jaune: the yellow jersey worn by the leader of the Tour de France’s general classification

Musette: a cloth bag, which a team’s helpers use to hand food, bottles, and clothes to riders.

Palmarès: a rider’s list of accomplishments

Parcours: a race course

Pavé: a section of road paved with cobblestones

Peloton: the main group of riders in a bike race

Prologue: a short time trial of less than eight kilometers held at the start of a stage race. 

Soigneur: A helper on a cycling team. Soigneurs provide food, drink, and clothing to riders before, during, and after a race. They are also responsible for massage, setting up teams at hotels and hundreds of other odd jobs.

Stagiare: a young rider who joins a team on a short-term trial contract.

Stoempen: stomping on the pedals

Sticky bottle: a bottle provided to a rider from a team vehicle at an opportune time so he can hold on for a few seconds and get some free speed

Tifosi: Italian roadside cycling supporters

Velodrome: an oval track with banked turns for bike racing

Vollebak: all-out

Waaier: The Dutch or Flemish word for echelon: a staggered, diagonal formation that provides shelter from crosswinds. Riders will take turns riding in the leading, windward position and then drift away from the wind and towards the rear, while their companions advance towards the wind in the draft behind them, until it’s their turn to take the lead.

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