French Cycling Terms

It is not often the British feel proud and happy to imitate and revere our French brothers across the channel. But, cycling is one of those rare situations when we can happily pay homage to the influence of France and the French. No matter how much cycling success the British may have enjoyed in recent years, the French and Italians will always have a certain élan, missing from Anglo-Saxon cycling. To gain your stripes as a real cyclist you need to master, at least, a smattering of French terms.

No stereotypes of the French please. Flickr photo – brizzlebornandbred


It will certain be a curious mix when die hard Yorkshireman welcome ‘Le Tour’ in a few weeks. “Aye Lad, they could do with a few pints of ale in the grupetto‘ Maybe it would have been more useful to give a list of terms from the Yorkshire dialect. In a few weeks, many European diligently learning the Queen’s English may be furiously flicking through their French-English dictionary  – mystified as to why so many words aren’t there.

The influence of the French on Cycling

Which would you rather join?

Rotherham Wheelers v South Yorkshire Vélo

Rotherham Wheelers raises connotations of mugs of tea for 30 pence in a cafe off the A87 after your 6am Sunday morning time trial. South Yorkshire Vélo raises connotations of gleaming Campagnolo and immaculate Italian bikes. (yes, French club, but Italian bikes – I guess all Europeans are the same really)

If you want to be cool in cycling, the farthest you can get from Britain the better. I know Team Sky have done the best to challenge this historical truth. They have this extremely un British habit of being successful and professional. It even looks like the French have, temporarily, become the plucky losers, a mantle they picked up from the old British style. But, no matter how many marginal gains Team Sky make, France will always be the spiritual home of cycling, in a way the British Isles will never be able to.

Them are real mountains in France

If you want to prove you are a real cyclist, without being any good at cycling. There are two things you can try to do.

  • You can shave your legs
  • You can drop in French words with disarming regularity into your cycle chat.

This may sound a little contrived, but it will definitely impress your fellow riders to spend a few hours wheelsucking on the back.

‘He was a real grimpeur, but he forgot his musette and bidon and ended up in the Voiture Balai after bonking on the unforgiving Virage’s of the Geant de Provence Mont Ventoux.’

‘The patron of the peleton excelled at the contra le Monde, but…’

So here is a list of French Cycling Terms:

French Cycling Terms

  • un autobus – group that rides together to finish within time limit
  • un commissaire –  referee who makes decisions about race. E.g. allowing a bigger time limit to avoid eliminating whole autobus.
  • un coureur  –  rider, cyclist
  • un cycliste – cyclist
  • un directeur sportif – manager
  • un domestique  – support rider, often carrying bottles for leader
  • un échappé – breakaway
  • une équipe – team
  • un grimpeur – climber
  • un grupeto – same as autobus
  • un peloton – main bunch of riders, near front of race
  • un poursuivant – chaser
  • un rouleur –  smooth and steady rider
  • un soigneur – rider’s assistant
  • un sprinteur – sprinter
  • la tête de course – leader

Cycling Styles

  • à bloc – riding all out, as hard and fast as possible
  • la cadence – pedalling rhythm, often referring to high cadence
  • chasse patate – riding between two groups (literally, “potato hunt”)
  • la danseuse – standing up
  • Souplesse – riding with good style, pedalling a high cadence giving impression of making it look easy.


  • un bidon – water bottle
  • un casque – helmet
  • une crevaison –  flat, puncture
  • un dossard – number on rider’s uniform
  • un maillot  -jersey
  • maillot jaune – yellow jersey.
  • une musette – feed bag
  • un pneu  -tire
  • un pneu crevé – flat tire
  • une roue – wheel
  • un vélo de course – racing bike
  • une voiture balai – broom wagon

Tracks and Courses

  • une borne – kilométrique ~milestone (literally, a kilometre marker)
  • un col-  mountain pass
  • une côte – hill, slope
  • une course – race
  • une course par étapes – stage race
  • une descente – descent
  • une étape – stage
  • la flamme rouge – red marker at 1 kilometre from finish
  • hors catégorie – beyond classification (extremely difficult mountain)
  • une montagne – mountain
  • une montée-  upward slope
  • un parcours – route, course
  • une plaine – plains, flat land
  • une piste  – track
  • une route-  road

Standings and Scoring

  • la bonification – bonus points
  • une chute – fall, crash
  • le classement  – standings
  • contre la montre  – time trial
  • la lanterne rouge – last rider
  • le maillot à pois – polka dot jersey (worn by best climber)
  • le maillot blanc – white jersey (worn by best rider under 25)
  • le maillot jaune – yellow jersey (worn by overall leader)
  • le maillot vert – green jersey (worn by leader in points / best sprinter)


  • accélérer to accelerate
  • s’accrocher à to cling, hang on to
  • attaquer to attack, spurt ahead
  • changer d’allure to change pace
  • changer de vitesse to shift gears
  • courir to ride
  • dépasser to overtake
  • déraper to slip, skid
  • s’échapper to break away
  • grimper to climb
  • prendre la tête to take the lead
  • ralentir to slow down
  • rouleur to ride at a steady / strong pace. A rouleur – is traditionally a strong rider, who is good on the flat, but tends to disappear in the mountains.


How far do we take the French language?

Everyday I go to a coffee shop and I’m confronted with this awful dilemma.

If I want a pain au chocolate? do you use a broad Yorkshire accent and pronounce it like it’s written? or do we have to order ‘the pain au chocolate’ with our best imitation of a real French accent, you picked up from 5 years of GCSE French lessons?

The existential angst of deciding how to pronounce often leaves me ordering the ‘chocolate thing’ No messing, just two solid English words. If I do try order, a ‘pain au chocolate’ I tend to pronounce the first word in French, but by the third word have descended into English – a kind of unsatisfactory compromise.



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