Le Jargon Cycliste

Have you ever had ants in your legs and found yourself sporting a lightweight sock? Or did you end up pedalling with two legs on the same pedal?

The French cyclists and TV commentators often talk about le jargon cycliste but they don’t mean the technical terms such as watts per kilogram, haematocrit or press-fit bearings. Instead le jargon is a long list of poetic phrases and slang.

Your colleague played the rat. We had a deal, I let him do the climbers and then I attack, he stays in my wheel and when he sees that I’m seizing up, he puts a bag on me, the arsehole

That’s IAM Cycling’s Jérôme Pineau complaining to Cofidis after Luis Angel Maté dumped in in the final moments of Stage 7 and with this move took the combativity prize for the day. As Le Monde put it most people will understand the last phrase but the rest can need translation.

In the spirit of Pineau and others giving interviews on the finish line full of terms that leave many French confused, here’s an “interview” with a mythical rider with 40 bits of jargon.

“It twisted [1] from the start. I was worried about having big thighs [2] after they were tetanised [3] yesterday but I redid my health. [4]. I left the platoon [5] like a postman [6] and was soon joined to a small packet [7]. I had ants in my legs [8] and was farting fire [9]. It was reduced after a fat arse [10] did the elastic [11] before he was set adrift [12] on the first arse-puncher [13]. Even a bottle of honey [14] couldn’t help him. We’d made a hole [15] and I knew some were trying to fill it [16] but they ended up potato hunting [17] because we burned the feedzone [18].”

“The next climb was a building site [19] that exploded the packet [20]. Luckily I had the lightweight sock [21] but I spoke to my team mate who had cotton legs [22]. We had a crank party [23] and many were dancing [24] with their hands on the cooking pots [25]. Others were totally cooked [26]. Then I saw the yellow jersey [27] was digging [28] and soon was pedalling with his ears [29]. By then I was in the red [30] and using my asthmatic gear [31], I had everything on the left [32]. You couldn’t keep anything under the sole [33]. At the top of the climb we were playing elbows [34] and Purito was smoking a pipe [35].”

“We did the descent and it was rubbing [36] at the red flame [37]. But I had both legs on the same pedal [38] and finished on the rim [39]. Still, I took the right wagon [40] and I’ll try again tomorrow.”

Poetic might be too strong but these are evocative terms and often more illustrative than their anglo-saxon equivalents and certainly there are more phrases. Not that it’s French, the Italians have many great words and phrases. A team car is ammiraglia, a flagship. Many foreign words are incorporated into English, we talk about a domestique or a soigneur as often as a helper or a carer and grupetto and pavé don’t need translation either. You know what a rouleur is, to translate it in English is to lose time. Oddly when there’s a crosswind the English term is a French word echelon but in France it’s a bordure or sometimes an éventail. These terms won’t be lost but they’re used less and less as the peloton becomes a more English speaking workplace.

[1] Visser, from visser la poignée or to twist the wrist like a motorcyclist accelerating
[2] grosses cuisses, literally big thighs but it relates to swollen or sore legs
[3] when your legs are frozen solid by the cold
[4] se refaire une santé, to recovert
[5] peloton, used in English but the literal translation is platoon
[6] en facteur, to quietly slide off the front of the peloton like a postman, the opposite of a fierce attack
[7] paquet, slang for the peloton. A small paquet is a group of riders
[8] des fourmis dans les jambes, to feel frisky
[9] péter le feu, farting fire or in great shape and confidence
[10] gros cul, a big butt, slang for a sprinter
[11] faire l’élastique, to hang on the back of a group
[12] larguer, to be dropped but a term more normally used when a ship sets sail
[13] coup de cul, a short sharp hill
[14] bidon au miel, literally a bottle of honey but slang for a sticky bottle or help from the team car
[15] faire un trou, to get a gap
[16] boucher le trou, to fill the hole or close a gap
[17] en chasse patate, “potato hunting”, origin’s unknown but it’s when you’re stuck wasting energy between the breakaway and peloton
[18] brûler le ravitaillement, to ride straight through the feedzone without slowing to collect a musette
[19] chantier, a building site but slang for selective climb or another strategic point where everyone gets to work
[20] exploser le paquet, to blow a group of riders apart
[21] avoir la soquette légère, having a lightweight sock, to feel as if you’re pedalling with ease
[22] jambes en cotton, cotton legs or to feel weak
[23] partie de manivelles, a group ride
[24] en danseuse, to stand on the pedals
[25] les cocottes, slang for the brake hoods
[26] cuit, literally cooked and slang for tired
[27] this one doesn’t need explaining
[28] piocher, to dig but to pedal laboriously with the shoulders rocking as if you’re shovelling
[29] pédaler avec les oreilles, to rock so much on the bike it’s as if cranks are attached to your ears
[30] dans le rouge, to suffer and suggesting you’re above your threshold
[31] braquet d’asthmatique, a gear so low someone with asthma can turn it, it suggests a wheezing rider
[32] avoir tout à gauche, when your chain is on the inner ring and the lowest sprocket, ie to the left
[33] en garder sous la semelle, to “save something under your shoe sole”, slang for soft pedalling
[34] jouer des coudes, similar to rubbing shoulders and jostling for position
[35] fumer la pipe, to be so at ease on the bike while others are struggling
[36] frotter, to rub (shoulders)
[37] flamme rouge, the red kite at 1km to go
[38] les deux jambes sur la même pédale, to be so tired you struggle to turn the pedals
[39] finir sur la jante, to finish on the rim as if you’ve punctured and have to ride slowly
[40] le bon wagon, literally “the good wagon”, the winning breakaway

36 thoughts on “Le Jargon Cycliste”

    • I guess the more embedded in the culture the sport is, the more the language surrounding it grows. And yes, “levar um frango” ou “levar um peru” (taking a chicken or a turkey) means when the goalie lets pass a ridiculous ball. I guess you could relate to letting a chicken run in between your legs if you’re chasing it.
      It also goes the other way around: if someone screws up in real life, you’ll say he “pisou na bola”, stepped on the ball. There are numerous other examples, it really is worth taking a look.

      • He’d try to pronounce the words as if he’s a native speaker but it would sound like his usual mangled faux-“European” generic foreign word pronounciation. The only man who tries to pronounce “KIT-tel”, “NI-bali” and “QUIN-tana” with identical inflection because, yes Carlton, the pronounciation of Italian, German and Spanish accents is exactly the same.

  1. I die some racing in Portugal years ago where the locals referred to the granny ring as “the little princess”. Poetic and it just felt apt whilst sweating over contour lines that were too close together

  2. Love this, thank you. “Everything on the left” – so simple, I can’t believe we don’t say that in English….

    It’s often through an understanding of the language that you get the greatest insight into a culture; another reason why this blog is light-years ahead of all the cycling literature out there…. Ta!

  3. Just when we thought Inner Ring couldn’t get any more educational for serious cycling fans he gives us an entertaining insight into French cycling jargon.

    I don’t see any other (English speaking) cycling websites doing this sort of thing!

    Being an asthmatic cyclist myself I love no 31 🙂

    How are the socks and cycling caps coming along to allow us to show you some support?

  4. Really entertaining, thanks. Many languages have theirs specialities, e. g. in Czech they say “riding on Terezin” (Theresienstadt, WWII) and it means riding echelons in side-wind.
    To pay back let me write a few quotations from TV commentators you probably couldn’t listen to.
    The alredy dead great Czech commentator Bakalář said:
    “We can see that Bradley Wiggins is riding the gear 25 on 39 … Sorry, it’s another gear … and now I see it is not even Wiggins.”
    “Jose Rujano, 48.5 kg, less than an average potato-bag, he could play in a puppet show.”
    “Now it seems to blow against the wind!”
    “The first rider got 300 Euro and 3 points, the others got also some points but they remain poor.”
    “Vinokourov goes alone … with Evans.”
    “The Australians can open the strategic resources of beer.”
    And one from I. Ninaj:
    “We can see the Valverde group … but already without Valverde …”

  5. Enjoyed this piece immensely and the follow up comments, good to have some light hearted banter. The Czech commentator piece from denominator is excellent. David Duffield, eat your heart out! Looking forward to forthcoming INRNG casquettes also.

  6. Let me add some Flemish cycling jargon, some of it is quite prozaic as well but know that Flemish cycling language includes a lot of the French lingo as well

    Kuitenbijter = calve biter = short steep hill, typically one of the many ‘bergs’ sprinkeld across the spring classics or a côte somewhere in the Ardennes

    Waaiers = “fans” = echelons, it is a translation of the french word éventail.

    de bus = the bus = the grupetto in a mountain stage who’s only aim is to make it home inside the time limit

    Buschauffeur = busdriver = the rider setting the pace for the grupetto (Jurgen Roelandts is allegedly a very able busdriver)

    Kapot zitten, dood zitten = being broken, being dead = being cooked

    One of the riders with the most colourful language in Flemish is definitely Tom Boonen, I think he actually introduced some new lingo himself but it would be hard to translate.

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