A small digression into language inspired by today’s so-called “Queen Stage” of the Tour de France. There are many French words that are used in English coverage of the sport, terms like maillot jaune, flamme rouge or rouleur usually don’t require translation. But there are a few French words that are “false friends”, they’re French words used in English but not used in French coverage of the sport.
Queen stage? Today’s stage of the Tour is neither the longest nor the most mountainous but it still features a lot of climbing. However where does the term come from? It’s a literal translation, perhaps too much so. In French all nouns have either a male or female gender, like le vélo (masculine) or la bicyclette (feminine) and a stage is une étape which is feminine which means the accompanying regal adjective adopts the feminine to become étape reine, literally the Queen stage but in English you could easily say the “king stage” or the “royal stage”. Or étape royale if you feel like Vincent Vega.
Another commonly used French word in cycling is echelon to describe the groups that form in crosswinds. Only it’s not the term used in French, that’s a bordure. This is literally the edge or border of the road and gets the name because of the diagonal formation of riders across the road is defined by the edge of the road, it’s the last place of shelter in the line and so the rider behind has to open a new bordure or risk floundering.
A quick term is bidon for water bottle, used interchangeably in English and French within the peloton. But outside the sport for many in France it’s une gourde, ride up a mountain and children will beg “une gourde, une gourde” rather than a bidon.
A kermesse is often used in English to describe a Belgian bike race, a circuit race with semi-professional riders with relentless attacks and hidden alliances. But in French a kermesse is derived from the Dutch kerkmisse or “church mess” but has come to mean a village festival and it often happens that a Belgian village stages a bike race as part of the festivities.
The peloton means the bunch but in French it has a wider meaning, it’s literally a platoon and one of several martial terms used in the sport.
The English term for a team mate who works for others is a domestique, a French word. But in French it’s an équipier. There’s a story to this as in 1911 the Italian cyclist Maurice Brocco was having another bad Tour de France and instead of just riding by himself to finish the stage each day, he decided to sell his services to another rider, in this case Luxembourg’s François Faber: he’d work for Faber in exchange for money. This outraged the Tour director, the stern Henri Desgrange and he used his newspaper column in L’Auto to blast Brocco as “undeserving” and a mere domestique but with this word he meant a servant, as in someone who was paid a meagre wage to perform household chores. It was meant as a term of abuse but today, in English at least, it denotes self-sacrifice and team spirit.