French, the Language of Cycling Road Races

Updated on April 2, 2020
Colin Quartermain profile image

Colin has been a follower of the sport of cycling for 30 years, when Sean Kelly challenged the dominance of continental cyclists.

The International Nature of Professional Road Racing

The sport of professional cycling is one of the most watched spectator sports, both in terms of TV coverage and live viewing.

At the pinnacle of road racing is the UCI World Tour, as organised by the Union Cycliste Internationale, where one-day classics (like Milan-San Remo), stage races, (like the Volta a Catalunya), and Grand Tours (such as the Tour de France) are all raced.

The UCI World Tour is a truly international sport, with countries across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres hosting events, and the Peloton of riders often comprising of 30 or more different nations.

The Language of Road Racing Is French

The language of road racing can be regarded as French. While different nations will show coverage in their own language, many French words and terms are still widely used.

The French influence is hardly a surprise since the French were one of the first nations to take up road racing, and the Tour de France (1903) is normally regarded as the oldest stage race still being undertaken, and Paris-Roubaix (1896) also being one of the oldest one-day classics.

Some of the French words used by commentators are obvious; others are less so.

The Peloton

A road race begins with the peloton crossing the start line. The peloton is the herd or pack of riders, and throughout the race is the name given to group on the road containing the majority of riders.

Riders in the peloton will use a third less energy than a single rider riding the same stretch of course. Of course some riders will have to be at the front of the peloton, but they will normally take it in turns, whilst those in the main body will often be able to virtually freewheel because of the reduced drag.

The Peloton of the Tour de France, 9th of July 2005 - Vzach - released into Public Domain
The Peloton of the Tour de France, 9th of July 2005 - Vzach - released into Public Domain | Source


The peloton will comprise a number of different teams, occasionally still referred to as l’equipe, in English commentaries. The number of teams in the peloton will vary depending on the number invited by the race organisers, and the number of riders on the team will depend on the race, and how far the race has progressed, because there is a relatively high attrition rate within a team.

In a Grand Tour, a team will normally comprise a contender for the overall title, as well as a sprinter, le sprinteur, and a climber, le grimpeur, although neither term is as prevalent as they once were. The rest of the team is made up of domestiquesthe Servants—who are there to protect and assist the main riders of the team. These domestiques will form the sprint train for sprinters, will carry food and drink for their team leaders, and will drive on the peloton when required; everything they do is designed to prevent the main riders from exerting more energy than required.

Some riders are called "super domestiques," and are riders who can force the pace of the peloton by themselves, or guide team leaders up the steepest of climbs. Occasionally, the super domestique will be a team leader who can no longer win the race, but will do all that he can to ensure a member of his team does.

In a car behind the Peloton will be a directeur sportif, a team manager and often a former professional cyclist, who will arrange the strategy and tactics for the race, amending them as the race progresses.

The Race

Despite the peloton crossing the start line, the race only truly starts when the Commissionaire, the race referee, waves his flag to indicate the competitive racing can begin. The Commissionaire will be a prominent figure during the race, ensuring that riders, and teams stick to the rules, ensuring that there are not too many “sticky bottles”, or too much drafting behind team cars.

In most races, the Peloton stays together for a large part of the race, although many riders will try and break away from the Peloton to form a smaller group at la tete de course, the head of the race. Subsequently, a rider who then tries to leave the Peloton and bridge over to another group will be called un poursuivant, a pursuer or chaser. Both these terms are more common in TV captions than in the commentary.

The Peloton will break up into many smaller groups during a mountain stage, especially if there is a hors categorie mountain to be raced up. Mountains are normally classed between 1 and 4 in terms of difficulty, with 1 being the most difficult, but a hors-categorie mountain is without classification, for its steepness and length exceed the normal difficulty classification.

Non-climbers will normally be found at the rear of the field, where an ever-expanding number of riders form into a new group, the grupetto or autobus, a group that then works together to ensure that they finish within the time limit.

A welcome sign for any rider in a road race is the flamme rouge, the road marker that indicates there is only one kilometre left until the finish line is reached; and winners of the stage, or race, will have a title to add to their Palmares, a list of their achievements in cycling.

The Grupetto and the Flamme Rouge

	 Le grupetto sous la Flamme Rouge - from France - cc-by-sa-2.0
Le grupetto sous la Flamme Rouge - from France - cc-by-sa-2.0 | Source


Commentators on a road race will often exclaim "chapeau". Chapeau literally means “hat”, and is used in the same manner as if one was to doff one’s cap to someone, for a piece of riding is worthy of praise, be it an attempt to win a stage by riding solo, attacking on a mountain or some other fete, and the attempt doesn’t have to be successful to be worthy of the shout "chapeau", it is the intention that is all important.

Bidons and Musettes

In road races, it is essential that riders take on fluids and nourishment, and so riders, normally the domestiques, will take bidons, water bottles, and musettes, a feedbag, from the team car, or from a team member at the side of the road.

Javier Cherro Molina - Euskal Bizikleta 2007 - cc-by-sa-2.0
Javier Cherro Molina - Euskal Bizikleta 2007 - cc-by-sa-2.0 | Source

The Language of Le Tour

There are of course more French words like to appear as TV captions during the Le Tour, the Tour de France.

A stage of Le Tour is L'étape, whilst L'étape de plaine is a flat stage, L'étape de montagne is a mountainous one.

At the end of each stage, the standings are announced as Les Classements, and a number of jerseys are awarded for leaders in the classifications. The most famous of the jerseys is Le Maillot Jaune, the yellow jersey that signifies the overall leader of the race. The other jerseys are Le Maillot Blanc, the white jersey for the best positioned young rider; Le Maillot Vert, the green jersey for the leader in the points competition; and Le Maillot a Pois, the polka dot jersey, given to the rider with the most points in the mountain competition.

Historically there was also an award for the Lanterne Rouge, the rider who finished Le Tour in the longest time, although for the past 40 years race organisers have tried to dissuade riders from trying to deliberately come last. It is, of course, no mean feat to finish the race, and also each stage has a time limit.

	 9246 groep andy - 	filip bossuyt from Kortrijk, Belgium - cc-by-2.0
9246 groep andy - filip bossuyt from Kortrijk, Belgium - cc-by-2.0 | Source

Cycling Terms: French to English

(click column header to sort results)
Flamme Rouge
1km to finish flag
L’etape de plaine
Flat Stage
Le Maillot Vert
Green Jersey
Hats Off
List of Achievements
L’etape de montagne
Mountain Stage
Le Maillot a Pois
Polka Dot Jersey
Directeur Sportif
Team Manager
Un Poursuivant
Les Classements
Le Grimpeur
La Tete de Course
Head of Race
Lanterne Rouge
Last Place Rider
The Main Group of Riders
Race Referee
Last Group on Road
Last Group on Road
Le Sprinteur
Le Tour
Tour de France
Hors Categorie
Uncategorised Climb
Water Bottles
Le Maillot Blanc
White Jersey
Le Maillot Jaune
Yellow Jersey

Highlights of 2009 Tour de France

© 2018 Colin Quartermain


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