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Tour de France

Le Tour de France: the vocab of le vélo

Spectators are expected to line the streets in their millions over the next few days as men in Lycra descend on Yorkshire. No, this is not a terrifying new reboot of Last of the Summer Wine, but the Grand Départ of the largest annual sporting event in the world – the Tour de France. Over the next three weeks the world’s top cyclists will battle it out over 3,500km of the most brutal French terrain, this year commencing with 549km in Britain. Such is the popularity of cycling that some of the new words added to the Oxford Dictionary Online this May were bike-related, including sportive and its Italian brother, gran fondo. So to further get you in the mood, why not strap on that helmet, shave those legs, and let us embark on a Tour de la langue du cyclisme.

Le vélo

First things first, we will need a trusty steed to ride upon. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use for the term bicycle is from 1868, according to current research. It originally referred to a kind of two-wheeled velocipede (from Latin velox, meaning ‘swift’, and pes, meaning ‘foot’), with pedals fitted directly to the slightly larger front wheel. Bicycle was more generally used in the 1870s for the high-wheeled ordinary or penny farthing, which, having solid rubber tyres and one very large wheel at the front, was more comfortable than the velocipede with its iron tyres, and required less effort to achieve faster speeds. The low-wheeled safety bicycle, similar in design to most bicycles today – with two equal-sized wheels, a diamond-shaped frame, chain-driven rear wheel, and pneumatic tyres – followed in the late 1870s and led to a huge worldwide boom in cycling.


Once you’ve got a bike, these days preferably made of lightweight materials such as carbon fibre or chromoly, you need a team, or équipe, around you. The Tour de France features twenty-two teams of nine men, each team featuring one captain and eight domestiques. A domestique, literally translating from French as ‘servant’, is a support rider. Their main aim is to protect the captain from the competition, and help him reserve as much energy as possible so that it can all be used at the vital moments of the race.

La formation

When are cyclists like geese? No it’s nothing to do with their thighs, it’s the way they both travel in echelon formation. Echelon comes from the French word for ladder, and was originally used as a military term referring to the formation of troops. In geology if something is en echelon it is in approximately parallel formation at an oblique angle to a particular direction; in French literally meaning ‘in rung formation’. Coming back to cycling, in simple terms it means that the riders position themselves in a ‘v’ shape, just like when geese fly together. The riders in the echelon will rotate through from the sheltered side to the front and then pull off back on the windward side, this method being the most efficient way of using the group’s energy to cut through the wind and maintain a high average speed.

La rapidité

We’re powering along in echelon formation, but why does someone keep shouting ‘cadence!’? The word originates in late Middle English, meaning ‘rhythm or metrical beat’, and comes via Old French from Italian cadenza, which in its turn is based on Latin cadere meaning ‘to fall’. In cycling it refers to pedal rhythm, measured by the number of revolutions of the crank per minute. The optimal cycling cadence should perfectly balance power with endurance.

Le peloton

Optimal cycling cadence is achieved, riding en echelon is helping us to cope with the crosswinds, and we have found ourselves in the leading group, known as the peloton. The word has had an interesting journey: in fifteenth-century France peloton meant little ball, especially of thread. By 1616 it referred to a small body of soldiers, by 1855 it referred to a group of sporting competitors, and then by 1884 it began to refer specifically to cycling.

La fatigue

The only thing that can stop us now is if we bonk. I’ll leave you to make your own jokes. While runners hit the wall, cyclists bonk. It refers to a state of utter exhaustion, and can leave riders feeling weak and giddy.

La victoire

If we manage not to bonk, we may be in line for one of les maillots, the famous jerseys. The maillot jaune, or yellow jersey, is the most famous, which is worn by the overall leader of the race. The maillot a pois is also rather fetching – the wearer of this red and white polka dot jersey is deemed ‘King of the Mountains’, the rider who has performed the best at the mountain stages.

La fin

As we recover at the end of the race, happy with our strong performance, our fellow riders may say “chapeau” to us. They are not complimenting us on our stylish headwear, but are indicating respect for our achievements, much like someone may doff (a Middle English contraction of ‘do off’) one’s cap.

Consider your Tour de France cycling proficiency test complete. Oxford Words wishes you swiftness of foot in all your bicycling endeavours. Now where’s my domestique, I need to conserve some energy.


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