Cycling lingo: A beginner's guide to Tour de France terminology

Moulin Rouge
The author goes in search of the lanterne rouge… (Photo: jhcaputi, Flickr)
"When you hear talk of the 'red lantern', don't go thinking you've wandered into one of Montmartre's seamier establishments... It's the name given to the rider who's last in the Tour"
  • | by Sean Davies

Here on Covered we've already established the fact that Britain has fallen in love with cycling.

But before you all start sipping champagne and cruising down the Champs-Élysées, consider whether you can actually converse with the natives.

The lingua franca of cycling is, erm, French, so here, in no particular order, is some terminology to get your wheels spinning:

Grand tours

The collective name for Europe's three major stage races, the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. You may think of these prestigious events as the equivalent of the Majors in golf or tennis.

Grand Boucle

The 'big loop' - an affectionate name for the Tour de France.

Etape de Tour

Allows non-professionals the chance to effectively stalk the Tour de France by riding in an organised event that follows the route of one of the more challenging mountain stages, usually a few days before the actual race stage.


The main pack of riders in a race, who group together in a ball- or wedge-like shape - the word comes from the French 'ball' or 'platoon'.

If you can get in the middle of this bunch, hold your nerve while cycling at break-neck speed with other racers hemming you in from all angles, and deal with the incredible whiff of garlic, then you'll get reduced drag and increased speed… resulting in enormous energy savings that'll keep you fresh for the business end of the race.

Tete de la course

The 'head of the race', an individual or group of riders who have broken away from the main peloton. Their lead is often short-lived as the extra energy expenditure needed by a small group takes its toll when the peloton ramps up the pace late in the race. But if the breakaway gets its timing and tactics right, glory awaits.


The 'pursuing' rider(s) who may be wedged between the tête de la course and the peloton - either because they've been dropped by the former or have broken away from the latter.


These poor souls ('servants') are the work-horses of the race, wannabe or has-been cyclists who sacrifice personal ambition for their team. Look out for them shielding their team leader from head- and side-winds, dropping back to support vehicles to pick up food and drink, then sprinting forward to deliver said victuals to the chosen ones.

Gruppetto (autobus)

This is a group of riders (way) behind the main peloton who work with each other to avoid being classed 'out of time' (hors delai) - something that would result in elimination from the race. Typically found near the end of mountain stages and comprised of poor, worn-out domestiques and sprinters hoping to make it to flatter days.

Chasse patate

Riders stuck aimlessly between two groups may be disparagingly referred to as being on a 'potato hunt'.

Lanterne rouge

When you hear talk of the 'red lantern', don't go thinking you've wandered into one of Montmartre's seamier establishments after a night at the Moulin Rouge. It's the name given to the rider who's last in the Tour.

You don't necessarily have to feel sorry for the straggling stray, though - just finishing the race is an incredible achievement, so the final tortoise-like holder of the lanterne may be given more credit than some of the hare-like glory-seekers who pulled out weeks before with chafed boils on their bums.

Le maillot jaune and other baubles

At the other end of the race from the lanterne rouge, riders will be competing for different coloured jerseys. They all want the famous maillot jaune - the yellow jersey worn by the race leader. Not to be sneezed at are:

  • Le maillot a pois: The polka dot jersey is worn by the best climber
  • Le maillot vert: The green jersey is worn by the points leader, typically the best sprinter
  • Le maillot blanc: The white jersey is worn by the best young rider (under the age of 25)
  • Maillot arc-en-ciel: The rainbow jersey is worn by the reigning world champion
  • Prix de la combativité: You don't get a jersey for 'combativity', but you do bask in the kudos that comes with being the man whose attacks have 'most animated the day'


Originally a musical term, cadence is the tempo or rhythm that a cyclist establishes. On reflection, I probably shouldn't have placed this before…

Bonking out

That totally drained feeling when you've burnt all your energy after a long bout of rhythmic exercise. If you stop sniggering, you'll find out how you can avoid hitting the wall by taking on sufficient nutrition.

Food, drink and clothing

Keep a close eye on the cyclists and, at regular feed stations, you'll see them grabbing musettes. On the move, the riders will sling these cotton bags over their shoulder then distribute the necessary food, water and clothing across their bikes and bodies.

Keep watching and you'll see the odd bidon (water bottle) and musette being flung rather carelessly to the roadside - something of a litter hazard you may think, but the bottles are often hoovered up by eager souvenir hunters.

If the feed station is at the top of a mountain, you may see a rider pulling a gilet out of the bag - this is a sleeveless jacket or vest that the cyclist can slip into to help keep warm on the descent.

Others simply take newspapers from friendly fans and stuff them inside their shirt as a wind-breaker.

Some types of rider

  • Danseuse: Likes to ease his pained posterior by standing up on the pedals, typically on steep uphills
  • Grimpeur: A climber who loves the big mountains
  • Rouleur: Strong on flat and undulating roads
  • Sprinteur: The Usain Bolt of the road, doesn't like inclines
  • Wheelsucker: Leeches onto the back wheels of others, enjoying the drag benefits while refusing to take his turn at the front

Some road types

  • Pave: 'Cobbles' - pure torture for racers, jarring bones and backsides and leaving riders at the mercy of mechanical failure. But the cobbles are perhaps not as bad as…
  • Col: A mountain pass
  • Mur: A 'wall' where the road ramps up into a killer climb that may well be…
  • Hors catégorie: The road has got so steep that it's 'beyond classification'. Basically, your average man would struggle to walk up it

Assurance velo

Now we're finally getting to the good stuff - bicycle insurance. Apparently the talk of the peloton is where to get the right cover at the right price for their trusty steeds, with rumours rife that a top-notch price-comparing master is planning to cross La Manche (the Channel)… unfortunately, we can't work out if it should be 'le' or 'la'.


The finish line. You've 'arrived'. Keep up!