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All the French you need to know to follow the Tour de France

The Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The scene of the final stage of the Tour de France.

One of the first things I noticed in England was the prevalence of French words and phrases in everyday language — akin to Spanish in America. The prevalence of French in cycling is even deeper. The sport of cycling as practiced today is rooted in France, and French phrases prevail across borders and languages. After living in England I've picked up a bit of the language of cycling from the commentators and columnists of the sport. On the eve of the Tour de France, here's a list of some key French cycling phrases I've amassed.

« prologue »

An individual time trial (usually a very short one) before the first stage of the race; used to determine who will be the stage leader for that first stage

« départ fictif »

The neutralized start (départ fictif neutralisé); a chaperoned ride through la ville de départ

« départ réel »

The beginning of the actual racing after le départ fictif; kilomètre zéro

« arrivée »

The finish; the arrival at the finish line

« l'étape »

A stage of the tour

« l'étape de plaine »

A flat stage

« l'étape de montagne »

A mountainous stage

« l'equipe »

Literally "team"; the teams making up the peloton

« tête de la course »

The head of the race; the breakaway or race leader

« arrière du pelton »

Back of the group

« poursuivants »

Chase group between a breakaway and the peleton

« peloton »

Literally "ball” or “heap" used to refer to a "small body of soldiers, platoon" and in this context refers to what in British English would be called the "group" or the "bunch"; the main body of riders

« grupetto » ou « autobus »

A group that works together to ensure they finish within the time limit

« directeur sportif »

The head of the team; a head coach or manager

« soigneur »

An aide to the team; among other things provides food, water, or even a spare wheel at checkpoints along the way. You’ll see them standing by the side of the road holding out musettes or bidons for the riders to grab.

« domestique »

Refers to a servant; a rider who works for the benefit of their team and leader, rather than trying to win the race. They provide basic support. You might see them moving back and forth from the team car; fetching and discarding items such as food, water, or garments as the weather or terrain necessities. They also provide tactical support. For example leading out the team sprinter, placing themselves in a breakaway, or perhaps chasing one down.

« rouleur »

A versatile rider; an all-rounder

« puncheur »

A rider who specializes in short attacks

« sprinteur »

A rider who specializes in sprints; a sprinter

« grimpeur »

A rider who specializes in étapes de montagne; a climber

« commissionaire »

An official approximately equivalent to an umpire or referee in other sports

« coreur »

Racer

« cycliste »

Cyclist

« panache »

Flamboyant confidence

« souplesse »

Flexibility, suppleness, versatility; harmony between grace and power; casual and deliberate

« palmarès »

List of achievements; races or stages won

« chapeau! »

Literally “hat”, but used as a phrase to mean “hats off”, as in “congrats”; the doffing of one’s cap to another

« allez! »

Go!

« écarte »

Difference; the gap

« vitesse »

Speed

« vitesse moyenne »

Average speed

« longueur »

Length

« pente »

The grade of the hill being climbed

« pente moyenne »

Average slope

« flamme rouge »

A red flag — usually a red pennant flag hung over la route — indicating 1km to go. Supposedly the inspiration for Didi Senft's distinctive devil costume.

« la course »

The race

« parcours »

The route

« la route »

The road

« pavé »

A pavement made up of cobblestones; more common in Belgium or the Paris Roubaix than the Tour de France

« secteur »

Often short for secteur pavé — a pavé section of a parcours

« côté  »

Literally "slope", a hill

« col »

Mountain pass

« hors categorie »

An uncategorized climb

« bidon »

A water bottle

« musette »

A sack with food in it which is handed off by the soigneur to the rider; has a strap for them to loop over their head and maybe a shoulder while they root around in it

« gilet »

A vest to the Americans, a sleeveless windcheater to the British

« les classements »

The standings at the end of each stage

« le maillot »

Literally “the jersey.” In different races, different jersey patterns signify certain accomplishments of the rider — the World Champion, a national champion, the leader of an aspect of the race e.g. the Queen of the Cobbles — in the TDF, le maillot jaune (the yellow jersey) signifies the overall race leader, le maillot blanc (the white jersey) signifies the U23 race leader, le maillot vert (the green jersey) signifies the leader in the points competition, and le maillot a pois (the polka dot jersey) signifies the rider with the most points in the mountain competition.

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