For the majority of people in the English-speaking world, cycling is either a pleasant recreation or an enjoyable and useful form of exercise. For the French however, and for the many international competitors and millions of devoted spectators around the world, it’s a sport bordering on a religion, especially when the annual Tour de France rolls around. So, even if you mostly watch the Tour to catch the passing scenery, understanding what is happening is only going to add to your enjoyment, and if you watch a broadcast in French you are going to improve your vocabulary at the same time. Here are some of the many words that you will encounter.
• Le Tour de France, qu’est-ce que c’est? (What is the Tour de France?)
Since accurate vocabulary is the objective, it’s important to clear up one point at the very beginning. It’s ‘le tour’, a masculine noun, and not ‘la tour’, a feminine noun which is still perfect French, but means ‘tower’ not ‘tour’.
Visit the Tour de France official website for all the details about the race’s history since it began in 1903, and information about the most recent race and next year’s competition.
Now for the vocabulary. ‘Le Tour de France, c’est un concours de cyclisme qui a lieu parmi presque toute la France pendant le mois de juillet’ (The Tour of France is a cycling contest which takes place in almost the whole of France during the month of July). It’s fondly known in France as ‘La Grande Boucle’ – the Big Loop. The professional cyclists who take part are ‘les coureurs’ (runners) and they ride in ‘les équipes’ (teams), although the star riders are competing for individual honors as well. These luminaries are supported by less celebrated team members known as ‘les domestiques’ (literally ‘servants’). The route or course is ‘le parcours’, and each stage or leg is called ‘une étape’. The highly specialized machines they use are called ‘les vélos de course’ – racing bikes.
• Les coureurs, qu’est-ce qu’ils portent? (What do the riders wear?)
For obvious safety reasons, the riders wear ‘un casque’, a helmet. On their back is their competitor number, ‘le dossard’. They wear cycling gear in their team colors, unless they have performed so exceptionally well that they have been given a special jersey to wear for the next stage to indicate their elite position. ‘Le maillot jaune’ (yellow jersey) is worn by the overall leader, while ‘le maillot vert’ (green) and ‘le maillot à pois’ (literally ‘peas’, but meaning ‘polka-dot’) go to the best sprinter and the best hill climber, respectively. The best-performing rider under 25 years of age is recognized by ‘le maillot blanc’ (white jersey).
As well as 'le maillot', the riders wear ‘un cuissard’, a garment combining the features of shorts and leggings, or ‘un cuissard corse’ with attached bib and braces. Beneath their helmet may be ‘un bandana respirant’ (a sweat cap) and they may also wear ‘des bandeaux éponges’ (‘sponge bands’, meaning sweat bands). It’s hot work riding up mountains in the middle of a French summer.
• Comment roulent-ils? (How do they ride?)
‘Rapidement’ or ‘très vite’ (very fast) is the simple answer, but there is more detail available. A group of riders all bunched together, a frequent sight, is ‘un peloton’, a ball or cluster. If they are deliberately riding together for tactical reasons, they may be referred to as ‘un autobus’ (like passengers on a bus) or ‘un gruppetto’, a term borrowed from Italian and meaning ‘little group’. If a rider breaks away from a group to strike out on his own, he becomes ‘un échappé', an escapee. Trapped on his own between two groups, he is involved in what is known as ‘la chasse patate’, literally ‘the potato chase’. Finally successful in breaking away from all other riders, he becomes ‘la tête de course’, the leader of the race. Imagine his relief on sighting ‘la flamme rouge’, the red marker (literally ‘flame’) one kilometer from the finish line. This is a much better red position than that of ‘la lanterne rouge’ the rider who comes last and is metaphorically carrying a warning red tail light.
The Tour de France is a long and gruelling race, and before they reach the final stage the riders have much to endure. ‘Il y a des montées à grimper’ (there are hills to climb), ‘des cols à surmonter’ (mountain passes to overcome), 'des descentes à savourer' (downhill stretches to enjoy), ‘peut-être des chutes à souffrir’ (perhaps falls to endure) ‘et des crevaisons à réparer’ (and punctures to repair). As long as they avoid being a passenger in ‘la voiture balai’ (the vehicle at the back of the pack that ‘sweeps up’ worn out riders) everyone is a winner just for surviving all the challenges.
Now that you can talk about ‘La Grande Boucle’ in French like a seasoned pro, why not go the whole hog and pick up some French cycling colloquialisms? The BBC French language site has extensive lists of cycling vocabulary, including some amusing slang terms associated with the Tour. Next time the Tour de France comes around you can listen to the local commentary and cheer on your favorite competitor with some well-chosen words of encouragement – in French of course.