How to talk the language of the Tour de France

I love the Tour de France. It combines beautiful landscapes with thrilling sports action. There is colour, drama, controversy, charismatic sportsmen, crashes, tactics, speed and endurance.

The first Tour de France was held in 1903 and the development of the race defined endurance cycling. The gruelling rides over the mountain passes had never been contemplated before.

The tour oozes Frenchness. The television coverage showcases the culture of the regions the race visits. Local farmers and businesses build elaborate displays to catch the eye of the helicopter cameras following the race.

But Frenchness is nowhere stronger than in the language of the race. French is the natural language of endurance cycling. Many cycling terms have English equivalents but there are special aspects of the race that we take straight from the French. Here is a quick list of the words you have to know to keep up with the Tour de France.

The Grand Boucle

The Tour de France is also known as the Tour, le Tour, the TDF, or La Grand Boucle meaning the big loop. The early races circled the perimeter of the country and when the newspapers published maps of the route it gave the French people an incentive to appreciate their country’s geography. It is from then that France got its nickname L’Hexagone, the hexagon.



TDF PelotonWhen you hear peloton you immediately think Tour de France. The peloton is the densely packed formation of riders that forms to reduce wind resistance, for mutual support and to keep competitors close. Usually on the non-mountain stages the cyclists stay in the peloton for most of the day’s racing, only breaking away in the race for the line. The word means rolled into a ball and a related word, peloter, means to cuddle. The word also exists in English (from the 1720s) and refers to a small group of soldiers similar to a platoon; obviously borrowed from the French, it shares a common idea.

Tête de la course

A breakaway rider or a group of riders (un échappé) often separate from the peloton and try to race it to the finish line. Tête de la course means head of the race and refers to the leading cyclist or group of cyclists that have separated from the front of the peloton. To take the lead is prendre la tête, to take the head.


Poursuivant means pursuing and refers to a cyclist or group of cyclists who leave the peloton to chase down the leaders (also groupe de poursuite and groupe de chasse but nothing beats, Achtervolger, the Flemish word to describe the group chasing a breakaway—it means after-follower).

The poursuivant attempt to catch the leaders either to join them or to encourage the peloton to chase them down.

A strong attack is placer une mine, laying a mine, while a weak attack that doesn’t make any difference is, un pétard mouille, a wet firecracker (see petard).

If there is less intensity in the group riding between the groups it may be referred to as en chasse patate, literally, in a potato hunt.

Sometimes towards the end of a mountain stage a group of riders, often sprinters, falls off the back of the peloton and rides together simply to finish within the time limit. They are referred to as un grupeto, a little group, or un autobus, a bus.

Sprinters, climbers, triallists and all-rounders

Tour de France Arc de TriompheThe Tour de France offers a test of endurance, skill and tactics. To win a rider has to lead the general classification (ie have the quickest time overall) so needs to be able to compete over a variety of terrains and during the time trials (contre-la-montre, meaning against the watch). However, the race also offers specialist riders chances to shine:

The sprinters (sprinteurs) are riders with explosive power over shorter distances who earn points by getting a placing at checkpoints (puncheur is a rider with a good burst of acceleration).

The climbers (grimpeurs) are riders who specialises in riding up the mountain stages and have high power-to-weight ratios. On the hard climbs they grimper en danseuse, climb standing up or literally climb dancing.

The time trialers are riders who can maintain high speeds over intermediate distances.

The all-rounders are cyclists who are good at climbing and time trialing and may even be able to sprint.

The rouleurs (stayers) are riders who are strong on flat and undulating roads.

Domestics in the Tour de France

In the early Tours each rider rode as an individual. In 1911 when one rider, who no longer had a chance of winning, offered his services to help other riders the race organiser contemptuously called him unworthy and no more than a domestique (servant). The term now refers to the team members (teams are usually made up of nine riders) who participate to assist the team’s leader to win the race, but without their own race ambitions.

Les maillots

The yellow jersey (maillot jaune) is worn by the general classification (GC) race leader. The GC leader is the rider with the best time for all the completed stages and therefore the leader of the race. Wearing the yellow jersey even for one stage is a prestigious accomplishment.

The green jersey (maillot vert) is given to the leader of the points classification. It is also known as the sprinter’s jersey. Points are awarded for being the first riders past certain checkpoints and the first riders to complete each stage.

The King of the Mountains wears a white jersey with red dots (maillot à pois rouges). This jersey is awarded for the rider who has the most points on the mountain checkpoints.

There is also le maillot blanc, the white jersey awarded to the best rider under 25 years of age in the Tour de France.

La lanterne rouge

The last rider in the race was known as the red lantern in reference to the old practice of putting a red lantern at the back of train to identify the last carriage or truck. In early races the last rider would have a small lantern attached to his saddle.

Broom wagon

In the early days the race was supported by une voiture balai, a broom wagon, a vehicle that followed the lanterne rouge and swept up those who had to abandon the race.

Hors categorie

Parcours refers to the profile of the race or stage route, that is, the amount of climbs, their category, the state of the roads. The cols are the mountain passes (look out for Col de l’Homme Mort or Dead Man’s Pass). The climbs have designated categories based upon length, gradient and how fresh the riders will be. Category 4 is the easiest and increases in severity to Category 1. However in the Tour the most challenging are hors catégorie (HC) meaning above categorisation.


The cotton bags with shoulder straps containing food and drink bottles (bidons) given to riders in a feed zone during the race are known as musettes.

The caravan

The caravane publicitaire was introduced in 1930. Businesses paid the organisers to promote their products from vehicles moving along in a convoy along the course ahead of the race. The publicity caravan is made up of highly decorated floats and vehicles that, literally, give out tonnes of promotional products. The first advertisers, like Vache qui rit (the Laughing Cow) have successfully used the caravan to promote their products to the French consumer since 1930.

La flamme rouge

La flamme rouge is the red marker showing the riders there is one kilometre to the finish line.


An echelon is a line of riders in a diagonal line across the road to get protection from crosswinds.

Substance interdite

Faire le métier means literally to do the job, but in cycling it also means to be doped up. Sadly over the years the Tour has had a lot of its riders caught with a little bit of substance interdite (banned substance) in their sang (blood) or luggage. Pot belge (Belgian mix) is a mixture of cocaine, heroin, caffeine, amphetamines, and other analgesics favoured by cyclists for both recreational and performance enhancement purposes. But before we judge the riders first remember that they are asked to ride for 21 days for 3,200 kilometres and  to climb more than a kilometre on some of the stages.

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