The Language of the Peloton

The Language of the Peloton

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I can’t understand the American obsession with finger food in general and sliders in particular. Finger food, in its strict interpretation, should be food for your fingers, not food which is eaten with one’s fingers. While “finger food” is inaccurate as a generality, sliders are basically just hamburgers that never got the Rule #5 Talk. Burgers are meant to be big, juicy, and stop your heart in its tracks. It’s the American Way.

But the point is, despite Juliet’s assertion to the contrary, there is quite a bit in a name. Whereas the mere mention of “sliders” invokes some level of anger within me, there may be a few people around who actually like the name quite a lot; perhaps it makes them feel like eating four tiny burgers is healthier than eating a single giant one, as though it will somehow make their blood flow faster through their presumably already-clogged arteries.

Being bilingual gives one a view into the use of words that people who speak only one language would struggle to have. Not that being bilingual makes you any better at communicating; quite the oposite, in fact. I find that words and letters are very fluid for me and I tend to work with a general “sense” of what a particular word’s definition might be while monolingual people understand quite well what specific words mean and what order letters are intended to arrive in. As it turns out, knowing a word’s precise definition can be helpful in certain situations, such as when one is attempting to use it in a sentence.

But speaking more than one language (I also speak a smattering of French and a crippling amount of German) gives one a glimpse into the beautiful depth of expression that can be found in a simple jumble of letters. And this is where having a general rather than concrete sense of a word’s definition becomes a beautiful thing; I can guess the meaning of a word or sentence and not be bothered by the accuracy of my impression while still getting the meaning of what is being said. I’m then at liberty to allow my imagination to add layers of meaning atop my sense, giving a beautiful depth to a simple word. Its one of those beautiful moments in life when being wrong can be much more enjoyable than being right.

The sport of Cycling has very rich language that surrounds it. Because of the Continental influence during its formative years, it has obtained this richness by incorporating expressions from several languages including French, Italian, and Flemish. I’ve learned from speaking and learning to varying degrees of failure some of these languages, that American English is actually a relatively inexpressive language. American English is usually focussed on giving meaning to things and actions while European languages, while doing much of the same, will modify words slightly to also convey some spirit that surrounds the intention of their use.

Its not surprising, then, that when we speak of our sport, we generally turn to the Continental terms in order to describe the more subtle properties we’re trying to convey. Ten of my favorites are below; the list is painfully brief.

  • Grimpeur. French for one who goes well uphill, normally with the grace of an angel.
  • Rouleur. French for one who goes well on the flat, normally with the grace of an angel.
  • La Volupte. French for a fleeting moment of perfect harmony and clarity found aboard a bicycle.
  • Le Fringale. French for hunger knock or bonking. Which of these would you prefer to have?
  • Á bloc. French for riding all-out, hammering, or firing off the Guns. The only English expression that rivals it’s beauty is to say one is riding on the rivet.
  • Hellingen. Flemish for short, steep climbs. No English version of “hill” or climb will ever contain the word “hell”.
  • Grinta. Italian for “tough”. In Dutch, the word for gravel is “grint”. Grinta conjures up visions of someone who has gravel in their gut.
  • Sur la Plaque. French for moving into plate – the big ring.
  • Un Jour Sans. French for “a day without”, or a day when the legs don’t seem to respond to what the mind is telling them.
  • Il Posizione. Italian for the position on the bike where a rider can hammer on the pedals to go faster with less effort.

 

// Folklore // Nostalgia // Tradition

  1. I think “Balls to the Wall” is rather expressive.

  2. Souplesse is one of my favourites… like so many others, the concrete translation of suppleness or flexibility doesn’t quite capture the spirit.

    It is about smoothness, fluidity, one-ness and with a touch of class.

    I aspire to la souplesse more than anything else.

  3. chapeau has always been a favorite of mine. as a Spanish speaker I need to watch more races in Spanish. Also gonna look for some good Spanish terms related to the sport.

  4. @Cyclops

    I immediately thought of “Balls out” when I read the article. It conveys an image of having gambled ones balls on maintaining the impossibly high speed currently being ridden at, at least until all those around you have been dropped and faded from sight.

    Dutch and Flemmish I don’t have much experience of, Italian I like to a point but it can be prone to histrionics, I love the the nonchalance that ofter goes with French “Merde, ce n’est pas bon”. I’m trying to get to grips with Spanish at the moment but apart from ordering beer, I’ve got a bit of work to do.

  5. Well said, Frank! however, it is somewhat ironic how your article about language contains a typo:

    Rouleur. French for one who goes will on the flat, normally with the grace of an angel.

  6. I like “from hero to goat”. It’s when a rider goes off the front with the intention of getting to the line first (not a team driven tactical or strategic move). It’s for pure personal glory. It’s most often seen in a local criterium. It’s the guy who writes a check with his impatience that his legs can’t cash. He gets swallowed by the peloton and spit out the back in under a lap.

  7. @ChrisO

    Souplesse is one of my favourites… like so many others, the concrete translation of suppleness or flexibility doesn’t quite capture the spirit.
    It is about smoothness, fluidity, one-ness and with a touch of class.
    I aspire to la souplesse more than anything else.

    Yeah, like a Casually Deliberate Magnificent Stroke. Great word, great word.

    @Chris, @Cyclops
    The problem with that is that it’s so guy oriented and a bit vulgar; the great thing about all these terms is they’re totally devoid of resorting to that type of cheap expression. That’s maybe a great example of what I was trying to express by saying English isn’t so expressive; we need to swear or be vulgar to become expressive, but it’s a very cheap way to reach that goal (coming from a guy who swears more than almost anyone.)

    The French say á bloc, Americans say balls to the wall. You pick which one sounds better.

    @Tartan1749

    it is somewhat ironic how your article about language contains a typo:
    Rouleur. French for one who goes will on the flat, normally with the grace of an angel.

    *ahem*. Corrected.

  8. @Jeff in PetroMetro

    I like “from hero to goat”. It’s when a rider goes off the front with the intention of getting to the line first (not a team driven tactical or strategic move). It’s for pure personal glory. It’s most often seen in a local criterium. It’s the guy who writes a check with his impatience that his legs can’t cash. He gets swallowed by the peloton and spit out the back in under a lap.

    Ha! That’s awesome!! Hey @Cyclops – does that sounds like anyone you can think of on the last stretch into Langley on Saturday?

  9. Don’t forget “kasseien” or cobbles :)

  10. @lqdedison

    Don’t forget “kasseien” or cobbles :)

    I was actually going to add those but forgot. I love that between France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, we have at least 4 words for cobblestone, each to describe a slightly different type. It’s like the Inuits with their 10,000,023 words for snow (I might have that number wrong.)

    Kasseien, bak steinen, kinder kopjes, pavé.

  11. Kasseien and kinder kopjes are by far the most popular. Talking in amongst the dutch we tend to say kinder kopjes but when in Belgium the word kasseien most be spoken.

    The term kinder kopjes is interesting because among mountain bikers in the midwest the term baby heads is used quite often when referring to those annoying rocks that poke up from a smooth trail disrupting an otherwise smooth flowy ride. Not that I’m admitting to riding a mountain bike or being amongst mountain bikers that is.

    Some words are universal if you’re a cyclist even if you don’t speak said languages. I love it.

  12. I always like danseuse, meaning one who dances on the pedals when out of the saddle going uphill. The English (UK) of honking sounds nowhere near as good. It sounds like throwing up…..hmmmm maybe it is a good word descriptive word after all.
    The way many of the continental phrases emphasise grace and fluidity is telling.

  13. It’s probably the least exotic, and maybe even boring, but en anglais I love ‘pop’ or ‘popped’. It’s alliterative and onomatopoetic, and fun to say. It also conveys the permanence of the phenomenon: once something has popped, it can’t be ‘unpopped’. Yeah?

  14. While there are a few good descriptors en Anglais, mostly from Sherwin & Liggett (and perhaps Bobke – maybe Bobke’s art is the prose of putting great European words into a story Americans can follow? Problement?

    If my franglais is spelleded incorrectly, c”est dommage, je parle en francais, mais je n’ercit pas bein en francais.

    Chapeau Frank, vous avez une bonne comprendment des mots…coeur, n’est pas…

  15. Curious. I didn’t know the Italians had a word for toughness. Style: of course. Panache: certainly.

  16. I like the Flemish (or is it Dutch) massaspurt for bunch sprint. So much more expressive and a great metaphor. Palmares is another good one – better than “list of results.” Kelly slips it into his commentary quite often.

  17. How about “Her face was shiny like the seat of a bus driver’s pants.”?

  18. @Steampunk

    Panache! Nice. I think that may be my favorite word. I love that it implies an almost cocky style.

    I started looking up related cycling words after reading this article and came across one I’d never heard before: Puncheur. From Wikipedia: “a rider who specializes in rolling terrain with short but steep climbs. Ideal races for this type of rider are the one day classics in spring.

    I just like it because in my dumb American brain it sounds like “puncher”, as in someone who punches… things. Yeah!

  19. I’m certainly jealous of those of you who speak two languages fluently. One of my biggest regrets in school was taking the bare minimum 3 years of french in grade school and then going to college and deciding to learn Italian for a year. I can recite a tiny amount of Italian, however a decent enough amount of French stuck to not piss off French Canadians in Montreal. Maybe I should start using the French Now cd I have laying around upstairs.

    Sadly I also wish my family still spoke much of our native German or Gaelic. I really find music from both cultures fun to listen too, even if I don’t understand anything.

  20. Some more French ones:

    Routier, meaning ‘Road man’. It generally applies to truck drivers but can also be used to describe any man of the road including a cyclist.

    Persuivant is so much more exotic than ‘Persuer’, not that any English speaking person would use the latter.

    Soigneur is a great-sounding word which has no English equivalent.

  21. My favorite “Phil and Paul”:

    Cracked

    Honorable mention:

    Decanted out the back
    Getting on terms
    Suitcase of courage

    Bonus – this great Phil quote:

    “Sean Kelly has the bit in his teeth … try as he may, HE CANNOT find a bigger gear on the bicycle … there IS no bigger gear to be found!!! ….” Phil’s working himself into a lather watching Sean Kelly, in a two-man break into Pau in an early-80s TdF: (added 3-Aug-99)

  22. I mentioned this in the lexicon page but I should have waited for this article…
    Sprezzatura

  23. My favorite has to be from “The Rider” – ‘J’ai vu ta lumiere dans ma jante’ A rich language, French, that can spare a word like ‘jante’ for a meaning like rim. (p. 87)

  24. The second sentence makes no sense, even for someone who is only worried about the gist of what he’s saying. Food for the fingers, not eaten with the fingers? What does that mean??

  25. @Oli
    It’s a joke.

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