A Guide to French Cycling Lingo

The Tour de France is starting today and we’re getting in the mood by exploring expressions & idioms used by the French to colorfully and poetically describe the tactics and the personalities of a bike race. Many date back to early last century, but they’re just as useful and quirky today. If you find yourself watching an illegal French video stream of the tour, wishing you understood what was going on… now you will.

Allumer la mèche: To light a fuse

Meaning: To explode the pack with acceleration after acceleration in order get rid of the slower riders.

Avoir la bise: To have the Kiss

Meaning: Simply to win the race. Race winners will typically be kissed on the cheeks by “podium girls” upon accepting the prize for winning. Many have liked those kisses from the podium girls so much, they’ve ended up marrying them. George Hincapie for one.

Mettre un pétard mouillé: To use a wet firecracker

Meaning: To do a useless attack with no real conviction.

Mettre un braquet d'asthmatique: To put on an asthmatic gear ratio

Meaning: To use a very easy gearing similar to how an asthmatic might climb stairs very slowly to avoid getting out of breath.

Allumer les phares : To turn on the headlights

Meaning: Back in those dark days when rider’s took drugs to enhance their performance, their pupils would dilate, making it look like they’d “turned on the headlights”.

Arroser les fleurs: Water the flowers

Meaning: Cyclists drink liters and liters of water during a race, and though they sweat gallons, sometimes they still need to satisfy a natural need.

Chasse patate: Chase the potato

Meaning: Being stuck between 2 groups with little luck of catching riders ahead, but stronger than riders behind. The term was first heard in the velodrome during the Six Days of Paris. After feeding, the sprints were slower than usual because of digestion.

La Classe: Class

Meaning: The ultimate quality of a cyclist is ‘la Classe”. Given only to the most athletic, most stylish. These are those that pedal only when necessary and with the precision of a swiss clock. It’s a term only given to the particularly gifted and thus, by definitions, they are almost never a fred.

Compter les pavés: Counting the cobblestones

Meaning: To ride slowly. Many races in Europe, especially France & Belgium contain a fair portion of pave. These can be absolutely brutal, so one will be riding slowly not by choice, but by necessity.

Descendre comme une caisse à savon: To descend like a soap box

Meaning: Not knowing how to use the trajectory of the road because of lack of confidence, sliding from end to end and side to side just like a soapy box descending. This is in complete contrast to the best descenders, who eek out as much advantage by leveraging gravity, geometry and sheer balls...

Écraser les pédales: Smash the pedals

Meaning: Merckx smashed the pedals, Anquetil caressed them. Both were effective in a different way, to each its own.

Être affûté: To be sharpened

Meaning: This literally means “to be sculpted”. Not an ounce of fat and just enough muscle to turn you into a rocket.

Etre dans la mafia: To be in the mafia

Meaning: Part of a group composed of members from different teams who all have the same interest and decide to make an alliance.

Faire la lessive : To do the washing

Meaning: Wash a group by doing accelerations and get get rid of the slowest riders.

Faire le métier: To do the job

Meaning: In France cycling is a “métier”, a “job” that you learn and master just like you would like carpentry or journalism. For much of it's history, cycling was very much a blue collar sport with parellels to a blue collar job. It's perhaps not surprising that people would do almost anything to do it well...

Faire rougir le onze dents: To make the eleven teeth go red

Meaning: Go hard in the 11.

Faire connaissance avec la sorcière aux dents vertes: Get to know the green teeth witch

Meaning: Not having any luck during a race and having to spend time on the side of the road in the grass because of crash, mechanical etc. Grass is the green teeth witch.