From Bonking to Broom Wagons: The Essential Tour de France Glossary

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For the uninitiated, Tour de France lingo can be pretty impenetrable.

It can take some time to understand the structured chaos of a Tour de France stage at the best of times, and new cycling fans aren’t helped by the sea of jargon surrounding the sport’s most famous race.

The unfamiliar terms can take many forms: some are technical, some francais, and some are downright gibberish.

So if you’ve been left mystified by Tour de France commentators swanning on about “soigneurs” or gabbling over “grimpeurs”, we’re here to help.

Our Essential A-Z Tour de France Glossary will have you up to speed with all the must-know lingo in no time!

From Bonking to Broom Wagons: The Essential Tour de France Glossary: Title Image

“A” is for…

Autobus

The “autobus” is the group of riders that get dropped by the peloton on mountainous stages. It usually includes riders poorly suited to climbing, such as sprinters and some domestiques.

With no chance of racing competitively on hilly stages, the sole interest is beating the time limit and avoiding disqualification. Camaraderie is a feature of the autobus, as riders band together to conserve energy and for moral support despite team rivalries.

The autobus is also known by the Italian term “grupetto”.

“B” is for…

Bidon

The French term for a water bottle.

Bonking

“Bonking” is the cyclist’s equivalent to “hitting the wall“.

“The bonk” arrives in a sudden hit of complete exhaustion, with leaden legs and a foggy head as the body’s carbohydrate reserves run dry. It’s often caused by failing to refuel properly with food and energy gels mid-race.

A cyclist on a breakaway at the Tour de France.
© ASO/Charly Lopez

Breakaway

A breakaway is a group of riders that accelerate away from the main pack, attempting to stay ahead until the finish line to contest the stage win amongst themselves.

The success of a breakaway depends on factors such as the strength of the riders in the group, the terrain of the stage, the size of the gap they can create, crosswinds, and their ability to work together.

Broom Wagon

The “broom wagon” is a van that follows the back of the race and picks up any riders who can no longer continue due to injury, fatigue, or not meeting time cut-offs.

A bunch sprint at the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./B.Bade

Bunch Sprint

A bunch sprint is when the main pack arrives at the finish line together, allowing the sprinters to fight it out for the stage win.


They’re thrilling but chaotic, with teams fighting to get their sprinters in the best possible position to launch themselves toward the finish line. Crashes – and general chaos – are common.

Bunch sprints are most common on flat stages, as climbs can fragment the group and see sprinters drop to the back.

“C” is for…

Cadence

The rate at which a cyclist turns the pedals, usually measured in RPM (revolutions per minute).

Catégorie

At the Tour de France, climbs are assigned a difficulty rating ranging from Category 4 to Hors Catégorie (HC).

As well as indicating the climb’s difficulty to the audience, the category also determines how many King of the Mountains points are awarded to the first riders over the summit in their bid to win the Climber’s Classification and its famous polka-dot jersey.

Chasers

The chasers are any cyclists attempting to catch up with a breakaway.

Classics

The Classics are the prestigious one-day races held in Europe, mostly in spring.

The five most famous Classics (known as the “Monuments“) are the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Giro di Lombardia, Liége-Bastogne-Liége, and Milan-San Remo.

The Classics are the most prestigious races a cyclist can win outside of the three Grand Tours, and are a key indicator of form heading into the Tour de France.

The road of Alpe D'Huez on a sunny Autumn day.

Col

The French term for a high-altitude mountain pass, the cols are key battlegrounds in the Tour de France and often determine which rider ends up in the yellow jersey.

The most feared and revered of them all is the legendary Col du Tourmalet.

Cracking

A cyclist “cracks” when they can no longer hold the pace of their rivals on a climb.

Teams will attack their leader’s rivals repeatedly on a climb with the aim of cracking them to open decisive time gaps that can change the outcome of the entire Tour.

“Cracking” is used similarly to “bonking”, but the latter is more explicitly linked to a rider’s energy reserves running dry.

“D” is for…

Directeur sportif

French for “sporting director”, the directeur sportif is the general manager of a cycling team.

They’ll follow the peloton in a support car, directing tactics and strategy via radio with their riders.

A domestique collects a water bottle at the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Pauline Ballet

Domestique

The domestiques are riders whose role is to support a team leader, rather than chase glory for themselves.

Their roles can include ferrying food and drinks to the team leader, pacing them up climbs, protecting them from crosswinds, and even surrendering their bike to them after a mechanical issue.

The majority of the riders at the Tour will be domestiques of one form or another, with only a select handful of elite cyclists nominated to fight it out for the yellow jersey themselves.

Drafting

Drafting is the practice of cycling close behind another rider to reduce wind resistance.

Drafting is the fundamental principle that determines almost all cycling strategies and tactics. Riding behind another cyclist can reduce the effort required to maintain their pace by up to 40%. Riding at the rear of a peloton can reduce the drag experience by up to 95%.

Cyclists using a peloton formation to draft up a climb in the French Alps during the Tour de France.

Dropped

A cyclist is “dropped” if they get left behind by the riders they were trying to keep up with.

“E” is for…

Echelon

An echelon is a diagonal line formation riders structure themselves into to protect themselves or their leaders from a crosswind.

Étape

Étape is the French word for a leg of the Tour de France, translating literally as “Stage”.

“F” is for…

Flamme rouge

The flamme rouge (“red flame”) is a red banner that hangs from an inflatable arch exactly one kilometer before the finish line of a stage as an indicator to the riders.

“G” is for…

Jonas Vingegaard wears the yellow jersey after winning the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Charly Lopez

General classification (GC)

The General Classification (GC) is the overall standings of a cycling race.

It’s the main competition at any stage race – the rider described as “winning” the Tour de France is the one who wins the General Classification, rather than one of the secondary contests such as the Points Classification or the Mountains Classification.

The General Classification is won by the rider with the lowest overall time across every stage. The leader of the GC at the start of each day rides in the famous yellow jersey.

Grand Départ

The Grand Départ is the ceremonial start of the Tour de France, marking the beginning of the race.

It is typically held outside of France, with the first three or more stages taking place in the host nation of the Grand Départ.

Climbers riding on a dirt road at the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Pauline Ballet

Grimpeur

French for “climber”, grimpeurs are the mountain goats of the peloton.

Grimpeurs are typically lightweight, with a high power-to-weight ratio, allowing them to conquer the Tour’s towering climbs with ease.

General Classification contenders are typically excellent grimpeurs, as mountain stages provide the greatest opportunity for decisive amounts of time to be won – or lost.

“I” is for…

Intermediate sprint

Intermediate Sprints are spots along the route of a Tour de France stage at which a rider can win points toward the Sprinter’s Classification (green jersey) by crossing the line first.

“K” is for…

A cyclist in the polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains at the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Pauline Ballet

King of the Mountains (KOM)

The King of the Mountains – also known as the Mountains Classification – is a prestigious secondary contest at the Tour de France.

The King of the Mountains classification is based on points (awarded to the first riders to summit categorized climbs) rather than time. The harder the climb, the higher the category, increasing the number of points on offer. Summit finishes also provide bonus KOM points.

The leader of the King of the Mountains at the start of each stage wears the famous polka-dot jersey.

“L” is for…

Lanterne rouge

The lanterne rouge (“red lantern”) is the nickname for the rider in last place in the overall standings (General Classification). The name stems from the red signal lantern traditionally placed on the back of a train.

Rather than a source of embarrassment, the lanterne rouge has come to be considered something of a symbol of perseverance, given the extreme difficulty of surviving the time cut on every stage to complete Le Tour at all.

Lead-out

The lead-out, or “lead-out train”, refers to the strategy and formation of a team trying to set up their designated sprinter for a stage win.

The lead-out riders form a line in front of the sprinter, allowing them to draft while controlling the pace of the peloton. As they approach the finish line, they peel off one-by-one, allowing the sprinter to launch their sprint and hopefully achieve a strong finishing position.

The fastest riders will be last in the queue, helping their sprinter slingshot to the maximum possible speed. The final “lead-out man” will often be a strong sprinter in the their own right – with Mark Cavendish’s long-time lead-out man Mark Renshaw being a great example.

“M” is for…

Maillot jaune

French for “yellow jersey”, the maillot jaune is an international sporting icon that transcends cycling.

The yellow jersey is worn by the rider leading the General Classification at the beginning of each day’s stage.

Mechanical

“Mechanical” is often used as cycling commentator’s shorthand for “mechanical issue”. In other words, a rider who’s “had a mechanical” has been hampered by a problem with their bike.

Musette

Musettes are the bags used to pass food and drinks to cyclists from the roadside as they pass.

Soigneurs (see below) will wait in designated “feed zones” with pre-prepared musette bags, which are then distributed amongst the team’s riders by the domestiques.

“P” is for…

The peloton at the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./A.Broadway

Peloton

The peloton is the main pack of riders in a cycling race.

Riding in the peloton reduces the amount of energy required to maintain a certain pace, as the mass of riders significantly reduces wind resistance. For this reason, the peloton is a key factor in almost all cycling strategy.

A cyclist wears the green sprinter's jersey at the end of the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Charly Lopez

Points classification

The Points Classification (sometimes referred to as the Sprinters Classification) is a secondary contest at the Tour, with points awarded based on the order in which riders cross a stage’s finish line or intermediate sprint.

At the Tour de France, the leader of the Points Classification wears the green jersey.

Prologue

The Prologue is a short individual time trial (see “Time Trial” below) sometimes held before Stage 1 at the Tour de France.

The Prologue is no more than 8 km (5 miles) in length, so it rarely has a significant impact on the overall outcome of the Tour. It doesn’t feature every year.

However, it provides organizers with an opportunity to put a rider in the yellow jersey for Stage 1, which is important for sponsorship purposes – and makes it a prestigious stage for the cyclists to win for the same reason.

Protected Rider

A “protected rider” is typically regarded as one of the team leaders, and is likely a contender for either the General Classification, Points Classification, or key stage victories.

Their “protected” status within the team means they’ll be assisted by their domestiques with drafting, pacing, mechanical issues, and so on.

If a protected rider is dropped by the peloton, their domestiques will usually drop back to pace them back up to the group, rather than abandon them to their fate.

Puncheur

Puncheurs are riders that combine decent climbing ability with explosive sprinting power.

They excel on stages with short, punchy climbs, on which they can drop the pure sprinters on the ascents before outsprinting their rivals to the line.

On longer climbs they’re often dropped by the pure grimpeurs (see above) so puncheurs are rarely GC contenders, but can target victories on stages where the terrain suits them. They also tend to excel at the Spring Classics.

Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Tom Pidcock are some of the standout puncheurs of the current peloton – although the outstanding performances of the latter two in the high mountains at the 2022 Tour may be pushing the definition to the limit!

View from the top of the Col du Tourmalet.

Pyrenees

The Pyrenees are a mountain range on France’s southwestern border with Spain. They have rich cycling heritage and include the iconic Col du Tourmalet.

“R” is for…

Rouleur

Rouleurs are similar to puncheurs and will excel on similar stages, but tend to place slightly more emphasis on maintaining consistently high speeds across a rolling stage compared to the explosive bursts of a puncheur.

This makes them slightly less likely to claim stage victories for themselves, but invaluable as wingmen to pull their leader along a rolling stage or pile pressure onto their rivals.

Rouleurs are also perfect for breakaway attempts, as their ability to lay down consistent power over long periods of time gives them a chance at staying away from the peloton to the finish.

“S” is for…

Soigneur

Soigneurs – often nicknamed “swannys” – are core members of a Tour de France team’s support staff.

The responsibilities of a soigneur can encompass everything from preparing and distributing meals to riders, arranging accommodation and other logistics, monitoring hydration, passing up musette bags during a stage, and providing massages afterward.

Spending so much time with the riders can also see them become part of an unofficial emotional support network during the soaring highs and crushing lows of the Tour de France.

“T” is for…

A cyclist rides in a time trial at the Tour de France.
© A.S.O./Charly Lopez

Time Trial

A time trial is a timed race against the clock, rather than a mass-start race to the finishing line.

Isolated from the assistance of teammates and the protection of the peloton, time trials can have a massive impact on the General Classification of the Tour de France and are considered one of the purest measures of cycling performance.

Time trials are usually individual (ITTs), but can also be team time trials (TTTs) in which all the riders of a team ride together.

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A road cyclist at heart, Rory clocked early on that he had much more of a knack for writing about bikes than he ever did racing them. In recent years, the focus of Rory's love affair with cycling has shifted to bikepacking - a discipline he found well-suited to his "enthusiasm-over-talent" approach. Originally hailing from the United Kingdom, Rory is currently based in Buenos Aires, where he is loving taking advantage of all the backcountry bikepacking Latin America has to offer. Rory is a UESCA-certified cycling coach.

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