Cycling Jargon

Cyclist running downhill on his bike.

Don’t know your piranhas from your Prestas? Your soigneurs from your souplesse? Then our handy A-to-Z guide to cycling-related blah is bound to help…


A type of informal race usually held in cities and often organized by and for bike messengers. Certainly the race is supposed to replicate the type of riding a courier might experience during a typical shift – complete with traffic lights, stray dogs, angry pedestrians etc.

Although there are a number of variations, the most common format sees a checkpoint being given to riders at the start of a race, with the next checkpoint only revealed once the rider’s reached it. In this way they’d make their way around a multi-checkpoint course. This type of illegal racing is popular all over the world and has even landed some organizers a little jail time.


If bombing around backstreets Alleycat style seems a little bit, erm, racy for your tastes you might want to try the more refined cycling challenge that an audax presents. This is the British name for what the French caii a randonnee or a brevet and is essentially a very long ride – by which we mean hundreds and hundreds of miles. Like the shorter sportive, an audax isn’t a race, rather it’s an attempt to complete a distance within a set time limit. Just getting to the finish is the aim of the game with these mega-endurance events.


No, not the world’s favorite bubble-crammed chocky bar, but a catch-all marketing term used to talk up the aerodynamic efficiency of anything from bike frames and helmets, to jackets and sunglasses. To be honest, unless you’re racing or a serious time-trial list, the kind of gains ‘aero’ products offer won’t make an awful lot of difference to your performance. Although they may make you look cooler, and that of course is what’s really important.


A rather amusing term for the very unfunny condition that is road rash. Come off your bike at speed and even if you manage to avoid braking any bones, chances are you’ll end up with abrasions on your legs, arms or even face that resemble a slice of finest Danish streaky. Hence the porcine food product analogy.


An emergency get-you-home measure used to cover a cut in the tread or sidewall of a tire suffered on a ride. A boot can be made from almost anything. A piece of discarded cardboard, a gel wrapper, even a leaf – as long as it’s strong enough to prevent the tube pushing through and exploding.


A term used by cyclists to describe what marathon runners often call ’hitting the wall’ and is caused by glycogen depletion. Derived from the original meaning ‘to hit’, it made its first appearance in this sense – ie to describe extreme fatigue – in a 1952 article in The Daily Mail. By the mid-70s, the term ’to bonk’ had expanded its meaning to include having sexual intercourse with someone. So be very careful of the context in which you use this one. Telling another cyclist that you have bonked is perfectly acceptable. Telling him that you want to bonk, however, may result in a court injunction.


Bottom Bracket

Could well be a device used by plastic surgeons to prop up flaccid posteriors, but in cycling, a bottom bracket (BB) is the assembly of bearings at the base of the main triangle of your bike (where the down tube meets the seat tube) housing the spindle that joins the crank arms, allowing you to turn the pedals freely. While most areas of the modern bicycle are standardized, there are approximately 3,280 different types of modern BB. A press fit BB is simply one in which bearings housed in a metal or plastic cup are pressed into the shell, rather than screwed in via a traditional threaded shell.


Otherwise known as a sag wagon, this is a support vehicle that follows a race, tour or recreational ride carrying medical equipment, food, tools or riders’ luggage. It will also ‘sweep up’ any bonked (as opposed to bonking) riders who are too worn out to continue.


When describing speech, this lovely word refers to the subtle, often mellifluous inflections and modulations in a person’s voice. When that person gets on a bike, however, cadence just means how fast his possibly bacon-addled legs can spin around. Also known as pedaling rate this is measured in revolutions per minute (RPM). For the definition of ‘high’ cadence, just watch Chris Froome spinning up a mountain at i20rpm.


A mix tape filled with banging House choons from the late 80s? Alas not. rather this is the cluster of cogs (or sprockets) that sits on the hub of your back wheel which your chain moves up and down depending on which gear you’ve opted to ride in.


A 100 mile ride or race. A metric century is 100km which, just to confuse matters, is actually 62.137 miles.


Say Sammy like you’re drunk. Yep, that’s how you pronounce this French word that’s used to describe the pad in a cyclist’s shorts. Modem synthetic pads wick away moisture, as well as providing a bit of a cushion to prevent chaffing – as long as you remember to remove your under crackers first.


In a pub, this constitutes a short that accompanies a pint. In a race, it describes a slower rider who’s trying to catch the rider ahead of them. Who’s presumably faster because he didn’t hit the boozer the night before the race.


The circular metal disc (or discs) with teeth that your pedals are attached to. Your chainset, meanwhile, is the combination of chainrings, crank arms and the spindle that joins them.

Chain gang

A group of cyclists, usually riding in one or two parallel ‘pace lines’, riding in the slip stream of (or ‘drafting’ behind) a lead rider. Because it’s easier to ride in the pack (up to 40% less effort is required). members of the chain gang take it in turns to ride at the front. After the lead rider has done their stint ‘taking a pull’, they drop off to one side and slip down the chain. When there are enough riders, turns at the front can be brief as the two lines continually rotate in a chain-like loop. When done correctly, it can considerably speed up a ride. When done incorrectly, it can result in a big pile of sweary cyclists.

Clipless pedals

These are pedals that you clip into with cycling shoes via cleats. Why are they called clipless rather than clip-in pedals? Because not everything in the world makes sense, OK?


Also known as a crit, these are short, fast cycling races of usually an hour or less. Typically raced through city streets, they involve riding several laps on a closed circuit of between 1-3km. Speeds upwards of 50kmh are averaged in top races on tracks that often include short straights and tight corners. Popular with people who like to fall off bicycles.


Also known as CX, this is an off-road bike race done over a muddy obstacle course, quite often in the driving rain. No. really, some people do this for fun. It can also refer to the type of bike they use, which tends to look like a road bike but with fat, knobbly tires and disc brakes.


A rider whose job is to work for their team leader during a race. The name comes for the French word for ‘servant’ – not that there’s anything servile about a domestique. Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas is a domestique and you wouldn’t call him obsequious (certainly not to his face). The role of a domestique is a tactical one. designed to set the pace for and defend a team’s top rider, as well as fetching bottles and food from the team car.


Your bike will most likely have two of these, a front one and a rear one. The front one is positioned just above your chainrings, the rear one is just below your cassette. They’re the mechanisms that move the chain from gear to gear when shifting. The technology dates back to the 19th century but wasn’t commonly used on bicycles until the 1930S. Before then, if you wanted to change gears you needed to stop your bike, remove the rear wheel, and flip it around for either uphill or downhill mode, then remount it.


OK, so your legs maybe the actual engine but this is the mechanical system on your bike that converts all that leg spinning into forward movement. So think pedals, chainset, cassette and chain, plus front and rear derailleurs.


This is the lower curve of your handle bars where your hands tend to move to when you’re bombing down a hill. When you hunch down to grab your bikes bars here, you’re lowering your center of gravity, which allows you greater control of the bike at high speed. Also makes you more aero.


When you’re riding in a group and get hit by a crosswind, simply riding behind another rider isn’t going to give you much relief. Instead you’re going to need to ride more to the side of the rider in front of you that provides the most shelter from the wind. When a group of riders arrange themselves thusly, you get an echelon. When that echelon becomes so wide that there’s no space for the rider at the back he will end up ‘in the gutter’, riding directly behind the last rider and in many cases will eventually get ’dropped’ – ie end up struggling away on his own as the echelon vanishes into the distance.


When a cyclist flips over their handlebars end over end. Otherwise known as ahhh-thud-ouch!


A fixed-gear bike that has a single speed and often no brakes. This means you can’t freewheel or coast, and need to pedal backwards to stop.

False Fiat

A sneaky low-gradient climb that often appears halfway up a steeper climb. So even though it might look deceptively flat and supposedly easy, it still has the power to make your mouth produce swear words.

Gear lnches

Ordinary (aka penny-farthing) bicycles were designed with huge front wheels that allowed higher speeds – as long as the rider had the legs to turn them. Then some clever chap (probably with very skinny legs) invented the chain-driven ‘safety bicycle’, allowing multiple gears to be introduced. Combining a big chainring on the crank with a smaller sprocket on the rear wheel. means a single turn of the cranks will turn the rear wheel several times. A modern road bike with a 50T (tooth) chainring paired with an 11T sprocket is equivalent to an ordinary with a 120-inch front wheel. You can work out the ‘gear inches* of any combination by multiplying rear wheel diameter by the number of teeth on the chainring, divided by the number of teeth of the sprocket. Probably with a calculator.

Granny Ring

On a bike with three chainrings, this is the smallest, usually used in combination with the largest sprocket. This obviously makes pedaling much easier and the joke is that this is the gear your granny would use. Or, alternatively, that it doesn’t have many teeth. Which we think is both unfunny and unfair. Big shout out to the nation’s nans!

Gravel Bike

Like a regular road bike but usually with chunkier tires and disc brakes. Designed for more off-road exploits and rides on gravel roads. Also known as an adventure bikes.


Sounds like an Italian ice-cream but is actually the term used to describe a large group of stragglers in a race who form on a mountain stage when the more accomplished climbers open up a lead. They work together to finish within the stage s time limit so the/11 be allowed to race the next stage. Also known in French as the autobus.

Half Wheel

When you’re riding alongside someone at the front of a group and allow your front wheel to creep forward, forcing them to increase their speed to keep level. which is an easy way to become unpopular on group rides. Also used to describe overlapping your front wheel with the rear wheel of the rider in front of you in a pace line, which is another good way to make yourself unpopular because it often ends up with a trip to A&E for both riders.


French bike maker that invented the first clipless pedal system for road cyclists, based on ski bindings. Uses a cleat fixed to the sole of the shoe with three bolts, a standard adopted by Shimano for its own road clipless pedals – although you can’t use Look cleats with Shimano pedals, and vice versa.


Stands for long, steady (or slow) distances and is a term used to describe lengthy training rides carried out at a steady aerobic pace. So like the other LSD it does involve taking a trip, just not one where you’ll lose all sense of time and start hallucinating. Daddio.


Simply put. when a bit of your bike breaks, bursts, falls of for fails you. Can result in your bike getting thrown into a bush. Which doesn’t actually help but it might make you feel better.


A group of cyclists. The French word for platoon. That is all.

Pinch Flat

When you hit a bump in the road, ‘pinching’ your inner tube between the tire and the wheel rim, causing it to go pop. Typically leaves two closely spaced holes in the tube, hence the common description of this type of puncture as a ’snakebite’. To avoid it, keep your tires properly pumped up. Also happens when replacing a tire and you trap the tube under the tire bead. Double check the edges of your rim when changing a tire to ensure you can’t see the tube. If you can, you can expect a pinch flat, so push it back in.


A type of thievery that involves the stripping down of bike parts from parked/locked up bikes until nothing is left but the chain and the bit of the bike its chained to. Can also be used as a verb as in: ‘Crikey, some bounder has only gone and piranha-ed my Pinarello.’


A type of valve typically found on the type of high-pressure inner tubes used on road bikes.

Quick Release

Also known as QR. this is a bolt lever that allows you to manually remove wheels or adjust your saddle height without the need for tools by just unhinging said bolt and twisting it.


A rider who is considered an accomplished all-rounder. who can do a great job for a team, grinding out the miles at high speed, while also being good at time trials. A certain Mr. B Wiggins would be a fine example of this.


The main alternative to Presta valves, and commonly used on mountain bikes (MTB) and car tires.



Shimano Pedaling Dynamics, a clipless pedal system with cleats that are smaller than LOOK-style road cleats and easier to walk in, since the cleat is recessed into the sole of the shoe. Mainly used for MTB or cyclocross, where you dismount your bike more often, but also works on road bikes.


A non-riding member of a team whose role is to support the riders, including transportation and organization of supplies, preparation of the team’s food, post-ride massages and personal encouragement.


Used to describe a rider with style on the bike, particularly one with a smooth and graceful pedaling style at high cadence. Wiggo has souplesse but Froome, not so much.

Tubeless Tires

A wheel system using airtight clincher tires and liquid sealant, eliminating the need for an inner tube. This allows you to run really low tire pressures without pinch flatting. If something penetrates your tyre, the liquid quickly seals it.


Replaces traditional quick-release with a wider diameter axle that screws into the frame dropouts. Stiffer than a QR, but slower to remove/replace.


Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body of cycle sport, based in Geneva, Switzerland, and run by a Yorkshireman, Brian Cookson.


The SI unit of power, or the rate at which energy is used over time. In cycling. watts per kilograms (or watts/ kg) also takes the riders weight into consideration and gives an idea of how good you will be at going up hills.


The art of mindful cycling, taking a zen approach. No bonking is involved. Tantric or otherwise.

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Cyclist running downhill on his bike.

Cycling Jargon

Don’t know your piranhas from your Prestas? Your soigneurs from your souplesse? Then our handy