Cycling is a sport with a rich history and culture. As a racing sport, cycling can boast to be older than all other sports - except maybe athletics and boat races - hence a talented cyclist today has many goals to aim for. From the lofty heights of the Olympics and World Championships, to the quirky “One Day Classics” and the legendary “Hour Record”, cycling lore is replete with haloed achievements.
However, the queen of all trophies in the cycling world, to which any cycling knight would aspire, is the Tour de France. This is a race with more than 100 years of legacy and many records to emulate (the event was first organised way back in 1903). It is a race which has evolved its own unique traditions and culture. And as with anything French, it’s classy, it’s romantic and it’s tough to pronounce for the rest of the world.
So any new fan, staring wide-eyed at the space age cycling machinery and gear, is bound to be bemused by all the strange sounding jargon. But once you learn the ropes, it’s this very culture and strange sounding names that make the event seem all the more special. In fact so successful have some of the tour initiatives been that other sports have taken a leaf out of their books, but more on that later. So here is a short crash course on some terms and etiquette from Le Tour de France (disclaimer: few terms are not unique to this race, but apply generally across cycling).
Peloton: No, this isn’t some forgotten element from the periodic table, it’s the colourful pack of lycra-clad cyclists sweating in touristy France. More precisely, the main group of riders on any stage (except time trials) is called the Peloton. Of course, it derives from French, where it means “platoon”. Most riders are bunched together for a major part of any stage for tactical reasons such as protecting their team leader, shielding from winds, or generally for good old banter.
Maillot Jaune: French again, when translated to English means 'yellow Jersey'. Normally a lean guy wearing a tight yellow lycra jersey would drive the girls (and most people) away. But in Le Tour, this jersey earns you all the respect and adulation, as it is worn by the leader of the General Classification. In simple terms, it is worn by the fastest bloke; who is the leader of the race at the end of the day’s stage. Naturally, at the end of the event, it is worn by the overall winner of the race. As Tolkien would say, one jersey to rule them all...
History alert: The race winner initially wore a green arm band, but Henri Desgrange, the genius behind the idea of the tour, is also credited with making the leading rider wear the yellow jersey in 1913 (the official history pegs the year to 1919). The generally accepted theory behind the choice of colour is that the wily Desgrange wanted to make the yellow newsprint of his newspaper L’Auto more popular in public perception. History has proven it to be a decision of impeccable marketing and PR genius, and most cycling races have followed the trend having their own colour of jerseys. And in case you feel that yellow does not suit a macho cyclist, note that the Giro d’Italia leader wears a 'pink jersey'. Anyway, it's not just cycling, but sports events across the world have adapted the concept, like the coloured caps being worn by the leading performers in the Indian Premier League (IPL). The Maillot Jaune also has a few younger siblings:
Maillot blanc à pois rouges or the red polka-dot jersey for the leader of the mountain classification (best climber).
Maillot vert or the green jersey for the leader of the points classification (best sprinter).
Maillot blanc or the white jersey for the leader of the young rider classification (best young rider, that is rider aged 25 or under, with the lowest aggregate time).
Grand Tour: The three most famous races in the road cycling calendar - Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España, and of course the grand daddy, Tour de France. These three make up for the holy trinity of road cycling and any cyclist dreaming of achieving legendary status needs to conquer them all. Akin to the career slam in tennis, only six cyclists have achieved the feat till date, cementing themselves deeply in cycling lore. But the difficulty of the sport can be gauged by the fact that till date no cyclist (not even Eddy ‘The Cannibal’ Merckx) has been able to win all three in a calendar year.
Domestiques: This is one of the easier translations. This is the term for the riders who do the thankless, yet important domestic chores. No, not buying the team’s grocery, but something similar. Domestiques are the junior members of any team who work for the benefit of the team captain/ leading riders. They perform duties such as shielding the captain from wind, getting him an energy bar from the team car, pacing him back to the peloton in case he falls back, and more such tasks. But don’t take them lightly, as no team is complete without competent domestiques. Some of them are so good that they are called “Super-domestiques”. Maybe Superman himself was one and honed his skills here, who knows!
Hors Categorie: The Tour de France wouldn't be half the race it is, without the gruelling mountain stages. The tour classifies all climbs from 'fourth" to 'first' category, with fourth being the easiest, and first the toughest to summit. Tour legend states that the numbers refer to the gear a car would be in, to go up the climb. But there are mountains, and then there are mountains. And for such beasts, that are beyond such mortal human classification, the tour terms them Hors Categorie, which in French means “beyond categorisation”. Not for the faint-hearted, the riders probably eat like a horse at the end of the climb. Oh, and by the way, tour legend says that cars can’t tackle Hors Categorie mountains in any gear.
Flamme Rouge: The physical manifestation of how much little things can mean in life. Flamme Rouge aka 'red flame' in English, is a triangular piece of red cloth hanging from a rope/ support, which signifies one kilometre left to the finish. So now you can imagine how appealing this piece of cloth is to a rider who has trudged 250 kilometres in pouring rain or scorching sun, or both. The Flamme Rouge is also probably the cause for the red mist that descends on the sprinters once they cross it.
Chapeau: The ultimate mark of respect to any tour rider. Meaning 'hat' in French, saying the word aloud is considered the equivalent to doffing your hat to a competitor.
Hope this small crash course has helped you feel more comfortable with some of the tour’s jargon. Though there are many more eccentricities to encounter in the three weeks of the race, but I’ll let you figure the rest out. Believe me, that is half the fun for fans like us, who are so far away from the real action. So enjoy the hard racing, colourful countryside, heart stopping moments, and at the end of it all, don’t forget to say Chapeau!
Published Date: Jul 08, 2017 10:18 pm | Updated Date: Jul 08, 2017 10:20 pm