Cycling

Bespoke: A Guide To Cycle-Speak And Saddle Slang

As a linguist and a cyclist, the language of cycling has always been of interest. If you know even a little French or Italian or Spanish – the main languages of the Grand Tours – it certainly helps when trying to understand what’s going on. Indeed such is the influence of these languages that the Tour de Yorkshire – my local race here in northern England, a legacy event following the visit of the Tour de France to the region in 2014 – not only includes the ‘de‘ in its name but continues to refer to its more significant climbs using the French word ‘côte‘ or ‘hill’ in honour of Le Tour itself. They can sound quite comical – the Côte de Goose Eye or the Côte de Otley Chevin for example – and it must drive the Brexit voters mad that their ‘pure’ English is being ‘corrupted’ by the French. But let’s face it, that all started way back in 1066 (and long may it continue).

But even I, as a fluent speaker of French with a little knowledge of Italian and Spanish, have much to learn when it comes to the ‘language of the saddle’ and a new book that I’ve been sent by British Library Publishing has been keeping me amused and informed this week as I’ve been leafing through its definitions. It’s written by Tom Bromley, is called Bespoke: A Guide To Cycle-Speak And Saddle Slang and will be published on May 3rd. Its 14 chapters dissect the world of professional cycling into its constituent parts ranging from the obvious to the more obscure; The Race, The Riders, but also Nicknames and (who would have thought?!) Cheating. Here’s the publisher’s take:

“Some sports lend themselves to language: cycling is one of them. With its rich history and culture, and its professional roots across the continent and beyond, cycling has developed a terminology that goes well beyond borders, producing a lexicon all of its own.

“This book guides the reader through a land where the road to hell is paved not with good intentions, but with cobbles. This is a place where all the world is a stage, unless you are a one-day specialist. Where its inhabitants come with a litany of arresting nicknames – Badgers, Cannibals, Eagles, Pirates –each with a wonderful story of their own.

“Lavishly illustrated with specially commissioned artworks by acclaimed cycling illustrator Neil Stevens and historical photography from both the British Library collections and L’Équipe, this is a book that presents over 170 of the most lyrical, outlandish and down-right humorous cycling terms (complete with rich anecdotes), taking the reader from the tête de la course to the gruppetto, from the caravane following the race to the tifosi cheering on the mountainside. Insightful and irreverent, Bespoke is the book for anyone who wants to be able to speak cycling.”

British Library Publishing

I’ll second that comment about the illustrations by Neil Stevens; there are some real beauties in there. And Tom Bromley has certainly does his research is rooting out the meanings, origins and stories behind all the words and expressions that feature. Those nicknames for example include Le Petit Ramoneur (Maurice Garin, the first winner of the Tour de France, so named because he was a chimney sweep), The Heron (Fausto Copi, based upon his physique) and even The Yorkshire Hausfrau (the one and only Beryl Burton from here in Yorkshire). When it comes to Cheating, there’s a very interesting section all about Therapeutic Use Exemptions, or TUE which must have been a legal tightrope to write; Bradley Wiggins doesn’t come out of it smelling of roses.

This is a book I’m going to keep on my coffee table for the next few months and dive into whenever I fancy a distraction from the outside world. It’s not only an entertaining read, it’s also educational. I know this for sure as I learnt a new word earlier this week; dégringoler, the French for to tumble or topple over. In cycling, a dégringoleur is a cyclist who, contrary to what you might think, is not one who has a reputation of falling off his bike but one who is a master of the descents. I think with my heavy, luggage-laden touring bike, I might even squeeze into that category myself…

Categories: Cycling

6 replies »

  1. The internet may well be full of references to dicesista meaning descender; they’d be wrong. Discesa is the Italian for descent from which it derives (see how it even has that extra ‘s’ in English? That’s because both words originally come from Latin).

    • I can see your logic. However, are you, perhaps, forgetting that that this is a word specifically used in a cycling context and that, for whatever reason, in that context, it might be spelled differently?

      • It might well be spelled dicesista in English usage. However, I have never heard that word used in English in a cycling or any other context, while I have often heard people saying ‘s/he is a great descendeur’, which uses the correct French spelling while butchering the pronunciation. Like ‘Paris’, or ‘entrepreneur’.

        There are plenty of examples of Italian words used in English, but most retain the correct spelling. Espresso, spaghetti, opera, gelato etc. Lasagna is used incorrectly. The Italian spelling (and pronunciation) is lasagne. Off-hand, I can’t think of many Italian cycling terms that are common currency in English, other than Strade Bianche. I have seen the second part spelled bianchi, which is incorrect.

        I doubt that discesista would be spelled differently in a cycling context in Italian. I have not been able to find one example. It would even be pronounced differently and the meaning would … well, it would be meaningless. I think the example in the book is q.

  2. The Italian word for dégringoleur is discecista with that extra s…sorry I couldn’t help pointing it out.

What do you think?