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The Ultimate Guide to Cycling Lingo

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What’s the hardest part about learning how to cycle? The pavement (talk about road rash!). Well, if you can’t tell a sprocket from a Schrader, or if you call all things biking-related “whatchamacallits,” it’s time for a quick cycling lingo lesson. Read on to get ready for the Tour de France in no time.

Illustration by Shannon Orcutt
The Basics

Steed:  Cycling without a steed is like horseback riding without a horse. While this steed, or bicycle, doesn’t neigh, it does roll from point A to point B with a little push from the legs.

Road bike: Made of carbon fiber, titanium, steel, or aluminum, road bikes come in a range of shapes and sizes to fit the athletic needs and body of the rider. Unlike your average bicycle, a road bike is more lightweight, has extra gear combinations, and features sports tires that are narrow, inflated at high-pressures, and smooth. All these features make road bikes fit for speed.

Beater bike: Usually a retired steed that’s seen better days, a beater bike, also called a clunker, is still capable of pulling its weight (and the rider’s weight, too!). Cyclists go for a beater bike on the days their devil-may-care attitude can’t be bothered by the technicality of a true road bike.

Cadence: Also known as pedal rhythm, cadence (often measured in revolutions per minute, or RPM) depends on the cyclist’s pushing power and the resistance from the bike’s friction with the ground, whipping winds, and the incline of the road. Everyone has a cadence sweet spot. Find your C-spot by shifting gears until pedaling power matches resistance.

Gears: Bikes have two sets of gears, or the stack of saw-toothed metal disks parallel to the back wheel and the pedals (no, they aren’t repurposed ninja weapons!). The rear gears (say that 10 times fast!) are called the “cassette.” Wannabe gear-heads, check out “The Gear” section below.

Shifting: Being shifty is a good thing in cycling. Shifting, or transitioning from one gear to another, allows cyclists to maintain constant cadence despite changes in resistance or incline on the road. On most bikes the shifter on the right side of the handlebar makes fine-tuning changes to the back gears. The shifter on the left side adjusts the front gears, used for more major shifts. Cyclists spend most of their time shifting the rear gears in search for their cadence sweet spots.

Saddle: Cyclists deserve a little cushion during all their pushing! The saddle, or bike seat, is where rear ends can rest while the legs spin away. Not known for optimum comfort (see “saddle sores” below), the saddle will at least hold you steady during a long day on the road. And newer saddle designs, such as the “no-nose,” promise to limit groin pain and the risk for erectile dysfunction [1].

The Players

Roadie: A roadie, or road geek, is a devoted road cyclist. Roadies know what’s up in the cycling world and could probably teach a rookie biker a thing or two about steeds and riding techniques. Befriend a roadie if you can!

Chasers: Just like a swig of soda after booze, chasers are the cycling go-getters. These riders crank away to pass riders ahead. 

Clydesdale: Larger riders are affectionately nicknamed Clydesdales, a classification reserved for riders that are 200 pounds or more.

Fred and Doris: Cycling newbies are nicknamed "Fred" and "Doris" by the more serious old-timers. (New roadies, keep reading to sound like seasoned pros in no time!)

Spinner: We’re not talking about records here. A spinner is a cyclist who pedals at a fast cadence in smaller gears, relying on pedal RPM for speed. Each pedal push is light and easy, but requires more rapid pedaling to keep up the pace. Such high speeds will have onlookers’ heads spinning too!

Pusher: There’s nothing illegal about this line of work. These are hard-working cyclists that pedal slowly (at a slow cadence) in large gears. Though pushing feels more productive, spinning is actually more efficient.

Squirrels and turkeys: Some cycling lingo is just plain fuzzy. Squirrels are panicky or unstable riders who can't maintain a steady line, while turkeys are inexperienced riders. Be cautious around this wildlife to stay safe on the road.

The Gear

Clip-ins: Clip-ins (aka step-ins and clipless pedals) are a type of bike pedal that lock onto the cleat of a special cycling shoe so that the rider is firmly attached to the pedal. To lock into clip-ins, firmly step down and forward until it clicks (some clip-ins require twisting the cleat into the lock). To unclip, twist the heels outwards.

Look: One of the two major clipless pedal styles, Look pedals require Look shoe cleats, which protrude from the sole of the cycling shoe. Be prepared to waddle like a duck after dismounting from the steed.

SPD: Unlike Looks, cleats of an SPD, or Shimano Pedaling Dynamics, are built inside a recess in the shoe’s sole and allow for steadier walking.

Cycling shoes: It ain’t a true sport without a special shoe, right? (Sorry swimmers… just kidding!). Cycling shoes are sleek kicks that lock into clip-in pedals, allowing for more efficient transfer of power [2]. For those riders who want to be a little less committed to their bikes, toe cages (or toe straps) are a reasonable alternative to clip-ins.

Brain bucket: Cover your cranium. Mind your mind. Don’t neglect your noggin. However it’s said, make sure to wear a cycling hard hat — the helmet is a cyclist’s most important piece of gear! [3] So don’t be that newbie cyclist without a brain bucket — we’re looking at you, Fred.

Chamois: Let’s set this straight now. Chamois, or the padded bike shorts cyclists wear, should never be worn with underwear. Total cycling faux pas. All that comes between sit bones and saddles should be the spandex chamois (aka “shammy”), which limits chafing, blisters, and saddle sores (see below).

Jersey: Forget tanks and Ts. Cyclists wear jerseys, which wick away sweat and keep them cool (in more ways than one!).  Successful pros can even earn special jerseys throughout races. In the Tour de France, the four most well known jerseys are the coveted yellow jersey (for the overall race leader), the polka dot jersey (for the best climber, or “King of the Mountains”), the green jersey (rider with greatest number of stage points), and the white jersey (for the best young rider). Another impressive piece of jersey swag is the rainbow jersey, worn by the reigning world champion.

Super suit or kit: Some athletes like to dress to impress, and cyclists are no exception. A super suit is a matchy-matchy cycling outfit combo that includes the shorts, jersey, and even the shoes and socks. The really stunners match their bikes, too!

The Mechanical Stuff

From spokes and seats to nuts and bolts, a road bike has a gazillion mechanical parts. Check out this helpful video on bike parts for a more visual summary of bike anatomy.

Frame: The frame is the bike’s backbone, or the geometrical tubing connecting its parts. Often hollow and made of lightweight material, the frame comes in all different shapes and lengths. A properly fitting frame size is important for efficient energy use and pedaling posture [4].

Road/racing tires: Skinny, bald, and bursting at the seams. Sounds attractive, no? Racing tires are made narrow, without tread, and kept at high pressures to minimize friction and maximize speed. The tires are usually inflated to 110-120 psi (pounds per square inch) making them rock hard — just like a cyclist’s glutes.

Clincher: A clincher is the standard road bike tire unit that includes the rubber tire (as always, rubbers are for protection!), an outer rim that the tire holds onto, and a separate tube within the tire that requires inflation.

Schrader: A Schrader valve, found on most tires, is used to inflate the tube found within a cycling tire. Luckily, bike pumps do the trick! Pump away until the tires reach their appropriate PSI, which should be listed along their rim close to the spoke nipples (minds out of the gutters, please).

Blow/pop a tire tube: Snap, crackle, POP! Another tube bites the dust. Don’t fret, flat tires happen to the best of cyclists, which is why riders always carry extra tubes and a portable CO2 canister to re-inflate the tire when on the go. 

Mudgaurds: For those wet, swampy days, a mudguard (or mud flap) is a rider’s best friend. Attached to the back of the seat, a mudguard hovers over the rear wheel to block the spray from the kicked up mud.

Quick release: The quick release (or “QR” to the bike savvy) is a bolt and lever that allows bikers to manually adjust different parts of the bike. There is a QR that adjusts seat height, and another that clamps the wheel. Unhinge and twist the QR to raise the seat or remove the wheel as needed.

Drops and hooks: No, this isn’t a new dance move. Drops are the lower part of the down-turned road bike handlebar while the curved segments are called hooks.

Bike chain: The bike chain, or the loop of chain links that encircle the gears, make the wheels go round and round. Sometimes the chain slips off and needs to be finagled back on — be prepared to get those hands dirty!

Lube: Bikes need TLC too, so don’t forget the lube. Maintain the chain by applying generously before rides. Lube love goes a long way.

Breaks: Brakes… pshh, who needs them? Well, in a car-eat-bike world, cyclists sure do. Road bike brakes come in a variety of styles and are usually found near the shifters. The left brake puts the kibosh on the front tire and the right brake slows the back tire. To abruptly stop, squeeze both brakes. Never squeeze the left brake alone, unless front flipping over handlebars is your thing.

Drivetrain: A bicycle’s drivetrain is the mechanical system that converts a cyclist’s pedaling power into forward movement. You know, all that metal stuff between the wheels! Drivetrains usually include the pedals, front and rear derailleurs, cranks, cassette, sprockets, and the chain.

Sprocket: When cyclists use the word gears, they are loosely talking about sprockets (aka cogs), or the ninja weapon-like wheels with teeth. While these teeth can bite (see “chainring tattoo” below), their actual purpose is to latch onto the links of the bike’s chain to help pull the bike forward.

Crankset: Part of the drivetrain, the crankset (aka front chainrings) collectively refers to the sprockets closest to the front wheel (next to the pedals) and the crankarms that rotate them.

Cassette: No, this isn’t a throwback to 1980s mixtapes. The cassette, or rear block, is the set of sprockets next to the rear tire. The back wheel typically has five to nine sprockets. The biggest sprocket (the innermost, closest to the wheel) is for easy-peasy pedaling. The smallest, outermost sprocket allows for faster speeds, but is harder to pedal unless the bike is zooming downhill.

Derailleur: The derailleur (or front and rear mechs) moves the chain from gear to gear whenever the shifters tell it to. There is a derailleur in the front for the crankset and another in the rear for the cassette.

Watt: Pushing pedals generates major watts, which is the measurement used to define cycling power. So the more oomph applied to the pedals, the greater the wattage.

LBS: Slang for your local bike shop, this is where “techs” and “wrenches” (bike mechanics) tweak steeds until they’re good as new.

The Aches and Pains

Bonk: Runners call it the wall, cyclists call it bonk. Bonk is a state of utter exhaustion most often felt by riders who skimped on breakfast or didn’t hydrate well. Bonk recovery requires rest, H2O, and high-carb foods. Don’t let bonk happen to you!

Road rash: Cycling is only fun if the one doing the pavement cruising is the steed, not a cyclist’s skin. A spill can leave riders with painful scrapes, especially on the thighs, hips, and butt — the body parts that usually hit the ground first. To avoid pounding the pavement, always be mindful of traffic and road conditions, and never ride without your brain bucket!

Saddle sores: A chamois can only do so much to ward off leg-to-seat chaffing. The up-and-down pedaling may bestow sores in the nether-regions — a true pain in the butt.

Biff: Also know as a bike crash, biffs are not your BFFs.

Endo: An endo is when a cyclist flips over the handlebars, end over end.

Used and abused: When cyclists wrap up a long and strenuous ride, they feel whooped, even if they steer clear of endos and road rash [5]. Take off the edge with an ice bath.

Vitamin I: The go-to Rx for Generation Y, Vitamin I (or Ibuprofen) is the pain reliever of choice by many used and abused cyclists. Like all meds, Ibuprofen should be taken with care (so check with your doc first!). And remember rest and recovery days are key, as is dynamic stretching.

Chainring tattoo: A smooch from the chainring is hardly romantic. A chainring tattoo, or “rookie mark,” refers to the patterned grease spots left on a cyclist’s leg after accidentally pressing against the chainring. Get ready to enlist some of your own grease (elbow grease that is!) when buffing off this temporary tat.

Wonky: Anything that is off-kilter when cycling, whether it is a bike part or another rider’s mood, is deemed wonky.

Keep the rubber on the road: A cyclist’s way of saying “ride smart” (or “you better not be a turkey and crash because I want to jam hard today”).

The Race

Criterium: A criterium, or “crit”, is a short cycling race on city streets that typically lasts less than an hour and covers 5 km or less.

Century: A century is a 100-mile race.

Time Trial: A staggered race against the clock, a time trial often involves alien-like helmets for streamlined speeds.

Grand Tour: Does the Tour de France ring a bell? Lance fans can tell you that the annual race through France is part of the European Grand Tour, or the triad of professional cycling races in France, Italy, and Spain, each lasting three consecutive weeks. They involve back-to-back days on the saddle, with a mix of individual and team time trials, hill climbs, and sprints totaling over 3,000 km (over 2,000 miles!!!).

Slipstream: Whenever possible, cyclists take advantage of slipstreams, or the pockets of air behind moving objects that break the wind. Sitting in the slipstream (or “drafting”) allows riders to expend 30-40 percent less energy [6]. Drafting behind a motor vehicle is called “motorpace.”

Peloton: Watch out Mufasa, stampede! The stampeding pack of riders in a road race is called the peloton (French for “little ball,” and also known as the bunch or pack). Why cramp each other’s style, though? Riding in packs allows riders to take advantage of slipstreaming, saving them some much-needed energy.

Crank: Pedal like mad! Kick up the RPM’s (remember: revolutions per minute) to reach lickety-split speeds.   

Jam: Ready or not, a jam is a period of hard, high-speed cycling. Crank away!

Hammer: Did someone say hammer time? Hammering, or “big ringing it,” is pedaling hard in the big gears, which have the greatest resistance but pack the most power. A hammerfest is a long, grueling session of hammering, sometimes when battling a strong headwind.

Attack: Ready to make a move? An attack, or breakaway, is a sudden attempt to pull ahead from a rider or group of riders. 

Jump: An attack right off the bat, a jump marks the start of a sprint.

Kick: The final attack in a sprint, a kick is the last-ditch effort to pass racers ahead.

Jaunt: A jaunt is a leisurely ride, when cyclists can take in the sights as they wiz by. But remember, eyes on the road — even when jaunting!

JRA: “Just riding along” is a jaunt gone wrong. Techs and wrenches hear the same old fishy story when a beat up steed comes in for repairs: “Oh, I was just riding along…. then I hit a pothole and my bike split into pieces!”

Full tuck: Tuck and roll! Better yet, full tuck (or crouch down towards the handlebars) to roll at maximum speeds on descents.

Granny Gear: If grandma were a cyclist, this would be her go-to gear. Granny gear describes the lowest gear ratio possible. This means the bike is on the smallest chainring in the front wheel and the largest chainring in the back (largest cassette cog). On flat roads, granny gear feels like effortless spinning. On steep inclines, granny gear is a survival necessity. Granny always knows what’s best.

LSD: LSDs are quite the trip. Hold on, not that kind of trip! LSD refers to a long training ride at steady distance, which usually means a two-hour cycling trip at a solid aerobic pace.

In the zone: Consider this cycling nirvana. Being “in the zone” is a state of riding bliss when the cadence sweet spot just feels oh so good.

Did we leave out any cycling lingo that you love? Share it in the comments below!

My longstanding passion for health has ushered me down an exciting (albeit lengthy!) career path in medicine. As a medical student in New York City,... Read More »

Works Cited

  1. Cutting off the nose to save the penis. Schrader, S.M., Breitenstein, M.J., and Lowe, B.D. Division of Applied Research and Technology, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Cincinnati, OH. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2008 Aug;5(8):1932-40.
  2. Muscle coordination while pulling up during cycling. Mornieux, G., Gollhofer, A., and Stapelfeldt, B. Universität Freiburg, Institut für Sport und Sportwissenschaft, Freiburg, Germany. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 2010 Dec;31(12):843-6.
  3. Investigating helmet promotion for cyclists: results from a randomised study with observation of behaviour, using a semi-automatic video system. Constant, A., Messiah, A., Felonneau, M.L., et al. PLoS One, 2012;7(2).
  4. Effects of bicycle saddle height on knee injury risk and cycling performance. Bini, R., Hume, P.A., and Croft, J.L. Sport Performance Research Institute New Zealand, School of Sport and Recreation, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand. Sports Medicine, 2011 Jun 1;41(6):463-76.
  5. Overuse injuries in professional road cyclists. Clarsen, B., Krosshaug, T., and Bahr, R. Oslo Sports Trauma Research Centre, Department of Sports Medicine, Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, Norway. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 2010 Dec;38(12):2494-501.
  6. Maximising performance in triathlon: applied physiological and nutritional aspects of elite and non-elite competitions. Bentley, D.J., Cox, G.R., Green, D. et al. Health and Exercise Science, University of New South Wales, Australia. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 2008 Jul;11(4):407-16.