What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Bookshelf: Boulting’s Vélosaurus

Fans of professional cycling live follow a niche sport which, for many of its features, relies on a foreign language. The French did not invent the bicycle but were early adopters and it is generally accepted that the first bicycle race was held on May 31, 1868 in a park in Paris. Cyclesport has a great tradition in the country so it is no surprise that lots of French terminology is used even by those who are not multilingual but want to be insiders. “Boulting’s Vélosaurus,” by British television broadcaster Ned Boulting, is a dictionary of cycling terms that may surprise and impress your non-cycling friends who already baffled by the sport. But then again, these terms will baffle almost anyone, including native French speakers.

The author begins this slim volume by starting encouragingly:

  1. “The language of the peloton is rich, fascinating, and terrifyingly French. Cycling cognoscenti casually refer to the échapéé and talk of rouleurs and pavé, leaving outsiders nodding sagely in a fog of incomprehension. Well, bluff no more!”

But something seems fishy in that introduction as he goes on to write: “Today is the Grand Départ of your Éducation Cycliste.” This sounds like Franglais as the French would probably use “Formation Cycliste” but turning the pages of the book one quickly comes to the conclusion that this book is meant to entertain dyed-in-the-wool cycling fans in one way, and speakers of French in a completely different one.

The very real l’Alpe d’Huez

The tone is set with the first entry. “Alpe (nm)” is “An Alp.” We then leap into the first longer definition, which is “Accroissement (marginal) (nm).” This is, of course, “A (marginal) gain” and the author confronts us with a bizarre story about the directeur sportif who changed the mobile phone numbers of all his riders to palindromes. Needless to say, the riders of the wonderfully-named but sadly non-existent Laverie La Poste-Yogadrome pro team were unable to take advantage of this innovation, coming 11th in the team time trial of the Tour de Finistère (a race that does exist).

There are other real races mentioned, and even real teams, but the strength of the book lies in the beautifully-adapted French words to perfectly capture a concept in cycling. For example, “Arriviste (nmf)” is “a rider who times his or her effort to perfection, arriving with uncanny precision and at the very last minute to take the victory, having been entirely invisible for the preceding hundreds of kilometres and having contributed nothing to the chase.”

Team Sky – Racing by remote control

“Autoguidage (nm)” was a new term to me. Meaning “racing by remote control” the entry refers to Team Sky’s purported program of micro-lobotomies in 2012 and 2013 to reduce the uncontrollable effects of independent thought. “Badinage (nm),” which refers to amusing banter, is given a cycling twist with the news that French badinage is considerably more sophisticated than the lightweight English version, and likely to feature literary allusions. The example provided to illustrate is Jérôme Pineau (who retired after the 2015 season and, yes, real), a purported master of badinage, who supposedly ridiculed fellow IAM Cycling teammate Sylvan Chavanel at breakfast for “his excessive use of pomade, as if he were trying to seduce Madame Bovary herself.” The author of the famous novel was from the same region of France as Chavanel, so this drew “appreciative chuckles” from the other IAM riders. Right.

Nancy - France - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Sylvain Chavanel (Fra-IAM Cycling) pictured during stage - 7 of the 101th Tour de Fance 2014 - from Epernay to Nancy - photo Wessel van Keuk/Dion Kerckhoffs/Cor Vos © 2014

There are just so many gems in this book it is hard to choose a few. Whether reading about the East German masseur known as “the Embalmer,” or that “Escargot (nm)” is a pejorative term for an unprepossessing cycling fan, or that a “Kimono” is an ill-fitting skinsuit, there is something on every page to amaze and confound. Who can remember the Canadians of McCluskey’s Salmon team, or knew that Lance Armstrong was lifted from his bike and carried aloft on a carbon-fibre platform that looked like a Star Wars X-wing fighter at the end of each stage? Or that only recently has the Française des Jeux team ended its initiation practice of having new riders dress up as Little Bo Peep and report their lost sheep at the local police station in Jausiers?

Paris - France - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Jens Voigt (Dui-Trek Factory Racing Team) pictured during stage - 21 of the 101th Tour de France 2014 - from Evrt to Paris - photo Wessel van Keuk/Dion Kerckhoffs/Cor Vos © 2014
Jens Voigt

There are many fabricated quotations, including one from Jens Voigt about putting his wife through all that childbirth trouble and many references to old customs of bike racers, such as the placement of raw steaks into shorts to reduce the pain of riding (“Rumsteak (nm)”) But Mr. Boulting recognizes the wider world that pro cycling has now embraced and we have reference to foreign races such as the Tour of the Wuxi Industrial Development Basin, where one is likely to encounter lesser-known squads including the Hong Kong Combined Botanical Sciences Students CC, Think Australia Drink Australia, and Taiwanese champions Go Go Mini Pants.

Once the reader has made his or her way from “Alpe” to “Zut! (excl)”–ideally over many sittings—it is clear that “Boulting’s Vélosaurus” has filled a previously unknown gap in cycling as well as etymological literature. It can be particularly recommended for cognoscenti (that’s actually an Italian word) of cyclesport, people who already have an appreciation for the history and lore of this passion that all PEZ readers share. It is a book that will confuse and mislead and entertain in equal measures and can be your key (see “Serrurerie (nf)”) to unlocking the almost Masonic secrecy of French cycling culture. Just remember: “Panache (nm)” means “riding with doomed flamboyance, conscious of the need to renew one’s contract.” Mr. Boulting has indeed written his book with panache aplenty.

“Boulting’s Vélosaurus: A Linguistic Tour de France”
by Ned Boulting
256 pp., hardbound
Yellow Jersey Press/Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN 978-0-224-10064-9
Suggested Price: UK₺ 10.00; C$22.99

Available on Amazon: www.amazon.com/Boultings Velosaurus

Photos here are not from the book.

When not enjoying Estivage (nm), or the summering of cycling fans, like alpine cattle, on high mountain passes, Leslie Reissner may be found handling his Petit Robert at www.tindonkey.com

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.