Author Topic: A Glossary of Cycling Terms


A Glossary of Cycling Terms
« on: May 14, 2008 »

ACTIVISM. Cycling with intent.

ADVANCED STOP LINE. Paint which theoretically grants cyclists the special power to stop ahead of motorists. In practice, most people who pilot internally combusted vehicles can also see and respond to this paint.

AERO TUCK. Near-foetal posture adopted by racing cyclists in an attempt to slipstream themselves. With some modification, also handy for plane crashes. The invention of the aero bar, otherwise known as the 'rack', has been an indispensable aid for practitioners, but those suffering from above-the-belt overhang may require the fitting of a corset for this position to be even remotely feasible.

AIR BRAKING. Your only option if conventional brakes fail. Merely sit-up-and-beg and wait until you slow down naturally.

ALLEN KEY. Pivotal invention in the evolution of the bicycle. Developed by Ikea. Previously accessories could only be attached using a piece of stout rope, or by forging them on, which is why early bike stores were often staffed with former sailors and blacksmiths. With the introduction of the Allen key (and not dissimilar Alan key) the cycle accessories market was free to flourish, and stores could hire teenagers instead.

ANKLING. In those lost days of innocence, this was what women did to attract suitors. Now it simply describes an efficient technique of pedalling.

AUDAX. Organised ride in which entrants keep one eye on the route sheet and the other on the clock, with 'controls' to monitor tea and cake consumption.

BELL. What a bicycle uses to talk. Mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, in her book The Nine Tailors, describes the gruesome end of a victim of too much ringing: fair warning to governments which seek to make bells compulsory. Simply shouting Oi!, on the other hand, is not known to have ever killed anyone.

BIKE STORE. Showroom, garage, shelter from the storm. Where many cyclists choose to put their money instead of banks.

BIRDY. High performance aluminium folder. Devotees salivate over its German engineering and the simple fact that it isn't a Brompton. Coincidentally the name of an allegorical novel by William Wharton, about a boy who thinks he's a birdy (not the bike).

BONK, THE. Utter exhaustion experienced by a cyclist, typically after a ride rather than in anticipation of it. Novices attempting the London to Brighton extravaganza are often susceptible to the bonk upon mere contemplation of going up the hill at Ditchling Beacon, for example.

BRAKE. A nod to Newton: objects in motion tend to stay in motion (see doorstop entry for an alternate view). Shortly after bicycles were invented, manufacturers were forced to develop and install devices to facilitate stopping, despite industry objections that this was an intolerable infringement on the free market and would "Price bicycles beyond the reach of average consumers." Makers of shoe leather also complained bitterly, but the tide of history was against them. Varieties include caliper, cantilever, drum, disc and V-brakes, none of which have the stopping power of a cake stop.

BROMPTON. British-made folder popular with commuters. Now almost numerous enough on urban streets to be passé, it's delightfully engineered: the exorbitantly priced optional folding pedal alone is a work of art. Once upon a time the company rifled through the crayolla box to offer two standard colours, red and black, though others were also available to those who could prove need: goldenrod, royal blue, and an oddly reproachful ivory. These days you never know what you're going to see next. Owning a Brompton is a privilege, not a right, and potential buyers must pass the 15-second rule: those unable to fold or unfold one in that time are gently steered elsewhere.

BROOKS SADDLE. Constructed of hard leather, sometimes mistaken for titanium. Must be broken in -- the rider, that is. Favoured by traditional cyclists who traditionally forgo comfort for pain, which may account for the awful grimaces you sometimes see on their faces. Not so bad once you go numb. Recommended for male cyclists who wish to remain without issue. [Brooks veterans may regard this entry as outrageous hyperbole, to which we respond: yeah, all right, probably. But how many children could you have had?]

CADENCE. Crank rotations per minute as measured on a cycling computer; in your head (good luck); or by a savant who also specialises in such things as baseball statistics or counting spilled toothpicks. 65-85 rpm is a good average. A cadence of less than 1 rpm is known as freewheeling.

CARBON FIBRE. Synthetic fibre obtained from Oxfam-sourced rayon shirts charred in the absence of oxygen, resulting in a lightweight material used in bicycle frames and components. Much more popular than Bakelite for this purpose, to which it is distantly related.

CELERIFERE, or Hobby-Horse. Prototypical bicycle of the 19th century, invented by a Frenchman. It lacked pedals, gears, steering, and presumably almost any motivation to take it out of the prototypical garage.

COMMUTER CHALLENGE. An often spontaneous competition between otherwise mild-mannered office-types. While there is no set distance or course, whoever is faster wins. Ignoring red lights automatically invalidates, nay cheapens, any victory. Upon finding themselves outclassed, participants wishing to drop out may either stop and get a drink from their water bottle or turn onto a side street until the threat has passed.

CRANK. For many motorists, any cyclist. Otherwise, the bar that connects the pedal to the chainwheel. Like so much of life, it's all about leverage.

CRITICAL MASS. Business as usual on the roads, unless everyone happens to be on bikes, at which point it becomes news. Generally described in the media as good natured until a few bad apples start getting too in-your-face about it.

CRO-MOLY A steel alloy used in the manufacture of all bicycles not already made of aluminium, titanium, carbon fibre or rust.

CYCLE LANE. Separate but unequal facility constructed more out of guilt than a sincere desire to be helpful. By law such lanes must end wherever they become the slightest bit inconvenient to other road users. Often confused by motorists as emergency parking for a quick nip into the shop.

CYCLING CLUB. A throwback to early hunter-gatherer groups. Enthusiasts band together for safety and companionship, not to mention discounts, insurance, and a newsletter.

CYCLING COMPUTER. Liquid crystal confirmation of... well, one's worth, if such is needed. Indispensable for those involved in time-trials. But remember GIGO: that's computer speak for garbage in, garbage out.

CYCLO-CROSS. Portage as sport.

DA VINCI, LEONARDO. Supposed inventor of the bicycle, at least on paper. It's less well known that he also had some theories on lycra, which he planned to wear while piloting his flying machine. As usual he was too far ahead of his time.

DERAILLER. Technically speaking, the fiddliest part of a bike, excepting possibly fenders. Its job is to knock the chain from one toothed ring to another without any backtalk.

DOORSTOP. A braking manoeuvre accomplished with the kind assistance of a motorist.

DRAFTING. The opposite of air braking. Letting somebody else do the hard work of pushing all that air out of the way for you. Stokers (see entry for tandem) normally do this without thinking too much about it.

DROP OUTS. See commuter challenge. Also, the little metal fists that hold onto your wheels to keep them from rolling away.

ELECTRIC BIKE. A bicycle with an identity crisis. Early models had to be plugged in, which limited their range.

END-TO-END. The bigger the country, the farther this will be. For the British, who fortunately live on what an estate agent would call a 'cosy' island, this is the feat of travelling from Land's End in Cornwall to John O'Groats near the northern tip of Scotland. A because-it's-there endeavour particularly attractive to charity riders, record-breakers, and the sort not otherwise given to wheeling, oh, a bed, 847-odd miles. In the US this voyage is more imaginatively called the Coast-to-Coast, but its citizens tend to leave the furniture at home.

EXERCISE BIKE. Clothes hanger marketed as an aid to fitness. In this respect, a hybrid.

FENDERS, also known as mudguards. The very definition of function over form.

FIXED WHEEL, or fixed gear. A religion. True believers don't stop pedalling, and (speaking in tongue) often don't stop talking about why they don't stop pedalling.

FOOD. To someone whose legs are their engine, practically any carbohydrate.

FOLDER. The end result of the marginalisation of the bicycle: one designed to stay out of everybody's way. A bike that's capable of doing its own aero tuck. Also the name of a magazine for aficionados.

FRANCE. A french-speaking country in close proximity to Britain. Originator and host of the famous 'Tour de France', in which an international contingent of cyclists race at top speed for thousands of miles over often torturous mountain roads to win the adulation of millions, all whilst strictly forgoing the use of artificial stimulants.

FREEWHEELING. As good a reason for cycling as any. Not exactly the something-for-nothing its name implies, freewheeling, whether borne from momentum or a fortuitous start at the top of a hill, is the birthright of all cyclists, not just those who voted New Labour.

GEAR. The mechanical system which allows power to be transmitted from the pedals to the back wheel. Most bikes these days have at least 21, because any less and people feel empty and cheated.

GEAR RATIO. Mathematical formula CT / ST x WD, whereby CT = Chain Teeth, ST = Sprocket teeth, WD = Wheel Diameter.

GORE RATIO. Financial formula, G=£, or in the US, $.

GORE-TEX. Miracle waterproof fabric, ingeniously designed with millions of tiny holes which help combat overheating. Unfortunately for the fashion conscious, it's only activated when the manufacturer's trade name is splashed conspicuously across the garment.

GUARDIAN. British newspaper with good taste.

HAND SIGNAL. The art of taking one hand off the handlebars, pointing which way you intend to turn, then changing your mind and going straight anyway -- all while not falling off.

HANDLEBARS. Come in three varieties: straight, curly, and confused. Those who are shakily new to the two-wheeled world tend to grip them very tightly; six months down the road they may seldom deign to touch them at all.

HELMET. Use(ful)(less) augmentation to the skull. Typically, a hard outer shell bonded to a layer of crushable polystyrene. The bird of prey look predominates at the high end, the bowl look, lower down. The more holes the better, for rider comfort and manufacturer profit. Designers are reportedly working on a model which simply consists of a strap and a sheet of instructions saying "Be careful, now". Usually Snell- BS-, or bicycle store clerk- approved.

HILL. Nearly impossible to describe, as individual definitions vary so widely, but you'll know it when you see it. Some go up. Other, more popular ones, go down. Do not panic when you see the 'up' variety. Instead, carefully assess the gradient, mentally flip through your available gears to find its equal, then dismount and enjoy your ability to become an instant pedestrian.

HONKING. Standing whilst riding, thus allowing your weight to drive down the pedals. The only way some cyclists can make it up hills. When done properly, not meant to be onomatopoeic.

HPV. Acronym for Human Powered Vehicle. All bikes are HPVs, but not all HPVs are bikes. Similarly, all apples are fruits, but not all fruits are apples. HPVs include anything that looks like an attempt to build a better mousetrap. Owners are statistically more likely to be vegans and sprout provocative facial hair.

HYBRID. Cross between a road bike and a mountain bike, proved feasible after experimental work completed by 19th century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who had little inkling that by fooling around with peas he was influencing bicycle design. Other less successful hybrids include a mountain unicycle and a recumbent penny-farthing.

IDITABIKE RACE. Gruelling competition, based on the Iditarod, which takes place in Alaska every February. Contestants haul refrigerators behind their mountain bikes and race from one Inuit village to another attempting to sell them to the Eskimos.

INTEGRATED TRANSPORT POLICY. Formal acknowledgement that although it's theoretically possible that cars can fill every available square inch, it isn't actually desirable.

JERSEY. Ubiquitous article of clothing in a cyclist's wardrobe. Yellow is a popular colour, perhaps in homage to the sun-god 'Ra'. In other contexts, an island or possibly a cow.

JOSIE DEW. a) Improbably b) Delightfully c) Legally -named cycling writer of the finest globe-trotting, book-writing British tradition. Patron saint of bananas and bad hair days.

KEVLAR. A tough material sometimes used in bicycle tyres to guard against punctures, and in bullet-proof vests for the same reason.

KICKSTAND. Discredited Olympic sport whose only known current practitioners are Rockettes. Also, discredited bicycle component best known for instilling a false sense of security. In this capacity, responsible for more scratched paint jobs and bent derailleurs than any other force known to mankind.

KINGCYCLE. Brand of recumbent once marketed to royalty. The Queencycle never took off, as she was not amused.

LEG SHAVING. Activity for people who feel that all those tiny hairs produce too much drag and absolutely must be removed. True believers are also prone to shave frivolous weight from their bicycles by poking holes in things like brake levers, which are notoriously heavy. Does make wounds easier to clean, though.

LOCK. A prophylactic to the redistribution of wealth. Come in many varieties, some useless, others merely hopelessly pathetic, but the better models have been known to deter thieves who have particularly short attention spans. Often ineffectual due to simple user error, particularly so when the cable is locked to something sturdy, like a street sign post, but the bicycle itself is left out of the loop. Cyclists should take care to lock the frame itself rather than just the tyre, lest they return to find an ungainly unicycle.

LONDON-TO-BRIGHTON. Annual pilgrimage between capital and coast, for those not accustomed to doing it monthly. Contestants are picked by lottery and strictly limited to 27,000 or so. The infamous hill at Ditchling Beacon serves as an unofficial killjoy, though renaming this the 'Brighton-to-London' might alleviate matters.

LYCRA. Showcase for muscle tone, for better or for worse. A Tomorrow's World kind of invention which actually made it into the real world.

LYCRA LOUT. Label, popularlised by the tabloid press, applied to cyclists who break the law or are grossly inconsiderate or happen to be cycling in front of motorists.

MAINTENANCE. Alternately spelled m@!nt*n!ce. Looking after your bike so it will look after you.

MESSENGER, or courier. In temperament and habit, a cabbie with Green credentials who specialises in packages rather than passengers.

MOTORIST. Considered by many to be an intermediate stop in the ethical evolution of anyone who needs to get from A to B. The alter-ego of many a cyclist, though, so one treads carefully.

MOULTON. A marque. Incidentally, a bike. Fully suspended and proud of it, and that's just the good doctor.

MOUNTAIN BIKE. A type of bicycle which breaks down more often than other types.

NI-CAD. Shorthand for Nickel-Cadmium batteries, often used to power electric bicycles. Environmentally wicked, but hyphenization has made this into a nippy and almost fun word.

NUMB. Lack of sensation liable to be present in the hands if you forget to vary your hand positions; at the crux of your pelvis if you are accustoming yourself to a Brooks saddle; in your feet and legs if you are accustoming yourself to a Brooks saddle and depressing the nerves which supply feeling to that half of your body; or your head if you decide to enter yourself in an Iditarace.

OFF-ROAD. Motorists' preferred venue for cyclists.

OI!. Time-honoured warning to pedestrians to move out of harm's way. Predates the bell.

ORDINARY. Early type of bicycle which utilised a very large front wheel. Also called a 'penny-farthing', because this was the size of the rear wheel. This setup may have seemed ordinary at the time, but strikes the modern eye as quaintly mad.

PANNIERS. Bags which have been modified to be attached to a bicycle for the purpose of carrying approximately 50% more than you need. Similar to a handbag. When shopping, look for panniers with a large capacity and don't buy them, as they just make your bicycle heavier.

PEDESTRIAN. Commonly, a person forcibly prevented from using a motor vehicle. Frequently at odds with the cycling community over territorial rights, pedestrians clump together to produce their own traffic jams, and often don't look where they're going; behaviours retained when they re-enter their cars.

PELETON. Critical Mass in a sporting context. Nobody in charge here, either.

POWER-ASSIST. On a tandem, a really good stoker. Otherwise, a variety of bicycle (PAHPV?) fitted with a battery or a petrol tank and the means to either assist or impede locomotion depending on how much horsepower you yourself bring to the relationship. To many unsympathetic and frequently vocal onlookers, such hybrids are a form of cheating.

PUNCTURE. Unauthorised, impromptu, sloppy tyre valve.

QUADRACYCLE. A bike with four wheels, for those who have serious issues with balance. Can serve as a kind of methadone for automobile addicts too frightened to go cold turkey.

QUICK-RELEASE. Levers often found on bicycles which allow seats and wheels to be removed without a spanner. We await the quick-release flat tyre.

RACE BLADES. Mudguards specially constructed to be even more fiddly than normal.

RECUMBENT. Alternative for riders whose preference is to meet the oncoming world feet first rather than head first. Some models are so comfortable they come with built-in ashtrays.

REYNOLDS 531. An illustrious member of that famous clan. Ackroyd's masterful biography, Reynolds I Have Known, gives a complete family history, with particular insight into 653 and 853, and a chapter on the black sheep of the family, 708.

RIM. Mediator between tyre and spokes, doormat to brakes. A good rim will take everything you throw at it with little complaint for thousands of miles of pleasurable cycling. A bad rim will buckle just because you wanted to go over a kerb, for God's sake.

ROAD RAGE. A psychological phenomena which primarily infects motorists feeling territorial. Cyclists are also susceptible, though it has been conclusively proven that a tyre pump is significantly less dangerous than a Ford Mondeo when wielded in anger.

SADDLE. Mediator between seatpost and seat (yours). They come in many, many shapes, but suffice it to say, there is only One True Saddle for you out there in the whole world, and chances are you aren't going to find it.

SCHRAEDER. A type of tyre valve almost as popular nowadays as a puncture.

SHELDON BROWN. Has his own glossary.

SINGLE SPEED. An everything-old-is-new-again approach to cycling in which all the gears we've fought so hard for over the years are eschewed for -- wait for it -- a single speed. When combined with the fixed-gear option (no freewheeling allowed), said to wed cyclist to the road like no other natural relationship, but do not under any circumstances remove feet from pedals while going downhill or divorce à la the 'eggbeater effect' can get ugly.

SIT-UP-AND-BEG. A position in the Kama Sutra. Also, charming derogatory slang for what is often the most comfortable posture for beginning cyclists, namely, with the back in an unstunted position. Can be a balm for too many hours bent in an aero tuck.

SPOKE. An integral stanza in the poem that is a bicycle. Proof positive that there's strength in numbers, which should come as a relief to those embarking upon a spin in the London ferris wheel (sorry: the British Airways London Eye).

STEED. Mandatory synonym for 'bicycle'.

STILL LIFE WITH BICYCLE. At a red traffic light, the familiar site of a mounted cyclist attempting to combine not pedalling and not moving with not falling down. Not to be confused with freewheeling. Experts are able to achieve this near-miraculous state of equilibrium by entering a transcendental state achieved by close study of eastern philosophies combined with a damn good sense of balance. More commonly known as a 'track stand' -- don't go into a bike store and ask for one.

SUSPENSION. On most older and cheaper bikes, knees. On newer bikes, mechanical contrivances which cost a lot more than knees. See Moulton.

TANDEM. An attempt to balance two riders on two wheels for curiosity's sake. Promotes togetherness and teamwork: all for one and one for all. The one in front is called the Captain, and the one in back, the Stoker, because everyone needs to be called something. Working in harmony, they form a pas de deux. However, motorists in a spasm of road rage may merely regard them as a two-for-one special.

TIME-TRIAL. A race against yourself, but ultimately, against other people who are also racing against themselves.

TITANIUM. A metallic element (Ti, no. 22 on the periodic table) found in ilmenite, sphene, rutile, and increasingly in bicycle frames and components. To continue this largely Chamber's Dictionary definition: strong, light, corrosion resistant, and almost but not quite as expensive as Gore-Tex (Gt, no. 79 1/2 on the same table).

TOE STRAP. Useful for holding in place the feet of initiates who are fearful of learning how to ride. Once strapped in they have little choice, no?

TOUR. A vacation, a bike, and the aftermath, which may consist of a slide show or possibly an article in a family newsletter or a bike magazine.

TOUR DE FRANCE. Annual competition which takes place in France. The winner gets to wear a yellow jersey unless he's just good at hills, in which case it's polka-dotted.

U-LOCK. Metal shackle. Thought by some etymologists to be named after its shape, though others prefer the homonymic theory -- 'you lock'.

UNICYCLE. See first sentence of entry for tandem and cut in half. A bike for minimalists. Favoured by circus personnel. Users often fall prey to a Napoleon complex, opting for taller and taller models as the disease progresses.

UTILITY BICYCLE. What your current bike becomes as soon as you buy a new one.

V-BRAKES. Very good brakes. Unlike U-locks, V-brakes don't particularly resemble the letter 'V'. In fact, they look more like a 'U'. This can be very confusing for those who thought they detected the beginnings of a pattern in cycle nomenclature.

VELOCIPEDE. A Celerifere with cranks and pedals. Evolution is undoubtedly more fun to read about than it is to live through.

WASH. As in, to 'wash' your bicycle. A difficult concept for many owners to master, washing can be put off almost indefinitely. Some prefer to just buy a new bike.

WATER. The stuff of life, of which you are always being informed you should be drinking maybe four times your body weight daily, more if exercising.

WHEELBASE. The shortest distance between two axles on the same bicycle in a Euclidean universe. Standard advice is that long wheelbase models are ideal for touring, because of the extra stability they impart. A unicycle has no measurable wheelbase, ergo it is not recommended for touring.

XERXES. Persian king responsible for the defeat of the Greeks at Thermopylae. A seminal figure in cycling history only in the very broadest sense.

YELLOW JERSEY. What the winner of the Tour de France gets to wear. Some shops sell them, too.

YELLOW LIGHT. Chosen by traffic engineers to signify an indeterminate state, neither 'stop' (red) nor 'go' (green, or for some road users, also red). Interested parties may find parallels with the physicist's conundrum of Schroedinger's Cat, whereby the act of merely observing the creature in a box determines whether it is dead or alive: by staring at a yellow light, are you influencing its very existence?

ZEBRA CROSSING. Theoretically, a safety zone for pedestrians and pedestrainised cyclists crossing the road. In practice, a terrifying no-man's land whose inhabitants often cheerlessly wave to motorists as a token of gratitude and relief for being permitted to reach the farther shore.

ZENER DIODE. A voltage regulator. Included in this glossary to help fill the 'z' requirement, and legitimised by its inclusion in Richard Ballantine's Ultimate Bicycle Book, listed there for the same purpose.