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Bicycle Racing Terminology: A Primer

Bonk/Hit the Wall: Both are bad news for a cyclist. To "bonk" or to "hit the wall" means a rider has not consumed enough calories to fuel his/her body. Cycling races are usually long and require careful replenishment of calories and electrolytes. Failure to fuel correctly can lead to a rider falling off the pace of the main group and may even cause them to drop out of a race.

Breakaway/escape: A rider or group of riders who ride off the front of the peloton and form a lead pack. Breakaway riders will obviously want to maintain their lead, but whether they do so depends on how well they cooperate and how well the peloton cooperates in any attempt to chase them down and close the time gap.

Broom wagon: The vehicle at the back of the race that signals the end of the race caravan and ensures the course is clear for the reopening of closed roads.

Bunch/Peloton: The main group of riders who ride together at a comfortable pace and share the pace-making. Flat stages tend to finish in a bunch or field sprint contested by most of the riders.

Caravan/Follow Car: The riders are followed by a large group of vehicles that support the race. This includes: commissaires, team directors, medical staff, VIP's, and neutral mechanical support. Each team is allowed two vehicles to provide riders with water bottles, food, and bike parts. A team's best-placed rider determines the order of the vehicles in the caravan so the athletes competing for the lead can have the quickest service when they find themselves in a dire situation.

Categorized Climbs: Climbs are categorized based on their length and average gradient (steepness). The climbs worthy of being classified are given a categorization between 1 and 4 with a "Category 4" being the easiest and a "Category 1" being the most difficult. Large mountains and extremely difficult climbs are given a "Hors Categorie (HC)" classification, which translates to "Beyond Categorization." HC climbs are typically the most pivotal sections in a Grand Tour stage such as the Tour de France because the race may either be won or lost.

Climbers: The smallest and lightest guys in the peloton are the climbers who excel in the mountains. The best climbers such as Levi Leipheimer and Andy Schleck take advantage of their impressive power to weight ratio and tend to save their energy for the key climbs.

Commissaires: The officials appointed to ensure teams and riders abide by the rules of the race and sport. Rule breakers are issued fines and time penalties.

Drafting/Slipsteam: The biggest enemy to a cyclist is aerodynamic drag. Riders can save a significant amount of energy by riding in a group behind other riders or by having their teammates break the wind for them. In a breakaway, riders rotate from the front of the group to the back in order to take a short rest. Larger groups are more successful because each rider spends less time riding in the wind.

Directeur Sportif: Also known as the team director and almost always an ex-pro rider, the director sportif's job is to set out and dictate team tactics to riders from the team car, which is fitted with a television so he can follow the action. He must be a seasoned multi-tasker because he needs to do all this while driving, map reading, and handing out supplies.

Domestiques: A French term for the "helpers" or "servants" on a team. Cycling is a team sport and a team leader, primary sprinter or star climber may find it difficult to win a race without the help of their loyal domestiques. Domestiques will shelter their teammates from the wind, visit the team car to collect extra water bottles, and chase down breakaway groups. On a rare occasion a domestique will receive to go-ahead to race for a stage victory if the conditions are right.

Feed zone: A designated stretch of road where soigneurs distribute musettes filled with food and drink to riders while as they pass by at full speed. A rider only grabs a musette from his own team's soigneur who is typically dressed in a matching team uniform. The end of the feed zone is often a good place for fans to get souvenirs as riders discard musettes and bottles after taking the supplies they need.

General Classification Riders: Well-rounded riders who compete for the best overall time in a stage race. These riders are typically strong climbers and time trialists who are protected by their teammates.

Gruppetto: Literally translating from Italian as "little group" this is the last pack of riders on mountain roads, usually made up of sprinters, domestiques, and team leaders who are only riding survive the difficult course of the day. The French call this the "autobus." The goal of the grupetto or autobus is to finish ahead of the time limit - worked out as a percentage of the stage winner's finish time. Riders finishing outside of the time limited are disqualified, so the grupetto's pacing is very important.

King of the Mountain: During a stage race, points are awarded to the first few riders to cross the summit of categorized climbs. Difficult climbs are worth more points and the rider who has accumulated the most points over the course of a race is crowned at the King of the Mountain.

Lead-out man: Often an up and coming or veteran sprinter, this rider has the key task of preparing a star sprinter for a bunch sprint by keeping the pace high at the front of the peloton and sheltering his teammate from the wind. The lead-out man moves out of the way during the final few hundred meters to enable his sprinter to slingshot out of his slipstream and contest the stage win. Top sprinters like Tom Boonen, can usually count on a lead-out "train" of several teammates to set them up for victory.

Musette: A cotton bag, handed out in the feed zones by soigneurs, containing food and drink.

Power Meter: A device used by professional riders to measure their physical effort during a race. Power is measured in units of watts and riders carefully monitor their power on climbs and during breakaways to ensure they are riding within their own capabilities. The most powerful metric in elite racing is the power to weight ratio. Most of the riders you will see winning races ending in a mountaintop finish will have the highest power to weight ratio.

Rouleur/Strong men: Literally a "roller" this is a rider who can pedal a difficult gear for a long time on flat and rolling terrain. Every team has three or four rouleurs employed as domestiques who protect their leaders by chasing down breakaways and sheltering them from the wind.

Soigneurs: From the French verb meaning "to take care of". The role traditionally involves preparing food for the riders, driving the team's spare vehicles and providing massages.

Wheel Sucker: A rider who refuses to cooperate with the pace-making and constantly rides in the slipstream of the others, saving energy and irritating his rivals. This is a negative term.

Sprinters: Each team typically has one powerful rider who has the ability to produce a quick burst of speed at the end of a race; this is a sprinter. On flat courses, teams protect their sprinter from the wind so they can conserve as much energy as possible until the final few hundred meters of the race. A win for a sprinter is always a win for the entire team because a sprinter would not be able to showcase his finishing power without the support of his teammates throughout the race.