Zoom Through “Spin Class” With These 10 Cycling Terms

Some of us bike to work. Others head to spin class for a thigh-busting workout first thing in the morning. And, many of us watch raptly as the elite cyclists take on the Tour De France.

Cycling no doubt courses throughout our life and culture, but so does the language of the sport and activity. So, strap on your helmets: we’re going to spin through some of the zippiest terms in cycling, past and present.

Tour de France

Do you have what it takes to wear the yellow jersey? The Tour de France (“tour of France”) is considered the most prestigious and challenging event in the sport of cycling. It takes place over three weeks each year in July. The race, which covers about 2,200 miles, spans many parts of France (and neighboring regions) before finishing in Paris.

Cyclists have been racing in the Tour de France since 1903, when Henri Desgrange created the event in an effort to increase circulation of his sports newspaper, L’Auto. Competitors vie for its famed yellow jersey (maillot jaune in French), which is awarded to the cyclist who completes the course in the shortest time. A green jersey, a polka-dotted jersey, and a white jersey are also awarded for various cycling feats.


At the Tour de France and other races, the leading group of competitors is called the peloton.

Fun fact: When peloton first entered English around 1700, it referred to a small unit of soldiers, like a platoon. Those two terms are indeed related, from French pelote, “ball,” also the source of pellet.

The cycling sense of peloton emerged in English by the 1930s (found in French in the 1800s), perhaps in conjunction with rising international popularity and news coverage of the Tour de France.


Now, let’s pedal back in time—and terms. The word bicycle (attested since 1868) was borrowed from French. It’s composed of bi– (“two”) and cycle, ultimately from a Greek root meaning “wheel.” The shortened bike is found by the 1880s.

The bicycle was invented in the early 19th century. One early version was the velocipede. The term first referred to a dandy-horse or hobbyhorse, a two-wheeled vehicle directly propelled by feet on the ground. Velocipede entered English in the first half of the 19th century, from the French vélocipède, based on Latin roots vēlox (“swift”) and pes (“foot”).

However, by the 1850s, velocipede came to refer to an early, pedal-powered bicycle. Constructed from iron and wood, this bike made for a ride bumpy enough to earn it the nickname the “bone-shaker.”


By the late 1890s in French, vélocipède was shortened to vélo. This was then combined with –drome to yield velodrome, “a sport arena equipped with a bank track for cycling.”

The combining form –drome (from the Greek for “race, course”) is also seen in hippodrome, the oval track where horse and chariot races were held in ancient Greece and Rome.

Fun fact #2: hippo- comes from the Greek for “horse,” making hippopotamus literally a “river horse.”


In the late 1800s, bicycle speed was related to the size of the front wheel. So, at this time, front wheels became larger and larger until the penny-farthing entered the market in the 1870s. They were generally referred to as bicycles (or ordinaries) when they were in vogue, but soon after nicknamed penny-farthings by the 1890s.

The penny-farthing got its name from the British currency of the time. It was thought that the large and small wheels next to each other resembled a penny next to the much smaller farthing. By the end of the century, bicycle technology improved. Front wheels shrank, and bicycles became easier and safer to use.


Which came first: the mustache or bicycle part?

The compound handlebar first entered English in the mid-1800s as a term to describe any sort of bar that was used as a handle. The bicycle-specific sense of handlebar took off in the 1870s as cycling spread.

While handlebar mustaches may have existed before, this distinctive style of facial hair did not receive its illustrative name until the 1920s thanks to the increasing popularity of the bicycle. Now you know.

pedal pushers

Though today it is unlikely for a cyclist to be called a pedal pusher, back in the early 1900s, this was a nickname for a cyclist. By the 1940–50s, the plural pedal pushers came to refer to the pants cropped below the knee and worn by women or girls while biking.

Over the years since, this style became such a fixture in the fashion industry that people often will wear what they call pedal pushers—even if they don’t know how to ride a bike. Many may call the trousers capri pants, though some may observe that pedal pushers tender to be tighter-fitting.


Another term we owe to cycling is back-pedaling. Originally, in the late 1800s, back-pedaling referred to “the action of slowing the forward motion of a bicycle by pressing backward on its pedals.”

By the mid-1900s, back-pedal was picked up as the perfect metaphor for “retreating from or reversing one’s position.”


While cyclists know panniers as the useful bags that clip onto their bicycles, this is actually a relatively recent sense of this term. Conventionally pronounced [pan-yer], pannier first entered English around 1300, from the Latin (via Anglo-Norman and Middle French) pānārium, meaning “breadbasket.”

A pannier originally referred to “a basket used to carry items such as food, medical supplies, or other provisions.” Starting in the 1930s, people used the term pannier to refer to “the bag fastened over a bicycle’s rear wheels.” This sense is still used (though creatively pronounced) by English-speaking bike enthusiasts.


The wheel of cycling continues to turn, as it were.

In the late 1990s, we first saw the term e-bike for electronic bike. Their power, no doubt, helps the rider zip along. But, other cyclists take a more stripped-down and strenuous approach with a fixie.

Attested since the early 2000s, fixie is an informal term for a fixed-gear bicycle, which has a single-gear system lack a freewheel mechanism, so that the wheels only move when the pedals move. Try to win the yellow jersey cycling around the Alps at the Tour de France on that!

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