How to sound like a roadie: bike lingo for the newbies
Updated: Apr 30, 2019
I’ve been dropping bike jargon like I’m some kind of cool kid, but maybe you’re new to the sport and in need of a bike slang tutorial. Or maybe you’re old to the sport and get satisfaction in correcting my typos? Whatever your motive, keep reading to learn the street talk. And by street…I mean road.
A torcher machine of boredom that allows me to log some seat time indoors while I Netflix and do the opposite of chill. Let’s be honest, no one’s Netflixing and “chilling”. They’re grinding. And I’m grinding too...my gears...on a rug. I can’t make this not sound sexual. It’s super sweaty too unless you have your AC cranked high and three fans to simulate the wind. And it’s nearly impossible to self-motivate, but it sure beats the dangers of riding alone in the dark.
The first 10-15 minutes of the ride where I try to spin an easy high cadence in a low gear to warm up my heart and legs. It usually looks like 14ish mph for me. If I skip the warm up, then I burn out early and that means a sucky workout potentially leaving me sore or injured. Or even worse. With a dead ego from getting dropped off the group ride. Clipping in
The bazaar act of effectively gluing your feet to your pedals. It’s a super scary thing for any new rider and I’m still not 100% used to it. I nervously unclip way way earlier than necessary at every stoplight because nothing can erase my memory of falling clipped in at an intersection last September when I coasted to a red light to find my left cleat hung up and nowhere to go but down. I leaned my body right to my free leg, but my butt went left and apparently that’s where my center of gravity sits, so I TIMMMMMBEEEEEEERRED in slow motion, stuck my hand out at the last second and BAM, sprained my wrist.
It took me all of three minutes to get over the fact that to ride in a group is to stare at someone’s butt for miles on end. The real struggle for me is almost always being the slowest since there’s seemingly a drought of female cyclists in this desert. Fortunately the groups I’ve ridden with have been friendly and encouraging, and they laugh at my jokes, aka I feel welcome.
But despite how nice they are, there is actual etiquette I had to learn. Like always keep your hand near the brakes. Keep a look out for hand signals (riders make a fist on their back to signal they’ll brake soon, or shake a pointed fingers to rocks and other hazards on the road, giving you all of half a second to swerve around that decaying cat carcass). No aerobars (unless you’re in the front)! Pull to the side to take a swig of water, and never ever ever touch the wheel in front of you.
Wanna go fast? Even in a head wind? Save your energy, but push your limits and get stronger too? Jump on a group ride and start drafting! The pros can keep their front tires one to three inches from the tires in front of them, while I’m more of a one to three feet kinda gal. But if they touch, one or both of you are eating pavement for dinner.
Cyclists take turns leading the pack, and when they start to wear out, they fall back in line and enjoy the benefits of a windshield. Drafting usually looks like a single file line where I can see one rider but multiple shadows along the road’s shoulder. In big races, like Le Tour de France, the main group drafting together is called the peloton and it looks like a huge school of biking fish all scrunched together, racing around curves in a smooth fluid motion. I watch le Tour on the edge of my seat because how are they defying Newton’s law of domino effect?? Mind blown.
Any way you look at it, drafting is an important part of cycling because it makes you a stronger and more confident rider and the power of numbers makes you more visible on the road too. Plus at minimum, just meeting up with a group is the accountability you need to get your rear off the couch and onto that uncomfortable saddle, regardless of whether you get dropped a few miles into the ride (and by now I’m used to it).
It’s the act of not being able to maintain the speed the rest of the group is holding. And even if you muster up the strength to power back to the tail end of the ride, you’re likely so thirsty and out of breath that you fall right back off. One second you’re analyzing whether “Giro” written on the butt in your face is pronounced “gee-row”, “guy-row” or “yi-row”, and the next the group looks like little ants a mile ahead of you until eventually you can’t see them at all. It’s especially embarrassing if they see you on their route back home. But use this as motivation to fuel your strength training and interval sweat sesh on the trainer! Because one day you will keep up!!
For more on my personal experience and belief in the necessity of getting dropped occasionally, click here.
Wind. Your best friend and your worst enemy. Your frenemy.
A tailwind makes a ride seem easy and tranquil as Mother Nature nudges you down the road. There’s a peace surrounding you in silence while you ponder your greatest life choices and lose yourself in the beauty of the sport. But roads don’t go straight forever, and even if you don’t reach the end, at some point you to have to turn around and face that dreaded headwind. The headwind is loud and brutal, steals your energy, murders your legs, and collects all the bugs in the vicinity to funnel directly into your mouth.
Fortunately, the wind can change directions fast, so on a rare lucky day you might get a tailwind out and a tailwind back in. Unfortunately, the wind can change directions fast. So on a seemingly not-as-rare unlucky day (Murphy’s law?), you could get a headwind out and a headwind back in. Try to stay positive by reminding yourself it’s not about speed, it’s about strength, and the headwind makes you stronger! Or you can curse at the wind, because I promise no one can hear you.
On a road bike, I spend a majority of my time up top and slightly leaned forward in the horns. It’s “comfortable”, easy to steer, and I have constant access to the brakes. The drops are the ram-looking swoops that are more aerodynamic and aggressive in the angle of your body. You can still reach your brakes and shifters, but not as naturally. And without a lot of practice, this angle can really give your lower back a beating. Also, I can report first-hand that it’s impossible to ride in the drops while 8 months pregnant.
I’ve recently accessorized my road bike with snazzy aero bars and they’re even more aerodynamic, but unless you got the super fancy version ($$$), you’re not likely to have any access to brakes or shifters in this stance. Aka, DO NOT USE ON A GROUP RIDE. It’s also expert level on the balance meter but surprisingly comfortable since your weight is shifted to your elbows.
Cadence is revolutions per minute; or how many times my foot can spin a circle in 60 seconds. Most new cyclists get a fancy bike computer and focus on speed by pushing a high gear at a low cadence (like 60-80 rpms), but that’ll just blow up your legs and make you hate your workout. I did this for years. But turns out most cyclists agree you’re better off holding a cadence between 80 and 100. I aim to never drop below 85 rpms (even on climbs), but I feel most efficient between 90 and 95. On group rides I find myself around 100+ for whatever reason (any theories?).
A higher cadence shifts the workload from your legs to your heart, so as a runner with a good base stamina, high cadence has been my saving grace! Wanna work your legs and your heart? Try to hold a high cadence in a high gear and smell extra stinky when you get home.
High gear/low gear/getting crossed up
Looking for a light read? Then skip this one because gears are confusing (just look at the pretty pictures). My bike has 12 gears and I use all of them, but that’s embarrassing, because I could probably walk my bike up a hill faster than my lowest gear...
For your back sprockets (the cassette), a high gear is the littlest sprocket and it’s used for high speeds like flying downhill. The lowest gear is the biggest back sprocket and it’s reserved for veeerrryyy sloooow speeds, like climbing a steep hill. To add to the confusion, there are two front sprockets (the chain ring), effectively doubling how many gears you have, and they do the opposite. In front, big means fast and small means slow.
For the advanced learner: If you get in a big sprocket on front and big on back, or small on front and small on back, your bike chain gets all crossed up and jacked from the funny angle so don’t you dare shift your front gear because it’s highly likely your chain will fall off. Not a big deal if you’re on flat ground or coasting downhill, but do this during a climb and you might fall over when you suddenly lose all pedal resistance. Nightmares are made of that right there.
And now you’re an expert in cycling communication (sorta). So get out there, clip in, warm up, spin your little heart out in a low gear with a high cadence! Hunker down into the drops, inhale a bug and yell DON’T DROP ME into the headwind!