Ten commentator clichés you will definitely hear during the Tour de France

“He’s looking deep into his suitcase of courage”

The Tour de France is in full flow once again. And you know what that means don’t you? Three glorious weeks of non-stop, televised cycling.

Whether you’re sitting at your desk with a media player in the top corner of your screen, finger poised over the minimise button in case your boss walks by, or if you’re reclining in luxury on the sofa in front of the TV, over the course of July you’re probably going to watch more cycling than you have in the whole rest of the year – because nobody wants to miss that vital moment when a rider from Direct Energie bridges across to the breakaway during a flat transition stage. Imagine missing that. It would ruin your summer.

Of course, with all that cycling to be watched on not one, but two different channels, that means countless hours of commentary. And as any cycling fan knows, with commentary come clichés. We decided to round up some of the most common hack phrases used by commentators, explain when you might hear them and uncover what they actually mean.

The Tour de France means there’s three weeks of televised cycling to enjoy (Pic: Eurosport)

By the end of this article you should be able to understand perfectly this absolute bundle of gibberish: “One of the heads of state was looking deep in his suitcase of courage before the elastic snapped and he ended up pedalling squares and going backwards. Meanwhile, Contador danced on the pedals, leaving members of a select group looking at each other.”

But before we start, let’s have a moment to say just what a tough gig it is to be a cycling commentator. Have you ever tried talking about cycling for five hours a day for an entire month, without repeating yourself from time to time? No, you haven’t. So you don’t know how difficult it is. If you have tried, then seek help. That isn’t normal.

“He’s looking deep into his suitcase of courage”

Is this a cliché? Can it be a cliché if only one person in the universe can get away with saying it? ‘I don’t know’, is the answer to those questions. What I do know is that it is not the Tour de France until Phil Liggett says those magic words.

Watch out for all kinds of bravery-specific luggage rummaging when the race gets to the high Pyrenees and Alps. This is when most riders misplace their fortitude and have to go hunting for it. Remember lads, always check before you leave the house; keys, phone, wallet, courage. I keep mine in a handy Musette of Courage, which is much easier to carry. I believe Jens Voigt favoured a Shipping Container of Awesomeness.

Sadly ITV have decided not to have Phil and his pal Paul Sherwen on their feed since 2015, so only viewers in the USA and Australia will get to experience them live. UK fans will just have to make do with this YouTube video of a slightly sozzled Liggett auctioning an actual Suitcase of Courage for charity.

Chris Froome realises he’s left his suitcase of courage on the team bus (Pic: Sirotti)

“Make the calculation, taking the bonifications”

Ah, Sean Kelly, the hype man to Carlton Kirby’s MC. The King of the Classics. The master of the blunt one-word response to an incredibly detailed question. Typically exchanges with Kelly in commentary go something like this,

“Sean, do you think the breakaway has a shot of making this today, given that two of the riders are expert time-triallists and there seems to be some disagreement among the peloton with regards to organising the chase?”


“Ok, great. Thanks, Sean.”

Despite being known for what he doesn’t say, the thing Sean is most famous for is a particular phrase, “make the calculation”, which is used to describe a rider trying to figure out the chances of success of a particular attack, break or stratagem. If that sounds vague, it’s because this phrase is a true Swiss army knife, applicable to virtually every situation a bike rider might find themselves in.

On some occasions the diligent viewer may also be rewarded with the rarely-heard “take the bonifications” cliché, another, lesser-used Kellyism that pertains to the time bonuses on offer to the first finishers at the end of a stage.

Make the calculation correctly and there’s bonifactions up for grabs at the finish line (Pic: Sirotti)

“He’s turning himself inside out”

This cliché crops up when a rider is giving it absolutely everything he’s got. It can be applied to one of the big race favourites making an effort to chase down a rival, a guy going deep at the end of an individual time trial, or simply to a loyal sprinter’s domestique who has been stuck on the front to reel in the day’s breakaway. Either way, you can expect a lot of panting, face-pulling and bobbing about from a guy turning himself inside out.

Rafal Majka… turning himself inside out (Pic: Sirotti)

If two riders are simultaneously turning themselves inside out they are deemed to be “locked in gladiatorial combat”.

“He’s going backwards”

Surely a rider isn’t actually going backwards? These are trained professionals whose jobs depend entirely on their ability to basically just go forwards on a bicycle over a variety of different terrains, as fast as they can?

Not even the greenest of newbies would actually go the wrong way along the stage route, would they? I mean, sure, Thomas Voeckler once rode into somebody’s back garden by mistake (check out this video at 1:03), but technically he was still going forwards when that happened.

In actual fact, when using this cliché the commentator is trying to convey the vastly different speed at which riders are going forwards. Typically it means a rider has completely used up their energy reserves and is finding it difficult just to keep going, while the rest of the peloton scoots by with relative ease. Riders who have spent all day in the breakaway are good candidates to eventually end up going backwards.

Avengers, assemble! (Pic: Sirotti)

“A select group has been formed”

What did it form out of? Who formed it? Is this an ex-nihilo, “First there was the earth and darkness lay upon the earth, and then lo, a select group was formed.” type of scenario?

What this expression actually means is that most of the domestiques and even the weaker GC men have been shelled out the back of the group. Usually this is caused by a GC hopeful putting his massive time-trialling mate on the front of the peloton to churn a big gear for a few minutes, in the hope of weakening his rivals’ teams. If you see Kiryienka leading the bunch for Sky or Tony Martin grinding the big ring up a HC mountain, expect a selection to form itself imminently.

Typically the “select group” is the first group on the road, but it can also be used to refer to a bunch working together to chase down escapees further up the track. It is basically like saying the riders in a particular group are the cycling equivalent of the Marvel Avengers.

“Everyone is looking at each other”

Cyclists, like deer, are shy and easily spooked – so they prefer to avoid eye-contact with one another if at all possible. To this end, they only look at each other if something really momentous is going down, like a big attack that could influence the outcome of the stage, or even the race.

The implication is that while they are all turning to one another to see what each of the other riders is going to do, nobody is actually doing anything about the perceived threat.

Cyclists also ‘look at each other’ a lot in the final part of a stage, when nobody wants to lead out the others into a sprint finish. In really extreme cases, ‘looking at each other’ can degenerate into ‘a game of cat and mouse’, another favourite cliché.

Joaquim Rodriguez stares his rivals down (Pic: Sirotti)

“The elastic has snapped!”

Uh-oh! Someone’s had a wardrobe malfunction. The waistband of their briefs has given up the ghost and they’re now pedalling pantsless.

Actually, when ‘the elastic’ snaps in cycling it means a rider who has for some time been dangling just off the back of the group, then catching up, then getting dropped again, has finally lost touch for good.

Tejay van Garderen is a man who is more prone than most to snappage of the elastic from the ‘select group’.

“Alberto Contador is dancing on the pedals”

What do you call a cliché that’s been translated from French? Une cliché, probably. Je sais pas. Nobody knows how long the French have been describing cyclists who climb nimbly and gracefully (as though they were dancing on the pedals) with the adjective, ‘danseuse’, but the expression has been around for a very long time. So much so that it’s also used in its translated form by English-language commentators.

Very few riders have a stylish technique worthy of this cliché, so you won’t hear it applied to just anybody. Chris Froome doesn’t dance on his pedals. Not ever. Mark Cavendish does his best to smash the things off his bike in a sprint, but you wouldn’t call it ‘dancing’. Alberto Contador though, now there’s a pedal-dancer if I’ve ever seen one.

The Michael Flatley of the Tour de France’s GC men gets to work

“He’s pedalling squares”

If a rider is said to be pedalling squares this means their technique looks extremely ungraceful and disjointed, as though he’s generally quite knackered. Which you would be too if you’d just ridden 100km and then been asked to climb up the Galibier.

Commentators will usually rely upon this one when they have run out of ways to say “he looks quite tired”. Pedalling squares is the antithesis of dancing on the pedals.

Fabio Aru pedals squares at last year’s Giro d’Italia (pic: Sirotti)

“The Heads of State are having a discussion”

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a reference to the bosses of Italy, Germany and France meeting up to try and figure out what to do about Brexit, but this is in fact a shorthand way of grouping the GC hopefuls and peloton head honchos into one handy three-word cliché.

Far from discussing the impending collapse of the European project, the Heads of State in the Tour de France are more than likely deciding what to do about an incident on the road. Perhaps someone has attacked, or perhaps one of the aforementioned heads has had a mechanical and the rest of them are wondering whether to do the honourable thing and wait for him to get back on, or plough on and try and stick some time into him. They nearly always settle on the former. Vincenzo Nibali, not so much.

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