In the early 1980s comedian and keen cyclist Alexei Sayle gave an interview to Bicycle magazine in which he talked about the way bike shops guard their knowledge with language. "You ask for a hub," he said, "and they reply 'cross-threaded or off-flange?' and then they've got you!"
It's been 40 years since then, and the passage of time has only brought heaps and piles of more gibberish and nonsense. What's a Zwifter (not to be confused with a Swiftie)? What's your FTP? Have you got any KOMs? Should you get electronic shifters? What the hell is a wheelsucker?
Cycling's technical jargon, the double-Dutch, if you will, is one of the biggest hurdles when you're starting out, so here's a glossary of all terms to help you out.
Anything we've missed? Let us know in the comments so we can make this listing as comprehensive as possible.
Alloy: A mixture of one or more metals and other elements. Alloying changes the physical properties of the main metal. For example, the common 6061 aluminium alloy used for bike frames contains magnesium and silicon and has a yield strength roughly thirty times higher than pure aluminium.
Bead seat: The part of the rim where the tyre bead sits. The diameter of the bead seat is the basis of rim and tyre size standards. For example the standard road bike wheel and tyre size, 700C, has a bead seat diameter of 622mm
Bearing: Any mechanism that reduces friction to allow parts to move easily against each other. Most common bicycle bearings use steel balls to allow parts to turn easily. Plain bearings, also known as bushings, have low-friction surfaces that slide against each other and are found in some components such as pedals and jockey wheels.
Belt drive: Bike transmission using a reinforced, toothed rubber belt instead of a chain.
Bikepacking: Like backpacking, but with a bike. We'd count any bike ride that takes place over multiple days and where you're self-sufficient (i.e carrying all your stuff on the bike, preferably with specific bikepacking bags) as bikepacking; and although that might sound exactly the same as cycle touring, the thing that makes a true bikepacker would be carrying sleeping gear too, in the form of a tent or bivvy for the proper nomadic cycling experience. That doesn't mean touring is any less gnarly, if the youth hostels we've stopped at on cycle tours are anything to go by...
Bimetallic corrosion: Aka galvanic corrosion; this is corrosion damage caused by a chemical reaction between two dissimilar metal surfaces and salt water. The most common example is aluminium seat posts corroding in place in steel frames because of the constant washing in salt water this area gets in a British winter.
Bolt circle diameter: The distance across an imaginary circle drawn through the centres of a crank's chainring bolts. Indicative of chainring compatibility, as long as the ring and cranks have the same number of bolts and the same bolt circle diameter, though Shimano's recent dalliance with asymmetrical crank arms made things complicated.
Brifter: The integrated brake and gear shifter unit on road bikes with drop handlebars. Different manufacturers have varying mechanisms, but the basics stay the same: You pull the main lever towards you to brake, and push either the brake lever itself or a separate gear paddle(s) inwards to upshift or downshift. Unless you use a Campagnolo brifter, which has a thumb-push paddle inside the hoods to downshift.
Carbon fibre: Composite material comprising very high strength carbon strands embedded in a resin matrix. Can have an extremely high strength-to-weight ratio and is therefore widely used for high-end bike frames and components.
Chain: An articulating assembly of links and pins used to transmit pedalling force from the chainrings to the sprockets
Clipless pedal: Pedal with a mechanism that engages a cleat in the sole of the shoe to provide a firm attachment for the rider's foot. So called because some pedals have metal or plastic cages — clips — to keep the foot in place on the pedal, usually with a strap around the foot.
Cockpit: Term for the handlebar and stem, and sometimes the saddle and seatpost too, used by pretentious cycling writers who feel the strange need to give the impression they're flying a fighter plane rather than riding a bike.
Derailleur: A mechanism that changes gear by moving the chain between sprockets or chainrings. Unless you're riding a fixie, you'll have one at the rear, and if you have more than one chainring, you'll have one at the front too.
Drafting: Sitting behind the rider in front of you, so you stay protected from the wind and can keep going at the same pace without burning as much energy.
Drop handlebar: The curved handlebar shape almost universally used on road-racing bikes and bikes that follow race bike styling such as touring bikes and gravel bikes.
Dropout: Also called fork end or frame end, it’s the slot to which the axle of the wheel is attached.
Dropper post: A seatpost that includes a spring-loaded telescopic height-adjustment mechanism. Common on mountain bikes and sometimes seen on drop-handlebar gravel bikes.
Dropping: When you leave your mate behind because he couldn’t keep up with your pro rider watts.
Electronic shifters: Instead of using mechanical wires to shift the derailleurs, these groupsets use either electric wires or wireless communication along with a rechargeable battery to shift gears when you press the shifting paddles.
Fixie: A fixed-gear bike, or a fixie, is a bike with no gears.
Freehub: Rear hub which includes the freewheel mechanism in its structure. The sprockets slide on to the freewheel and are held in place with a lockring. Has largely replaced the previous standard of a separate freewheel that screwed on to the rear hub.
Fridge suck: The most powerful force in the cycling universe is the attraction between any small object dropped while working on a bike and the most inaccessible point under a nearby large object, such as the exact centre of the space under the fridge. This force increases with the level of groddiness of the crud under the fridge. It can be cancelled out for steel parts by the ownership of a magnetic pick-up tool.
FTP: Functional threshold power, it’s the highest average power that you can sustain for an hour, measured in watts. If you want to get really good, best turn your attention to this key training metric.
Gear hanger: The part of the frame the rear mech is attached to. Usually part of the right hand side rear drop-out. On aluminium and carbon fibre frames, the gear hanger is removable so that a crash that damages it doesn’t write off the whole frame.
Gnarmac: Like tarmac, but gnarlier! This term was coined to describe a bike genre (and the places where you're riding it) that falls in between road, cyclocross and mountain biking. Admittedly gravel kind of covers it, but if you want to impress connoisseurs of obscure cycling jargon then it's gnarmac all the way...
Gravel bike: And that brings us on nicely to gravel bikes. While it might be obvious that a gravel bike is a bike that is ridden primarily on gravel, what that involves might not be so obvious to novices. Compared to a road bike, expect wider tyres (and tyre clearance), lower gearing, plusher bar tape and perhaps even flared handlebars, mounts to carry your gear and more relaxed geometry. Unless it's a gravel race bike, in which case the geometry might still be quite aggressive, but that's a whole other can of worms.
Groupset: All the components making up the drivetrain of your bike, and is responsible for essentially transferring the power from your legs to the wheels. It mainly consists of the crankset, the bottom bracket, derailleurs, chain, cassette, brake levers and the brakes.
Hairsine ratio: The ratio between the weight saved by fitting a lightweight component and its cost. Named for Jon Hairsine, a rider prominent on the early British mountain bike racing scene. When asked how much he'd cut off a new carbon fibre handlebar to trim its size and weight, Jon replied: "About five quid!"
High gear: High gears on a bike come from the combination of a large chainring and small rear sprocket. That results in multiple turns of the rear wheel for each turn of the pedals, allowing high speeds.
Higher/lower gear range: Road bikes tend to have higher gears overall, hence they are referred to as having a high gear range, while the lower top and bottom gears of a mountain bike mean that it has a lower gear range.
Hoods: The rubber grip to which the brifters are attached on road bikes, and where you’ll be keeping your hands most of the time when riding.
KOM: An acronym for the 'King of the Mountain'. Originally this was the term for the winner of the Tour de France's polka dot climber's jersey, but it's more commonly-used second meaning nowadays is Strava's use of the term to refer to the top performer on any of its many millions of segments. See also: QOM.
Locking compound: Liquid used to 'lock' threads together. Loctite is the most common and comes in various grades according to the size of threads being joined and how permanent the attachment needs to be. Also known as threadlock.
Low gear: Low gears on a bike come from the combination of a small chainring and large rear sprocket. That results in fewer turns of the rear wheel for each turn of the pedals, allowing low speeds for climbing hills.
Lumen: Put simply, how much light you’ll get out of a bulb. The more the lumens, the brighter your light.
Lux: It indicates the brightness of your light over a given area. You can use Lux to compare the beam patterns of multiple lights, but you don’t really need to if it’s got enough lumens.
Lycra: General term for stretch fabrics used for cycling and other sports clothing. The name comes from the elastic fibre that’s woven in with another yarn such as nylon or polyester usually in a mix that’s about 18% Lycra and 82% nylon. While the term has become generic, Lycra is a DuPont trademark; other manufacturers refer to it as spandex and elastane.
Power meter: An electronic device that uses gauges to measure pedalling force and from that calculate the amount of power the rider is generating as she rides. Typically built into the cranks, pedals or bottom bracket axle, sometimes in the rear hub or chainrings.
PR: Personal record, or your best attempt on a Strava segment, possibly well behind the crème de la crème KOM/QOM numbers.
QOM: The 'Queen of the mountains'. Either the top climber in a female professional race or, in the world of Strava, the top female performer on any given Strava segment.
Quick release: A mechanism in the hub which allows the wheel to be easily removed and fitted without tools. A rod passes through a hollow axle and is tightened with a cam lever that clamps the drop-outs.
Quill stem: Handlebar stem that inserts into the fork steerer, rather than clamping around it. Usually used in conjunction with a steerer and headset that adjust by means of threads on the outside of the steerer.
Q-factor: The width of a pair of cranks, measured at the pedal eyes; the distance between the outer surfaces of the cranks at that point. Some riders, especially shorter people, find they are more comfortable with a smaller Q-factor. Also used to designate the distance between the outboard end of the pedal thread and the centre of the pedal mechanism.
Rollers: The bane of many, even some of the most experienced cyclists. It’s usually made up of three cylindrical rollers attached to a rectangular frame. The front wheel rests on one roller, while the rear sits on the two behind. It’s another way to train indoors, that is if you can manage to keep your balance.
Scotty: The mascot of Zwift, looks like an arboreal rodent often encountered while riding (see: squirrel).
Seat post: The component that supports the saddle. Usually held into the frame by a clamp at the top of the seat tube, though some high-end frames have the seat post integrated into the frame as an extension of the seat tube.
Side-pull brakes: Brakes that attach to the frame above the tyre and are actuated by a cable at the side of the mechanism. Probably the most common brake design on road bikes, but increasingly supplanted by disc brakes on new bikes over around £1,000.
Smart trainer: Also called turbo trainers, they are the same as an old-school trainer, but with added mechanics that emulate real-world conditions such as climbs, headwinds, and drafting. See also: Trainer.
Spokes: Shaped rods that connect the hub and rim of the wheel. The tension in the spokes gives the wheel its strength and ability to support loads far in excess of its own weight. Spokes are most commonly made from stainless steel, but may also be made from titanium, carbon fibre and aluminium.
Sprocket: A toothed wheel that meshes with a chain or toothed belt to transmit power from one part of the bike to another. Usually used to refer to those on the rear wheel; sprockets on the crank are called chainrings. Not to be confused with cogs, which mesh with each other.
Square taper: A design of bottom bracket and crank. The left and right cranks are separate from the bottom bracket axle. The ends of the axle are square in shape and tapered. Cranks mount via matching holes and are pulled into place with bolts. A tool called a crank puller is necessary to remove a square tape crank.
Squirrel: Arboreal rodent often encountered while riding. (Happy now, hawkinspeter?)
Stack and reach: The vertical and horizontal measurements from the centre of the bottom bracket to the top of the head tube. The most accurate indicator of how a bike will fit, but still only gradually coming into widespread use.
Steel: An alloy of iron and carbon, often with other elements added to tailor its properties. There are many varieties of steel, from simple carbon steel, composed of just iron and carbon, to alloy steels used for bike frames which usually have chromium, molybdenum and manganese alloying elements.
Steerer tube: The upper tube of the fork. Sits inside the head tube and is held in place by the headset bearings which allow it to turn. The handlebar stem attaches at the top of the steerer, clamping inside or around it depending on the design
Thru axle: A thru axle goes in between the dropouts, which are crucially closed instead of being open, providing more secure wheels. They usually have a built-in lever which allows you to swap a wheel without needing any tools.
Toe overlap: A toe overlap is when you turn your handle too much on one side and the wheel ends up touching your toe on the other side. Don’t worry too much about it — if you’ve got a well-fitted bike, it will only annoy you when you’re almost at a standstill pace, say when turning your bike to get going again. You should never face toe overlap at higher speeds because you wouldn’t be turning so sharply then, but if you do, you’re most probably on a size too small for you and need to get another bike.
Trail: The horizontal distance from where the front wheel touches the ground to where the steering axis intersects the ground, as shown in the above diagram. Trail affects handling; more trail makes a bike more stable at speed.
Trainer: They allow you to, well, train from the confines of whatever place you set it up. Just pop out the rear wheel of your bike and attach it to the stationary device, and you’re good to pump in those crazy numbers without worrying about the weather outside. (If you don’t like watching the paint dry on your walls while cycling, see Zwift and smart trainer).
Tron bike: An imitation of the bikes with neon glowing wheels from the legendary sci-fi movies in Zwift. Only the best Zwift climbers get to show off their cool rides.
Tubeless: Tyres that have no inner tube but retain air because they fit very tightly on the rim, the rim is sealed by a special rim strip and the tyre either has an internal rubber coating or contains a liquid sealant that both coats the tyre and seals small punctures.
Tyre bead: The wire round the inside of a tyre. As well as supporting the tyre shape, the bead hold the tyre in place on the rim. In most tyres the bead is made of steel; in lightweight tyres Kevlar is used to save weight, which also makes the tyre easy to fold for storage.
VAM: Velocità ascensionale media, or Italian for average ascent speed, is used to measure how quickly you’re going uphill. Usually noted in metres per hour.
Watopia: A mythical, apocryphal island with dinosaurs, volcanoes and a counterfeit Alpe d’Huez. It’s always there for you to go out for a spin when you switch your Zwift on.
Wheelbase: The distance between the centres of the front and rear wheel. A longer wheelbase makes the bike stable and you’ll find it on most urban or mountain bikes. A shorter wheelbase creates stiffness and makes the bike more twitchy and responsive to steering inputs. You’ll most likely see this in road race bikes.
Wheelsucker: A rider who enjoys drafting, or sitting behind the wheel of a rider, but doesn't switch places to take the winds and do his bit in a group ride. Don't be a wheelsucker, because they mostly suck.
Woods valve: Tyre valve with a removable mechanism held in place by an external collar. The top thread is the same as that of a presta valve, so threaded pump adapters can be used, but it's usually too short for a press-fit or clamp-on pump head such as those usually found on track pumps. Also known as a Dunlop valve or English valve, though they're now very rare on anything but utility bikes intended for the Netherlands market.
Zwift: An online multiplayer game which allows you to train indoors without getting bored to death. It’s a virtual landscape which mimics real-world geography with the help of a smart trainer. Other virtual cycling apps are available, such as Rouvy, MyWhoosh and TrainerRoad.
Zwifter: Someone who trains on Zwift. In other words, Zwifts.
John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.