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What’s the World’s Longest Multilingual Event?

July 5, 2023


If you said the Summer Olympics, you’re on the right track but you would be wrong. Although it is true the Summer Olympics covers 16 days for international competitions, which is two days longer than the Winter Olympics, the men's bicycle race conducted annually across the countryside of France consists of 21 stage races over 23 days.

This year’s 110th Tour de France is truly a global competition with riders from 34 different countries racing in teams of nine riders for 2,235 miles. The very best cyclists from around the world average 25 mph over the entire 3,600-km course and hit speeds in excess of 70 mph on descents in the Pyrenees and Alps.

Linguistically, it is interesting to consider the different ways in which language and culture come together to impact the annual gathering of riders, team managers, medical teams, race officials, the global media and very loyal fans. The Tour is a UCI World Tour event, which means the teams competing in the legendary race are mostly UCI World Teams.

Not surprisingly with what is at stake today for both team and event sponsors, the World Teams no longer consist of riders and support staff who speak the same native tongue. Quite the opposite. Each team member’s skills and talent far exceed national origin, linguistic characteristics, and other tribal identities. Even the lingua franca has continued to develop in an organic way.

A brief history of the world’s most grueling event...

The Tour de France is the most prestigious and challenging bicycle race in the world and attracts top riders from across the globe. It was founded in 1903 by Henri Desgrange, a French cyclist and journalist who was looking for a way to boost readership for his newspaper, L'Auto. Held annually, except during the World Wars, the race primarily takes place in France with short visits to neighboring countries like Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Spain.

For more than a century, the Tour has showcased incredible athleticism and has deep cultural significance. One stage of the Tour coincides with fête nationale française, or for English speakers, Bastille Day. This is France's national holiday that commemorates the storming of the medieval Bastille prison and since July 14, 1789, has been recognized as a symbolic turning point in the French Revolution.

France is still the most strongly represented nation in 2023 Tour de France with 32 French riders spread over the 22 World Teams. Twelve riders will be representing their respective countries as national cycling champions in this year’s race. In addition, Fabio Jakobsen will wear a distinctive jersey before the start of the race, as European cycling champion. The event continues to draw massive crowds along the roadside regardless of the stage.

Common Words for the Language of Cycling

Part of understanding the Tour lies is knowing the language of the event, which includes French, Spanish, Italian, and Flemish phrases that are significant to its cultural blend. The team aspect of the Tour is crucial. Riders work for the team and a road captain signals commands similar to other team sports. Listed below are a few of the essential French cycling terms heard throughout the month, such as:

L’équipe – As the French word for team, there are twenty-two (22) world teams taking part in this year’s Tour de France. One hundred and sixty-six of the 198 Tour competitors in 2023 come from countries other than France, so teams are most often multilingual. L'Équipe is also a French sports newspaper that covers more than 100 sports disciplines including cycling.

Maillot Juane – The yellow jersey is likely the most famous piece of sports clothing in the world of cycling. It is awarded to the leader of the combined time classification at the end of each stage. The rider wearing the maillot juane, when teams enter Paris on the 23rd day of the event, is crowned the overall winner the Tour de France.

L’étape – One of the most frequently used words during a cycling event, l’étape is the French word for stage. During the 2023 Tour de France, teams of cyclists will take part in 21 stage races, including eight flat stages, four hilly stages, eight mountain stages, one individual time trial that is a 22km race against the clock, and two rider rest days.

Le Peloton – Peloton is a French word for platoon. Over the past century the peloton has become synonymous with the main group of cyclists in a road race who ride close to each other to save energy by drafting or slip streaming. It is a popular term for broadcasters as riders who attempt to break away most often are rundown by the faster peloton.

Hors Catégorie – HC is a French term used in cycling events to designate a climb that is "beyond categorization" for a particular stage. The term was originally used to designate mountain stages where cars might not be able to pass. Hors catégorie designations identify longer climbs with steeper gradients and HC1 is the most difficult to climb during a stage.

Since only one rider is awarded the stage win, the Tour is often referred to as an individual sport that is practiced by teams. The elapsed time of each stage is timed to the finish, and each rider’s times are compounded with previous stage times. Although this captain may not be the best team rider or the top contender for the title, he is the leader on the road and guides the team by shouting commands for any required maneuver, even calls for distribution of food and fluids.

English Is the Tour’s Current Lingua Franca

The Tour de France culminates each year in Paris where the overall winner is crowned. Contrary to some neighboring counties, Parisians do not generally speak or like to speak English. But, as the contenders in the legendary bicycle race around France have become more diversified, the lingua franca of the race has continued to evolve for more than a hundred years.

Despite France’s well-known desire to keep the language of the Tour de France pure and unsullied via the Académie française, English has become the common language and most often spoken. A majority of the international racers and team members have elected to learn English, rather than French, in a bid to reach greater audiences and outside sponsorships. Even racers who speak French fluently often answer questions from reporters in English, just to save energy at the end of a long day.

The race itself has grown large enough that it is covered by English-speaking media companies and is broadcast worldwide to over 190 markets. This is a distinct change from the past when the Tour de France was covered exclusively by the French media, and then translated for fans in other countries. The 2023 Tour has its own Netflix series and includes live conversations between team cars and their riders... in English.

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An accurate use of languages helps shape relationships for communicating in the global village. For optimal results in translating and interpreting your organization’s brand messaging, contact ProLingo at 800-287-9755 to discuss your needs for any language. We're experts at localizing multilingual content.

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