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This page last updated on: January 18, 2012
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By David May

Biking in French-Speaking Europe— Pronunciation, Nomenclature, Road Signs

On this page:

Tips on French Pronunciation
French Bicycle Types
French Road Signs, and Their Observance
French Biking Vocabulary


Tips on French Pronunciation:

 If you need to say city names, or bicycle parts, you might want to know a little about French pronunciation. Here are some basics.          

Think of é, è and e as three different vowels. (For capitalized letters the accents may be missing.) The first two e's are always pronounced in a consistent manner: 

é as in the word “hey”, that is, like an “a” in “say”, but shorter

è  as in “let”

e  usually as in “route”, or as in "lottery",
but when followed by "t" or "z", it is pronounced like é

i and y (as a vowel) are pronounced "e" as in "be", only more quickly

a is pronounced as in "hall"

o, au, aux, eau, and eaux are all pronounced like the “o” in “solo”

ou like the English "u"

an, en, in, on, un  are all pronounced through the nose

To pronounce u, oui, oe, and eu correctly seek the help of a French native speaker. Consonants often are pronounced as in English, except for "r", which is in the front of the throat..

French Bicycle Types:

City bike*                     Vélo de ville                     vay-lo duh veel

Racing bike**                 Vélo de course               vay-lo duh course

Mountain bike             VTT (Vélo tout terrain)     Vay Tay Tay

Hybrid bike***           VTC (Vélo tout chemin)     Vay Tay Say

Pronounce vélo to rhyme with the English word “halo”(American pronunciation - long a).  The French also use, less colloquially, the word “bicyclette”, with both the i and the y pronounced like the e in "be", only quicker: b-c-clet.

*A heavy, inefficient bike with an upright riding position, wide low pressure tires, and from one to seven speeds, moderately priced and comfortable on bumpy road surfaces.
**A lightweight bike with dropped handlebars, narrow wheel rims, and high pressure tires, responsive but not so stable, fast but suitable for use only on smooth roads.
***Bike with a semi-upright riding position, pretty good efficiency, medium width wheel rims, medium pressure tires, and a wide range of gears.

French Road Signs, and Their Observance:

A piste cyclable (peest c-clable) is a bike path.  A cycliste (ceecleest) is a cyclist. Pedestrians have the right of way at all times, even when prohibited from bike paths. 

Throughout western Europe, circular red signs, with or without a diagonal red stripe, mean interdit (forbidden, or keep out).  A red sign with a diagonal line and a bicycle on it, thus means “bikes keep out”. Often the red signs show only motorcycles and mopeds, which means that bikes may pass.   Because the pictograms on signs are usually self-explanatory, a large vocabulary is unnecessary.

Circular blue signs mean obligation (obligation - you must do something).  A blue sign with a bicycle on it, means “bicycles must take this path” (and not, for example, the sidewalk or the road).  Cyclistes, pied à terre  means “cyclists, dismount” (literally “cyclists, foot on the ground”, usually because of a road or sidewalk crossing a bike path). Circular blue signs with arrows means that traffic must turn (or go) in the direction of the arrows.

A diagonal red line through a round blue sign cancels the obligation.

Triangular white signs with a red border mean stop. When there is a black arrow pointing straight ahead in this sign (with a little cross line) it means, "you have the right of way".

Square blue signs provide information and suggestions.  Yellow signs provide temporary information, as, for example, deviations (“detours”).

The following URL, with advertising, gives some additional information: .

The French often ignore signs and regulations; and the enforcement of these is not  evident. (In parts of neighboring Germany, on the contrary, rules are strictly followed.)

Important: At intersections, unless otherwise marked, vehicules entering from the right have the priorité (right of way) — even if from a minor road.


Most French use helmets (casques) for mountain biking, but do not use them for road biking.  One reason may be that roads in France are very smooth, and rarely subject to pot holes.  Another may be a greater disregard for personal risk. The author, in Europe, uses a helmet.

French Biking Vocabulary:

Road and Train Words: Rond-point = rotary, traffic circle, roundabout; carrefour = intersection; route = highway, road, or route; autoroute = superhighway, motorway; RN  or N = route national = national highway; D = departmental highway; rue = street; allée = alley; chemin = narrow road or wide path; voie = lane of a multi-lane road, ora railroad track;  deviation = detour; entrée = entrance; sortie = exit; gare (pronounce gahre)  = train station; RER (pronounced airr-eh-airr) = A rail system in the Paris area, combining some features of both trains and subways; quai = road or dock along river or platform along rail track in station; office de tourisme – tourist office; centre ville – to town center.

Key bike repair and conversation words:  freins = brakes; guidon = handlebars; vitesses = speeds, i.e.,  21 vitesses = 21 speeds; cadre = frame; plateau = chain ring; clé = wrench (key); vis = screw; roue = wheel; pneu  = tire; tube = tube; pompe = pump; crevaison = flat tire;   kit crevaison = tire repair kit; air = air; rayon = spoke; cassé = broken; panier = saddlebag; vélociste, or magasin  vélo = bike shop. Many other words resemble those in English, and pointing is usually sufficient, anyway!


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