Panniers and Pedal Wrenches: A Newbies Guide to Bicycle Vocabulary

Starting something new can be scary, no matter what the situation is. Walking into a space where you don’t know every detail can be anything from mildly anxiety provoking to terrifying. In my opinion, the biggest hurdle to jump on the way to being comfortable is to learn the lingo.

Talking the talk basically means you can discuss the topic at hand with the “experts” on a more even footing…even if you still know pretty much just the basics. At least, that’s how I feel with bike and bike related topics. I don’t feel like I’m anything beyond an enthusiast, but I do know a whole hell of a lot of things about bikes and I know how to talk about them.

As a petite woman who has been ignored and spoken down to by more than enough roadies to last me a lifetime, I like to help other people who don’t look like the typical weekend warrior avoid crappy treatment from snobbier cyclists. Knowing what to call the random stuff on a bike or related to a bike is a pretty useful skill that I’ve tried to share with others for the past few years (SpokeModels’ Mechanic’s Nights being my first organized attempt). With the right terminology, not only can you participate in scoping out the beautiful bikes locked on the street, you can protect yourself from getting overcharged or just really impress with your opinion on SRAM vs. Shimano parts.

So, for anyone thinking of taking up cycling or just trying to read Bike Snob NYC and trying to figure out what he’s talking about all the time, read on for a very abbreviated list of terms I think everyone should know before rolling into a bike shop.

Bike Types:

  • Cruiser: an upright bike, probably good for riding on the beach or other leisurely rides around town. They also typically have big wheels and wide seats.
  • Mountain Bike: Depending on how rugged the mountain bike, this style is meant for off-roading, “stump jumping” and overall trail riding. They typically have knobby tires, upright postures and aren’t very fun on the road.
  • Hybrid: A mixture of a road bike and a mountain bike, the hybrid is meant for someone who wants to ride on the road (mostly), but doesn’t want to lean forward or use skinny tires. Hybrids also allow you to ride on the grass easily and have thicker tires than a road bike. Every hybrid is different, but these are typically great commuter bikes or transition bikes between mountain and road for the skittish cyclist.
  • Road: a diamond framed road bike with handlebars the drop are what most people picture when they think of the Tour de France or any other kind of racing bike. Road bikes are great for a lot of different types of riding – commuting, touring, racing or anything else on the road. They can get a lot more “aggressive” depending on the geometry of the bike, but are essentially meant to travel easily on the road with skinny tires and not go on the grass or dirt.
  • Fixed Gear: you can’t change gears and your pedals move when your wheels move on a fixed gear – so no coasting! These are popular in cities and advocates for them enjoy how they connect you to the road. They typically don’t have brakes and can be pretty hard on your knees, so they take some getting used to riding. For those who love them, they are amazing, light, cheap and easy to fix. For those who are intimidated by them, a single speed is a similar ride with smaller barriers to entry.
  • Mixte: This is the bike you probably see in your minds eye rolling across the Dutch countryside, with the step through frame, fenders and adorable basket with a bottle of wine in it. These are also known as Dutch, City and Safety bikes and are popular for a reason. They are durable, versatile and cute (a lot of the time) options for cruising and commuting.
  • Single Speed: Any bike that only has one speed is a single speed, so you could find a cruiser, road bike or mixte all labeled as single speeds. They are similar to fixed gears in that you never change gears, but they do allow you to coast (not pedal while your wheels roll). Depending on how hilly your area is, these are a great option for riding in lots of settings, but are typically harder for long rides!
  • Tri: Meant for triatholons, tri bikes are similar to track bikes and road bikes, but usually with weird geometry. They are also crazy expensive and not really meant for regular riding.
  • Track Bike: similar to a fixed gear, but only meant for riding in a track or velodrome. These are training bikes for people who race so that they can work on their cadence (speed of pedaling) and form off the road to improve their performance on it.

Bike Ride Types

  • Commuting getting to and from school or work.
  • Cyclocross: a mixture of road and mountain biking, cyclocross is getting more and more popular as a way for people to enjoy both really fun sides of biking on and off road.
  • Touring: long distance cycling, usually as a way to travel between cities.
  • Racing: competing for speed, usually by road.
  • Fun!
  • Pretty much every other time you see someone on a bike

 Bike Trainer: great for indoor biking, this is an easy way to turn your bike into a stationary bike if you can’t go outside or just don’t want to ride on the road.

 Frame Terms:

  • Crank Arms: the straight metal pieces that connect your pedals to your bike.
  • Coaster Brakes: You probably had these on your first bike – you brake by pedaling backwards instead of using levers on your handlebars.
  • Fork: where the wheel fits into the frame, sort of like a two-pronged fork!
  • Internal Hub: typically found on older bikes and children’s (English 3 speeds especially), these are on the rear wheels. The internal part of the name means that the mechanisms that shift the bike and brake the bike are on the inside of the hub. 

Lube: nothing sexy about this oil that you use to keep your bike moving smoothly.

Panniers // Saddle Bags: Bags that you can attach to your bike are called panniers (French) or saddle bags (western!). They are great at preventing back//neck strain, the dreaded sweaty on the way to the office and to just cram more stuff on your bike. Pictured are three different types of panniers (front rack Ortlieb roll over [black, smaller], rear rack Ortlieb roll over [yellow, larger] and a Timbuk2 messenger bag) that are all super high quality and very useful. I use the front rack Ortliebs on my rear rack because I am a small person on a small frame – I don’t have a lot of real estate for the bigger ones!

  • Attachment System: how the damn thing actually gets on your bike. There are a million different kinds, but I personally prefer Ortlieb’s.
  • Heel Strike: When your heel hits your pannier when you pedal. Super annoying, potentially dangerous and a sure sign the pannier is either too big for your bike or you didn’t adjust it correctly to your rack // frame.


  • Platform Pedals: flat pedals that provide a platform for you to pedal AKA what you’ll typically get on a bike.
  • Cages: A plastic and strap based cage that a cyclist can slip their foot into to get somewhere between a platform and a clip. There exists a lot of controversy as to whether these are safe or stupid or worth it – tread further only if you dare!
  • Clip Pedals: Pedals with metal that connects specially made shoes to the bike to provide more physical force for each pedal stroke. 


  • Rear Rack: very common on the road, these racks are great for baskets, panniers or just strapping something on with a bungee cord.
  • Front Rack: not too common on the road, really only used for touring or other very gear focused pursuits, a front rock fits over a front wheel. Smaller panniers are used for front racks than rear racks.

 Reasons to Ride a Bike:

  • Fun
  • Commuting
  • Recreation
  • Sports // Exercise
  • Literally like a million others, so just remember to be cool to each other on the road

Saddle: the seat!

 Spandex Spandex Spandex!

  • Bike Shorts: true bike shorts are spandex with padding (a chamois) in the butt area to protect your private parts from going numb or getting hurt on longer rides. You don’t wear underwear with them and the fit based on your genitalia – so make sure to wash them and you probably don’t want to share!
  • Cycling Cap: a hat specifically meant to be worn on a bike (under your helmet or not) that helps keep your hair in place and the rain or sun out of your eyes. They can be very fashionable, made of spandex, tweed or other material. I really like using them in the summer to keep my hair from looking as sweaty!
  • Cycling Gloves: padded gloves that help protect your arms and wrists from the bumps of the road. They are also very handy in protecting the skin on your hands and wrists from road rash in case you fall or crash.
  • Cycling Jersey: a spandex (usually) shirt that zips up and has pockets. It’s specifically meant to be worn on a road bike, with a longer back and flexible shoulders to account for the stretched posture of riding a road bike.
  • Clip Shoes: Shoes that clip into clipped pedals. They help a cyclist make better contact with the pedals and provide force on the up and down stroke of the pedal’s revolution. Since you’re connected to the bike, they typically make the rider more attuned to traffic – to stop, you need to unclip so you better keep your eyes open!


  • Types of Tires:
    • Beach: big and fat (2 inches wide), great for riding on sand!
    • Fat: super big and fat (4 inches wide), great for snow and sand!
    • Road: nice and skinny (25-28cm usually) for the least amount of surface area on the road and the fastest ride
    • Mountain: knobby for traction off road, usually 35cm
    • Studded: studded with rubber and metal to help the tires get traction on snow and ice
    • Touring: thick and skinny, meant to hold up to a lot of abuse and have good traction, but not be too difficult to push forward on the road
  • The Bead: this is where the tire is tucked into the rim of the wheel – it’s basically the seal that you break when you remove a tire and the seal you evenly create when you replace a tire.
  • Tires vs. Tubes: Tires are the rubber that meets the road, tubes are what fill them up inside. Tires are also a lot more expensive than a tube and should be replaced way less.
  • Tire Levers: These little guys can be plastic and of varying quality. You insert the lip end under the rim to break the seal of the bead and then hook the other end around a spoke to remove a tire.


  • Axles: This is the piece of metal that connects the wheel to the hub.
  • Fenders: Curved material that fits to your frame and your wheels to protect you from road grit, rain and snow. They can be fully installed or removable, depending on your preference and climate.
  • Hub: the center of a bike wheel.
  • Quick Release: This mechanism looks like a switch and keeps a piece of a bike (usually a wheel or seat post) connected to the bike without using tools. They are great for you to use – but also great for bike thieves. Always lock a quick release!
  • Spokes: These guys radiate from the center (hub) of the wheel to the rim and keep the wheel circular by staying tightened at the same level

Have any more terms you either don’t understand or think I should include? Drop me a line in the comments.