Climb Categories

HC – Hors Categorie
From the French term meaning beyond categorisation. The toughest of the tough. The longest or steepest climbs, often both combined.

Cat 1
Still a very significant climb, it could be a big mountain climb with a lesser gradient or a shorter climb with a steep pitch, for example 8km at 8% through to 20km at 5%

Cat 2

Category 2 could be a short climb, for example 5km at 8 percent, or as long as 15km at 4
percent

Cat 3
This could be a climb as short as 1km with a steep gradient of about 10% or a mellower climb up to 10km long with up to a 5% gradient.

Cat 4
The easiest categorised climbs of all, under 2km long with an average grade of around 5% or 2-3% up to 5km long.

There is no exact science for the categorisation of climbs; if you search the internet you’ll find numerous climbs whose category changes depending on the source of the information. It doesn’t necessarily mean that one is right and another wrong. There are many variables that can affect how a climb is categorised. If you’d like to know why then read on…

For the purpose of this website all the climb categories have been taken from one source with the aim of providing consistency throughout our pages.

Standardising Climb Categories

Mapping platforms such as Strava, Map My Ride and Ride With GPS, to name just a few, have tried to standardise categorisation by means of a simple formula. This makes it possible to see how lesser known climbs weigh up against the big name giants.

Strava

‘Our categorisation is completely objective, so if a climb is Cat 1 it will always be a Cat 1 climb.

To decide the category of a climb we multiply the length of the climb (in meters) with the grade of the climb in percent’ – Strava.

To be classed as a categorised climb the total must be 8000 or more.

The minimum percentage is 3%

Cat 4: +8,000
Cat 3: +16,000
Cat 2: +32,000
Cat 1: +64,000
HC: +80,000

In theory this sounds great, a simple formula that can categories any climb anywhere, no subjectivity. Unfortunately this method has its own flaws for a couple of important reasons.

Very few climbs have a consistent gradient from start to finish, many will have a huge variety of pitches throughout the climb, some will have long flat sections, some may even have small descents. This means that the average gradient over the whole climb can be misleading; a changing gradient can have a huge effect on how hard a climb is to ride.

Take for example a climb like the Col du Glandon, starting from the Barrage du Verney at an altitude of 760m and finishing at 1919m over a distance of 25.4km.

At 25.4km in length and with an elevation gain of 1159m it has an average gradient of 4.6% so on paper it might be long but not that bad right? Your legs might tell you a different story. The climb is broken up with flat sections and several descents, two with a length of over a kilometre.

Out of the total 25.4km of the full climb 8.3km of that is either flat of descending. This leaves you with only 17.1km to achieve what is actually a 1423m height gain (once you’ve regained the height lost on the descents) and an average of 8.3%, starting to look a little tougher? add to this the lack of a consistent gradient which prevents you settling into a comfortable rhythm and you’ve actually got yourself a bit of a monster of a climb.

The other problem with this method is down to glitches in the mapping process. Have you ever plotted a route to discover huge spikes or drops in elevation? Look a little closer and you may well discover that your route has either passed through a tunnel or crossed over a bridge. The way that mapping platforms calculate the elevation means that while your road passes through a tunnel or over a bridge the data that is collected represents the ground above or below. If the tunnel passes into a cliff face or the bridge over a deep gorge then you may well see some very disturbing maximum gradients!

This profile of the Col d’Aubisque climbed via the Col du Soulor is a great example. Notice the not so little peak between the two col summits, this gives you a 117m height gain in 200m, a gradient of 58.5%!

Unless you have legs like Sir Chris Hoy you won’t be getting over that one. However on closer inspection the culprit turns out to be a short tunnel cut through the mountainside.

At the end of the day there seems to be no hard and fast way to accurately standardise climb categorisation. Each method has its pro’s and con’s and wherever you look you can find contradictions.

A popular story amongst cyclists is that the original Tour de France categories were decided using the iconically French car, the 2CV. The gear the car needed to be in to negotiate the climb representing the category it was given. 4th gear- Cat 4, 3rd gear- Cat 3 and so on. HC being a climb that could only be conquered by a 2CV if put in reverse or not at all. Unfortunately I can find no evidence to prove or disprove this cycling legend. The 2CV first went into production in 1948 falling between the arrival of Cat 2 in 1947 and Cat 3 in 1949. Add to this the fact that Tour founder Henri Desgrange’s chosen car was a Hotchkiss and the role of the 2CV looks more and more unlikely.

A Little History

In 1933 the Tour de France introduced its mountain classification for the first time. Riders were awarded points for being first over marked climbs, 10 down to 1 for the first 10 riders. At the end of the race the rider with the most accumulated points was awarded the win. At this point there was only one category. As Tour routes developed and the big mountain ranges became more and more popular it was decided that climbs should be divided into two categories; Cat 1 and Cat 2; Cat 1 being harder and earning a greater number of points.

The climbers classification was such a success that over time extra categories were introduced. 1949 saw the introduction of Cat 3, 1962 Cat 4 and then finally in 1979 the last category, HC, was given to the toughest climbs of all.

This method has since been adopted by the Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España and bike racing as a whole as well as most recreational cyclists.

The problem is that in stage races such as the Tour, the way climbs are categorised is very subjective. A climb’s category can be affected by many variables such as the length of a stage, the position of a climb within the stage and even at times the position of the stage within the Tour. For example, a climb that would normally be classified as a Cat 1 coming as the final climax of a stage may be classed as an HC, thus giving it more points and adding to its overall importance in the race. The aim for the organisers is to animate the race and provide a spectacle, not to give all of us recreational riders a standard to work from.