How Are Climbs Categorised?

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Tour de France rates climbs with five labels, starting at 4th category for the easiest all the way to 1st category and then HC for hors catégorie, or “beyond categorisation”. What do these labels mean and how are they applied?

The categories serve two purposes:

  • To illustrate the relative difficulty of the climb so riders, the media and spectators get a quick take on the severity of the ascension
  • To set the number of the points awarded for the mountains competition

Contrary to what many think, there’s no algorithm to compute gradient and length, instead it is arbitrary. A small climb in the north of France is always going to be fourth category, a 2500m mountain pass is always HC but you can fill in the gaps in between. Often in the mountain stages there can be roads in-between the main climbs that rise more than something that would be categorised elsewhere in France.

Grand Cucheron, Petit Cucheron?
Take today’s climb of the Col du Grand Cucheron, it is rated as a first category climb.

But it has been used in the Tour de France before and as the graphic above from the 1998 Tour de France shows, it is normally a second category climb (note it is climbed from the other side but the climb is similar and when it has been tackled in the same sense as today it’s been second too). If the mountain has not moved, it the road has not changed, why does the category change? Well it’s all about incentives:

  • The 1998 stage shows several climbs and the Cucheron is only one of many, so its importance to the day’s racing is less important and therefore worth less points.
  • Also for today perhaps the race organisers want to motivate more riders to attack at the start and offering a greater number of points at the top of the climb by increasing the category will make things even faster.
  • And don’t forget this year’s race has relatively few climbs and so some category inflation helps the race organisers make the race sound more exciting. At the stroke of a pen Tour boss Christian Prudhomme can say more big climbs than it might otherwise have.

Many climbs see points awarded but they are not recognised mountain passes or hills. The race route is full of small climbs or côtes which borrow local names, for example on the route today is the Côte d’Arboix, a climb up to the village of Arboix. But often the locals apply different names to these roads; the Tour doesn’t know about this and sticks the name of the closest village. Similarly a couple of days ago the Tour passed over the Col de Richemond but the location of the line in the road and the banner to mark the summit of the climb was marked was some way from the actual mountain pass and the sign that marks the spot.

The Col
A col is a mountain pass and it is not the peak of a mountain. Instead it usually marks the lowest route across a mountain, a way of passing from one side to the other.

Turn it up to HC
Humans have discovered distant planets and classified hundreds of thousands of species of animals but there are some climbs that are apparently beyond categorisation for the organiser of the world’s biggest bike race. Rather than having climbs rated first, second, third, fourth and fifth category, we have the hors catégorie label, as in “beyond classification”. It doesn’t mean the organisers have yet to get round to applying a label, it is just some linguistic inflation – Spinal Tap anyone? –  in order to make these big climbs sound even more impressive. It’s hype but these roads are indeed special places and whether you’re a tourist or Team Sky, they deserve a unique respect.

King of the Mountains
The best climber was first recognised in 1933, prizes were given from 1934, and the jersey was introduced in 1975. But the phrase “King of the Mountains” comes from 1905 when René Pottier climbed the Grand Ballon in the Alsace region. Riding for a team with Peugeot bikes, the company’s factory was down the road and workers lined the climb. The spectacle was so great that newspaper L’Auto proclaimed Pottier as “le roi de la montagne“, or the king of the mountain.

Polka dot
Points are awarded at the top of categorised climbs and mountain passes.

  • Hors Catégorie: 25,20,16,14,12,10,8,6,4,2 points respectively for first 10 riders to finish
  • Category 1: 10,8,6,4,2,1 points
  • Category 2: 5,3,2,1 points
  • Category 3: 2, 1 points
  • Category 4: 1 point
  • Points are doubled for the summit finishes of Stages 7, 11 and 17, meaning 20,16,12,8,4,2 points are available.

The winner is not always the best climber. In years past the winner has been someone who took off on a mountain stage to raid as many climbs as possible and bag points, allowing themselves to run out of energy for the final climb safe in the knowledge that a jersey was waiting for them at the finish. This explains why the points have recently been doubled for the summit finishes, in order to give more weight to those still in the mix for the final climb.

Summary
There are no rules. Instead the categories are applied according to the relative importance of the climb and the organisers can change the classification to suit the day’s racing. This gives the race freedom to tweak the incentives in the race and at the time of writing it remains the most open jersey competition in the Tour de France.

El Gato de la Cala July 13, 2012 at 4:27 pm

and the Team Sky wife´s scale:
Cat 4,3,2 & 1: Wiggo can keep up with Froome.
Hors Catégorie: Wiggo can´t keep up with Froome

…if you ask Michelle Cound, that is. Is surname spelled correct?

grumpyoldman July 13, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Excellent piece for enthusiastic non-experts like me. Many thanks.

If I may digress a little, there’s an excellent piece by Wiggins in ‘The Guardian’ (published about three or four hours ago) about why he would never dope. It won’t convince the dyed-in-the-wool sceptics, but it sounds more than plausible to me.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2012/jul/13/bradley-wiggins-dope-drugs

Oliver July 13, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Dopers lie. Why you would believe the denials of Wiggo over those of other folks suspected of doping, & on what basis? It has probably more to do with you nationality and fan allegiance more than anything else if you believe him.
Certainly sacking the shady doctor from their team would be more helpful than having Sky pr concoct a post about how he would stand to loose everything if he doped…. More likely, he would get a ban and get back on it, a la Contador. That’s if he gets caught. All dopers stand to loose a lot if they get caught, from Lance to Landis via Di Gregorio. Yet they still do it. Denials are meaningless.

ePhil July 13, 2012 at 9:25 pm

I think it’s unfair to assume all riders are doping – no more than assuming all businessmen are cheats. Or people who can’t spell right – it’s close, not loose – are idiots. The sport is changing and it’s reasonable to expect Wiggo to be bonafide.

grumpyoldman July 13, 2012 at 10:19 pm

“It has probably more to do with you nationality and fan allegiance more than anything else if you believe him.”

Actually it has to do with logic.

This is what’s known in the trade as a ‘yesno’ question. The question in essence is “Are you doping?” There are only two possible answers, yes or no.

If Wiggins answers yes, then clearly he’s doping.

But if he answers no, then clearly he’s doping (because all dopers lie).

In short, framed in this way, the question is a lose/lose for Wiggins, along the lines of “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

And by the way, all I said was that the reasons he gave were plausible, not that I was prepared to believe him implicitly on the basis of one newspaper article with no other evidence taken into account.

Graham Downie July 14, 2012 at 11:08 am

As the lead character in the TV series “House” says “Everyone lies”. However, I have to ask, what will it take for people to stop thinking all pro-cyclists seemingly take drugs? If the sport is that corrupt then why are the dyed in the wool skeptics still enthusiastically contributing to websites like this? I tell you; because it is them, the dyed in the wool skeptics, that have the problem of a major character flaw.

I believe Wiggins is clean and I believe he’s a better role model to the kids than those idiots who snipe.

Mark July 14, 2012 at 1:51 am

I actually believe he’s clean, because ,he’s not that good there are no “today Brad was superhuman days” I think Sky has been the only team 100% committed to GC ,even Cav has accepted the role ,
Nibali has no team Cadel has the wrong team ,yes ,some may say its dull ,I think it’s great example of how you plan ,prepare and execute
I find it tense and intriguing

Colin July 13, 2012 at 8:40 pm

But oliver, on this logic what is there to say when asked? Just say you do dope, but haven’t been caught? I can understand the cynicism given the last…since always but i can see why wiggins got angry. He can’t prove he is innocent to anyone except himself in the current climate. Am i bothered? No. I can only trust the testing however haphazard it seems and wait to see what comes round. If i believed wiggins was doping, there would be no reason to not assume EVERYONE was doping (there are more average riders caught than good) and it would sorta defeat the joy of sport.

Where do we stop with this cynicism? Obama was a lawyer before president, he must be doping to progress? Spacemen were pilots before, they must be doping? The only reason i have a child now is cos i dope? The only reason my sister went to uni after poor school grades is cos she dopes? Spain used to be average international football now they are world beaters, they must be doping?(bad example perhaps, players have been listed with certain doctors but nothing was done cos barca and real threatend leagl action)

Surely all we can hope for is that the testing keeps up with the chemistry and that uci sanctions efficiently. And even then there will be someone caught

Steve July 13, 2012 at 11:59 pm

I used to smoke loads of dope and I have kids. And I ride a bike. And have watched FC Barcelona play. Uh, where was I?

Mark July 14, 2012 at 1:44 am

Brilliant , are you me

Ken July 13, 2012 at 10:15 pm

So, categorized climb rankings are a lot like UCI rules, subject to a lot of interpretation. ;-)

Chris July 13, 2012 at 11:21 pm

I can’t remember where I read or heard this but I have this notion that, traditionally, climbs were categorized according to which gear a car could drive up them in.

E.g. If you could reach the top in 3rd gear, it must be a 3rd category climb.

Not sure where HC climbs would fit into this system, though. Perhaps they’re the ones where you have to get out and push??

inopinatus July 14, 2012 at 9:21 am

I seem to recall Carlton Kirby on Eurosport repeating this piece of lore on Eurosport during Stage 10 and noting it was specifically a Citroën 2CV. And yes, HC meant the poor little thing couldn’t get up the hill at all.

MattK July 14, 2012 at 1:31 am

In the world outside of TdF, I have always wondered how climbs were rated. I have climbed HC hills that I would rate a “meh” and 3 or 4s that had me wondering how far I would roll backward once my heart exploded. The car notion would be problematic as it would be dependent on the weight of the car, the gearing ratio and most importantly the engine. For instance a Toyota Tercel would be HC on most hills, while a Viper could lug up pretty much anything in 4th.

HOH July 14, 2012 at 3:02 am

Someone mentioned yesterday that the car ought to be a 2CV.

The UCI interpretativeness comes in when you can decide how many people (of what weight) to put in the car or how many un-necessary equipment you can strip off that car, or how well the engine was maintained.

Goonie July 15, 2012 at 10:31 am

Matt, there are no “official” ratings for climbs outside racing, and as our host has noted even within a single race they vary from year to year for the exact same climb.

Strava uses a fairly simple algorithm for rating climbs – they multiply the length of the climb (in meters) by the gradient (in %). So if you had a 5 km climb at 5% it would have a rating of 25000. They then have certain threshold ratings for a climb to get a particular category – 8000 for cat 4, 16000 for cat 3, 32,000 for cat 2, 64,000 for cat 1 and 80,000 for HC.

Climbbybike – while not handing out categories to climbs – uses a slightly more complex formula, which takes into account the effects of altitude.

Neither method takes into account the effects of varying gradients on a climb. A 500-metre 20% section turns any climb into a brute.

The other point I’d make is that just riding a climb and racing it are completely different. The aforementioned 20% slope is a challenge just to ride up, regardless of how fast you’re trying to go. But a 20km 5-6% climb can be a pleasant sightseeing ride or a painfest depending on how fast you’re trying to go.

ave July 14, 2012 at 2:55 am

Originally it was something to do with cars, as not all cars could cross every col. (probably overheating?)

Chuck July 14, 2012 at 3:13 am

all you good people, just a heads up for what it could be like ………………………..
take a good look at David Millar (reformed doper), after he won stage 12 of the Tour.
THAT is what it should look like.

Ankush July 14, 2012 at 8:33 am

very helpful post. It nicely complements the information given on the wiki page for mountain classification.

Bundle July 14, 2012 at 9:34 am

On the topic of the post:

1) If I remember well, the “Hors-Catégorie” appeared only 1985, and there were only 2 (Tourmalet and Luz-Ardiden) climbs rated that high (the whole Alps only got as high as 1st, but what would that matter if you had a stage with 4 “first” and 3 “second” rate climbs over 269km). The idea didn’t seem to be to “market” those two climbs, it was only to make the KOM prize more precise. The Tourmalet is much more of a climb that the Colombière or the Peyresourde, and it made sense that they stopped being worth the same points.

2) There is an increased tendency to inflate categories. Except the Giro, which has a very idiosincratic way to leave pretty big climbs uncategorised and rate others quite whimsically, this year even the TdF (that traditionally was pretty solid in categorising), but also de Vuelta (is the Puerto de Cotos 1st category now?… come on, it’s been 2nd since its cobbles were paved, and this little overrating could spoil the Bola del Mundo stage), the Tour de Suisse (so Verbier is an H.C. now, yeah, right), Paris-Nice, Romandie, have been trying to “sell” its mountain as being tougher than it really is. In the era of super-light carbon frames and compact cranksets, it’s a bit of a paradox (if not an offensive joke) that organisers are pretending that the mountains are harder than they used to be, when in fact they are softer. Harder is what they SHOULD rationally be, and the hypocritical overrating pays tribute to this deficiency.

3) What the Giro does is to try and fool teams and riders, so an unrated or underrated monster can surprise the peloton at some precise moments, thus giving local riders (and those who reconnoitre the route) an edge. But they idea is to add spice and unpredictability to the race, and while not being very Cartesian, it serves a noble purpose.

4) The KOM has lost much of its value since the main GC contenders stopped going for it, or more precisely, since they stopped attacking in almost every slope. Bahamontes 6 trophies were won while trying to win the Tour by creating massive gaps on every mountain stage (and winning the race once), wheres Virenque’s 7 were basically won by sprinting from an indifferent peloton and the odd consented breakaway. Shame on the others if they didn’t contest this prize, of course, it’s not Virenque’s fault (although he should be the first to admit that his 7 polka-dot jerseys don’t make him a historic climber), but the Tour sensed this and they tipped the classification to favour final climb contenders (hence Samuel’s victory last year). It doesn’t seem too fair: why should someone’s effort over a 1st rate final climb be worth the same as someone’s effort over an H.C. at the beginning of the stage?

5) My proposal: eliminate points and count time. Technology allows timing every rider’s climbing. The make a GC only with climbing times, or else award points according to the classification in every climb as if it was a TT. This would allow to know who is the fastest climber, and would make the KOM prize more valuable. There would not be “polka-dot jersey contenders” anymore. Only the real best climbers.

Bundle July 14, 2012 at 9:47 am

On the TeamSky saga, I would like to know why Froome is expected to give up his chance of winning the race. As a viewer, who wants to see a competition to see who is the strongest, I would feel robbed if the race was fixed, so that the strongest man doesn’t win, but someone designated after some dealings. I would affirm that, in the REAL spirit of sport, Froome is entitled to disregard any such dealings, and has even the moral obligation, to the audience, to do so.

1987. Giro d’Italia. Roberto Visentini, of the Carrera Team, is in Pink. His teammate Stephen Roche attacks him on the 13th stage, on the way to Sappada (“the Sappada betrayal”), against his DS orders. He goes on to win the Giro, the Tour, and the Worlds. “He did what he had to do”.

I am surprised that some parts of the British public seem to prefer a Wiggins victory over a Froome victory. Why? They’re both equally British, aren’t they?

Oh, and one more thing: race radios met their death conviction in La Toussuire. They are totally unacceptable.

GatorGene July 14, 2012 at 5:43 pm

I really like Bundle’s fifth point, the one about awarding KOM on time, not by points. As to the counter-argument that it would mostly go to the GC riders, who are often the best riders, I suggest that GC riders often ride more slowly up the big climbs while watching each other, and the ‘true’ climbers, who don’t have such inhibitions, can go ‘full gas’ and earn a polka-dot jersey.

It seems to me that awarding KOM on time rather than points is a great idea. Has it been proposed before? Are there any other arguments against it that I’m unaware of? Thnx.

Touriste-Routier July 14, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I also like Bundle’s 5th point and have thought about it previously. This is how we award the KOM for the Gran Fondo’s I produce. If you combine this with primes (such as the Cima Coppi), perhaps we would see some real battles emerge rather than the KOM title going to escape artists and opportunists without GC aspirations.

Changing the points system for the Green Jersey has certainly changed the sprints during the stages (we now see the contenders going for them, even when a break is up the road), so why not look at changes for the polka dot jersey too? Of course if I had my way, there would be a sprints jersey (like the former red Catch jersey in the TDF) for mid race and sprint stages, and a points jersey for consistency of finishes in all stages, but that is another subject…

new kid July 15, 2012 at 10:12 am

Thanks for another informative read. I don’t know if you have already covered another mystery area for us newbies but how is the position taken up by the cyclists at the start of a stage determined. I’ve seen all of the jerseys on the front but behind them what happens? Also when they begin riding through the neutralized section at the start are riders governed by any rules about moving closer to the front?

The Inner Ring July 15, 2012 at 10:24 am

The jerseys go to the front as a privilege and to get on TV, for photos. But the others just line up behind in the order they show up. Once the neutral section starts you can overtake but the road can be packed so it’s not easy. There are sometimes crashes because of this.

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