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.
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.
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.
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.