The Tour de France has completed three stages in the Vosges, visits the Jura range tomorrow before the Alps and then the Pyrennes. The race rates climbs with five labels, from 4th category for the easiest all the way to 1st category and then HC for hors catégorie, or “beyond categorisation”. A frequently asked question is how are these categories determined.
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 some think,there’s no algorithm to compute gradient and length into a category, instead it is arbitrary. There is a formula used where the square of the vertical gain is multiplied by the length to give an indication of difficulty but this is for comparison rather than classification. A small climb in the north of France is always going to be fourth category, a 2,500m mountain pass is always HC but you can fill in the gaps in between using common sense. Often in a mountain stage there can be roads in-between the main climbs that rise more than many fourth category climbs of the type selected for the flatter stages in the north of France but they’re not categorised so as to avoid cluttering the route.
Similarly a climb’s category can sometimes vary. A first category climb one year could be a second category in another. Of course the road has not changed, just its importance to the race. ASO might want to adjust the points on offer to tweak the incentives. Or it could help to change the story of the stage, a climb scaled early in the stage could be demoted down for the day so that we don’t think the hardest climb appears early in the stage.
As touched on before, the Tour often makes its own names. We saw the “Côte d’Oughtibridge” in England which was really Jawbone Hill to the locals. But this wasn’t because ASO was exploring unknown lands, many climbs in France have different names and ASO has a tendency to them as it wishes.
Take tomorrow’s stage which lists three côtes or hills in a row with the Côte de Désertin as the third, it’s only a fourth category climb but is locally known as the Col de la Croix de la Serra, or col meaning a mountain pass. Perhaps the col label is scary and ASO prefer three smaller climbs rather than a gradual mountain pass?
The race will often place the King of the Mountain (KoM) point where it wishes, often it’s obvious – for example on the Col du Tourmalet the “summit” is obvious as the road rises to the pass and drops immediately. But this isn’t always the case, when Stage 8 of this year’s Tour passed the KoM point for the Col de Grosse Pierre, the actual pass and the official black sign that’s there all year was a couple of kilometres further along the route. Why? Well because the race wanted to mark the top of the steep section with the KoM points and the pass itself was further along a rolling road, a less obvious position to award points to the climbers.
We often talk about the summit of a mountain pass but it’s oxymoronic. A col or mountain pass is not the peak of a mountain but usually marks the lowest route across a mountain range, an easier way of passing from one side to the other. Summit sounds better.
Turn it up to HC
Talking of linguistic inflation, 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 hype – Spinal Tap anyone? – in order to make these big climbs sound even more impressive. But these roads are indeed special places and whether you’re a tourist or Vincenzo Nibali, 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 with the polka dots reflecting the sponsor, Poulain, a chocolate maker. But the phrase “King of the Mountains” comes from 1905 when René Pottier climbed the Grand Ballon. He was riding for a team with Peugeot bikes and the company’s factory was down the road – it still is – 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 and the label’s stuck ever since.
- High point of 2014 Tour: Col d’Izoard, 2,360m above sea level. The Souvenir Henri Desgrange prize is awarded the first rider across.
- Highest col ever: Col d’Iseran, on the route eight times but scratched in 1996 due to bad weather. Last crossed in 2007.
- Highest finish of 2014 Tour: Risoul, 1855m. This year’s race is a lot of climbing but does not venture often beyond 2,000m.
- Highest finish ever: Col du Galibier for 2011 at 2,645m
- Col used most often: Col du Tourmalet, first climbed in 1910 and the Tour has ridden up it 79 times including twice in 1972 on the same stage and twice in 2010.
There are no rules. The categories are applied according to common sense, the relative importance of the climb. The organisers have changed a climb’s status from year to year to suit the race.