Category Climbs In Cycling: What Are The 5 Cycling Climbing Categories?

Been watching the Tour de France coverage and want to beef up your biking knowledge on category climbs in cycling?

Or perhaps you’ve been pounding down split times on Strava and want to dig a little deeper into what their cycling climb categories are all about?

We’ve got you covered!

To give you the lowdown on cycling climbing categories, we’ll be explaining:

  • What Are Category Climbs In Cycling, And How Are They Determined?
  • What Are The 5 Cycling Climb Categories?
  • Why (And When) Were Cycling Climb Categories Created?
  • What Are Cycling Climbing Categories On Strava?

Ready for the deep dive on category climbs in cycling?

Let’s crack on!

Category Climbs in Cycling: Title Image

What Are Category Climbs In Cycling, And How Are They Determined?

In road cycling races, climbs are categorized to indicate their difficulty to riders and spectators.

In races with a King of the Mountains classification, the category of a climb also dictates how many points are on offer for the riders who reach the summit first.

Cycling climbing categories were first introduced by the Tour de France, but were soon adopted by the other Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España) and have since become commonplace in cycling races across the world.

An important point to remember about cycling climbing categories is that they’re very subjective.

Besides length and gradient, the category assigned to a climb is affected by a whole host of variables including:

  • The length of the entire stage
  • The position of the climb within the stage
  • The position of the stage within the Tour as a whole
  • Commercial considerations

The boundaries between cycling climbing categories can be very blurred. A mountain that features at the finish line of a lengthy stage in the Tour de France as Hors Catégorie (HC) one year might only be a Category 1 climb the next year if it falls early on in a shorter stage.

Similarly, a hill that might normally be uncategorized could end up as a Category 4 if it appears on a very flat stage early in the Tour, so that the race organizers can break the tedium of the TV coverage and generate some early interest in the King of the Mountains classification.

A pro cyclist climbs a mountain in the Tour de France.

What are the 5 Cycling Climb Categories?

There are five grades of category climbs in cycling, but there are no hard and fast rules defining them.

We’ve tried to give you a rough idea of what a typical climb might look like for each category, but you’ll be able to find exceptions to all of them!

Category 4

These are the easiest of the categorized climbs, with the least King of the Mountain points on offer.

They’re unlikely to make or break a race – unless they’re placed right at the end of a stage – but they’ll still get a cyclist’s blood pumping.

Not all climbs are categorized. If a climb is placed in Category 4, the race organizers feel it is significant enough to be worth awarding King of the Mountain points and signalling to media and spectators as a point of interest, but is still less of a challenge than the higher categories.

As a rough guide, a typical Category 4 climb might be 2 km long at a gradient of around 6%. Alternatively, a longer Category 4 could stretch to around 4 km, but at an average of 4% (or less).

Category 3

A Category 3 climb can be just as short as a Category 4, but will pack more of a punch.

Even the shortest Category 3 is unlikely to have an average gradient above 7%, but they can feature steep, peloton-splitting ramps.

A great example is the Cauberg (a pivotal feature of the Amstel Gold Race route), which featured as a Category 3 in the 2006 Tour de France despite being only 1.5 km long with an average gradient of 5%. However, it rises to 12% for a short 300m section, and broke the peloton in the final kilometres before the line in that year’s race.

A longer, flatter Category 3 could stretch up to 6 km or so, but at a gradient of around 4%.

Category 2

Category 2 climbs will get you seriously out of puff.

They’re usually among the biggest climbs outside of the mountainous terrain of the Alps of the Pyrenees – though you’ll find plenty of Category 2 climbs there as well.

A short Category 2 climb could be 5 km at 8%, while a longer one could average 4% for 15 km or more.

Category 1

Among the toughest around, Category 1 climbs are unlikely to be found outside the mountains. Even the toughest climbers in the peloton will be grimacing and grunting as they grind their way up these.

A Category 1 could be anywhere from 6 km at upwards of 8%, all the way to 20 km at 5%.

However, a typical Category 1 climb will often be bumped up to HC if it comes towards the end of a long, arduous stage, or if it includes a summit finish.

Hors Catégorie (HC)

The most brutal mountain roads Tour organizers can find to separate the wheat from the chaff, only true cycling masochists enjoy an Hors Catégorie (HC) climb.

Translating ominously as “beyond categorization”, Hors Catégorie climbs are the longest, steepest, and most iconic mountains around.

Rarely less than 15 km in length, they’re typically combined with a punishing gradient to get the peloton’s legs screaming.

At an 8.5% average, traversing 21 hairpin bends and over 1120 metres (3700 ft) of elevation gain, the infamous Alpe d’Huez ascent is a prime example of an Hors Catégorie climb.

More often than not, Grand Tours are won and lost on Category 1 and Hors Catégorie (HC) climbs.

A mountain road used in the Tour de France, with "Vive Le Tour" written across it in chalk.

Why (And When) Were Cycling Climb Categories Created?

The Tour de France introduced the Mountain Classification at its 1933 edition, and with it categorized climbs were born.

At the time, there was only one category; the first ten riders up a marked climb were awarded points from 10 to the leader, down to 1 for the tenth man over.

This scoring system was the same regardless of the difficulty of the climb, and at the end of Le Tour the cyclist with the most points was crowned as champion of the Mountain Classification (AKA the King of the Mountains).

This new classification proved a big draw for spectators, who flocked to line the roads of the biggest mountain stages, and the Tour decided to build on this popularity by splitting the climbs into two categories. Category 1 marked the toughest climbs, which were now awarded extra points.

As the Mountain Classification’s popularity continued to grow, more categories were added. 1949’s Tour saw the introduction of Category 3 climbs; Category 4 was added in 1962; and finally the intimidatingly-titled Hors Catégorie in 1979.

The Polka Dot Jersey, awarded to the leader of the King of the Mountains classification, was first awarded in 1979. It’s distinctive design was chosen to promote the polka-dot chocolate bar wrappers of the Tour de France’s sponsor, Chocolat Poulain.

Urban legend in cycling mythology dictates that the cycling climb categories were originally determined by which gear you could drive up the mountain in a Citroën 2CV: Category 2 in 2nd gear, Category 1 in 1st, and so on. Hors Catégorie was reserved for mountain passes so steep they were impassable for the trusty old Deux Chevaux workhorse.

Historically accurate? Probably not.

Romantic and idiosyncratically French enough to be cemented in cycling lore? Mais oui!

Two cyclists summit a climb and round a hairpin bend, with a jagged mountain range looming behind them.

What Are Cycling Climbing Categories On Strava?

Strava is one of several platforms to attempt to standardise the cycling climbing categories, removing any subjectivity from their classification.

Strava climb categories are based on a formula which multiplies the climb’s length in metres by its average gradient to assign a score.

For example, a 1 km climb at an average gradient of 8% would have a score of 8,000 points, while a 10 km climb at 5% would score 50,000 points.

Strava’s cycling climb categories are defined as follows:

  • Category 4: 8,000+
  • Category 3: 16,000+
  • Category 2: 32,000+
  • Category 1: 64,000+
  • Hors Catégorie: 80,000+

There are some benefits to this method of categorizing climbs. For one, the same climbs will always have the same classification, regardless of where they’re positioned in a race. Strava are also completely transparent in how they categorize climbs, which can’t always be said of the Tour de France organizers.

This scoring system also allows any climb in the world to be instantly categorized without human input. Strava segments (the defined sections over which riders can compete for the best times) are always given a classification if they meet the minimum requirements.

If you’re riding a new route without pre-defined segments, Strava will automatically work out if your climb should be categorized and generate a new segment for it.

A cyclist in a pink jersey rides through the hills at sunset.

However, there are drawbacks to this formulaic approach.

Relying solely on the average gradient can disguise the true difficulty of a climb. The brutal Col du Glandon, for example, features over 1400m (4,600 ft) of cumulative elevation gain across just 17 km of road, with ramps of 11% or more.

However, because the climb also features 8 km of intermittent descents and flat sections, the average gradient is only 4%: deceptively low for a climb that has been classified as Hors Catégorie on 5 of the Tour’s 13 visits.

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One of the BikeTips editors, Rory has enjoyed a lifelong love affair with cycling. Though he’s always game to hurtle down an MTB trail or dive into the backcountry wilderness, Rory’s real passion is bike touring on Europe’s sprawling roads with his old cycling mates. Their most recent adventure was a ride from London to the Italian Alps; the next trip is already in the works!

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