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

Mountains define the Tour de France - but how much do you know about the history and importance of the categories climbs are assigned to?

Photo of author
Written by
reviewed by Ben Gibbons

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?

The 5 categories of climbs in cycling designate the difficulty of the climb, based on length, gradient, and (depending on who is doing the categorizing) a range of other objective or subjective factors such as where the climb falls in a race.

In some professional races such as the Tour de France, the categories also dictate the number of points awarded for the Mountains Classification.

Climbing to Alpe d'Huez at the 2022 Tour de France.
Climbing to Alpe d’Huez at the 2022 Tour de France.
© Pauline Ballet/A.S.O.

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 first riders to reach the summit.

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.

The two most important factors in determining the category of a climb are its length and its average gradient (steepness).

Tour de France race director Thierry Gouvenou asserts that the majority of the time (especially for new climbs not included in previous Tours), his team follows a simple formula to categorize the climb: distance (km) multiplied by the average gradient squared.

For example, the iconic Col du Tourmalet (climbed from Luz-Saint-Saveur) is 18.3 km long at an average gradient of 7.7%. So, the formula is 18.3 x (7.7 x 7.7), giving the Tourmalet a score of 1085 points.

This then suggests a category for the climb, based on the following guidelines:
Hors Catégorie (HC)600+ points
Category 1300+ points
Category 2150+ points
Category 375+ points
Category 4up to 75 points

So, at 1085 points, the Tourmalet would easily fall into the highest classification of Hors Catégorie (HC).

However, there’s little doubt that Tour de France climbing categories also contain an important subjective element (perhaps more so than the organizers would like to admit), given the same climbs have been assigned a different category in different years.

The decision is influenced by a whole range of variables, some of which are objective, and others which are open to interpretation.

The Factors That Determine A Tour de France Climb’s Category

Objective Factors

  • The length of the climb.
  • The average gradient of the climb.

Subjective Factors

  • The overall length of the stage the climb features in.
  • The position of the climb within the stage (e.g. nearer the start or the finish line).
  • The position of the stage within the Tour as a whole.
  • The perceived difficulty of the climb (e.g. does it have especially steep sections, or small descents that make the average gradient misleading).
  • The historical significance of the climb within cycling.
  • Commercial considerations.

The boundaries between cycling climbing categories can be 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 competition.

Adding categorized climbs can also encourage Mountains Classification contenders to join the breakaway, which might otherwise be populated solely by low-profile riders chasing some exposure for their team sponsors.

Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard climb to Cauterets-Cambasques at the 2023 Tour de France.
Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard climb to Le Cambasque at the 2023 Tour de France.
© Charly Lopez/A.S.O.

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 – suggesting the higher classification was justified.

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.

Demi Vollering climbs the Tourmalet at the 2023 Tour de France Femmes.
Demi Vollering climbs the Tourmalet at the 2023 Tour de France Femmes.
© Thomas Maheux/A.S.O.

Why (And When) Were Tour de France 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 now marked the toughest climbs, and these were 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.

Raymond Poulidor paces Roger Pingeon, the eventual Tour de France winners, up the Col du Galibier at the 1967 Tour de France. 
Roger Pingeon, the eventual Tour de France winner, is paced up the Col du Galibier at the 1967 Tour de France by domestique Raymond Poulidor.

While the overall race leader gets to wear the Yellow Jersey (“maillot jaune”), the Polka-Dot Jersey is reserved for the leader of the Kind of the Mountains Classification.

Introduced for the 1979 edition, its 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!

Climbing in the French Alps at the 2022 Tour de France.
Climbing in the French Alps at the 2022 Tour de France.
© Pauline Ballet/A.S.O.

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 Climbing Category Thresholds

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

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.

Climbing the legendary Mont Ventoux at the 2021 Tour de France.
Climbing the legendary Mont Ventoux at the 2021 Tour de France.
© Pauline Ballet/A.S.O.

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.

Now you know all about climbing categories in cycling, it’s time to boost your climbing performance with this guide from BikeTips’ resident ex-Olympian Lydia Gurley!

Photo of author
As a UESCA-certified cycling coach, Rory loves cycling in all its forms, but is a road cyclist at heart. He clocked early on that he had much more of a talent for coaching and writing about bikes than he ever did racing them. In recent years, the focus of Rory's love affair with cycling has shifted to bikepacking - a discipline he found well-suited to his "enthusiasm-over-talent" approach.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.