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Inside the Tour: So what the heck is a HC or above category mountain climb anyway?

Posted Jul 10 2009 10:03pm


ANDORRA — Since Tour de France riders are in the midst of spending three straight days on some of the most famous and infamous climbs in the Pyrenees, it' s a good time to define the severity of climbs and how they make or break riders' races.

Climbs in bike races are categorized in increasing order of difficulty, from 4 to 1 and then “hors categorie” or “above category.” The designation is of above category is often shortened to HC, and it' s reserved for the most difficult ascents.

Race organizers can categorize mountains in their races as they wish. But Tour de France organizers follow strict guidelines via the length of a climb and its average gradient or grade.

A climb with a 10 percent grade, for example, rises one foot for every 10 feet it advances.

Here' s how Tour de France organizers rate climbs:

Category 4 – Typically shorter than two kilometers and with about a five percent grade or as long a five kilometers with a two or three percent grade.

Category 3 — Can be as short as 1.5 kilometers with a steep grade of up to 10 percent. Can also be as long as 10 kilometers with an average grade of less than five percent.

Category 2 — Can be as five kilometers with an eight percent grade or as long as 15 kilometers at four percent.

Category 1 — Can be eight kilometers at eight percent to as long as 20 kilometers at five percent.

Hors Categorie — Reserved for the most severe ascents. Can be a category 1 climb with a summit at the finish of a stage. Can also be 10 kilometers with an average grade of 7.5 percent or as long as 25 kilometers at with at least an average grade of six percent.

The above category climbs in the 2009 Tour de France:

Stage 7 — Andorre-Arcalis (elevation, 2,240 meters), (10.6 kilometers, 7 percent, summit finish.

Stage 9 — Col du Tourmalet (elevation, 2,115 meters), 17 kilometers, 7.5 percent, mid-stage.

Stage 16 — Col du Grand-Saint Bernard (elevation, 2,473 meters), 29 kilometers, 6.2 percent, early stage.

Stage 20 — Mont Ventoux (elevation, 1,912 meters), 21.6 kilometers, 7.6 percent, summit finish.

Img184newjames_bioJames Raia is reporting live from the Tour de France for James, a journalist since 1976, is co-author of Tour de France For Dummies. He owns several websites, contributes to many print and online publications. A long-distance runner for nearly 30 years, Raia also rides his bike -- to nearby coffeehouses. E-mail:

Additional Cycling Resources:

Tour de France Archive (1997-2008): Tour de France/James Raia

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