My Ten Most Difficult Australian Climbs - 'What the Hell is a Hors Categorie Climb Anyway ?'

In my last blog I referred to Mount Hotham as a 'Horse Category' climb'. 'Hors Categorie' in French, it's used to describe an incredibly tough climb - particularly in relation to the Tour de France - that is 'beyond categorisation'.

With an abundance of mountains throughout the country; in the Jura, the Vosges, the Pyrenees and highest of all, the Alps, you'd think the French in particular, would be experts when it comes to the classification of climbs. After all, their cyclists have been climbing mountains in the Tour ever since 1905, when the Ballon d'Alsace (in the Vosges), with its 1,247-metre peak, made its first appearance. Just five years later it transformed itself even further, when in 1910 the Pyrenees (namely the Col d'Aubisque and the Col du Tourmalet) were introduced. So successful was their inclusion that the Tour travelled to the Alps the very next year.

Col d'Aubisque
Here's my category classification from my book, 'Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round'. Hope you enjoy the description.

While Bill Paxton’s character in Twister, Bill Harding, loved chasing tornadoes, loads of cyclists have an insatiable appetite for climbing mountains. It’s a bit like bagging a Fell in England or a Munro in Scotland.

Passo dello Stelvio

Anyone who has walked the full length of Alfred Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk across Northern England knows that Kidsty Pike is the highest point of the 300 kilometre-plus track. They also know that the narrow Striding Edge of Helvellyn is not something to be taken lightly, particularly in bad weather. Equally renowned in cycling terms are mountains like Cime de la Bonette, Mont Ventoux, Col de Galibier, Austria’s Grossglockner . . . and the list goes on. They are called Hors Catégorie climbs, meaning they are beyond categorisation. In other words, once upon a time, even cars couldn’t climb them. Well, just about, anyway.

Today, organisers of the big touring events rate their climbs according to three important criteria: one, the steepness and length of the climb, two, the position of the climb within the stage, and three, the condition of the road surface. Categories themselves were first used for mountain roads in relation to the gear required for cars to get over them. For example, a Category 4 climb only needed fourth gear, while a Category 1 required first gear.

Passo Gavia
To be more specific, the lowest category, a Category 4 climb is generally regarded as a gain in height of between 70 and 150 metres  over a distance of less than 3 kilometres, while a Category 3 is between 150 and 500 metres, over 3-5 kilometres. That’s Arthurs, only usually the average gradient is much less than a challenging 8.1%. A Category 2 is between 500 and 900 metres, over 5-10 kilometres, and a Category 1 is 900 to 1,500 metres, over 10-20 kilometres. Sometimes, an extended flat or downhill section of road can reduce a climb’s rating. As well as decreasing the average gradient, it can afford the fatiguing rider a temporary reprieve from lactic acid build-up, having been gasping for air from his already bursting lungs—something that, even by now, I could well testify to.

Anything higher or longer than a Category 1 and it’s rated a Hors Catégorie mountain, a long grinding ladder of pain, usually flanked by a granite wall on one side and a steep precipice on the other. There are exceptions, of course, such as the Alto de l’Angliru. It’s a climb of only 1,265 metres, reducing it to a Category 1, but it averages higher than 10% and is usually positioned at the very end of the day’s race. I’d love to see my dear Mum’s 1976 Datsun 120Y get up that one.

Books by Mark Krieger:

‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books

Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante

“When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.”                        H. G. Wells

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