On the Tour de France, as well as many other cycle tours and races which include mountain stages, you will find that they employ a classification system to ‘grade’ the climbs in terms of difficulty. These are ranked from the hardest (Category 1) to the easiest (Category 4). This categorisation is based on the gradient , the length, and at what point, in the stage, the climb occurs.
The mountain category was first introduced in 1933, and, so the story goes; in the early days of the mountain categories there was only one classification of climbs. As the Tours evolved, a system was evolved to help distinguish between the different mountains and their various difficulties. A category system was then put in place. The categories were roughly based on the gear that a car could drive the climb in. Category 1 for first gear and so on. The ‘Hors Catégorie’ (HC), introduced in 1979, was then designated to those mountain roads where cars were not expected to be able to pass. This category is beyond category 1 in difficulty, and thus beyond categorisation.
The tougher the climb was deemed to be, the higher a classification it would be assigned. This classification could also be dependent on where in the stage the climb occured. For example a category 1 climb, positioned at the end of a stage, might then be classified as a hors categorie climb. The higher the classification, the more points are available for placing high on the climb.
In modern tours the average HC climb is around 16.1 kilometers in length and has a grade of approximately 7.4 %.
In general a mountain pass which links two mountain valleys is called a Col. Some well-known Cols and the valleys they connect are:
Let’s stick with the example of driving and how you would usually shift gears up in a car. We can employ the same principle when it it comes to shifting gears when cycling. In a car you get your speed up before shifting up from 2nd to 3rd gear for example. The same applies when shifting gears when cycling. Get some speed up before shifting. If you shift gears first before trying to speed up then you end up pushing a very heavy gear ‘a la Jan Ulrich’.
Heavy gears use ‘fast twitch muscle fibres’. Those are the ones that you can train to look big and bulky and are used for explosive, short efforts. They use up energy very fast especially uphill. ‘Slow twitch muscle fibres’ are the lean ones and they are used for longer, sustained efforts. Chris Froome is a master at this spinning his legs at a high cadence away from his opponents before shifting gears and staying away.
As with a car, it is best to shift to an easier gear on hills (climbs) or when you are riding into a headwind. When in doubt, shift before the terrain changes, especially on hills. Don’t wait until you can feel the hill on your legs before you shift; rather shift gears in anticipation of the incline. When you shift, be sure to keep pedaling, but ease up on your pedals, especially on hills—if you’re pushing hard, or if you stop pedaling completely, the chain may skip or even fall off.