One thing about cycling that is initially confusing but starts to make sense is categorized climbs. From watching professional cycling I quickly understood that in cycling climbing mountains is extremely important; it is actually the defining characteristic of the overall contenders. Climbs are categorized on a pretty simple scale with a Cat 4 being the easiest, followed by Cat 3, Cat 2, Cat 1 and finally HC which represents Hors Categorie which is French for beyond category or outside category.
However, I didn’t think it really translated to me, how and where I rode. I lived in Fayetteville, AR which has rolling hills but nothing I would call a mountain. I didn’t understand what exactly is required for a climb to be a categorized or how it was determined which category a climb was. I thought I understood the important part, which was that as you go the climb order from 4 to HC it’s simply put harder. I have moved to Little Rock, AR which has 8 Cat 4 and 2 Cat 3 climbs within a fifteen minute drive of my apartment. So, there are most likely some categorized climbs around where you live also and they make for great training.
So, let’s talk about what actually determines what category a climb is or if it even is categorized. Well to start off as a rider you must accept some ambiguity; there are no official rules that determine what a categorized climb is. There is however some rough guidelines that are used in professional cycling that have been translated down to us normal cyclists. To be a categorized climb it is generally accepted that a climb must be at least 500 meters in length, climb at least 70-150 meters, and be at least a 4-5% Grade.** So those long false flat segments or short steep climbs do not count as categorized climbs sadly. However, if your climb meets the above requirements it would be a Cat 4 climb. Now a Cat 3 must between 3-5 kilometers in length, climb at least 150 meters, and have at least a 5% grade. Cat 2 climbs are at least 5 k in length, climb at least 500 meters, and have an average grade of 8%. Cat 1 climbs are at least 800 meters in height, usually 10-20 kilometers in length, and must have an average grade of at least 7%. Now beyond category or HC climbs are the hardest climbs in the World usually being around 20 kilometers in length, with at a total climb of at least 1,500 meters, and at least a 7% grade.
One thing that is important to understand is that climbs are HARD. I mean really hard but it is exceptionally rewarding to make it to the top of one. I would add some climbing to part of every cyclists training even if you don’t love to climb, it can add a lot of power for the sprints and help to build some muscle. Lastly, no I have never looked at a map to figure out if a climb is categorized; I just use a GPS service like Strava that will tell me where the categorized climbs are in my area and I would suggest you do the same. I have provided the figures to put different climbs into a perspective and because everyone should know the basics even if you’ll never actually categorize climbs yourself.
For the professional races there are other criteria that are taken into consideration along with the ones I have given which I talk about in my article Tour de France Mountains Classification.
**Grade is figured by height divided by length or more simply a 1% grade is equal to gaining 1 meter in height over 100 meters or 10 meters in height over 1,000 meters.**