How Tour de France Climbs Are Categorised
Climbs are sorted into five categories, depending on their difficulty: 4, 3, 2, 1, or HC (“Hors Categorie”, meaning ‘beyond category’). Category 4 climbs are the easiest of them all, and are usually short 3-5km ascents at gradients of up to 6%. Category 3 climbs will be a bit longer and steeper than that, category 2 climbs even harder, and category 1 climbs among the most difficult in the Tour.
The Hors Categorie label is reserved for the longest, most punishing climbs in all of cycling, and there are only several of them in each edition of the Tour de France. HC climbs are often tens of kilometres long and finish more than 2,000 metres above sea-level, and they can be the points where stages are won and lost. This year, the riders will face five of them, starting in stage 14 as they head into the Pyrenees to take on the world-famous Col du Tourmalet.
Although they’ve reduced the number of HC climbs in this year’s race, handing some of the impetus back to sprinters, race organisers are still dubbing this edition “the highest Tour in history,” perhaps due to the fact that for the first time ever, the riders will finish three separate stages at an elevation of over 2,000 metres.
The 5 Key Climbs of the 2019 Tour de France
Dozens of categorised climbs await the riders of this year’s Tour, and the King of the Mountains will be more deserving of the polka dot jersey than ever, but there are some climbs that could also have a big impact on the general classification. Here are 5 key climbs of the 2019 Tour de France and what to expect from them.
5. Col de L'Iseran
The penultimate HC climb of this year’s Tour could play a big part in determining which rider ends up with the yellow jersey. After taking on three punishing peaks in stage 18, the riders will follow a steady ascent through Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne and Modane the following day, before a sprint through Bessans to the base of the Col de l’Iseran. There they’ll face a 12.9km climb at a 7.5% gradient to reach an elevation of 2,770m, the highest point in this edition of the Tour.
This year there are eight climbs where riders can earn bonus seconds for being the first to crest the summit, and Col de L'Iseran is one of them. The winner of the ‘sprint’ will receive an eight-second bonus, while the second-place rider will get five seconds, and the third-place finisher three seconds. If the gap to the race leader is small enough to close at this late stage, an extra eight seconds could make all the difference. Similarly, it could push the leader one step closer to the yellow jersey.
4. Col de Vars
Stage 18 of the 2019 Tour is a killer, featuring three climbs that finish at over 2,000m and two – yes, two – HC climbs. The riders will face a ‘warm-up’ climb up the category 3 Côte des Demoiselles Coiffées, before a steady ascent through the village of Jausiers and the first real test of the stage: the category 1 Col du Vars. There are no bonus points on offer for this climb, but there are for the final one of the stage, the Col du Galibier. This will be on the minds of the riders as they make their ascent through Saint-Paul-sur-Abaye, which marks the start of the Col de Vars climb. The most ambitious among them will be thinking about getting into a good position for the descent into Guillestre and the first of the day’s two HC climbs: the Col d'Izoard.
3. Col d'Izoard
Magnificent Alpine vistas will be on display as the riders tackle the first of the two HC climbs of stage 18, the Col d'Izoard. They will be attacking the mountain pass from the south, from the direction of Arvieux, meaning a long 14-kilometre ascent at a gradient that averages out at around 7% but which hits double digits more than once. They will get some respite after around 12km of climbing, when they reach the Col de la Platrière and drop though the short, sharp descent of the famous Casse Déserte, which features a monument to two legendary cyclists, Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet, who rode through the pass multiple times through the 1940s and ‘50s.
Bobet’s stage 18 of the 1953 Tour de France, including his ascent of the Col d’Izoard, is a famous moment in the history of the race, as he opened up an unassailable gap and went on to win the yellow jersey with a lead of 14 minutes. While it’s unlikely that a rider will win this year’s stage 18 by five minutes, like Bobet did over half a century ago, a good performance will set the riders up for the final climb of the day and the bonus points on offer.
2. Mur d'Aurec-sur-Loire
It’s not the longest climb to feature in this year’s Tour, but it is easily one of the steepest, with gradients that max out near to 20% and average at a punishing 11% over three kilometres. The strongest climbers might be eyeing this one as their big opportunity for a breakaway.
Once they crest the summit they’ll breeze along the rolling hills of the southern Loire, through the village of Usson-en-Forez, before a sharp descent into the valley towards the stage’s next climb, the category 3 Côte des Guillaumanches. Bonus points await those who crest the stage’s final summit, the Côte de Saint-Just, and with its relatively soft inclines it may be the scene of some strong attacks. The riders will want to start the stage well to put themselves in a good position, and that begins with the day’s biggest test, the Mur d'Aurec-sur-Loire.
1. Val Thorens
At a length of 33km, the climb of the legendary Val Thorens is by far the longest the riders will face over the three weeks of the race. Occurring at the end of the penultimate stage, it offers the last real chance for the chasing pack to overtake the leader, as the following stage – number 21 – is the final one in the Tour, just a brisk sprint into Paris.
Val Thorens is a daunting prospect for any rider, and while it rarely gets steeper than an 8% gradient, its sheer length will test even the most durable of athletes. The peloton will cruise into this final test after cresting the category 2 Côte de Longefoy – an exciting prospect for those spectators hoping for some late attacking climbs – and a breezy descent into the town of Moûtiers. From there await the tortuous switchbacks of Val Thorens and, perhaps for one rider, the first taste of victory.