When is a hill a climb?

When can a ride up a hill be called a climb, and when is calling a hill a climb just showing off a little?

Cyclists have a tendency to refer to hills as climbs. The word ‘climb’ appears much more epic than ‘hill’, elevating (no pun intended) an everyday ascent into something that sounds worthy of a place in a Tour de France stage. Is it the gradient or the length of a route that determines if it is a ‘climb’. Maybe its the combination of the two, that an experienced cyclist feels in their limbs and heart rate, and instinctively knows when it’s an appropriate title.

Surprisingly The Velominati  Rules do not advise on this matter. I cannot find any rule that says you cannot call the lowest of inclines a climb. Rule #68 explains that rides are to be measured by the quality of their distance and never distance alone. For climbing rides, distances should be referred to by the amount of vertical covered. For example declaring ‘we rode 4km’ would assert that 4000m were climbed. However the keepers of the rules do not advise how much vertical covered can be called a climb.

I believe that any elevation gained on a bicycle on a route that has the word, Alp, Alpe, Mont, Mount or similar proceeding the name can safely be called a climb. There’s also a good chance that if you reach a Col, you’ve done a decent climb too.

Perhaps climbs can be identified by switch-backs, the gradient may be relatively low, but the route may gradually traverse up a mountain-side, it would then be the distance that determines if the word ‘climb’ can be respectfully used. However this rule is not foolproof, there are plenty of little hills with a bend in them, that do not deserve such a lofty description.

I’m beginning to think that its something to do with attitude and effort, if you genuinely attack a hill of any description and give it all you’ve got, you can call it a ‘climb’.

To be revisited.

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12 thoughts on “When is a hill a climb?

  1. I’m amused by the illustration – I live in Edinburgh and cycle-commute on Leith Walk fairly frequently. At the moment it’s not a climb, it’s a nightmare: unceasing roadworks, rubbish road surfaces due to ancient, failed tram works, double-parking, …

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    1. Hi Bruce, this Leith Hill is to be found in Surrey, just south of Dorking. If you found yourself down this way, it’s a long climb and takes you to the highest point in the Surrey Hills ( it featured in the Olympic road race route) fortunately no tram lines to navigate.

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  2. Well in Surrey they are all just little Hills aren’t they? 😉 Leith Hill, Box Hill, etc.

    Although they can certainly feel like epic climbs if you string a few of them together in quick succession! What they lack in length many of them make up for in gradient. I guess if what you’re ascending is referred to as a Mount Something (or Something Mountain) then it can safely be called a climb. But a Hill? Jury is still out on that one I guess. Personally I recon they’re climbs and you can call anything that comes up as a Cat 4 or above on Strava a climb.

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  3. I’m thinking I could handle Leith Hill, but have ventured that far on anything with less than 4 wheels. I know it well enough to say it is a climb, but not really a Col, Mount, or anything too severe. My friends at South Down Bikes call the easterly ascent of Chanctonbury Ring (off road) as Heart Attack Hill. Perhaps there should be a different grading system for off road stuff?

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  4. It’s funny to see you ask this question as its something I’ve also been pondering while writing my next piece. I think the difference lays in whether or not you get a genuine sense of accomplishment for reaching the top. I only have one hill local to me and the altitude gained is a meagre 200ft but it does so mostly in a 14% ramp of brutality. That might not be significant to some people, but as an 18 stone asthmatic lump the first time I succeeded in getting to the top without the shame of stopping felt like an enormous milestone in both in terms of fitness and my development as a cyclist.

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  5. On the southern edge of the Florida Everglades I came across a sign that reported that I had reached a pass (summit)–elevation 3 feet. Because we were driving a car rather than cycling, we hadn’t noticed the rise in elevation.

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