Depending on where you are in the world, you'll be faced with flat plains as far as the eye can see, high peaks broken up by deep valleys, or something in between. What's a "hilly test" to one person is a "flat recovery" for someone else, but no matter who you are, hills add a dynamic to bike riding that cannot be ignored. It's no accident that the "General Classification" (GC) riders in the pro peloton are often the biggest names in the business. The ones who excel in the high ground, sacrificing everything to be the fastest up hill. In the UK, the national hill climb championship has been going for almost 80 years, ex-professional rider Phil Gaimon has dedicated his retirement to riding fast in a vertically focused direction and the "Everesting" obsession hit new highs during the pandemic with the men's record for climbing the elevation of Mt Everest being broken 7 times since May 2020 and the women's record falling 5 times since then*. Our incline towards inclines is insatiable, it would seem.
*Cycling's coolest character, Lachlan Morton, actually Everested twice in 7 days. It turned out an error in Strava's elevation data was at fault, where they under-estimated the total elevation gain for the hill he was repeating (check out our previous blog on how Huli uses elevation data, here). He then lost the record to none other than Alberto Contador only a few weeks later... brutal.
But what does a typical ride parcours, in the UK at least, look like in terms of the data? Well, around the pan-flat lands of East Lincolnshire, one could feasibly plot a 100km loop that takes in only 300m of elevation gain. That's an average gradient over the whole route (of the uphill segments) of only 0.3%. Take yourself up into the Lake District though, and you might struggle to find a ride of the same distance that climbs less than 2,000m! That's an average of 2%, which doesn't sound like much, but when you consider that your overall gain on the ride is 0m (you're doing a loop, after all), then in fact that total climb is achieved over only maybe half the route (assuming there's no flat parts). So in that case, when you're not going downhill in the Lake District, you're going uphill at an average gradient of 4%. It's now starting to sound like much more hard work...
This "climb ratio", which is the total elevation gain divided by the total route distance, is different from the "average gradient" of the uphill sections, as shown in the following image. Two routes of the same distance could have the same amount of elevation in total, but one from many small, shallow inclines, vs the other with one very steep hill. We'll look at "steepness" in another blog.
What about some more famous rides? How do they stack up? The men's Tour de France riders will climb 48,350m over the 3,319km course, meaning their climb ratio is 1.46%. The "hilliest" day, however, is up at a whopping 2.83%, taking on 4,692m in 166km on stage 12 on the 14th July. Finishing atop the mighty Alpe d'Huez. On the other hand, in 2017 Amanda Coker of the USA set a new cycling year record, covering more than 139,000 km over 365 days. It was however, sensibly(!), a flat course, climbing only around 70 km in total, giving a climb ratio of 0.05%. That sounds more like it. Well the ratio does, not the distance! Here are some others 😊
At more human distances, we can see a little more variation, with things like Everesting attempts throwing a ludicrous spanner in the otherwise quite reasonable works... Again, distance records tend to remain close to the bottom as one would expect.
Of the 156,000 routes we've generated for our members in Huli (so far), the average climb ratio (elevation gain per distance) is 1.53%. So we're sending you up 1m for every 65m you travel forwards. Too much? Naaa, you got this, team!!😜
Now, generally speaking I'm not normally one for the lumps and bumps, but September 2022 will see the first "open" edition of Pure Peak Grit being run, at which I'll be on the start line... PPG is "the hilliest long distance cycling event in the UK". The brainchild of endurance legend Alaina Beacall, this thing is no joke, with 13,500m of ascent spread out generously over 645km, taking in "every categorised climb in the Peak District". I'm most likely in way over my head, but at a climb ratio of 2% it is one heck of a route.