Question: I went to Europe to watch some Tour de France mountain stages and ride the routes (wonderful trip!). I’m confused about the course profiles the Tour organizers handed out. They were intimidating to look at — jagged and showing an unridable steepness. But the roads, though tough, weren’t nearly that steep. What gives? — Brendan B.
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: Course profiles can look pretty mean, depending on the scale. If a hilly ride on the vertical scale (elevation) is shown on a compact horizontal scale (distance), it’ll be very jagged and look impossible even though it’s actually quite mild.
So, you need to look at the vertical scale to see how many feet are actually gained on each of the “saw teeth.” Then look at the horizontal scale to see how much distance each climb spans.
Generally, a ride that gains an average of 100 vertical feet per mile is considered quite hilly.
“Vertical feet” means taking all of the elevation gained on each climb and converting it to the perpendicular (straight up). A vertical gain of 100 feet in 5,280 doesn’t sound like much — until you ride it mile after mile.