How to read cycling race course maps (aka is this a big hill)?

How to read cycling race course maps (aka is this a big hill)?
Tour de France 2022 - Stage 12 - Briançon / Alpe d'Huez (165.1km) - Col du Galibier

You'll often see course maps shown on PCS or shared on Twitter prior to races. But how can you parse them and deduce how they'll dictate the outcome of a race? What hill length and percentage gradient is counted as hard? We try and break it down into three levels depending on how long you are willing to spend doing prior research.

The Time Strapped Analysis

The easiest and quickest way to parse a map is to label the race a sprinter race, a rouleur race, or a hill climb race. This isn't exactly nuanced, but it's a heuristic that allows you to quickly parse the stage or race. The same heuristic can then be used for riders and you can match sprinters to sprint races, rouleurs to rouler races and so on. Often the betting odds will tell you this for you. The sprinters will have the shortest odds on a sprint stage, and the longest odds on a hill climb. The usefulness of this heuristic comes into play when you have a mix between a rouleur and a sprint stage (which often happens). In these stages, if a break happens and successfully stays away then the rouleurs will win. But if the break is caught then the stage will end up in a sprint, and the key sprinters will usually win.

When judging a stage like this, it then boils down to if your gut thinks the break will stay away and win, or it's likely going to get caught given the course profile and riders.

Below you'll find three example stage profiles of each of the three distinct race types we mentioned above. Each are taken from a stage of the Tour de France 2023. An added note is that "transition" stages in multi-day stage races will generally be sprint stages (although occasionally they'll be rouleur stages). These transition stages provide a rest day to the virtual podium General Classification (GC) riders as they'll either let the sprinters, or a group of breakaway riders that don't come into play in the GC (as in they're too far down via the time difference) take the win while the key GC contendors will finish together in the peloton.



Hill Climb

The "Okay I've Got More Than 5 minutes" Analysis

This level of analysis is where you take all you've learned from the time-strapped analysis and begin to dig a little deeper on the rouleur and hill climb stages. What constitutes a hard hill? It may be better to reframe the question as what constitutes a hard climb for the rider's involved. For example, Matthieu Van Der Poel (MVDP) can get up most short and medium climbs well (any of those in Milan San Remo say) but struggles on the longer climbs or hill finishes. Whereas Pogačar excels on most climbs except the most extreme, where Vingegaard probably eclipses him in terms of having it as their forte.

Generally, if a climb is "categorized" meaning that it's been given the title of a "climb" on the course profile, then it's relatively difficult. A good rule of thumb for parsing at this level of analysis is the following:

  • Not super hard: climb < 2km and climb < 5%
  • Kinda hard: 2km < climb < 4km and 5% < climb < 8%
  • Hard: climb > 4km and 5% < climb < 8% OR climb > 2km and climb > 8%

You can use the same heuristic to match to riders' skillset and make some gut calls on whether certain riders will be able to hang on over certain climbs or they'll be able to break away from certain riders of similar calibre. It's worth noting that at this level of analysis, you should be judging rouleur stages by analyzing breakaway points on the map and whether the breakaway would be able to sustain the breakaway.

Hill and downhills both provide good opportunities for breaks to form (but they can also just happen on the flat), and then it's up to you on whether the break can manage to stay away from the peloton. A great example of this is Pidcock's breakaway win in Strade Bianche 2023. Pidcock excels at downhills and managed to use a downhill section of the course to breakaway and stay away (he really shouldn't have been able to - but often the chasing riders don't collaborate)

The "I've quit my job to become a full-time punter" Analysis

So, you've decided to quit your cushy job and try your hand at being a full-time punter? We're proud of you. At this point though you'll probably know more than us. But it's worth adding these other few points to your arsenal

  • Downhill sections make it harder to close breaks. You can only go so fast on a bike, so breakaways are less likely to be caught when you're going down a descent as the speed differential between the break and the chasers will be less in absolute terms AND the strength in numbers of the chasers (assuming they'll actually work together) matters less when going downhill than on the flat (and to a lesser degree on hill climbs). If there's a steep downhill close to the finish (rules generally don't permit finishes on downhills) then whoever is in front before the descent will probably maintain that lead.
  • Sprinting is hard on a true hill finish, but it often isn't the case that the races truly ends on an incline (setting up barriers and spectator areas isn't easy on a slope), so there's generally some flat for a few hundred meters before the end. Make note of that because if the race ends between two supreme hill climbers, generally the one with the better sprint will win.
  • Drafting matters less on hills after around 8%. So even if your rider's team is strong and will most likely have 2+ in the group that forms before a hill it doesn't actually mean that it will aid the rider that the team is riding for all that much. It'll help, for sure, but it's going to play less of a key role.
  • Downhills are just as important as inclines. Many riders find themselves crippled by gnarly descents. A prime example of this was Enric Mas in the 2021-2022 season who could hardly crack 50km/h after crashing badly earlier in the 2021 season. Contrast this to Pidcock, Bilbao, or Mohorič who all have insane descending capabilities and you'll be able to make much better picks based on the course profile.

Finally, don't stress that much about perfectly analyzing a stage before making a bet. There's so many variables in cycling racing that a course profile and a riders skillset are just one of many indicators that play into the final result.