Climbing – when does a hill become a mountain?

Steepest hill climb

Ever rode up a mountain on your bike? Or was it just a really, really big hill? Such thoughts were spinning through my head as I climbed the mini Serra de Tramuntana mountains on a recent cycling holiday in Majorca. I’d always thought a mountain needed to be at least 1,000 metres high, but then I began cycling up 800 metre high ‘hills’ and changed my mind!

Every cyclist has their own definition of what a mountain is, what’s yours?

Official definition of a mountain

There is no precise definition of when a hill becomes a mountain. Nobody can agree. Here in the UK, a hill becomes a mountain when it tops out at 2,000 feet. That’s 610 metres to you continental types. Two thousand feet. A bit of a convenient round number, non?

Elsewhere the United Nations has pulled out their crayons and had a go at defining a mountain too. They consider both height and gradient. If your slope is 1,000m high but only four degrees steep then those suits in New York say you ain’t climbed no mountain. But since when did we begin listening to grey haired men in suits? As any cyclist knows, none of the above is true.

Gradient has nothing to do with it. Hardknott Pass in the Lake District hits 33% in places but is not a mountain. It’s a b*stard. Yet at some point we can no longer claim that the 10 mile, 800 metre climb is but a hill. We arrive at the top breathless. “That was no hill,” we might whisper if it were at all possible to talk between the heavy breaths, the vomiting and blood spitting.

It’s all about goats

Mountain goat
Yes, I am a mountain goat but is this a mountain or your imagination?

So what is a mountain for the dear cyclist? Can it be measured in feet? No, the Velominati have seen to that. Metres? Nope. Height is only important to the gatekeepers of white knuckle rides in theme parks. Distance? Try again, length is only important to teenagers.

How about the amount of snow at the summit? Maybe but what about summer? Goats are usually a good sign but don’t be confused when you see them grazing at sea level too. Semi-naked men dressed in mankini’s chasing you? Sure, but many a cycle commuter in any British town could be greeted by such sights when riding home late on a Friday night.

The cyclist can differentiate a hill from a mountain by a number of things. Below is my list.

Snow walls cycling


If the slope in question takes over half an hour to climb it is no longer a hill. Does this mean a mountain can become a hill if one is strong and quick enough? Of course. Reducing the earth into ever-manageable pieces is a cyclist’s privilege. Ask Nairo Quintana what a mountain is and he’ll give a very different answer to you or I (or Mark Cavendish!).


Cyclist newspaper trick
I would have preferred a jacket

If you feel the need to stuff newspaper down your jersey in the middle of summer then you’ve climbed a mountain. I once climbed Great Dun Fell in July. At 848m it’s the highest road in England. As I climbed into the mist, the mercury plummeted from 16°C to 4°C. Brrr. This is the only time in my life I found myself dreaming for a copy of the Daily Mail. Yet such a mountain barometer is hard to support once winter arrives.


With the leaves turning brown, many a cyclist in the UK has turned their attention to the National Hill Climb Championship. These short and steep lung busters must certainly feel like mountains to the thin whippets who scale their dizzy heights at break neck speed but they’re a different proposition when you amble up on the granny ring.

Mountains or hills are as hard as you make them. I’ve climbed Ventoux with relative ease when compared to a few repetitions of my local hill. And what of the tired cyclist who quickly makes a mountain out of a molehill?

Logic is defied as the merest of inclines turns your legs to jelly and you reach the point where scaling a speed bump becomes an effort. Before you know it you’re out of the saddle and jumping on the pedals on the flat, staring in disbelief at the zero percent gradient reading on your cycling computer.

Local mountains

UK steep hill climbing
Remember to unclip before grinding to a halt

We all have our very own local mountain. The one you tackle daily or weekly, the one you know is a hill on paper but a mountain in the mind. My local mountain goes by many names. Swains Lane. Swines Lane. Swine’s Pain. A mere 71m high, you’ll find no Sherpas or ski chalets at the top.

Yet no matter how many hill repeats I notch up on Strava, the climb never gets any easier. Nor do I seem to follow Greg LeMond’s maxim: “It never gets easier, you just go faster”. I know my local bump is no mountain but on repetition number five the legs don’t lie. And yes, I know, there’s no such thing as mountain repetitions. I hope.

Simon Warren’s to do list just got longer

So what about you?

What’s your definition of mountain and where is your local mountain?


Cycling speed bumps
Every road is daunting to a tired cyclist

Images courtesy of 1) Laura Meseguer 2) Unknown 3) Nigel Helpern 4) Bike Club 5) Jason Kambitsis / 6) Autoevolution 


6 thoughts on “Climbing – when does a hill become a mountain?

  1. Interesting. You’ve found some fantastic photo’s here, i love the first shot with guys weaving ragged up that climb.

    I have to say that despite the fact that i have plenty of decent climbs near me – Lake District, Trough of Bowland, Yorkshire Dales – it would seem very grand to label any of them ‘mountains’. I think that once you’ve ridden in France or Italy, for example, you know deep down what a mountain is.

    Having said that, my nearest local climbs are cracker’s – Jubillee Tower has been a staple of the Tour of Britain/Milk Race etc. and has a legendary hill climbing history, and the Cross o’ Greet is pretty wild too. Both tend to feature in various lists of the best climbs in the UK.

    But they’re not mountains.


    1. Mountains of the mind. The contours on the map may not lie yet you try telling that to yourself on some of the vicious climbs in the UK!

      Sounds like you live in hill heaven. Great Dun Fell – have you tried that? Now that feels like a ‘proper’ UK mountain.

      Agreed re: Europe and the classic mountains however touring you hit less obvious slopes that seem to climb forever without ever really going anywhere or showing any of the classic signs of a mountain in the Tour de France sense of the word.

      One reader of the blog actually commented elsewhere that none of the above are measures of a mountain to him, it’s all about the number of expletives he yells at nobody in particular!


Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s