The Little Citroen and the Mountains...

I suppose it could have been nearly any make of automobile from that era. But this being France, the make proved to be especially appropriate. It was a Citroen. More specifically, a Citroen that on a good day, with a prayer and a little luck, might possibly manage a power output approximating 35 horses. Not all that impressive for a vehicle with one of those internal combustion engines. To make matters worse, those "good days" were few and far between. 

As it sputtered along a series of winding mountain roads, its driver all the while seeking the helpful intervention from the Heavenly host, few knew of its greater significance in traversing the heights. Most of those who chanced to watch as it labored past, or more likely gawked in wide-eyed wonder as they passed it, would have seen little more than a vehicle approaching the derelict stage of its existence; a vehicle far past its prime, and more likely to meet its demise than reach its objective, the top of the next pass.

On some of those ascents, those on which the gradient was more gradual, it might be able to sustain a more smooth and able pace, slipping in and out of sunlight filtered through the forest canopy. Let the grade steepen, however, and the little car would be put to the test, shifting through its available range of gears in order to not stall out. Some climbs were especially troublesome. On those mountains, far above any covering shade and fully exposed to the sun's withering glare, it became a painful-to-watch (and even worse to hear), time-consuming toil in first gear. The whine of the engine might be heard from far off downslope, a torturous cry rebounding against the quiet, barren slopes, like the forlorn moan of some mountain bear in the last throes of its own existence. 

I would like to have known the thoughts of the driver during these countless miles, the long slow climbs - was it wonder that the little engine could keep going? Or was it doubt?

Eventually, there were those roads that were too steep, too long, maybe too high; perhaps the heat played a factor, perhaps the road surface did as well. For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, forward progress became slower, then slower still. Eventually the wheels on the Citroen ceased their spin all together, and with a gasp and shudder, the dust-caked body came to an inevitable halt. Not even the will of the driver, who had steered it over hundreds of mountain passes, coaxed it to scale hundreds of mountaintops, could compel it to move. Another insurmountable mountain road had been discovered, one beyond even the slow crawl of first gear, one of the notable few. Distinguished. Hors categorie.

I have always assumed that the mountains and passes which have made their way into the mythos of cycling, received their categorization, 4 through 1, and hors categorie as a result of some vaguely scientific method; a method which takes into account length, average and maximum grade, and who knows what else, sorts through all the statistics and arrives at a numerical rating - four being easiest, and Above Category the most difficult.

But then I heard this story about the little Citroen which could glide up climbs in fourth gear with relative ease, grind up others in third gear, slog up some in second gear, crawl up fewer yet in first gear, and fail completely, through no lack of effort, to ascend a select few. I must say, this latter explanation is much more interesting, much more compelling, far more in keeping with the legendary aspect of cycling. But is it true? Has anyone else heard this story of how the mountains of cycling lore came to be classified?