Comment: Nice jersey, shame about the competition

The climbers’ classification has been reduced almost to irrelevance. It’s time to change the way the polka dot jersey was awarded

Words by Edward Pickering in Pau

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Tuesday July 17, 2012

You could see ASO’s point when they changed the points system for the climbers’ classification last year. Anthony Charteau won the polka dot jersey in 2010, and it was impressive, but the Frenchman was hardly a name of the calibre of former winners like Luis Herrera, Robert Millar or, er, Richard Virenque. (To be fair, the latter’s ethics were as spotty as the jersey he won seven times.)

One of the most iconic jerseys in cycling had been won by an ambitious clogger. Before he won it, Charteau’s previous best result in a high mountain road stage of the Tour, in three races, had been 57th.

It seemed to provoke some kind of crisis at ASO headquarters. For 2011, the organisers tipped the balance of the competition towards the hors-catégorie climbs and summit finishes, and away from the fourth, third and second-category climbs. HC climbs would still be worth 20 points (double for a summit finish), but the other categories would be worth fewer points.

First category climbs dropped from 15 to 10 points for first over the top (doubled for a summit finish). Second category climbs went from 10 to five for first over. And third and fourth category climbs dropped from four and three points each, to two and one. Only six riders would score points over the HC and first category climbs.

The result was that Samuel Sanchez won the polka dot jersey. He scored points on three stages, all HC summit finishes. 40 points for winning on Luz Ardiden. 32 for second place on Plateau de Beille, 32 for second place on Alpe d’Huez, plus he picked up four points for being fifth over the Galibier en route to Alpe d’Huez.

In other words, the climbers’ jersey was a by-product of the general classification.

In 2011 they went too far – the four summit finishes were all hors-catégorie, and offered so many points that the chances of a tactical, attacking approach to the polka dot jersey were zero. The top six in the King of the Mountains scored all their points on these four stages, with the exception of Evans and Contador picking up three points between them on the uphill finish at Mur de Bretagne.

This year, HC climbs have been increased to 25 points, and 10 riders are allocated points over the summit. But it means that first place over an HC climb is worth five first places over second-category climbs.

ASO wanted the GC favourites to contest the polka dot jersey, but they have skewed the competition too much to the HC climbs and summit finishes. And this is one reason the competition has lost any semblance of intrigue or coherence. It’s not a Tour-long competition. It’s a competition of three or maybe four stages.

This year’s competition is being led by Fredrik Kessiakoff, who has picked up 66 of his 69 points in two stages, to Porrentruy and La Toussuire. In second place: Pierre Rolland, who scored all of his 55 points in one day, also to La Toussuire.

We may be treated to an entertaining battle between the two in the Pyrenees. Both will be conscious that the two early climbs on Wednesday’s stage offer 50 points between them. Maybe a third rider will pick up many of the 70 points on offer in the Luchon stage and make it a three-way competition.

But either way, the competition has been moribund.

How can ASO make the polka dot jersey a competition which is as compelling as that for the green jersey or the yellow jersey?

It would add interest if they allocated points to more riders over climbs, and re-introduce a less skewed ratio between the big climbs and smaller climbs. The criticism of the climbers’ competition in the past has been that big-boned tacticians could build up banks of points on the smaller climbs away from the big mountains. The so-called ‘true’ climbers wouldn’t lower themselves to sprint for a category three hill prime, and would be more interested in a mountain stage win than bagging points over big climbs earlier in a stage.

But the yellow and green jersey competitions have always been enhanced by the different approaches of the favourites. Last year’s GC was a fascinating battle between a great climber and a great time triallist. Thor Hushovd’s win in the 2009 green jersey battle over Mark Cavendish was one of the all-time greatest tactical long games of recent Tour history. The competition for the climbers’ jersey must be opened up so that more than two or three riders contest it, over more than three or four stages.

The King of the Mountains is a good competition to win. But it’s not a good competition.

Do you have any ideas about how to improved the climbers’ competition? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment, or getting in touch by Twitter.

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