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Tour de France analysis: Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Today sees the Tour de France enter the Pyrenees for the first of four big summit finishes – two in the Pyrenees, two in the Alps – which will shape both the general classification (yellow jersey) and the King of the Mountains competition (polka dot jersey). The rules for the latter have been tweaked significantly this year, so let’s have a look at what is new, why the changes have been made, and what the overall impact is likely to be in terms of who will win the polka dot jersey.

Out with the old, in with the new

The revised points system for the categorised hills and mountains is as follows:

Compared to the old points system, this alters the nature of the scoring in three key ways.

Firstly, it emphasises the importance of the hors catégorie climbs. In previous years, 20 (for an HC mountain), 15, 10, 4 and 3 points (for a fourth category hill) were awarded to the first rider to the summit. This meant that a rider could gain as many points in winning two second category climbs (20) as they could for being first to the top of the Col du Tourmalet. Under the new rules, an HC climb is now worth four times what a rider would earn for a second category ascent.

Secondly, the number of riders to whom points are awarded has been reduced, with a much steeper sliding scale. For instance, only the top six on an HC climb now receive points (previously it was ten). And whereas before the winner would only receive two points more than the second-placed man and four more than third, this differential has widened to eight and 12. It is now more important than ever to be at or near the front of the race on the big climbs, not just there or thereabouts.

Finally, the scoring is now skewed even more heavily towards the four big summit finishes on stages 12, 14, 18 and 19. Only these four receive double points – 40 for the winner. In previous years, all the final climbs of a day – if second category or higher – received double points, even if they were followed by a long descent. To do well in the mountains classification, a rider must perform consistently well in the biggest climbing stages – in reality the jersey winner will probably have to win one of these stages and score heavily in at least one or two of the others.

Why change?

In recent years, the polka dot jersey has become little more than a consolation prize for climbers who lack the all-round consistency to contend for the overall. Certainly it has had a much lesser stature than either the yellow or green jerseys.

Last year's polka dot jersey winner, Anthony Charteau. Remember him?

To demonstrate this, consider these three questions. Who was last year’s yellow jersey? Alberto Contador, obviously. Who was the green jersey? This might take a couple of moments to recall, but most fans will eventually name Alessandro Petacchi. Now tell me, who won the polka dot jersey? If you said Anthony Charteau, well done – you’re probably in a minority.

What did Charteau do to win the jersey? A very good question. He finished only two stages in the top 20 – 20th on stage eight, fifth the following day – and indeed had just one other top 40 finish, a mediocre 27th on the Tour’s queen stage finishing atop the Col du Tourmalet. He finished 44th overall in the general classification, nearly 1½ hours behind Contador.

Not very impressive is it?

Which begs the question of how Charteau managed to win the jersey, and this strikes at the heart of why the rules needed to change. In the past, the King of the Mountains competition has frequently pivoted around one key stage which contains a large number of medium to high climbs. In the case of Charteau last year, he laid the foundations for his win by claiming nearly half his total points – 71 out of 143 – on stage nine to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne:

2010 stage 9 profile

With a long descent at its end, this was a relatively unimportant stage in terms of the battle for the yellow jersey, but with 83 points available it was critical to the polka dot jersey. Charteau was third on each of the first four climbs, but then claimed the maximum 40 points over the Col de la Madeleine, before rolling in fifth at the finish.

Incidentally, under this year’s rules this stage would have offered only 46 points rather than 83, significantly reducing its impact on the final standings. This year’s equivalent was also the ninth stage. Under the old rules a day such as this with three second, three third and two fourth category climbs would have presented the opportunity to grab up to 48 points in one go – more than a concluding HC climb – as opposed to just 23 points this year.

2011 stage 9 profile

We have seen this pattern of medium-difficulty stages having a disproportionate effect on the polka dot jersey in many previous years as well. The King of the Mountains often triumphs without winning a mountain stage, and certainly not one of the big ones where all the serious climbers come out to play. Indeed, the polka dot jersey wearer rarely finishes high up the GC. Only twice in the last decade has the competition winner also finished in the top ten (Michael Rasmussen was fifth in 2005, and the subsequently banned Bernhard Kohl third in 2008). Charteau finished 44th last year and 2009 winner Franco Pellizotti 37th (until he too was banned) – although both were worthy champions in the sense that they played the tactical game perfectly, neither could reasonably claim to be among even the top five climbers overall.

And that’s why the competition had to change. Whereas the green jersey generally goes to the best (or at least the most consistent) sprinter, this was emphatically not the case in the climbing competition, where a rider such as Charteau could effectively win the jersey by stealth.

Who do the new rules favour?

Johnny Hoogerland currently leads the competition on 22 points but he is a strong rider rather than a strong climber and will undoubtedly relinquish the jersey today, where there are 70 points on offer.

In reality, we can expect the strongest climbers among the top GC contenders – those who can attack and lead on the steepest climbs, rather than just follow – to be the leading candidates for the jersey. That means Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck in particular, although Samuel Sánchez, Ivan Basso and a more attack-minded Cadel Evans will also be in contention. Wheel-suckers such as Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer need not apply.

Could Moncoutié add the mountains crown at the Tour to his three at the Vuelta? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

There is also the possibility that a strong climber who is currently a long way down the general classification could also fare well by sweeping to victory in a breakaway while the yellow jersey men focus on watching each other. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) is 23 minutes down, but is also a three-time winner of the mountains classification at the Vuelta a España. Or perhaps David Arroyo (Movistar), runner-up at last year’s Giro, who trails by 30 minutes. If a non-GC rider is to win the jersey, however, a big performance on a single stage is unlikely to be sufficient to win the polka dot jersey. They will need to supplement their total with big points elsewhere, if not on one of the four big stages then certainly on the other Pyrenean and Alpine days which do not end in a summit finish.

Whichever way it ends up, a combination of consistent strength and big performances on the most important mountain stages will be critical to winning the polka dot jersey. The climbing champion will have to attack where it really matters.

Is the new system the ‘right’ solution? I have my doubts. While I applaud the greater focus on rewarding the best climbers on the toughest climbs, I fear two things. Firstly, that the final order at the top of the King of the Mountains competition will bear a striking resemblance to the top of the general classification. And secondly, the eventual winner may come out on top almost by accident, earning the polka dot jersey as a by-product of the fight for its yellow cousin. We could end up with a worthy winner who was never interested in the jersey, rather than a winner of questionable worth who really does covet the prize.

But are the new rules at least an improvement on what has gone before? Definitely, for all the reasons outlined above the jersey will be won by one of the very strongest climbers, and they will have to do it in a visible way over a number of days. It is definitely a step in the right direction.

For more information on the four key mountain stages, check out my Six key stages post.

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

19 Responses to Tour de France analysis: Who will win the polka dot jersey?

  1. Sheree says:

    Great analysis and very ariculate explanation. I think you’re right that the polka dot jersey could end up as a consolation prize for a yellow jersey contender.

    • Tim says:

      It will be a real shame if the polka dot jersey is won ‘by accident’. It should be a genuine competition, but I’ve been racking my brain for ideas that could work better, and the only thing I could come up with was switching to a time-based formula combined with time bonuses – count the aggregate time only on medium & high mountain stages, with a sliding scale of bonus seconds instead of points. I know that goes against the way ASO have moved in recent years, eliminating all time bonuses, but it was the only way I could think of fairly rewarding the “best” climbers. That might still mean a GC contender wins it, or it could be that someone seals it in a single long breakaway – although it would then apply pressure on the climbers’ teams as well as the GC teams to chase breaks down.

      I guess there is no easy solution one way or the other, but I’m happy this year’s tweaks represent a step in the right direction.

  2. Thanks Tim. I never had the polka dots worked out at all before. Will follow it with more interest now.

    • Tim says:

      It’s always been a slightly odd competition, the only one which can really be won by stealth – which is what I haven’t enjoyed about it in the past couple of years. That’s no reflection on Charteau – he had a plan to win the jersey, and he executed it perfectly – just the rules. But I do like it generally, even if it was somewhat tainted in my eyes all those years Virenque was winning it. This year it will have a worthy winner even if, as I suspect, it may be an ‘accidental’ one.

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