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

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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  • alex

    Give it to who goes up the fastest does not sound fair. someone in a lone break away will not go up climbs as fast as protected riders why should they not get the points if they get over the climbs first.

  • s fox

    why don’t they hav time bonuses on some mid or early climbs that would bring out the gc men earlier in the stage. the tour is won by such small margins these days (wiggins only gained 23 sec on nibali outside of time trials).Early attacks would be a breath of fresh air a time bonus would be the right incentive.

  • Stu

    They should just use Strava. Total up the entire ascent of the tour and see who did it in the fastest time. It wouldn’t matter who crossed the summits first just who got up the hills the quickest. I admit this wouldn’t be as good for the spectators but it would show who truly was King of the Mountains.

  • Hiero

    I understand your comment, and your viewpoint – but I do not agree that there is a problem. ASO is in charge of providing entertainment, and I think they do a marvelous job. The polka-dot jersey gives us something to watch when the GC competition goes stale and the green jersey is off the back. Keeps the tension going!

  • Anil

    Considering that GC contenders are almost always competent climbers, putting back the end-of-stage time bonuses to mountain stages and to two or three critical summits might increase the value of polka dot jersey. By this way, GC contenders will fight for stage wins in mountains and by this way, they would participate to the competition for polka dot jersey too and taking it at the end of the Tour might serve as a consolation than a place in the podium.

  • James

    The minor jerseys are irrelevant except to the cyclists. Nobody remembers who won what and they are also a joke if awarded to the nibblers (ie those who win by nibbling away). Bit like Euskatel being considered good climbers. When did anyone from Euskatel last win a stage? Why don’t the cyclists decide how the points are awarded?

  • Matt

    Simply, they should place some sensor to stopwatch every KOM ascent and giving the polka dot jersey to the rider who climbed most quickly!

  • Matt

    The organization should place some sensor at the bottom and the top of each KOM ascent, and classify riders by the time elapsed. They do it for the final sprint, couldn’t be a great effort to extend to the KOM classification!

  • Mike

    Philp, the issue is not the point system but rather the respect for the jersey(s). It use to be that the team holding the pokadot jersey would defend it, hence there is no issue with early attacks. However, the value of the green, pokadot, and white jersey is less now than 10 years ago. Look at BMC and the white jersey. We would never see the white jersey slow down to help Cadel. Furthermore, when a team has the fastest person in the world that team would support this rider for the green. Sky has turn their back on the green jersey, focusing only on the yellow. Lastly, the GC riders are giving the points leaders no respect and pushing forward trying to be at the front during the finsh causing several crashes. Again showing little respect for the other jerseys. Until repect is brought back to the race inside the race, the ASO will continue to experience a problem.

  • Philip

    I think the problem, in short, is that the points system takes too much account of the catagory of the climb, and not enough of its position in the stage. Clearly the HC climbs early on dominate with the current system, and an attacker in stages where there are lots of HC climbs will win. Those should have their influence reduced, and the lower catagorised climbs at the ends of stages should be increased. If you win on a lower catagory climb at the finish, that means the same as winning a HC right at the start.

    Climbs should be ranked two ways, catagory and position in stage (in say, four bands, more than 50km from the finish, 50-20 km to go, less than 20km, and a finishing climb). The points awarded should depend on both.

    And finally, it will take a few years for the competition to really heat up. The last decade of so has been won by largely anonomous riders (2008 excepted) who have got their points by attacking early, two of whom lost their titles due to doping. What has to be fostered is a culture where riders care about polka dots, where it goes to a great climber, but also a great climber who considers the jersey more important than a top 10 on GC, and will fight to win it (even if that means they lose a few places on GC).