“The mountain leader wears a white jersey with red blobs, the maillot à pois,” wrote Geoffrey Nicholson in The Great Bike Race, his seminal and sublime 1976 work on the Tour de France.
But then, in parentheses, Nicholson goes on to observe that, having been “introduced in 1975”, said red-blobbed jersey “is a bit of an embarrassment and will probably be changed”.
Nicholson didn’t get much wrong, but this he did. Not only in his assertion that the polka dot King of the Mountains jersey would “probably be changed” but in his claim that it is “a bit of an embarrassment”.
Imagine, now, the King of the Mountains of the Tour de France not wearing that familiar – iconic, some would legitimately say – polka dot shirt. Picture the leading climber of the Tour de France in purple, or red, or black, or mauve.
Doesn’t really cut it, does it? What colour is the equivalent jersey in the Giro d’Italia or Vuelta a España? Exactly.
And do these jerseys (which, for the record, are green) have even a fraction of the cachet of the polka dots?
I would argue, fervently, that they do not, and that the climbers’ prize in these two great tours consequently lacks the kudos of the same honour at the Tour – even if the jersey has been tarnished somewhat by last year’s KoM Bernhard Kohl, and the record holder, with seven wins, Richard Virenque.
No one, not even Nicholson, can argue that the polka dot shirt does not stand out like no other jersey. Okay, so it’s a bit quirky and odd. But so many of the top climbers are a bit quirky and odd, too.
Yet Nicholson was spot-on – no pun intended – in drawing attention to the general reaction to the new design.
For the Tour in 1975 it must have seemed as radical as altering the tone of yellow on the leader’s tunic. The equivalent today might be a Mr Blobby-style yellow with pink splodges for the best young rider.
But here’s the irony: for all the cool quirkiness of the polka dot jersey, its origins are drearily corporate.
Although a King of the Mountains had first been calculated in 1933, and was officially introduced a year late with the Frenchman René Vietto crowned winner, the polka dots didn’t appear for another 41 years.
In 1975, when the jersey was introduced, the design came from the wrapper of a chocolate bar manufactured by the competition’s sponsor, Chocolat Poulain.
The first rider to appear in the distinctive spots was Joop Zoetemelk, while the first to win it overall was Lucien Van Impe – arguably the greatest climber the Tour has ever seen – for the third of his six KoM victories.
Or, more romantically, was the polka dot design the brain child of the Tour’s organiser Félix Lévitan? One story has it that Lévitan had seen a spotted jersey at Paris’s Vélodrome d’Hiver in the 1920s.
Whatever the reality, the polka dot design hasn’t caught on. It hasn’t become, in any sense, mainstream. It stands apart. Which is as it should be.
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