The best climber of the Tour de France won the King of the Mountains. But Chris Froome didn’t particularly care about the competition and never even raced in the polka-dot jersey.
His win was a pure by-product of his bid for the yellow jersey; an after-thought.
The same goes for the man who finished in second place, Nairo Quintana. Like in 2013, when he won the competition, it will act as a consolation prize.
Even third-place finisher Romain Bardet, its wearer on the penultimate day on Alpe d’Huez, admitted surprise at taking it after stage 19.
“I did not plan to calculate how many points I would need. I just wanted to finish this stage among the best riders,” he said. “Sometimes it is possible to achieve your goals without any particular strategy.”
Save for Joaquim Rodriguez in the Pyrenees, no racer seemed particularly bothered about chasing it. The most notice anybody took of the King of the Mountains competition this year came, ironically, days before the big climbs, when Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot historically secured polka dots in the Normandy hills. And so, 40 years into its existence, the polka-dot jersey is experiencing a midlife crisis.
The competition is a catch-22. Any rider who is good enough to be contesting it, crossing Hors-catégorie climbs first on several high mountain stages, will understandably be urged to go general classification-hunting.
The combination of the 2015 Tour route and the existing points structure did not help. Since 2004, King of the Mountains points have been doubled on any summit finish with a category-2 rating or higher. Therefore, late, back-to-back finishes on La Toussuire and Alpe d’Huez weighted things in favour of the GC contenders.
Those bonus points are the chief reason Chris Froome won the King of the Mountains this year: 50 of his 119 winning tally alone came from winning at La-Pierre-Saint-Martin. In that respect, the competition seemed to favour the most consistent climber at the four summit finishes, not the men first over the more numerous mountains in the race.
Lest we forget, there is already effectively a competition rewarding the most consistent men at summit finishes, albeit on aggregate time: the general classification.
Given the similar demands, success in the King of the Mountains is defined and constricted by the yellow jersey battle. Romain Bardet (third in the KoM), Thibaut Pinot (fourth) and Joaquim Rodriguez (fifth) only finished highly because they were lagging behind before the Pyrenees and allowed up the road.
Perhaps teams are too happy to defend their lower placings on GC rather than seek this eye-catching jersey. Ag2r-La Mondiale admitted that looking out for Romain Bardet’s top 10 overall placing was a higher priority on the day the Frenchman (above) took the polka dots.
This likely comes down to the lack of incentive in the UCI WorldTour ranking: the 125 points available for a Grand Tour King of the Mountains title is equivalent to winning a stage or finishing 12th overall. It hardly seems worth the effort.
The likes of Robert Gesink (below) and Bauke Mollema, sixth and seventh overall in the 2015 Tour de France, would be ideal candidates for the King of the Mountains on paper.
But after making the effort to stay in touch with Froome over the opening fortnight, why waste energy on breakaways or accelerations to gain more points? Their earning power for future years depends on that overall result, not winning King of the Mountains competitions.
On the other hand, for posterity’s sake, who remembers the bloke who finished sixth in the Tour?
Perhaps I’ve been sold a pup by my own nostalgia; perhaps the King of the Mountains has long been an afterthought. I remember – and romanticise - the competition as the reserve of climbers going away on striking, day-long breakaways, taking a plethora of points. Those climbers’ names? Richard Virenque and Michael Rasmussen. Maybe it’s a good thing nobody is cakewalking to the King of the Mountain title these days.
While the polka-dot jersey had a predictable winner in Froome, the interesting thing is that, unlike the other competitions, it is very difficult to predict before the race. Few riders will have targeted it in Utrecht.
Instead, the King of the Mountains is a constantly moving target, defined by many factors: form, crashes, distance from the yellow jersey, weather, team responsibilities. That is both a strength and a weakness, making it both exciting and arbitrary.
Looking at past winners, it’s hard to find a balance: you can get a by-products of the GC battle winning it (Froome in 2015, Quintana in 2013) or a king of the middle mountains (Anthony Charteau, 2010).
What’s my solution? Give more UCI ranking points for this storied competition and take away the double points available on summit finishes, restoring equilibrium to riders who spend all day hoovering up points on high mountain stages – and actually aiming for the King of the Mountains - over several cols, only to get passed by Froome and company on the final climb.
Ultimately, the King of the Mountains needs to incentivise itself better and, difficult as it is, disentangle itself more from the battle for the yellow jersey, or else it will wind up as the Tour’s forgettable competition.