Tour de France 2020 – Polka dot jersey guide: Adam Yates v Julian Alaphilippe?
Britain's Adam Yates and Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe are among the favourites for the polka dot king of the mountains jersey – although it's notoriously one of the hardest Tour de France classifications to predict.
Julian Alaphilippe during stage 11 of the 2018 Tour de France
Choosing who will be riding into Paris with the famous red polka dots on their back is almost as hard as selecting the winning lottery numbers – there are just so many variables at stake.
While the Tour's mountains classification was set up in 1933 after the previous "best climber" award was put in place since 1905, the now famous polka dot jersey was not introduced until 1975. Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk wore the first maillot à pois although it was the Belgian Lucien van Impe who took the prize in Paris.
Also known as the King of the Mountains jersey, the polka dot jersey in theory is worn by the Tour's most consistent climber – although that would have been a very charitable label for Romain Bardet in 2019. The Frenchman last year largely toiled throughout the Tour, but salvaged his race by getting into a couple of breaks and pipping overall winner Egan Bernal to the red spot consolation prize.
Herein lies the problem: Bernal is clearly a better climber than Bardet – not only in general, but during that particular Tour – and yet the Colombian came up second best in a competition designated for climbers.
The clear conclusion to make is quite simple: the polka dot jersey is no more a climbers' classification as the green jersey is one devoted to sprinters – with Peter Sagan's seven successes proof that you don't need to be the fastest to be the greenest.
That said, there are occasions when the best climber does prevail: Frenchmen Warren Barguil and Julian Alaphilippe both won two stages respectively in 2017 and 2018 during Tours in which they were outstanding in the high mountains; prior to that, Chris Froome, Rafal Majka (twice) and Nairo Quintana have also topped the polka dot standings.
But the system can also be played – just ask Frenchmen Thomas Voeckler (2012) and Anthony Charteau (2010). The upshot is that it is a very difficult competition to predict. What's more, sometimes it's the man leading the race who has the most points, but by virtue of being in yellow, he is not the visual embodiment of the polka dots in the peloton.
Different red spot strategies
General classification riders can win the jersey by virtue of doing their best to win the yellow – as Froome did in 2015, Quintana in 2013 and Bernal, almost, last year.
Then you can get a winner who started the race as a GC rider targeting yellow, but either suffered a crash or incurred a huge time loss. For them – Bardet in 2019, Majka in 2014 and 2016 – the polka dot jersey salvages something from the disappointment of not contesting the battle for yellow.
You then get the swashbucklers in the mould of Barguil (2017), Alaphilippe (2018) or Richard Virenque during most of his record-breaking seven wins, who ride aggressively in the mountains after, perhaps, conceding time early on in the race – whether intentional or not. That, or they were never considered a bona fide GC threat.
And finally, there are the calculating outsiders who get into the right breakaways, targeting the early stages with numerous categorised climbs, build up a huge lead, then hold on during the final week when the big boys are cresting the summits of the Cat.1 and HC climbs with the gruppetto at its mercy. Those Europcar engines Charteau and Voeckler spring to mind.
How is the polka dot jersey scored?
There are a total of 65 categorised climbs in this year's parcours, graded from the easier Category 4 to the hors catégorie – so tough, they are literally "beyond category" or "off the scale". A varying scale of points are awarded on the top of each of these categorised climbs and the rider with the most points wears the jersey – provided he isn't already in yellow. The jersey is now sponsored by Leclerc, a French supermarket chain.
There are bonus points available over the highest climb of the race – this year, the Col de la Loze (2,304m) in stage 17 – with the first rider over also picking up the prestigious Souvenir Henri Desgrange. Here is the breakdown of points:
Col de la Loze: 40-30-24-20-16-12-8-4 points for first eight riders
Hors Catégorie (4 in total): 20-15-12-10-8-6-4-2 points
Category 1 climbs (15): 10-8-6-4-2-1 points
Category 2 (9): 5-3-2-1 points
Category 3 (21): 2-1 points
Category 4 (15): 1 point
There is at least one point available in every stage of the race, with stage 10 to the Ile de Ré the only leg of 21 lacking a categorised climb. And where many Tours have eased into the climbing, this year's challenging route is undulating from the outset with 4 points, 25 points and 7 points available in the opening stages around Nice, before the first summit finish in stage 4.
Now let's take part in the fool's game of predicting who may win the iconic jersey…
A bit of a cop out to place the two race favourites at the top of the list, but the Colombian defending champion and his Slovenian rival have proved themselves to be the best climbers in the world right now – and with their respective quests for yellow should come a level of consistency over the high peaks that could well also bring them an additional (or consolatory) polka dot prize.
**** Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
Image credit: Getty Images
The Frenchman showed his climbing class when topping the mountains classification in 2018 before aiming even higher with an absorbing run in yellow in 2019 - although a combination of hail stones, Bernal and fatigue caught up with him in the weather-curtailed stage 19. This year, Alaphilippe says he is not targeting yellow, which could open up a return for a polka-dot push.
Another rider who should not feature in the battle for yellow, but who has a strong uphill pedigree, is Britain's Yates. The Ineos-bound 28-year-old has yet to win a Grand Tour stage and may find his opportunities for such frivolity somewhat limited after he leaves Mitchelton-Scott. What better way to bow out with a bang?
*** Thibaut Pinot, Guillaume Martin, Warren Barguil, Marc Soler, Tadej Pogacar, Miguel Angel Lopez
Warren Barguil wins stage 18 of the Tour de France
Image credit: Getty Images
Now we enter the realms of ifs and buts… While Cofidis climber Martin and Arkea-Samsic's Barguil won't be too transfixed by the GC, fellow Frenchman Pinot is probably aware that he may never have a better chance of bringing the yellow jersey back to France.
But Pinot, as we know, attracts disaster, heartbreak and eleventh-hour implosion like a wasp to fermenting apples. Once (if) the wheels fall off his yellow cart, the Groupama-FDJ leader could put his climbing legs to good use by becoming the fourth different Frenchman to win the polka dot jersey in as many years.
For Barguil, a lot depends on his role alongside team leader Nairo Quintana. But being the free spirit and whimsical flâneur that he is, don't discount him for the KOM competition. Ditto Martin, who has shown much promise since his step up to the WorldTour.
Riding his debut Tour, Slovenia's Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) would be a shoo-in for the white jersey – perhaps even the yellow jersey – were it not for Bernal. He may view the 2020 race as a stepping-stone, the polka dot jersey as a good way to launch his Tour career. Who knows?
Movistar's trident this year is not as strong, on paper, as their previous Landa-Quintana-Valverde triumvirate, with Soler and Enric Mas drafted in for the two who have left. Soler, 26, didn't pull up trees in his two previous Tours, but he planted seeds for saplings which now may have the space to grow tall.
As for Lopez, amazingly this is the Colombian's first Tour for Astana and so inexperience may see him falter in the battle for yellow. Should that be the case, he has the climbing ability to ride into the red spots any day of the week.
** Romain Bardet, Thomas De Gendt, Lilian Calmejane, Nairo Quintana, Sergio Higuita, Emanuel Buchmann, Alejandro Valverde
Romain Bardet, vainqueur du maillot à pois du Tour de France 2019.
Image credit: Eurosport
Top 10 finishes in La Route d'Occitanie and the Dauphiné are perhaps an indication that Bardet is returning to his old self. The 29-year-old was meant to be targeting the Giro this year in a bid to freshen up his program and come back rejuvenated – it worked wonders for Pinot in 2018, after all – but Covid-19 put an end to that plan. Off to Sunweb next year, last year's polka dot winner may favour stage wins and a retention of the jersey over the stresses of another stuttered GC scrap.
Quintana has won the polka dot jersey before and may lack the requisite support at Arkea to put in a yellow run. His compatriot Higuita is one of three exciting Colombians on EF Pro Cycling's roster, and perhaps the least likely to put in a bid for yellow – hence his inclusion here.
Germany's Buchmann almost made the final podium last year but crashed badly in the Dauphiné so may have to reassess his options this September for Bora-Hansgrohe. Now aged 40, Valverde's days as a GC rider are clearly over – and with Movistar fielding quite an open squad, this could be his best bet of glory.
Meanwhile, breakaway specialists De Gendt and Calmejane may get in enough moves to become a factor in the KOM picture.
* Enric Mas, Pierre Rolland, Jan Hirt, Omar Fraile, Sepp Kuss, Dan Martin, Richard Carapaz, Esteban Chaves
Pierre Rolland - Europcar
Image credit: Eurosport
And so, to our final tier of riders. Depending on what happens to their respective team leaders, the American Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) and the Ecuadorian Carapaz (Team Ineos) could fall back on the climber's jersey as a means to fulfilling their personal ambitions.
Spaniard Fraile (Astana) knows what it takes to win the KOM classification, having done so twice previously at the Vuelta, while former teammate Hirt, the Czech climber, won't have any GC distractions at CCC team once Ilnur Zakarin ships 15 minutes on the first summit finish.
At the time of writing, there remained question marks over Dan Martin's inclusion in the Tour for Israel Start-Up Nation following his crash in the Dauphiné. If he does make it, a fractured sacrum isn't the best preparation for a final push at yellow before Chris Froome pops onto the scene, so the Irishman may redirect his climbing calibre towards polka dots instead.
The third wheel of Movistar's perpetual triple-pronged leadership conundrum, Spaniard Mas struggled last year as former teammate Alaphilippe's only mountain lieutenant but could thrive in his new environment in his second Tour. Meanwhile, chez Mitchelton-Scott, if Yates doesn't go for it, then expect Chaves to have a pop.
Finally, the French veteran Rolland has been a regular fixture in the polka-dot battle over the years, famously opting to take the measles approach to kit by matching his shorts, helmet and gloves to his jersey. Now at B&B-Vital Concept, the 33-year-old has some form and could channel his energy into finally bringing home the polka dots. Allez Pierrooo!
Keep alert for our remaining Tour de France 2020 previews, with our yellow jersey guide dropping later this week, as well as an Ineos vs Jumbo-Visma special ahead of the Grand Départ in Nice on Saturday 29th August.