The climber's classification at a grand tour is an unusual beast. Unlike the general classification, or the points classification, or the young rider's classification, the King of the Mountains title can be won by someone who is not even seeking the title. The racing amongst the GC contenders consistently puts them near the top of the rankings as they summit major climb after major climb at the beginning of the race, soaking up whatever points have been left behind by the breakaways. Someone out of the GC hunt but still seeking
The King of the Mountains classification in the Tour de France is an unusual beast. Intended to reward the best climber in the race, it did so with aplomb for the first decades after its official introduction into the race in 1933. Federico Bahamontes, nicknamed the Eagle of Toledo for his climbing prowess, took the title six times between 1954 and 1964. Lucien Van Impe repeated the feat a decade and a half later, taking six titles from 1971 to 1983. These were among the purest of climbers, lithe men who soared uphill (if not down the other side. Bahamontes often refused to descend solo and once ate ice cream atop a col while waiting for other riders to show up). But then, with the distinctive maillot a pois offering more prestige and air time (and a larger prize purse), the competition became corrupted, if you will. The King of the Mountains classification became the target of opportunists willing to lose time early on and then jump in breakaway after breakaway in pursuit of those coveted points. Richard Virenque made an art of this, winning the competition a record seven times in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Though he was a talented climber and once finished second in the Tour - back in 1997 - Virenque was not among the best climbers in many of the editions of the Tour he took the poka dots in. Instead, he would go on the offensive on long, hard days in the mountains, riding solo or with only a few riders over multiple Category 1 and Hors Categorie climbs to rack up the points and then maintaining his lead afterwards. Michael Rasmussen became the heir apparent to Virenque and took the title twice in 2005 and 2006 on the back of long solo exploits in the mountains. In 2012, Thomas Voeckler took the competition by riding in countless breakaways, even though he no doubt was not in the top ten talented climbers in the race. Voeckler battled fiercely with Fredrik Kessiakoff for points - the two would often end appear in the breakaway on alternating days as they chased points and swapped the jersey back and forth.
And so, the mountains classification became a side show, a title pursued by those who could entertain no grand visions of finishing well in Paris. At times it became a title pursued on second thought after a rider chasing a stage win infiltrated the breakaway on a major day in the mountains and suddenly found himself in the maillot a pois by the end of the day. That is, until the organizers of the Tour re-vamped the classification, de-valuing the lower category climbs and doubling the amount of points on offer for summit finishes. This brought the competition back into the realm of being able to be won by general classification riders, and the changes seemed to pay off with Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome coming in first and second last year ahead of a points chasing Pierre Rolland.
That brings us to this year, where we entered today's stage with Joaquím Rodríguez, Rafael Majka, and Vincenzo in a virtual dead heat atop the rankings. Rodríguez and Nibali have swapped the lead back and forth throughout the race's sojourn through the Alps and now Majka is leading the competition with 89 points to Rodríguez's 88 and Nibali's 86. The situation sets up an interesting battle pitting a GC leader not chasing points battling with Rodríguez, who avowedly wants the jersey in Paris, and Majka. Majka showed his first glimmer of interest in the dots today as he jumped out of the field on the first climb of the day, the category 4 Côte de Fanjeaux, to take a solitary point and move into the lead. With two summit finishes to come where Nibali should finish well, the question is really whether Rodríguez or Majka can amass enough points in the earlier climbs to take the jersey all the way to Paris. Or, can one of them infiltrate a break and take home a stage win like Majka did on the Risoul three days ago?
Surprisingly, neither Rodríguez nor Majka made it into the breakaway today where there were 34 points on offer, 25 of which came from going over the top of the Port de Balés in first place - and on a stage where the break stood a very good chance of staying away to the line to boot. As a result, it just got quite easier for Nibali to take the title. Stage 17 offers up three category 1 climbs and finishes atop an HC beast, giving it a staggering 80 KOM points to distribute over the course of its mere 125 kilometers. Stage 18 has a similar total with 79 points, but gets there via two category 3 climbs followed by two HC climbs, the second of which is the finish for the stage. As a reminder, those two HC finishing climbs are worth 50 points apiece, more than half of what each of the riders in the hunt for the competition has already.
Theoretically, a rider like Thomas Voeckler - fourth in the competition with 61 points - could pull a Virenque style long day out in the mountains, sopping up all the points on offer and hopefully grabbing some at the end. But the odds of that happening, especially with Voeckler riding hard in the break in today's 237 kilometers stage, are low. Instead, the chances are that Rodríguez and Majka both try to get in the break on either of the two days, and hope and hope and hope that they can stay away to win or come in the top five on the final climb. If they don't, Nibali looks a lock to come in the first few positions in the group of GC contenders and is likely to pick up at least 25 points over the course of the two stages.
The battle would be tighter if the next two stages were longer, but at 125 and 145 kilometers respectively, there isn't much room for the break to build a gap, particularly on Stage 17. The relentless progression of climbs and the tight battle for spots 2-5 on the general classification should see FDJ, AG2R La Mondiale, and Movistar driving the pace early to try to wear down each other's riders. Advantage, Nibali. The next day offers a break a chance to win, and my guess is the odds of that happening are about 60-40. The big climbs come late in the stage and there is no incentive to drive the pace early as there is on the prior day. So, who gets the jersey depends on if a break sticks and who is in it - that much is elementary, isn't it? But when forced to make a prediction, I expect Nibali to rack up 40-50 points over the next two stages, almost entirely on Stage 17. If J-Rod or Majka goes in the break tomorrow, they can pick up 20-30 points, and then all they have to do is do well on Stage 18 to take home the polka dots. That's a hard task, but with 25,000 euro on the line, and potentially a stage win on Thursday, I think they'll find it worth it.
Of the two, who wins the competition? Of the two, Majka seems to have the better form right now, if only marginally. Rodríguez, on the other hand, came into the Tour explicitly chasing the dots, so he must be winning in the motivation department. You can bet against me, but I wager we'll see the Katusha rider back in his coveted maillot a pois come Sunday.