The lesser spotted rivalry, or How to Save the Polka Dot Jersey Without Really Trying (much)

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

So, this year produced another riveting, nail-biting King of the Mountains competition. In a gripping last couple of days, Chris Froome narrowly held off the charging Nairo Quintana to keep his hold on the prestigious polka dot jersey. A nip and tuck race, enlivened by the desperate attacks of twin French hopes Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot (the latter of whom would gladly have swapped his stage win for the overall jersey), came down to the wire on the final day as Froome just did enough and showed himself the strongest climber in the race. The joy and relief etched on his face in Paris shows just how much the victory meant to him.

Anyone recognise the above? No, I thought not. The King of the Mountains is - in its current standing - the least respected monarch this side of Edward VIII. And the latter had the consolation of Mrs Simpson. Even in a sport where the sprinters jersey is not for sprinters and the young rider jersey is won by someone already mature as a racer, the old Maillot a Measles is the proud owner of one severe identity crisis. It's a problem child - a red headed problem stepchild, confused about what it should be doing and how it should do it.

It's not just this iteration that has its critics. Its a rare rider that can claim the distinction of having had a competition specifically redesigned to exclude him, but for Anthony Charteau that is actually his biggest claim to fame. Whether it was a sartorial objection to his ears, or simply that the powers that be didn't like the sight of "winner, Tour de France Mountains classification" and "2nd, Paris-Camembert" on the same Wikipedia entry, Anthony's unlikely ascension of some particularly unchallenging category 3 climbs and thence the podium in Paris caused a drastic redesign of the system. At which point, the King of the Mountains transformed from a competition won by unknowns to competition won by... accident. So that went well, then.

And it gets worse the further back you go. Prior to Charteau, you skip gracefully over two blank years (trying not to step in the excrement) to reach Mauricio Soler who at least has the courtesy to look like a climber should. Before that, it really is hold-your-breath-and-run territory, as you have to hurdle two chickens coming home to roost, 7 French housewife's (though no-one else's) darlings, the opulent reek of Operacion Puerto and Laurent Fucking Jalabert in bleeding duplicate. In fact, looking at the list of Polka winners, I have to go back to 1990 before I don't automatically associate the name with the drug. And that's because my historical knowledge has run out, not necessarily that the doping has. Yes, it's fair to say that the King of the Mountains is in a right state.

Some progress has been made since Charteaugate, I would admit. Quintana and Sanchez are genuine uphillers, and Voelker and Majka are opportunists who can climb (however much we laugh at Tommy V, you don't get and keep the Yellow without being reasonably good in the mountains), so perhaps it is fair enough that their names are on the winners list. But it is still a pretty rum competition where you cannot tell in advance who will be competing, you cannot tell who is competing while it is actually taking place (at least till it is nine tenths done), and at the end it is finally won by complete accident by a rider who probably wasn't the best climber and certainly would happily sell the jersey for dishcloths if it would help him keep yellow. So yes, I think there are improvements we could suggest.

So what to do? In my opinion, humble or otherwise, the thing to do is to move away from a points system at at all. As has been proved by experimental method, it is insanely hard to balance the points so that it rewards people who are actually good at climbing mountains, while yet not making it a replica of the GC - at least in these climb heavy days GC days. And "insanely hard" is typically not something that cycling organisers do well.

Rather, I think that a competition to decide who is fastest at going up hill should be awarded to the person who is fastest up hill. Yep, lets go back to seconds, minutes, and if necessary hours. My solution is simple and - now that the Tour has finally embraced the sort of GPS technology operated by every two bit cyclosportive since at least 2000 - technologically feasible. The Tour should define certain segments of its route as KOM segments, and time people up them. I'm sure the concept would be intuitive and attractive, and you never know might even inspire a website that would allow amateurs to do the same.

I am not advocating that you should limit this to big mountains either. I think the race benefits from the Cat 3 and Cat 4 climbs, ludicrous though it is to include them in something labelled "Mountains". Like the current competition, their impact will be real but limited, in this case by the sheer fact of spending less time on them. Yes, you could - and perhaps should - attempt take time on them, but there is probably only a few seconds to be gained one way or the other. I do think however (or at least I think I think) that there shouldn't be any weighting of time. Seconds should be seconds, whether they are won on Ventoux or a random bridge on the first stage.

Who would be the contenders? Well, obviously, you would have to be a climber, and importantly, you would have to be consistent. No more dropping 20 minutes on stages where you don't feel like it. So yes, there would be pretty significant overlap between the yellow jersey competitors and the Polka Guys. But it would be a wider set - TT skills would be irrelevant for example, which will be a relief for anyone born within metropolitan France. And because it would be challenging to compete in (since all the GC guys will be there or there abouts) the prestige would be commensurately higher. I would hypothesise that being the fastest guy up the Tour's mountains would be something that guys would specifically target, especially if they have a TT shaped hole in their GC skillset.

And what would the effect on the racing be? Well, let's admit that it is tough to tell. Riders being riders, with their noted preference for the unwritten rule book as opposed to the one that is actually written down, may decide to neutralise the entire competition. But hypothetically, would it not animate the race. Even in a flat transition stage, with the peloton pottering along to a sprint, stick a Cat4 climb in and see some intrepid minimen try to burst out of the peloton to gain some seconds. More significantly, if you can gain seconds (or even minutes) on the first climb of a big GC day, wouldn't you at least consider it? And wouldn't that set the cat amongst the pigeons, tactically, for the guys chasing yellow? Imagine if, on Stage 19, someone like Bardet or Gesink had gone scurrying off on the Col de Chaussy: do the GC guys stick or twist? Do they say "nah, he'll blow". No and yes, in all probability. Except one day they will mess it up. Similarly, later in our hypothetical mountain stage, wouldn't attacking from the base of the Col de la Croix de Fer make sense?Or what do you do on the final climb of a day, if the Polka guys are firing themselves up from the very base of the climb. Again, cover or sit? I like the potential for confusion, very much.

And, as a final benefit, it would even give the guys at Dimension Data something to do. I am with others on this site who think that currently the Beta site deserved a gamma, and they haven't really worked out how to use all the information they currently have. But live time gaps over specific segments? Right in their wheelhouse, I would argue. (And don't give me the bike swap argument as a downside - either the mechanics can learn how to swap over the GPS receivers, or simply attach them to something that isnt going anywhere, aka the riders themselves). Or - stuff it - just give them all an iPhone and a Strava app, like normal people.

So - a King of the Mountains competition which rewards the fastest guys uphill, which would overlap with the GC but wouldn't copy it, which would animate the race and increase the tactical complexity facing the leaders, and which would be a prestigious reward for a specialised type of rider: what's not to like? It's got to be better than what we currently have, which is a competition so unloved that not even the people winning it care who won.