Alright, that headline is a bit dramatic. As you can tell from the title photo, I'm talking about the King of the Mountains jersey, which, truly, I am lying to say that nobody wants to win. They'd just rather win other things, and truly any rider taking a trip to the Tour de France targeting solely the pois rouges cannot be common. Predicting the KOM jersey winner is a strange mix of deciding who can’t quite manage a tilt at yellow, who might have a minor crash in the first week, who can get in the right breakaway and who thinks their sponsors would appreciate it the most. For this reason, picking a winner here is more difficult than for the other jerseys — you don't know who's in the competition, let alone who can win it.
Having said all that, let’s have a look at this year's competition. The format has not changed from last year, with the following points for crossing each mountain pass.
There are double points on the Col d'Izoard, which doles out forty points. That's the only climb in the race to do so, however, with the dearth of summit finishes. All of that, plus simply the location of the climbs throughout the race, make it seem very unlikely that a GC contender will take home the mountains jersey, as has happened twice out of the last four years. This is evidenced in the odds of Froome winning the jersey - he's at 33/1. The mountains are in the right place this year for an opportunistic climber to come away with the jersey.
A path to the jersey certainly goes through stage nine — a solo raid from the break on that stage would yield forty points even if the attacker were caught before the final climb, enough to compensate for a GC winner on the Col d'Izoard. Certainly, the winner of the KOM jersey must be in the break on that day. Points also look readily available for attackers on stage twelve, where the Col du Mente and perhaps the Port de Balés can go to hungry mountain contenders. Remember as well, both times Peyragudes has been used in a Grand Tour the stage went to the break.
Stage thirteen a day later, at only one hundred kilometres, looks rather inhospitable for breakaways, unlike stage fifteen, which seems perfect for a climbing breakaway to find itself a few points. The Cols de la Croix de Fer and du Télégraphe, if not the Galibier itself, ought to be battlegrounds for the jersey on stage seventeen, while if the GC men are fighting out stage eighteen, the Col du Vars may be the final real chance to gain points in this competition. T
herefore, anyone who wants to win the KOM jersey has to be focused enough on it to get into the break on stage nine and follow that up on at least two of stage twelve, fifteen and probably stage seventeen as well.
This means that someone who finds himself suffering in the Jura cannot really realign his targets, as half the HC climbs will have been surmounted by the first rest day. Really, this year the jersey has to be won by someone targeting it. That rules out Rafał Majka, who has nicely realigned his ambitions to take the jersey twice out of the last three years. To be honest, we all kind of expect something better than a Virenque impression from him anyway, by this point.
Two of the favourites for this competition are French climbers who succeeded at the Giro: Thibaut Pinot and Pierre Rolland. Neither of them are likely to challenge for GC, or think themselves likely to do so. Ostensibly then, they seem like ideal prospects for the pois rouges. I still remember Rolland's doomed attempt at the classification from 2013,and his brave effort on the miserable stage to Le Grand Bornand. Another tilt at the KOM jersey seems suited to him, but you get the feeling he won't have the legs in a real contest. Pinot could provide that contest. FDJ wouldn't turn down a prize jersey, it's a success for France and Pinot himself, plus the fact that Pinot is a strong enough climber to repeatedly take points in the high mountains. He's a pretty strong shout for this classement.
The mountains jersey wouldn't have its storied history without a few Colombians, some of whom look primed to have a go at it this year. Take Darwin Atapuma and Esteban Chaves. Atapuma proved his Grand Tour climbing mettle at the 2016 Giro, finishing ninth in a race that saw him finish highly on numerous big mountain stages. In a team with Diego Ulissi and Louis Meintjes, it seems like the three of them will be allowed to do their own thing. It's hard to imagine a Meintjes-train, in any case. Atapuma seems the most likely out of that trio to go for the mountains jersey. As to how he'd succeed, I don't think he could be written off even against Pinot.
Chaves is a different story. While I don’t think he has much team support or great legs for this race, I think he will hold out in the GC battle until at least the Pyrenées, likely too late to challenge in this competition.
Who else is there? One of the Astana pairing of Jakob Fuglsang and Fabio Aru, perhaps. Currently, both seem set to go for GC, but a time loss in the first week might relieve one of that burden. If that doesn't turn them to superdomestique duty, a go at the mountains jersey seems likely. That's too many ifs for my liking, however.
Short of real long shots, that seems to be the field for the KOM jersey, excluding extraordinary events. It's hard to imagine an Astana or Cannondale rider getting lucky enough to snatch the jersey, so unless there's a split in the first week and we have some angry climbers out of GC contention, Pinot seems like the obvious pick, with Atapuma a decent outsider.