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Polka-Dot Dilemma

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For fans, the highly visible polka-dot jersey is synonymous with the Tour de France. But for many Tour insiders, its place in the history of the world’s biggest bike race is, well, dubious at best. Sure its garish design stands out even in the multitude of conflicting colors that are the professional peloton, and no rider would spurn a chance to wear it. But the respect it generates often pales in comparison to other distinctive jerseys awarded in the race.

Words: James Startt
Images: Startt & Yuzuru Sunada

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In terms of the protocol pecking order of the Tour, the polkadot jersey sits only third, well after the yellow jersey awarded to the overall race leader, and also after the green points jersey awarded to the best overall sprinter. And if, for example, a rider is leading the sprints and climbing competitions simultaneously (something that can easily occur after an opening prologue or time trial), he will wear the green jersey in the race, while the second-place rider in the climbing competition will temporarily don the polka-dot jersey.

“How can this be?” some fans bemoan. After all it’s much easier to identify the best climber in the race than the rider in the green jersey, often lost in the Tour’s frequent bunch sprints. Part of this paradox is due simply to history. While the yellow jersey was first awarded in 1919, the green jersey wasn’t awarded until 1953, to celebrate the Tour’s 50th anniversary. The polka-dot jersey, however, did not make its entrance until 1975.

Climbers, of course, have a long and celebrated place in the Tour. And already in 1905, the year the Tour actually climbed its first mountain (the now overlooked Ballon d’Alsace in the Vosges), the race awarded a prize to the best climber. But it was little more than a sort of merit badge based on the race organizers’ impressions and general opinion, not unlike the most-aggressive-rider award today. Matters got more serious in 1933, when an objective scoring system was finally put into place, awarding points to the rider that reached mountain summits first. But a distinctive jersey was only offered many decades later, when French chocolatier Poulain, the title sponsor of the prize, pressured the race organizer to offer a distinctive jersey to the leader of this ranking in an effort to garner greater visibility.

The Tour, of course, has long been know to kowtow to the desires of its sponsors, but why the polka dots? Well, to honor an overlooked track sprinter of course! Once the Tour agreed to introduce a new jersey, longtime race director Félix Lévitan reportedly decided that it would be the ideal opportunity to pay homage to Henri Lemoine, a modest six-day and motor-paced track racer from the 1930s to the 1950s, who Lévitan felt had long been overlooked. Lemoine’s career was interrupted, it is true, when he was a prisoner of war during World War II. But while he admirably raced until he was 48, any connection to the mountains remained nonexistent. Through Lévitan’s initiative, however, the two will be eternally linked in the annals of the Tour de France by the polka dots, Lemoine’s preferred jersey design in the six-day races.

But the real problem with the King of the Mountains prize is not the unlikely jersey, but rather the fact that the best climber award in fact, often is not awarded to the best climber in the Tour de France. “For me, the best climber in the Tour de France is the winner of the Tour,” says former professional and team director Cyril Guimard, who coached riders to seven Tour titles in the 1970s and ’80s. “That’s where the Tour is won and lost. The best-climber award is often a consolation prize, an annex to the race itself. Often, the yellow jersey is only too happy to allow another climber to get the polka-dot jersey because then they can rely on his team to help control the race in the mountains.”

Image: Yuzuru Sunada
Image: Yuzuru Sunada

CYRIL GUIMARD’S 5 GREATEST CLIMBERS

5. Richard Virenque: “He may have won the polka-dot jersey seven times but he could never go head to head with the best.”

4. Marco Pantani: “A good and sometimes great climber, depending on the chemicals. That’s the problem, we don’t know how good he really was.”

3. Federico Bahamontes: “He could take three minutes out of anybody on a climb, but since he was sure to lose it back on the descent, it really didn’t matter.”

2. Lucien Van Impe: “His ability to accelerate in the high mountains was just enormous. He could beat anybody in a mountaintop finish and was able to win the Tour [in 1976] on his climbing skills alone. That’s something you can’t say about Virenque.”

1. Bernard Hinault: “In terms of pure physical capacity Hinault was the greatest cyclist ever. If he’d have trained like Eddy Merckx, he would never have lost a race!”

The image problem is further complicated by the fact that on numerous occasions in the prize’s confused history, the polka-dot jersey has seemingly been hijacked by opportunistic middling climbers. In 1998, when Marco Pantani won the Tour de France, he failed to win the climbers jersey although he won stages in both the Pyrénées and the Alps. Instead, that prize went to the little-known Frenchman Christophe Rinero, who failed to produce any international-level result before or after standing on the steps of the Tour de France podium that year. Even fewer had heard of Frenchman Anthony Charteau before he captured the polka-dot prize in the 2010 Tour de France. And then, of course, there is Laurent Jalabert, who ironically managed to twice win the polka-dot prize after twice winning the green points jersey. And although seven-time laureate Richard Virenque is sometimes known as Mr. KOM, he was never considered the best climber of his generation. “Virenque would always be dropped by the yellow jersey in the mountains when overall victory was on the line,” says Guimard, who today serves as a radio and television commentator.

“You know it may be ironic, but the green jersey has always been more respected,” says Serge Laget, longtime sports archivist at the French sports daily L’Équipe. “And over the years, it was always won by great champions. You can’t say the same about the polka-dot jersey.”

The cyclists themselves, however, do not necessarily agree. “Not winning the polka-dot jersey remains one of the big disappointments of my career,” says Pierre Rolland, a double stage winner in the Tour, who lost the distinctive jersey to Nairo Quintana on the final climbing stage of the 2013 Tour. “I wore it for most of the race and gave it my everything that year, but I came up short on the last climb,” he says. Rolland, who joined the U.S.-based Cannondale team in 2016 insists, “Winning the polka-dot jersey remains one of my career goals.”

Much of the confusion over the “best climber” designation is due to the ever-changing points system. For years, a generous amount of points was offered on climbs throughout the stage, hence encouraging riders well down in the standings to get into early breakaways and score a maximum number of points before the more decisive climbs toward the end. In an effort to make the award more reflective of the real climbers in the race, Tour organizers have doubled the number of points on the final climb of mountain stages. Sometimes the new formula achieves its goal. Chris Froome, who attacked on the first mountain stage in the 2015 Tour and was consistently at the head of the race, won the polka-dot jersey in addition to the yellow jersey. But even such modifications do not assure that the best climber tops the mountains classification. “The problem with the new format is that riders interested in the overall classification often are too focused on the yellow jersey to be able to contest the mountains classification,” says Rolland.

“You know, the problem is not really the distribution of points, but whether the prize shouldn’t just be eliminated,” says the everprovocative Guimard. “It’s good for the Tour. It’s good for the team that has it. It’s good for communication. It’s good for a lot of things, but not for distinguishing the best climber in the Tour de France.”

5 UNLIKELY POLKA-DOT STORIES

1. Dutch sprinter Jean-Paul Van Poppel managed to win a mass sprint in the 1994 Tour de France with the polka-dot jersey on his shoulders, a feat duplicated by German rider Marcel Wüst in 2000.

2. French cyclist Jacky Durand, who won the overall most-aggressive-rider prize in the 1998 and ′99 Tours, as well as the lanterne rouge as the final finisher in 1999, donned the polka-dot jersey for two days at the 2001 Tour.

3. Popular German rider Jens Voigt managed to snag the polka-dot jersey for one day on his first Tour in 1998 and one day in his final Tour, 16 years later, in 2014.

4. Six-day track specialist Bernard Vallet won the polka-dot jersey in 1982. A punchy road sprinter, Vallet could only contest the moderate climbs. Unable to contend in the high mountains with his main rival, the more versatile Swiss rider Beat Breu, Vallet relied on his friend Bernard Hinault to beat out Breu for the points in the Alps and Pyrénées.

5. Italian rider Rodolfo Massi made only two Tour de France appearances. The first came in 1990, when he finished in last place. Eight years later he returned and captured the polka-dot jersey in the Pyrénées, only to be kicked out of the race on drug-related charges in the Alps.

Opening image of Majka by James Startt