As the 2014 Tour de France enters its final week, the most intriguing and tactical battle is the one for the polka dot jersey denoting the King of the Mountains leader. The outcome of this competition will be determined over the next three days in the Pyrenees. So, what’s going to happen?
Standings as of stage 15
Here are the current mountains classification standings as the riders enjoy the second and final rest day.
1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 88pts
2. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) 88
3. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) 86
4. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) 49
5. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) 40
6. Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale) 38
7. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) 34
8. Leopold Konig (Netapp-Endura) 32
9. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) 29
10. Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 26
At first glance, this would appear to be a three-horse race between Joaquim Rodriguez, Rafal Majka and Vincenzo Nibali – and this will most likely turn out to be the case. But there remains scope for others to mount a late challenge.
Three days, maximum stakes
Unlike the other classifications, the King of the Mountains generally distils down to four or five key stages which carry the bulk of the points. The three upcoming Pyrenean stages comprise three of those key days.
Let’s start by reminding ourselves of how the points system works.
The key to winning the jersey are the small handful of big climbs which pay huge chunks of points. You can win all the cat 2, 3 and cat 4 climbs you like on the medium mountain stages, but these pale into comparison compared to the big Alpine and Pyrenean days.
In addition, for stages which finish at the summit of a cat 2 or higher climb, all points are doubled. So, for instance, Nibali has bagged 70 of his 86 points by winning on the summit finishes of La Planche des Belles Filles (cat 1, 20 points) and Chamrousse (HC, 50 points). By contrast, Rodriguez has won most of his points via a steady accumulation in breakaways, at the cost of running out of steam in the finales.
The next three days offer a massive 193 points, compared to Rodriguez’s current tally of 88. It really is all to play for.
Up, up and away
Let’s now look at the challenges facing the riders in the Pyrenees.
Stage 16: Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon (total points available = 34). The first day in the Pyrenees is by far the easiest – make that ‘least difficult’ – of the three, as there is only one major climb and no summit finish. From a jersey contender’s perspective, it’s also the least enticing of the three, with fewer than half the points available on either of the other two days.
However, the lack of a summit finish means that this could be the day for both Rodriguez and other contenders higher up the GC to claim points on the day’s big climb, the Port de Bales, away from the full-on intensity of a stage finish. Watch for attacks near the summit – site of the infamous Andy Schleck ‘Chaingate’ incident of 2010.
It’s not just points at stake, though. The descent from the summit into Bagneres de Luchon is one of the most technical the Tour encounters – steep, fast and twisty – so while Nibali probably won’t contest the big points, he and the other top GC men will be keen to close down any gaps over the summit which will be hard to recover on the descent. This could make the race to the KoM point an extremely feisty one.
Stage 17: Saint-Gaudens to Pla d’Adet (points available = 80). This is the big one, with ten points available to the inevitable breakaway over each of the first three climbs before the pot of gold at the end of the mountain: 50 points for the stage winner at the summit of Pla d’Adet.
This could be the day when Rodriguez, who has the benefit of being nearly two hours down on GC, decides to throw everything into getting into the early break and hoping he can make it to the finish while the GC contenders man-mark each other. Given his poor form on the concluding climbs so far, securing the maximum 80 points on this stage might be his best and only chance to secure the jersey, as it’s hard to see him outpacing Nibali and Majka consistently elsewhere.
Stage 18: Pau to Hautacam (points available: 79). Setting aside the two early speed bumps, the real challenge for those with tired legs – basically, everyone – is to haul themselves up the Tourmalet and the Hautacam. This is the only day in this year’s Tour that can boast two HC climbs. The final GC standings won’t be resolved on Hautacam – that will have to wait until the stage 20 time trial – but in all likelihood the polka dot jersey will be.
Any rider who holds an advantage of three or more points at the end of this stage will need only to reach the finish in Paris to be crowned this year’s King of the Mountains. If it’s closer than that, there are two cat 4s remaining – one each on stages 19 and 21 – which offer a single point apiece. It’s unlikely to come to that, though.
GC tactics will restrict contenders’ options
While it’s not impossible for Valverde (second overall) and Pinot (fourth) to make a late charge for the jersey, their options are constrained by their high positions in a GC contest which, aside from Nibali, remains surprisingly close. Just 1:31 separates second from sixth, which means those five riders (Valverde, Romain Bardet, Pinot, Tejay van Garderen and Jean-Christophe Peraud) will cut each other no slack when it comes to slipping off the front of the peloton.
This makes it difficult for anyone in that leading group to jump away with the freedom that, say, Rodriguez or Majka will enjoy unless they’re able to overpower the teams of the other contenders – a mathematical equation which rarely favours the would-be attacker. The risk of getting it wrong and the need to at least preserve their own GC positions will most likely prevent any of the top six attacking with the KoM in mind.
So what will happen?
I expect we will see Rodriguez throw everything into being first over the Port de Bales tomorrow, then hope to get in a winning break on Wednesday to give him enough of a buffer to defend on the final Pyrenean stage. But, with so much at stake at the top end of the GC, and poorer time-trialists such as Pinot and Bardet anxious to gain time on Valverde and van Garderen, I suspect we’ll see the break struggle to survive.
If that’s the case, I’d look no further than the two dominant climbers in the race so far: Nibali and Majka. Nibali has no need to press – with such a large GC lead he can afford to follow Valverde’s wheel. Majka was brilliant in the Alps and, like Rodriguez, he’s far enough down on GC that the overall contenders will probably allow him to go if he attacks or slips into the day’s breakaway. It’s a close call, but for me Nibali will outlast the young Pole to add polka dots to yellow, leaving J-Rod the nearly man yet again.