Tadej Pogačar has spent the last two weeks crushing the dreams and hopes of his rivals, so it's entirely in keeping with the theme of this Tour de France that he may also have just crushed the dreams and hopes of cycling fans who were enjoying the closest run and most absorbing battle for the King of the Mountains that we have seen in years.
Since stage 8, the first Alpine day, Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious), Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) and Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) have been going head-to-head-to-head for the climbing points. On the first category 1 climb of the entire Tour, the Côte de Mont-Saxonnex, Poels was first over the top, then Quintana, then Woods; by the end of the day in Le Grand-Bornand, the Dutchman was in the polka-dot jersey, with Woods second and Quintana third.
Quintana's strong ride to Tignes saw him move into the lead and he wore the jersey for five days before Woods took it over with an aggressive day on stage 14. And on the Ventoux stage, Jumbo-Visma rider Wout van Aert's solo ride to victory saw him gain enough points to move into contention, though Poels has worn the jersey since that day.
All four scored points on the big stage to Andorra, and so as the peloton contemplated today's huge day, crossing the Col de Peyresourde and Col de Val Louron-Azet and finishing atop the Col du Portet, Poels led on 74 points, with Woods second on 66, and Quintana and Van Aert tied on 64.
However, in one day, Pogačar has made himself the favourite for the jersey. Though he scored no points on the first climb of the day and one on the second, by winning the stage and claiming 40 points at the summit, he is in second place in the competition. Poels leads on 78, the Slovenian has 67, Quintana and Woods have 66 and Van Aert 64.
Until this point in the Tour, it hasn't looked like Pogačar has targeted the mountains classification. He scored a single point for being in second place on the Côte de Mûr-de-Bretagne on stage 2, and eight points for going over the Col de la Colombière in second place. He scored 16 points on Mont Ventoux. And before the Portet stage, that was it.
Though there are a few cat 4 climbs dotted through the race from here to Paris, the two big climbs on stage 18 are likely to settle the competition. The peloton will race the Col du Tourmalet and the climb to Luz Ardiden, both hors-catègorie climbs. The system will give the first eight riders over each climb points. The distribution is 20-15-12-10-8-6-4-2 over the Tourmalet and 40-30-24-20-16-12-8-4 (double points) at Luz Ardiden.
There are manifold scenarios that could play out. Broadly, if any of Poels, Quintana, Woods and Van Aert can get into the breakaway, they can still win the competition by scoring over the Tourmalet and also at Luz Ardiden. If they score over the Tourmalet but Pogačar can contest the stage finish again, as he did at the Col du Portet, then the Slovenian will overtake everybody. In the less likely scenario that a break not containing any of the mountains classification contestants stays away and takes all the points, Poels is the favourite to win.
So far, Poels has scored points on 15 climbs, including nine category 1 or HC-ranked ascents. Quintana has scored on 10 climbs, of which eight were cat 1 or above. Woods has scored on 14 climbs, including seven of cat 1 and above. Van Aert has profited from a similar situation to Pogačar, with 40 of his points coming on Mont Ventoux, though he has scored on four other first-category climbs. Pogačar has scored on six climbs, three of which were single points.
The question is, what is the King of the Mountains competition for? Of course, on the surface of it, the point is to find the best climber in the Tour. However, you can also argue that it's more complicated than that. Generally, the rider who wins the Tour is the best climber. The last time this was not true was in 2012 when you could possibly argue runner-up Chris Froome was climbing better than winner Bradley Wiggins. But Wiggins was definitely the second best. We could save a lot of bureaucracy by just awarding the polka-dot jersey to the Tour winner on the Champs-Élysées every year.
However, the King of the Mountains is actually a points competition, held on climbs. Since climbs happen almost every day at the Tour, it is designed to reward the rider who scores the most points on those climbs. The problem is that a few times, especially in the 2000s, riders would target the smaller climbs outside the big mountain ranges, rack up dozens of points in escapes, and needn't be able to climb the big mountains at all. The organisers responded by reducing the points available on the climbs, especially cat 4s and cat 3s. They also usually double the number of points on big climbs that come either as a summit finish, or at least very late in the day, in order that it is the GC riders who can contest the points.
However, there is a happy medium between the two extremes, and the Tour organisers may have skewed the points system too far in the favour of the GC riders. The competition was rejigged to avoid a repetition of Anthony Charteau winning it in 2010, but Quintana, Poels and Woods, have all finished in the top 10 of Grand Tours (and in Quintana's case, won two).
The most important things for the mountains classification are that it's an exciting competition and that it has a deserving winner. Nobody can deny that Pogačar is the best climber in the Tour - and with the points system designed the way it is, he deserves to win it. However, the competition was far more exciting when it was three riders (four including Van Aert on the Andorra stage) going head to head with each other on the climbs, and vying to get into the breaks.
All kinds of solutions have been proposed to liven up the King of the Mountains classification, from timing climbs as segments (which would automatically result in the Tour winner taking the classification) to changing the points system. The result of stage 18 to Luz Ardiden may tell us if those changes are needed.
Edward Pickering is Procycling magazine's editor.
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