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Tour de France stage 18 analysis: It's not all about yellow

Richard Carapaz in the polka dot jersey after stage 18 of the Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Forty-five kilometres into the 18th stage of this year’s Tour de France, Richard Carapaz, in the break for the third day in succession, launched his sprint up to the summit of Cormet de Roselend, after a leadout from Michał Kwiatkowski. Immediately, one of the stars of this year’s race, Marc Hirschi, was on his wheel and exploded past the 2019 Giro d'Italia champion, denying him maximum points in the King of the Mountains competition, and finally lighting the touchpaper on a competition that had lain dormant for almost three weeks. Hirschi repeated the feat on the Côte de la route des Villes, and the Col des Saisies, ensuring that there would be a battle for the polka dot jersey worthy of its reputation and history.

If you asked someone who wasn’t a cycling obsessive to name one of the leaders’ jerseys at the Tour de France, they would probably be able to name the yellow and polka dot jerseys. In the case of the latter, it’s a shame then that it’s so rare to see a duel that lives up to the status of the jersey.

The King of the Mountains classification is famous, and that’s more than a little bit down to the iconic design, the maillot à pois rouges, which stands out in the peloton, on television screens around the world. The heralded jersey has become a bit of an afterthought at the world’s biggest bike race, however, either becoming a competition for those who have dropped out of overall contention, such as Romain Bardet last year, or as a consolation prize for a team that has lost its designs on anything else in the race, such as current leader Carapaz. It seems a long way from the prize that was battled over by such swashbuckling riders such as Lucien Van Impe, Luis Herrera and Robert Millar in the 1970s and 1980s. 

In fact, until stage 18, it looked like the polka dot jersey would just go to one of the general classification riders, who would win it accidentally - Tadej Pogačar held the lead going into the stage, and it was only enlivened by the battle between Carapaz and Marc Hirschi from the breakaway. Before stage 17, the jersey had been held by Benoît Cosnefroy since stage 2, who despite being an exciting young talent, has hardly been one of the standout stars of this Tour. It seemed like his and his AG2R La Mondiale team’s plan was to simply keep hold of the jersey until they inevitably relinquished it in the high mountains.

Over the past few years, the French have dominated the competition, with Warren Barguil, Julian Alaphilippe and Bardet winning in successive years. This, however, has reinforced the idea of it as an afterthought classification. When Chris Froome won it in 2015, effectively by accident, he was ahead of two other GC riders in Nairo Quintana and Bardet, and seemed sheepish to be making another trip to the podium in Paris to collect it.

The lack of a challenge over the competition is all the more strange considering the number of teams that will come away from the race with nothing, with NTT, Israel Start-Up Nation, Cofidis, Groupama-FDJ, CCC Team, Total Direct Energie, Arkéa-Samsic and B&B Hotels-Vital Concept all currently showing little for all their hard work. 

Perhaps we should be glad that Carapaz and Hirschi duelled it out today. Expect the Ineos Grenadiers to fight hard to keep it over the remaining three days, including the individual time trial on Saturday. The points will be awarded for the fastest rider on the climb up to La Planche des Belles Filles, so maybe Carapaz will go round on his ultralight climbing bike.

The KoM isn’t the only classification that has suffered from a lack of competition. The team contest has been won in four of the past five years by Movistar, and they lead the standings at this stage of the Tour, too. You can’t blame the Spanish squad for going for it - the winners receive €50,000 at the end and €2,800 for every stage they win, as well as a trip to the podium in Paris. Also, the yellow helmets look cool. However, because it is a competition that seemingly only Movistar care about, it has become the butt of jokes, the idea that they are racing for it rather than gambling for a higher position on general classification.

The team category is a sound idea, because it’s a reminder that cycling is more than about individuals, and is proof of the strongest all round team. Yet somehow it garners less respect than a team turning up and going for stage wins, such as Sunweb, or a team fully focused on one individual, such as Jumbo-Visma. Perhaps the issue is that Movistar have not seemed like the strongest team at the race to the casual viewer, however consistent they have been with Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde. It is a competition that doesn’t seem to reflect what people see on their television screens.

The green jersey is another classification that has suffered from a lack of a battle in recent years, with Peter Sagan’s domination only interrupted by his disqualification and Michael Matthews’ win in 2017. This year, the duel between Sagan and Sam Bennett has lit up the Tour and often made more of an impact than the fight over the yellow jersey. However, the contest has only been between that pair - sorry Matteo Trentin - for a fortnight now, and despite Caleb Ewan and Wout Van Aert winning a pair of stages each, they are out of the running. 

With Sagan seemingly fading, maybe in the future the green jersey will be more up for grabs than it was in the 2010s, as it would be nice to see a contest between multiple riders that lasts deep into the race.

As for the white jersey, it just so happens that the two leaders in the competition, Pogačar and Enric Mas, are also in the top 10 on GC, which seems unfair on those excellent riders who aren’t also in contention for the overall win. Not a bad consolation prize, though.

The Tour is about more than just the yellow jersey, and those that go down in its history are often those that have won the other classifications, whether it’s Sagan and Sean Kelly in green, or Van Impe and Millar in the polka dot jersey. It is high time teams started taking all of the competitions seriously.

Back to today’s stage, Hirschi, who had outfoxed Carapaz on all three climbs that the breakaway had climbed, was racing down the Col des Saisies, aiming to put the Ecuadorian and his two other break companions under pressure. But for the first time at this year’s Tour, Hirschi’s descending skills let him down, and he crashed out at 60km/h, losing precious ground both in the race for the stage win and the KoM competition.

Carapaz was able to hoover up the remaining points on the Col des Aravis and the Montée du Plateau des Glières, as he and his teammate Kwiatkowski were now out alone, putting him in pole position for the KoM jersey. Still, his nearest competitors - Pogačar and Primož Roglič - were able to gain enough points to stay in contention. 

With three climbs left in the Tour, the classification is still alive. There is one point available on each of the category 4 climbs tomorrow and on Sunday's procession to Paris, so it will all be down to the time trial on Saturday. Should Roglič and Pogačar come first and second on La Planche Des Belles Filles, which is hardly unlikely, Carapaz will have to come third to secure the jersey. The KoM contest lives, but it’s a shame it took until three days from Paris to kick off.

Adam Becket is Procycling Magazine’s staff writer.

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