One of the fallacies about this year's Tour de France is its lack of climbs: while there are less summit finishes (three) than recent years, there are more HC, Cat.1 and Cat.2 climbs (25) than in any Tour since 2007. As such, the battle for the polka dot king of the mountains jersey should be fiercely contested.
Points are awarded over the summit of all categorised climbs – which are graded from Cat.4 (easiest) to HC (Hors Catégorie – the French for beyond category, or off the scale). The points breakdown is as follows:
HC: 20, 16, 12, 8, 4, 2 points respectively for the first six riders
Cat.1: 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, 1 points
Cat.2: 5, 3, 2, 1 points
Cat.3: 2, 1 points
Cat.4: 1 point
Points at the conclusion of the race's three mountain top finishes – stages 7, 11 and 17 – are all doubled. As all climbs in question are Cat.1 ascents, the points effectively act as if they are HC tests.
Last year, the winner of the polka dot jersey (or maillot à pois rouges – the red pea jersey) was Spain's Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), while the record number of wins is still the seven set by France's Richard Virenque between 1994 and 2003.
In recent years, the KOM competition has not usually been contested by riders harbouring ambitions for the GC – probably due to the lack of bonus seconds available alongside the points. With this in mind, while many GC riders feature in the KOM standings by virtue of their solid riding in the mountains, the competition is usually won by a rider who is not seen as a sufficient threat in the GC – hence his ability to feature heavily in breakaway groups.
In contrast to the predictable Virenque era and unlike the Vuelta (where Frenchman David Moncoutie has notched four successive KOM titles), the ultimate owner of the Tour's polka dot jersey has become increasingly difficult to second guess – primarily because it often comes down to which GC riders find themselves out of reach from the summit of the overall standings.
This year, Sunday's opening road stage features five Cat.4 climbs and so there will be a rider in polka dots as early as Monday's second stage in Belgium. Let's look at some of the main contenders for the king of the mountains jersey, which is sponsored by French supermarket chain Carrefour.
Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank)
With Alberto Contador banned for the Tour, Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis has openly admitted that his team will be targeting the polka dot jersey through Danish climbing specialist Sorensen. A veteran of seven Grand Tours, the 27-year-old topped the mountains classification in this year's Volta a Catalunya – and being no ostensible threat to the main GC favourites, Sorensen will have ample opportunity to pick up points in France.
Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM)
Last year, the Dutchman won his way into the hearts of the public when shedding a tear on the podium as he regained the polka dot jersey just hours after being flung into a barbed wire fence at top speed following a horrific incident involving an out-of-control media car. The injuries Hoogerland suffered during stage nine were too much and the Vacansoleil-DCM rider conceded the jersey a couple of days later. This year, the 29-year-old attacking live-wire is targeting both a stage win and the polka dot jersey as he bids to take his career up a notch after a couple of seasons that have promised so much but produced very little besides a catalogue of memorable attacks.
Daniel Martin (Garmin-Barracuda)
The Irish climber is making his Tour de France debut and will no doubt target the mountains as a place to shine. In last year's Vuelta, Martin won stage nine and became the first Irishman to hold the Vuelta mountains lead (he wore the jersey for two days). Twenty-five-year-old Martin is the youngest rider in an experienced Garmin squad and he should be given licence to roam in the hills. The nephew of Stephen Roche and cousin of Nicolas Roche, Martin has a strong climbing pedigree and is likely to have a fairly active race.
Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel)
A strong rider and excellent descender, Sanchez could well be a safe bet to defend his polka dot title – provided he is not featuring too highly in the GC. The Spaniard has finished inside the top 10 in his previous seven Grand Tours and may find himself a marked man by the likes of Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins.
David Moncoutie (Cofidis)
The French veteran normally leaves his climbing masterclass until the Vuelta (he has won four consecutive KOM titles since 2008) but with this probably being Moncoutie's final season in the peloton, the 37-year-old may have a pop at the polka dot jersey on home soil. Moncoutie goes down the tried-and-tested Virenque route of breaking away in an early mountains stage and amassing maximum points to build up a strong lead. Not the best of climbers on the really steep inclines, this is a route which may suit him better than previous years.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
The rangy Dutchman broke his leg in four places last September but came back stronger than before with a prestigious win atop Mount Baldy in the Tour of California which set him up for the overall race win back in May. It remains to be seen if he can realistically target the GC in the Tour, but he should be one of the race's strongest climbers.
Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol)
The Belgian is a superb climber but could see his chances limited by dint of being such a threat in the GC.
Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Belisol)
Van den Broeck's team-mate and compatriot could well be a safer bet: not only is he less of a threat in the GC, the Belgian also came close to winning the KOM competition last year, wearing the polka dot jersey for five days after winning stage 14 atop Plateau de Beille.
Pierre Rolland (Europcar)
The Frenchman was one of the revelations of last year's Tour, winning the queen stage to Alpe d'Huez and taking the white jersey in the process. Although his form and fitness have been patchy this season, the 25-year-old climber will find himself a marked man. But left to his own devices – as opposed to riding in support of Thomas Voeckler – Rolland could well target the polka dot jersey as well as a top 10 finish.
Matthew Lloyd (Lampre)
The Australian pocket Hercules won the Giro mountains classification in 2010 while riding for Lotto. Having been sacked by the Belgian team for concealing the state of a training accident, Lloyd now finds himself at Lampre and with a point to prove. If he can find some of his previous form, Lloyd should feature prominently in the mountains.
Brice Feillu (Saur-Sojasun)
A couple of rotten seasons at Vacansoleil and Leopard Trek has seen Feillu drop off the radar – but if the French climber replicates the form which saw him win the gruelling stage seven of the 2010 Tour in Andorra, then the 26-year-old could well be in with a shout for the polka dot jersey.
Bauke Mollema (Rabobank)
Dutch climber Mollema is yet to prove himself in the Tour but this is a route that suits his strengths and a strong showing in the mountains classification, rather than the GC, may be more realistic.
Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank)
Like team-mate and compatriot Mollema, Kruijswijk will harbour ambitions of a top 10 finish but may well change his target if things don't go his way. The polka dot jersey could be a favourable compromise.
Other names to consider:
Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM), Rui Costa (Movistar), Michele Scarponi (Lampre), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Christophe Kern (Europcar), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), Cadel Evans (BMC), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), Chris Froome (Team Sky), Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat), Juan Jose Cobo (Movistar), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat), Vasil Kirienka (Movistar), Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel), Janez Brajkovic (Astana), Jean Christophe Peraud (AG2r-La Mondiale), Chris Horner (RadioShack), Andreas Kloden (RadioShack), Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), Jeremy Roy (FDJ-BigMat).