1975 was quite a year for the Tour de France. Eddy Merckx attempted, and failed, to secure a record sixth Tour, succumbing to Bernard Thevenet and perhaps wounded by a punch from a spectator, as well as a broken cheekbone. The Champs-Elysees became the final playground of the Tour, with the move from the Velodrome de Vincennes becoming the prestigous and beautiful finale to the world’s greatest race. And finally, the King of the Mountains competition was inaugurated with a way of identifying its leader – the Polka dot jersey.
The King of the Mountains competition had been going in one form or the other since 1905, even though it is generally accepted that the first “mountain” of the Tour was in the first stage of the very first 1903 edition, the 712m high Col des Echarmeaux. In 1905, the “competition” was at the whim of the L’auto, the newspaper that organised the Tour, who would simply name one rider the “best climber” of the race (wouldn’t that be fun these days). Oddly though, this wasn’t an official Tour competition, despite the newspaper being the same people as the Tour’s. This continued on until 1933, when Henri Desgrange, having already banned team work and gears because they made the whole damned endeavour too easy, decided riders needed an incentive to get up the mountains first as well, introduced time bonuses at the top of the mountains. Thus, the best climber competition was born.
It’s not entirely clear if the competition was immediately called “King of the Mountains”, but that name has certainly stuck due to the caliber of riders that have triumphed in the competition. Bartali, Coppi, Gaul, Bahamontes, Merckx… it was the best riders in the world winning the competition, and so it seemed fair to give it a jersey to aknowledge them as the best climber in the race.
Legend has it that one of the Tour sponsors at the time, Chocolat Poulain, had a polka dot wrapper on one of its chocolate bars at the time, but there seems to be no evidence of such a wrapper, which must have been in fairly reasonable circulation, that anyone can find. Given the company had sponsored the Tour since 1950 (and were seemingly very much on the Poulidorian side of the Poulidor-Anquetil split in France, running the slogan “Go Poulidor, go pou, go pou, go Poulain”), it should be pretty easy to find, which is odd. It is also suggested that the colouring of the company was simply red and white, although only red seems to have been used in the company logo. Anyway, the idea that a “popular product” gave the jersey its distinctive colouring seems to be apocryphal given no one seems to know what the “popular” product was, nor exactly what it appeared as.
There is an alternative origin story, which states that the then Tour organiser Felix Levitan (more notable for trying to run the original ill fated Tour of America) was inspired by the polka dot jerseys he had seen in at the Velodrome d’Hiver in Paris, but again, there isn’t a lot going for this.
The jersey has had a somewhat subdued history since its introduction, playing host to a gang of eccentric characters and swashbuckling black sheep rather than the more mainstream stars of the Tour. Only Bernard Hinault and Lucien Van Impe have won the Jersey and at some point won the Tour since 1975, a particularly weird occurrence for Van Impe given he won the climbers jersey basically every other year he entered bar 1976, when he won the Tour.
There has been criticism that the competition has been degraded to an unofficial “breakaway” competition, with the overall contenders who used to compete for it unable to breakaway for the points as they are too closely watched, leaving it up to riders supposedly undeserving of the title “King of the Mountains” to hoover up the points and win the competition. The Tour did try to address this by changing the points system in 2011, doubling the points for summit finishes and hedging the scale towards the harder climbs in an attempt to make the winner more likely to win.
I can’t resist a graph, so here’s one which tracks the overall GC position of the King of the Mountains winner (Green), their best placing overall in their career (polka dot – hey hey!) and the position of the overall GC winner in the KOM competition (yellow).
As the trendline shows, the winner of the KOM has been getting further and further down the overall ranking, although conversely, the position of the overall GC winner has always stayed pretty constant, averaging out at 4th (I cant find Stephen Roche’s 1987 position however), with only Bradley Wiggins having not finished in the top 10 of the competition (More ammunition for those who say he cant climb there). Still, with a ludicrously mountainous 2015 edition planned (and giving hommage to the 40th anniversary) the 2015 KOM should be fairly high up in the overall, even if it still turns out to be a passive competition where riders stumble into the lead rather than explicitly target it.
Anyway, the jersey. The jersey has changed very little over its life time, with only the sponsors and the number and size of the spots changing. Coca Cola, whose colour scheme fitted well with the garment, had a go for a while, but since 1993 it has been Carrefour, albeit advertising as Champion, one of its subsidiary brands, until 2009, when the supermarket chain decided to switch to the parent company. Occasionally, there has even been images in the spots themselves, but otherwise, the jersey has remained pretty much as it always has.
It has generated many views on its fashionability however, not always for the riders, but also for the podium girl attire it has created, given the poor ladies have to wear clothing that compliments the leader’s jerseys.
Of course, the most important question one can ask when you have to wear the polka-dot jersey is this: should I wear polka dot shorts with it? Conventional wisdom says no, but then cycling doesn’t play by conventional wisdom…
Thomas Voeckler, obviously, doesn’t play by the rules of men…
…whilst Michael Rasmussen doesn’t play by the rules full stop…
Rafa Majka went for some more subdued shorts, avoiding the crotch area…
..unlike Samuel Sanchez, who was apparently untroubled by the comparison to various diseases.
Hopefully, 2015 will treat us to an equally enthralling kit, an maybe even an enthralling competition…
For the mean time, here’s all the winners of the hallowed fleece so far