With some of the most testing mountain stages ever seen on the Tour de France soon to greet riders on the 100th edition of cycling’s greatest race, the prestigious polka dot jersey is sure to be hotly contested this year.
A route which includes a double ascent of Alpe d’Huez during stage 18 – just one of three to finish with a hors categorie climb – and a total of 67 climbs in all will certainly bring the best out of anybody hoping to be crowned King of the Mountains.
Won last year by Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), the Frenchman faces stiff competition to live up to his billing as bookies’ favourite and here we focus on five men ready to wrestle the polka dot jersey from his grasp.
Richie Porte (Team Sky)
The man tasked with guiding Chris Froome to the yellow jersey, Aussie rider Richie Porte is good enough to win a Grand Tour himself according to his team leader.
And the 28-year-old Tasmanian all-rounder is certainly building up a big reputation for himself having bagged the yellow jersey at this year’s Paris-Nice and topped the points classification at the Criterium International.
He has already marked himself as a more-than-capable support rider for Froome too, coming in second at the Criterium du Dauphine having led the Brit to the yellow jersey.
Riding alongside Froome will ensure Porte will be at the sharp end as the peloton races over the summits, giving him every chance of competing for climbing points.
However, his own personal ambitions will have to take a back seat as Team Sky bid to top the general classification for the second year running and it is unlikely the team will allow him to join breaks for the sole purpose of racking up King of the Mountains points.
Froome has shown it is possible to wear the polka dot jersey and support his team leader, as he did after victory in stage seven last year.
However, team orders meant his stint in the jersey lasted just one day, and Porte, like Froome last year, may have to sit tight and wait for his own crack at glory.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
Katusha team leader Rodriguez, 34, is riding the Tour for only the second time, but has already been ear-marked as a possible contender for the yellow and polka dot jerseys.
His Grand Tour record – seven top-ten finishes, including three podiums – speaks for itself and ‘Purito’, at just 1.69m tall and 57kg, is almost purpose-built to challenge in the mountains.
Rodriguez picked up stage wins in Oman and on the Italian coast, with the latter highlighting his ability over short, punchy climbs.
There are plenty such climbs in this year’s Tour too, but he will have to be at his best if he is to perform as well over the long mountain passes which litter the later stages.
His chances of winning the polka dot jersey will also depend on his commitment to his primary task – winning the maillot jaune.
If he commits to racking up the points in the mountains, he is certainly capable of taking the polka dot jersey, but if he really wants to compete with Chris Froome and Alberto Contador he may choose not to challenge on both fronts.
Bauke Mollema (Belkin)
Dutch climbing specialist Mollema, 26, has strung together a series of impressively consistent performances this year, racking up top-ten finishes in almost every stage race he has contested.
He reached the podium at the Vuelta a Andalucia and took a stage victory at the Tour de Suisse earlier this month on his way to second overall too, to set him up nicely ahead of the 100th Tour de France.
His ability in the mountains has also been highlighted with encouraging performances at this year’s Tirreno Adriatico, not least finishing the fifth stage just eight seconds behind Joaquim Rodriguez after the Spaniard’s uphill break.
Mollema will have to cope with the pressures of team leadership at cycling’s biggest race for the first time, however.
Much of his challenge for the GC – and for points available to those at business end when the race reaches the mountains – will depend on his ability to absorb that pressure.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
We’ve already earmarked Colombian sensation Nairo Quintana as a contender for the white jersey of best young rider, but the potential for success on his debut Tour does not end there.
Quintana, like many of his countrymen before him, possesses an incredible pedigree in the mountains and, despite being just 23, and has already admitted winning the polka dot jersey is a dream.
With compatriots Rigorberto Uran, Sergio Henao (both Team Sky) and Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) choosing to ride the Giro d’Italia, Quintana will be carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders.
Already this year he has finished in the top 20 at Paris-Nice and picked up stage wins at the Volta a Catalunya and Tour of the Basque Country where he finished fourth and first overall respectively.
In the former he was placed second in the mountains classification, proving his strength in this category, and he took the points jersey at the latter.
Movistar insist they will not be putting any pressure on their supremely-talented youngster on his Tour debut too, which conversely could boost his chances of becoming King of the Mountains.
With team leader Alejandro Valverde set to be supported not only by Quintana but also other climbing domestiques like Andrey Amador and Tour de Suisse winner, Rui Costa, the Colombian could find he has free reign to compete for mountains points.
He does come into the Tour quite cold however, having done little since his success in Pais Vasco so it remains to be seen if he will be able to shine on his Tour debut.
Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp)
Irishman Dan Martin, 26, is set to be one of three leaders in the Garmin-Sharp squad alongside Ryder Hesjedal and Andrew Talansky after the American team finally announced their nine-man line-up this week.
With the team looking to spring a few surprises this year, climbing specialist Martin – who will roll out in Corsica on Saturday on the back of his best season to date – could well find himself in contention for the polka dot jersey.
Victory at the Volta a Catalunya proved his stage-racing ability, and he also finished seventh in the mountains classification.
He followed it by storming to victory in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and a great support ride for leader Ryder Hesjedal put the Canadian top of the mountains classification at the Tour de Suisse before he crashed out.
Martin took the mantle but was unable to grab another victory, eventually coming in eighth overall.
With debutants Talansky and Rohan Dennis riding alongside Martin and Hesjedal in the mountains, and veteran Christian Vande Velde also included, the Irishman will certainly have strong support to challenge for the polka dot jersey should he choose to here though.
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