Tour de France gains heat with searing polka dot battle in the Pyrénées

Wout van Aert, Michael Woods, Wout Poels and Nairo Quintana lock into fierce 'king of the mountains' battle that will highlight Tour's final week.

Photo: James Startt

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

There was a polka-dotted rash over the peaks of Andorra in Sunday’s stage of the Tour de France.

Michael Woods, Wout van Aert, and Wout Poels threw it all into a series of spectacular summit sprints in a fight for the iconic king of the mountains jersey Sunday. The Andorran showdown was a preview of a veritable battle royale that will highlight the final week of the race.

With Tadej Pogačar looking untouchable in yellow, the battle for the polka dots has added welcome heat to a Tour threatening to go on simmer as star riders lock into old-school racing through the high peaks.

Also read:

In past editions of the Tour, the mountains classification has sometimes been relegated to a byproduct of the GC race, or the preserve of smaller – typically French – names.

This year’s KoM prize has taken on an altogether new luster as some of the peloton’s biggest stars push big watts in search of a polka dot prize. Through the weekend, classification leaders Poels and Woods were shooting all their bullets in monster mountain sprints rather than saving them for lunges for finish line victories.

“If you want to win the mountain jersey, you have to go for the points and make choices,” Poels said after taking the lead in the classification Sunday. “You always make an effort of about three hundred meters. You feel that at the end of the day.”

Poels takes the iconic dotted jersey into the rest day with a haul 74 points – eight more than Woods. Van Aert and Nairo Quintana follow two points further back.

Woods, van Aert, Poels, and Quintana is an unlikely quartet of talent that has been thrown together by misfortune as much as design.

Woods lost time on GC on the very opening day and pivoted toward new goals. Poels and Bahrain Victorious lost team leader Jack Haig to the crash-riddled third stage and went hunting elsewhere, with Matej Mohorič and Dylan Teuns both hitting the top step in the first week.

Van Aert has been handed the freedom to roam after Primož Roglič was forced out of the race. Quintana is the only one of the four with the pre-Tour ambition to ride aggressively and opportunistically.

Like Poels, Woods zeroed in on the dots rather than stage wins over this weekend’s mountain clashes.

“I don’t think I’d have followed Bauke Mollema when he went,” Woods said after the Dutchman attacked the breakaway before riding to victory Saturday.

“I also had my eye on the KOM jersey as well. You can only have your focus on so many things. Obviously, the stage wins are important, but the KOM jersey is the first priority now.”

The spectacle of Woods, Poels, and van Aert ripping through a series of mountaintop sprints was a highlight of Sunday’s Andorra stage. It was a show made possible by the freewheeling nature of this year’s Tour.

Unlike in other years of the race, breakaways have been allowed to go to the line in the first two weeks.

UAE-Team Emirates has failed to exert the tight stranglehold that Ineos Grenadiers or Jumbo Visma did in recent editions, meaning six out of 15 stages have gone to the escapees. With that, the likes of Woods and Poels can fight among themselves at the front of the action rather than being swamped by a sea of domestiques.

Also read: Breakaways given freedom to move at 2021 Tour

That may change in the final week.

Two HC mountaintop finishes Wednesday and Thursday offer up a swathe of mountains points to the stage winner, and it could be GC riders that claim them.

The final week could see Jumbo Visma and Ineos Grenadiers piling all its resources into an all-or-nothing push for yellow and the breaks may not get their chances. Similarly, Pogačar may see the Portet and Luz Ardiden summits as the opportunity to win a Tour stage in the yellow jersey for the first time in his career. At 50 points back, the 2020 king of the mountains could unintentionally defend his polka dots as he rides into yellow.

Woods and Poels may see their stage-winning and polka dot ambitions coalesce as they look to beat yellow jersey contenders to an HC points haul.

Pogačar may ruin the party with his second stage win. And Wout? Never count that guy out.

However it plays out, the punch-up for polka dots will be the race to watch in the final week.

Trending on Velo

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.