“Je ne prétends pas être le meilleur grimpeur du monde, mais je peux me considérer comme tel sur ce Tour.” – Andy Schleck (L’Equipe)
Lucien Van Impe won the mountains classification, le maillot à pois rouge, six times at the Tour de France (and the Tour itself in 1976), equalling the record set by Federico Bahamontes and only bettered by Richard Virenque with seven titles.
He was less than impressed with Anthony Charteau’s win at this year’s Tour, however, reportedly saying, “What does the leader Charteau do? Get himself in the early escape, gather as many points as possible and give up in the finale. It’s dead easy to do.”
Van Impe has been critical for a number of years of this strategy and criticised Richard Virenque in 2004 for adopting it. Although Virenque had a number of stage wins (seven of them) and high GC placings early in his career, Van Impe thought that the polka-dot jersey wearer should be contesting the final climbs with the GC leaders, and even winning them (Van Impe won 9 stages at the Tour, Bahamontes 7). Such was the strategy that Bahamontes and Van Impe adopted, one followed by other legendary climbers like Lucho Herrera.
In his latest comments, however, he was actually less critical, saying, “Virenque and Jalabert are the ones who started this – but with this difference: they could really climb, and they could win sprints on hors category climbs or even win the stage.”
Charteau was certainly a surprise winner this year, not having distinguished himself in the mountains prior to this Tour. He did comment, however, that, “Chez les amateurs, j’étais un pur grimpeur.” He said that when he became a professional, his status as a budding amateur climber changed and he worked for a team leader on teams such as Crédit Agricole and Caisse d’Epargne before he joined Bbox this year.
Indeed, Bbox seemed to have no leader at this year’s Tour, content to chase stage wins and other prizes – a strategy that paid off with Charteau’s own performance and stage wins by Thomas Voeckler and Pierrick Fédrigo. As Charteau said, by the time he reached the mountains this year, he was not worn out by having to work for the team.
Charteau’s broader point, however, is that talented climbers often go unrecognized because they are working for a team leader. This was definitely the case in this year’s Tour; some of the best climbers, like Daniel Navarro in Astana (who won the last stage of the Dauphiné into Grenoble by breaking away over the final climb) and Chris Anker Sørensen on Saxo Bank (who won stage 8 on the Monte Terminillo at the Giro this year), were working for their team leaders.
Other climbers that were expected to do well were either hardly to be seen (Juan Manuel Garate) or abandoned (Amets Txurukka). Others appeared more interested in a high GC placing or in the white jersey competition. Indeed, the top-three riders for the maillot blanc are probably a better reflection of climbing performances at the Tour this year: Andy Schleck (2nd overall); Robert Gesink (6th overall); Roman Kreuziger (9th overall). As Schleck told L’Equipe, quoted above, he might not be the best climber in the world but he was the best climber at this Tour, and it is hard to argue with that conclusion.
Still, if some of the more recognized climbers were not going to contest the mountains competition this year, then chapeau to Charteau for taking it on, even he was not as dynamic as a Van Impe or even a Virenque.
The Tour organizers changed the rules to 2004 to award double points for the classification to thwart Virenque’s strategy of winning the jersey based on the intermediate climbs on stages (he won it that year anyway, with one stage win, some inspired riding in the Alps, and a 15th place overall). So the title is still up for grabs for a climber who can contest the stage wins and is less concerned with his own or his leader’s GC position.
But until these riders step up, an opportunist like Charteau can show his mettle and claim the title of meilleur grimpeur and win the most prestigious climbing title in cycling. And given how hard he worked, it is hard to begrudge him that.
Of note: A recent posting, which you can read here, also commented on the decline of the pure grimpeur and noted the difficulty that such riders have competing for stage wins against strong overall contenders. One might indeed argue that Contador and Schleck present that very challenge.
Finally, the highlights of the Tour are discussed by your author and Richard from cyclingart.ca on our latest podcast.