The King of the Mountains

What little drama remained in the 2017 version of the Tour de France wrapped up last Sunday along the Champs-Élysées, as Chris Froome earned a third consecutive Tour win and fourth of his career, but the passion, athleticism and emotion that are jam-packed into the three week event will stay with us throughout the summer. The tour is an event we always circle on the calendar, a certain highlight of the summer months in the mountains thanks to the Tour's intimate relationship with the mountain ranges of France: the Pyrenees and the Alps.

While the tour is obviously an annual event, the route changes from year to year, visiting some of the iconic mountain towns and resorts in France and offering the chance to experience a different side of these mountains compared to the winter months. The drama that unfolds across these numerous cols and mountain passes is captivating: as the hills get steeper and steeper, the spectators that line the streets get closer and closer; often creating a path barely wide enough for a bike to fit through. The pain, sweat and suffering are written on the riders faces as they fight to reach the top.

It never gets easier, you just get faster
— Greg LeMond

Climbing to new heights and summiting majestic peaks have long fascinated alpinists, and cyclists are no exception. The Tour started in 1903, and by 1933 incentives were put in place for those who made it to the top of a particular mountain climb along the route. Thus, a separate mini-competition within the overall Tour was born: The King of the Mountains.

Some of the greatest riders in the world have held the King of the Mountains and, unlike today's modern Tour de France, the man who held that title was often the one who wore the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) in Paris as the overall winner at the end of the Tour. Fausto Coppi was King of the Mountains prior to winning the tour in 1949 and 1952, Eddy Merckx did the same in 1969 and 1970. 

 
 Coppi in 1952

Coppi in 1952

 Eddy Merckx

Eddy Merckx

 
 Mont Ventoux, a legendary mountain climb that appears on the Tour route every few years

Mont Ventoux, a legendary mountain climb that appears on the Tour route every few years

Today's more modern, specialized race has rendered the King of the Mountains competition to a more secondary role: in a team-oriented environment, the favorites to win the overall competition are watched like hawks, and the risk of making a breakaway charge up a high mountain pass is no longer worth the reward. In fact, since 1975 only two riders have even won the Tour and the Mountains Classification at any point in their entire careers.

 LeMond, right in the  m  aillot jaune ; Hinault, left in the polka dot jersey that designates the King of the Mountains

LeMond, right in the maillot jaune; Hinault, left in the polka dot jersey that designates the King of the Mountains

One of these riders, Bernard "The Badger" Hinault was famous for a contentious duel in the 1986 Tour with American Greg LeMond. Hinault was the master, LeMond the protege - Hinault had won his fifth Tour in 1985 in large part thanks to the supporting efforts of LeMond, and promised to return the favor by supporting LeMond in his quest to win in 1986. Yet as the Tour progressed, it was Hinault who launched attack after attack, pushing himself into the overall lead and casting doubt on the sincerity of his pledge. The drama reached a climax in the climb up the legendary Alpe d'Huez where Hinault launched another solo attack, only to be matched pedal for pedal by LeMond. The incredible display of competition was not lost on the two: they reached the summit hand-in-hand and LeMond let his teammate win the stage out of respect. But immediately following the finish, Hinault wouldn't concede, saying that an upcoming time trial would determine the winner. LeMond would ultimately prevail, becoming the first American to win the Tour de France. Hinault was the King of the Mountains and second overall - and remains the last Frenchman to win the Tour.

The duel is expertly captured in the outstanding ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Slaying the Badger. It's essential viewing for those interested in the Tour.


While we won't be competing for the polka-dotted jersey any time soon, we draw tremendous inspiration from those who shed blood, sweat and tears to ascend to the summit on two wheels, and the competitive spirt those duels embody.