As part of a series to explore the famous roads of cycling, here is the Planche des Belles Filles in France. The idea with this series is to discover the road and its place in the world, whether in cycling’s folklore or to explore what it is like on a normal day without a race.
The Planche des Belles Filles is a novelty that first appeared in the Tour de France in 2012 after the Tour de France boss Christian Prudhomme came across cyclists buzzing about the climb on a forum. It’s back for the 2014 Tour and could well feature again and again.
The D16 splits to the north of Plancher Les Mines, the junction is obvious and signalled by a large sign. The road has climbed already but from here the climb is 5.9km at 8.5% but frequently goes into double digits, especially after a milder section early on. The ride finishes with a 20% ramp to the small ski station.
A triangular road sign says it all: 13% for 5.6km. A mini Zoncolan although it has a recovery section one third of the way. The steep slopes are harsh and have you reaching for your lowest gears from the start, the first ramp is 14% for several hundred metres. Most French roads are carefully engineered with regular slopes but this is the exception, a constantly changing in gradient yet invariably steep – it’s Italian. But the road is wide, two cars can pass with ease.
With regular sections at 12%, riders in the Tour are happy to use low gears and compact chainsets. There’s a short recovery section mid-way and some of the hairpin bends are wide allowing for a rider to seek refuge from the slope on the outer line but otherwise this is a relentless climb. It’s wooded and the foliage means there are few views on the way up, just a strip of black tarmac rising ahead. The finish section is over 20% and it’s from here that the views are better because on the way up vibes access road rather than forest climb.
There’s a sign marking the finish line of the Tour de France and it tells you Chris Froome’s time of 16.11… over a minute quicker than Laurens Ten Dam’s Strava record where the Dutchman just pips Adam Yates’s time set on a training ride although it seems the start points are different..
On a Normal Day
It’s possible to ride up and down without meeting anyone else. The road heads up doesn’t go down the other side, it’s a dead-end unless you’re on an MTB and this means traffic is light and maybe invisible. The Tour’s limelight now means more and more visitors.
In winter the road is open as the small ski-station requires the road to be open for access. There are three ski-lifts, five pistes and more XC ski trails. If anything there are more reasons for locals to visit in winter although at just over 1100m above sea level the snow can’t be permanent from December to March.
If you’re lucky you might spot a rider in FDJ kit. It’ll probably be Thibaut Pinot who lives 10km away and this is “his” climb that gets used for training efforts and fitness tests although the irregular climb means it’s not for those tests you do with a power metre for 20 minutes. The Pinot family is part of the region, Thibaut’s father is mayor of a nearby town. Arthur Vichot is a regular.
It’s the contrast with the Tour that’s notable. This climb might not be legendary but it is crucial. It was the first summit finish of the 2012 Tour and quickly showed how Team Sky were in control with Chris Froome winning the stage with Bradley Wiggins close by whilst many other pretenders for the overall were floundering. Now it’s the first decisive summit finish in the 2014 Tour.
It’s been used for local races and the Trois Ballons cyclosportive. It’s this event and comments from internet forum users that first alerted Christian Prudhomme to the climb.
Literally “the plank of beautiful girls”, Planche comes from the small town of Plancher in the valley bellow. Legend says some beautiful girls, the belles filles, threw themselves into a lake on the mountain rather than face Swedish mercenary soldiers in 1635. It’s poetic but others say the hill has been covered in beech trees which were called fahys in an old dialect so it’s the belle fahys or nice trees.
The peaceful setting is cherished by locals to varying degrees. Some protested at the landscaping work done in order to host the Tour de France but the station at the top remains modest, the kind of ski station a family visits for an afternoon as opposed to a week. The protest was not new, plans to create a ski station on top of the mountain were launched in the 1970s and met with some opposition, notably “SOS Vosges” which was so violently set on preserving the peace that it resorted to using explosives to blow up ski-lift pylons.
The Vosges mountains are probably not on your radar of roads to ride. Why is precisely why you should be riding here. This is a peaceful area with some unique roads. Unlike the Alps or Pyrenees, it’s possible to ride many different loops from one base, all while notching up several mountain passes a day. There are higher, harder and better roads than the Planche des Belles Filles. The Ballon d’Alsace, the first real mountain road taken by the Tour de France back in 1905, is close by.
Of course many will skip the Vosges and go to the Alps but Belgians, Brits and Dutch driving to the Alps would do well to stop here for a couple of days and explore.
Travel and Access
The peace and quiet comes a cost. It’s not so easy to reach this part of the world. 400km east by south-east from Paris, the closest big city is Basel in Switzerland. Dijon and Besançon are near and it’s frontier area where connections to Germany and Switzerland as as good as France.
Main photo by Flickr’s Collideous.
This post was first put online on October 2013 and has been updated and revised for today’s Tour de France visit. More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads