The anticipation was high as the route of the Tour de France Femmes was announced, with hopes that the course would provide a challenge that led to a worthy wearer of the yellow jersey on the long-awaited return of a women’s edition of the French Grand Tour.
There may have been some contention over whether or not there should have been a time trial or if a gravel stage should have been included in a stage race, but one thing there was little doubt over was that La Super Planche des Belles Filles provided a fitting finale.
It may not resonate in Tour de France folklore quite as loudly as the Alpe d’Huez, Tourmalet or Ventoux, but it has an exciting, if more recent, history nevertheless.
The “Super” part of the climb extends into the gravel and onto a brutally steep finishing ramp. It leaves little doubt that the women who climb onto that final podium at the top of the summit and into the yellow jersey will have earnt her prize and place in history.
Cyclingnews takes a closer look at the mountain which has the potential to flip the GC battle at the very last moment of the eight-day 1,029 kilometre race from July 24-31.
The history of the climb
Although not so well known, the tales of battles on the fabled slopes of the legendary mountains so many cycling fans know from the Tour de France also exist within the women's peloton.
A women’s edition of the race ran from 1984 to 1989 and then came the events that, although not officially a women’s Tour de France, incorporated key climbs associated with the men’s race. There was the Tour Cycliste Féminin from 1992-1997, where Fabiana Luperini in 1996 crashed yet when her teammates brought her back to the peloton sore and bleeding at the base of the Tourmalet, she still managed to fight on and win at the top to pull on the yellow jersey. Then from 1998-2009, there was the Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale, where in 2006 Nicole Cooke went on a solo raid on Mount Ventoux to clinch the title.
However, Super Planche des Belles Filles was introduced to the Tour de France in the years there were no comparable women’s race, so 2022 will be the year the women will start building their stories of the climb. The history of the men’s race on the climb, however, will provide a frame of reference.
“It's great that we will race on a famous climb, which gives the women's Tour de France more depth,” said Annemiek van Vlueten (Movistar) in her recent Cyclingnews blog.
“People will understand what we are doing when we can say that we finish on La Planche des Belles Filles. So many fans have watched it during the previous editions of the men's Tour de France, so they know it's a hard climb.”
The Planche des Belles Filles was introduced to the Tour de France in 2012 as the finishing climb on stage 7, providing the first mountaintop finish of that year’s Tour. It was at that stage that the then-young British rider Chris Froome took the victory and drew the admiration of defending champion Cadel Evans: "Froome was incredible - he rode the front the last 3km or something and he was able to follow me and accelerate past me."
It’s next appearance was in 2014 on stage 10, reshuffling the GC as Vincenzo Nibali reigned supreme on the climb and stepping into the yellow jersey which he also donned on the Champs-Élysées. In 2017 it was back on stage 5, with Fabio Aru springing clear of the GC group 2km from the summit and taking victory while Chris Froome this time came in third and stepped into the yellow jersey, which he also finished with on stage 21.
By 2019 the climb had been used so often it was becoming familiar, but then there was an extra twist. This was the year the Planche des Belles Filles became the Super Planche des Belles Filles. Organisers added an extra section at the top, taking the finish line beyond the paved road and onto the unpaved dusty road and steep section beyond. At the front as the tarmac turned to gravel, two riders with more than a minute clear battled for the stage victory, with Dylan Teuns beating Giulio Ciccone to the line. Further back among the GC rivals the battle was running hot with Romain Bardet slipping out the back and Geraint Thomas besting the two Frenchmen, Thibaut Pinot and Julian Alaphillipe, who gave the yellow jersey up to Ciccone that day.
The Planche des Belles Filles joined the race again in another different form in 2020, providing the finale of the 36 kilometre time trial where Tadej Pogačar overhauled Primož Roglič, taking almost two minutes on his compatriot and the yellow jersey when it counted most.
The Super Planche des Belles Filles will appear in the men’s edition of the race for a sixth time in 2022, providing the first summit finish on stage 7.
The Planche des Belles Filles is situated in the Vosges mountains in the east of France, close to the intersection of the French, German and Swiss borders and located between Strasbourg and Besançon.
The position of the lower range of mountains means that is has often provided the first summit finish of the Tour, delivering an entree before the Alps and Pyrenees. However, it became a final stop before Paris in 2020, when it was home to a pivotal time trial.
For the Tour de France Femmes, it provides a mountainous finale comfortably within reach of Paris for the eight-stage event which starts at the Eiffel Tower on the same day as the Tour de France ends.
The Vosges mountains may not reach the heights of the Alps of the Pyrenees but there should be no underestimating the La Super Planches des Belles Filles, which stands at 1,140 metres above sea level. Coming at the end of eight tough days in the saddle, and with the Côte d'Esmoulières and the Ballon d’Alsace already in their legs from earlier in the 123km route, the seven-kilometre finishing climb serves an average gradient of 8.7 per cent.
There is no easing into the climb as the first kilometre of the tree-lined road zig zags its way up the mountain and delivers an average gradient of 9.4 per cent. The climb then peaks at 13 per cent before a slight reprieve in the second kilometre, if you can call an average gradient of 6.7 per cent a reprieve. There is even a small flattish section, and what looks like a momentary dip, before the gradient then picks up again through the next two kilometres back to an average of 9.4 and 9.5 per cent.
Back to 8.3 per cent for kilometre five of the climb, and then an average gradient of eight percent for what would be the run into the finish line if the climb hadn’t been stretched onto the hard-packed gravel. It is far from an even 8 per cent, with a couple of flat ramps sandwiching a section with pitches of up to 20 per cent.
That final section doesn’t look that steep, at the beginning at least, but the start isn’t an indicator of what is to come. The dust of a few hundred metres of unpaved road adds one layer of drama and then the steepness of the final paved section that the riders turn onto with around 300 metres to go adds another.
The finish line may be ever so close, but with the gradient peaking at 24 per cent in those final brutal metres of the eight-stage race may, for some riders, feel like they are taking an eternity.
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