Return to La Planche with Fabio Aru

Italy’s Fabio Aru was a stage winner atop La Planche des Belles Filles in the 2017 Tour de France. Rouleur accompanies him as he returns to the climb for the first time since that victory

This article was produced in association with Assos

Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme may be the keeper of the world’s oldest and most prestigious Grand Tour, but while he constantly celebrates its past, he is also focused on creating new stories for the future. “It is important to search out new myths,” he likes to say. And in recent years he has added several new climbs to the Tour, climbs that are quickly creating their own place in the sport. And perhaps no modern climb has made its mark on the Tour more profoundly than La Planche des Belle Filles.

According to legend, during the time of Viking invasions, a certain Inès and other belles filles, or beautiful girls from the village, fled to the summit of La Planche des Belles Filles. But when they were pursued by the Nordic invaders, they had nowhere to escape to, and preferred to throw themselves into a lake. And to this day the climb is named in their honour, though the name has also been theorised to have been a corruption of belles fahys, or beautiful beech trees.

The climb, lost in the Vosges in Eastern France, may simply appear to be a dead-end road to the top of a 1,100-metre rise. But since making its debut in the Tour de France in 2012, La Planche has quickly earned its place as not only one of the most spectacular finishes of La Grande Boucle, but also one of the most telling.

It was here, in its inaugural appearance, where Chris Froome sprinted away from the top Tour contenders, showing the first signs that he too could be a Tour winner. And where Bradley Wiggins, just behind Froome, took the yellow jersey that he would keep until Paris. Just two years later Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali stormed past the final breakaway riders on the final pitches to take the stage, not to mention a significant step towards his own Tour victory. And then of course there was that unforgettable day in 2020 when Tadej Pogačar turned the tables on his Slovenian rival Primož Roglič to capture his first Tour de France title on the penultimate stage of a race that Roglič looked certain to win. In addition, it was perhaps only fitting that this new cycling hotspot also hosted the finish of the first Tour de France Femmes in 2022.

In short, in the space of just over a decade, La Planche des Belles Filles has become a modern-day cycling Mecca. “This region has been reborn thanks to the Tour de France,” says Thomas Cardot, Global Marketing Specialist for Assos, who still races for the Philippe Wagner Continental team. “Today more cyclists climb La Planche des Belles Filles than Mont Ventoux, even!”

We are riding to La Planche today with another icon of the climb. Italy’s Fabio Aru wrote his own page in the history of La Planche des Belles Filles when he rode away from the GC group here in 2017. It would go down as one of the Italian champion’s greatest rides, along with his 2015 Vuelta a España victory. Since retiring in 2021, Aru has remained active in the sport as an ambassador for several brands, including Assos. “I may not be a professional any more, but I am still a sportsman and I still love to ride,” he says.

For generations, the nearby town of Plancher-des-Mines thrived on the coal industry, but when the mines closed down in the 1970s, the town struggled. The recent influx of cyclists has offered a much-needed second wind. Suiting up at Café d’la Planche, a cycling-themed café that marks the start of the climb, Aru reflects: “Driving up here was very emotional, especially as I got closer,” Aru said. “I am not working with teams or races any more, so when I come back to a place like this, one that has been such an important stage in the Tour de France, it is special. And the landscape here is really unique with its hills and small towns. I remember the climb well, but it is great coming back, because this gives me a chance to really see it. You know when you are racing in the Tour de France, you don’t have much time to look around.”

With an early start, there is still a chill in the air and Aru opts to wear his R.S. Sturmprinz jacket over his distinctive Equipe RS jersey. “La Planche des Belles Filles is not that long a climb, but it is really steep. It is much steeper than most climbs in France,” Aru says. “It actually reminds me more of the climbs you see sometimes in the Giro or the Vuelta. Most climbs in France are around seven or eight per cent, but here at La Planche, it is more like 10 per cent. And then there is the tarmac. I’ll never forget. It was super hot the day I won, and the tarmac was really thick, really slow. It felt like the tyres were sticking to the pavement. It felt like my tyres were going flat. It is just one of those unforgiving climbs. If you are not 100 per cent it is so hard. There is no faking it here on La Planche des Belles Filles.”

Rolling through the centre of the village, where even the city hall is decorated with bikes. Aru passes by a historic fountain, where the women of the village once gathered to wash clothes, just as the road starts to climb. And soon enough there is that distinctive fork in the road, with a sign pointing right, on our way to La Planche. Ahead the road zig-zags and the pitch increases.

“This is where the climb really starts,” Aru says. “I remember the race was all strung out when we hit this corner. Team Sky was really driving it, but I knew I had to move up, so I sprinted to get into the top ten or so. I had just won the Italian championships two weeks before so I knew my condition was good, and I knew I could do something here.”

Aru did not do recon on this climb before the 2017 Tour, but during the morning meeting in his Astana bus, he identified several key points. One of those points came just before the two-kilometre mark where there was a slight dip in the road before a tight turn, followed by a steeper pitch. It was here that he attacked, surprising his competition and getting a gap immediately.

Today massive tree trunks line the road – the dense forest here is regularly harvested by the lumber industry – but Aru knows exactly where it is and is quickly out of his saddle. “I really wasn’t sure what would happen, but that seemed like the right spot,” he recalls. “It all depends on what is happening in the race, but I knew I was in really good shape, so I had a lot of confidence. When you are feeling good like that you take risks.”

Aru continues to dig deep after the turn, with his Lunar Red RC jersey popping whenever the sun pierces through the trees. Admittedly he was not riding at the same speed as he did when the group containing the likes of Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Richie Porte splintered behind him. Little matter, as he is enjoying having the road to himself today as he takes in the climb. The following corner is covered with graffiti honouring local hero Thibaut Pinot and has since been christened ‘Pinot Corner’, and as Aru comes to the next bend he looks back, remembering.

“When I looked back here and saw that the next group was just coming out of the corner below, that’s when I knew I had the stage won,” he says. Soon enough, Aru hits the final kilometre and then the sweeping right-hand turn at the foot of the final pitch. With the road closed to cars at the 500-metre mark, Aru can take the line he did on his way to victory. “I came into that curve fast and I came out of the turn on the outside, which put me on the inside of the final turn.”

Today daffodils colour the field that is packed with fans whenever the Tour finishes here. Within seconds Aru crests the final pitch, and as he rolls to the line, imitates his victory gesture, pumping his right fist in the air with his left hand over his chest. Only a few metres after the line he notices a sign listing all the stage winners to date on La Planche des Belles Filles. “It’s special seeing my name here at the finish line. Wow, what memories. To win such a beautiful stage in the Tour de France is something special. When I look at the other winners here, well, it’s only the big riders,” Aru says. “It’s funny when you are a professional in the middle of the race, it can be hard to fully understand such moments. But seeing my name on the sign here brings back a whole lot of memories, memories of that day when I was almost on top of the world.”

After catching his breath, Aru opts to climb the final gravel section up to Super Planche des Belles Filles, where the Tour finishes in certain years, like in 2019 when, coming back from an operation, he still finished in the top 20. Unsurprisingly Aru prefers the traditional finish on the paved road, but that doesn’t stop him from picking his line up the gravel sections, and encouraging a fellow cyclo-tourist to the summit.

“Look at it up here. It’s nice to be able to take in the scenery, the beauty of the climb, and the view from up here,” he says. “It is really one of my favourite climbs. I love the Stelvio in Italy and the Coll des Rates in Alicante in Spain. But La Planche des Belles Filles is really something unique.”

After a moment to take in the scenery and reflect on the unique spot, Aru rolls back down the hill. Stopping at the tourist office at the 500-metre mark, he puts on his Optic Yellow Mille GT Wind Jacket and reads the memorial explaining the legend of the Belles Filles. And soon enough he is off, attacking the descent as he makes his way back to Plancher-les-Mines.

“It was nice to finally come back here. It’s a special place,” he adds. “It was so different today. I remember so clearly the fans and this thunder of noise. But today it was completely quiet. There was nobody. That was amazing. But also, I cannot wait for the Tour to return. I think next time I will come to see it myself.”

What did Fabio wear?

For the return to the Planche, Aru relied on a variety of Assos gear, the EQUIPE RS JERSEY S11 in Lunar Red and the EQUIPE RS SCHTRADIVARI BIB SHORTS S11, while he used the MILLE GT WIND VEST C2 in the morning and the Optic Yellow MILLE GTS WASSERSCHNAUZE RAIN JACKET S11 on the descent.

“I really love the new bibs,” Aru says. “They are really comfortable, but also they have really been working on the breathability, and I can really tell the difference.”

Aru may be one of the Swiss brand’s most visible ambassadors, but the Italian was a fan of their products even before he turned professional. “I really love the fit, the quality and the durability,” Aru says. “When I was racing, I had a rain jacket for ten years and it still worked great.”

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