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The last test before Paris: La Planche des Belles Filles

Joseph Delves
18 Sep 2020

From bit-part-players to star-turns, we look at who might prevail on the Tour de France's Stage 20 uphill time-trial

Each year the Tour de France tries to create drama by building the most spectacular stage set possible. This year the race’s final act will take the form of a time-trial up La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges.

Designed to keep the fight for overall Tour honours going until the very last minute, the 36-kilometre solo effort from the commune of Lure to the summit of La Planche des Belles Filles could easily wreck the hopes of many contenders – regardless of how many seconds – or even minutes – of advantage they’ve banked.

First visited by the Tour in 2012, La Planche des Belles Filles has had an impact out of proportion to its moderate 503 metres of vertical gain.

The Tour’s initial visit saw Chris Froome famously nursing his team leader Bradley Wiggins to the line. Froome took the stage, but Wiggins went on to win the race overall in what was a fractious but wildly successful Tour for Team Sky.

 

Two years later La Planche des Belles Filles returned as the conclusion to Stage 10. This time the spoils went to Vincenzo Nibali, who won on his way to his own moment on the top step of the podium in Paris.

In 2017 La Planche des Belles Filles made a third appearance at the Tour. Coming at the conclusion of Stage 5, it saw Fabio Aru win the day, but it was Froome who took the yellow jersey, the first occasion he’d wear it on his way to a fourth overall win.

Back again in 2019, this time the climb formed the conclusion to a first trip into the mountains on Stage 6. Won by Belgium’s Dylan Teuns, the stage also saw the GC race get shaken up, with Geraint Thomas using it as a springboard to take time on his rivals.

Short but deadly

 

On to 2020 and the climb is back for a second consecutive year, though this time La Planche des Belles Filles forms the last obstacle between riders and a processional spin around Paris.

A first category climb with an hors catégorie reputation, it gained this thanks to an uncanny ability to provide cliff-hanger finishes.

A high point in the comparatively lowly Vosges mountain range, on paper it doesn’t look all that much. Topping out at 1,035 metres, the climb proper starts at 532 metres.

In other words it's by no means a giant. At 6km long and averaging around 9% it’s certainly tough, but not outrageously so. Instead, La Planche des Belles Filles’s real sting comes in the final couple of hundred metres.

Here riders will be faced with a wall of over 20%. It's steep enough to turn anyone's legs to jelly, especially when they've already covered over 3,000 kilometres over the preceding three weeks, and it’s likely to be the most vertiginous slope in the entire race.

All these facts combine to mean riders could still lose chunks of time, even once in sight of the line. And it’s this proven ability to provide a last moment of drama that’s the reason for its inclusion at this pivotal point of the race.

Uphill against the clock

 

What makes La Planche des Belles Filles's fourth Tour appearance in eight years a truly mouthwatering prospect, however, is that in 2020 it will be ridden as a time-trial.

While a conventional (i.e. flatter) time-trial can often feel like an anti-climactic way to end a Grand Tour, a test against the clock on La Planche des Belles Filles promises to provide an exciting alternative. All the more so given the current trend of minimising kilometres ridden against the clock – just look at last year’s hilly solo stage around Pau and the stunning performance it elicited from Julian Alaphilippe.

With the possibility of everything going slow-motion in the last few hundred metres, the result of the stage – and potentially the whole Tour – might be up the air until all the big riders are over the line.

On paper this year's time-trial would seem to suit the current first and second riders on GC, Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar. The latter has set new KOM times up several climbs in this years race, while they finished second and first respectively at this year's Slovenian TT nationals.

However, with the first 15km being along largely flat roads, anyone possessing more traditional time-trial skills should be able to build something of an advantage before the road goes upwards.

 

One rider to potentially keep an eye on is Thibaut Pinot, who lives in the nearby village of Mélisey and trains regularly on these roads.

Pinot is completely out of the GC race now having struggled earlier in the race, but if he has recovered it could provide a good chance to salvage something from his injury-hit race. Fellow French rider Alaphilippe could be another good bet, as could be diesel-engined climber Rigoberto Uran. 

Whatever happens, the forth inclusion of La Planche des Belles Filles means the race for yellow shouldn't be over until the line atop its summit is safely navigated.

Key stats: La Planche des Belles Filles

Location: Vosges Mountains, Haute-Saône département.
Length: 5.9 kilometres
Height: 1,035 metres
Ascent: 503 metres
Average gradient: 9%
Max gradient: 20%+

Appearances and winners at the Tour de France

2012 - Chris Froome
2014 - Vincenzo Nibali
2017 - Fabio Aru
2019 - Dylan Teuns
2020 - TBC