On visiting the Vosges Mountains in France for some quality cycling recently, myself and well respected beer connoisseur @MattyDeighton had one over-riding objective above all others: to conquer La Planche des Belles Filles.
In hindsight, perhaps conquer is putting it a bit strongly.
The word conquer suggests military planning, siege tactics, and collateral damage, but the only serious adversity we encountered during our 60 kilometre jaunt took the form of some brief strain on our friendship, as I successfully bagged the last sandwich at the summit café (we’ll come to that).
La Planche is by no means a long climb at just over 5km’s in length and rising to just over 1000 metres, but it’s steep, with long sections at upwards of 13% gradient, and the famous 400 metre long 20% gradient ramp at the finish which had us reaching for out lower gears.
For such a well-known and interestingly named climb (literal translation: ‘the plank of the beautiful girls’), La Planche des Belles Filles is actually a very quiet place to ride a bike – we saw perhaps half a dozen other cyclists on the climb.
This is because it’s not the Alps or the Pyrenees, and because the road goes nowhere: up the hill, quick photo at the Chris Froome 2012 Tour de France Stage winner sign, and back down again, on smooth roads which cajole you into hitting the kind of top speed that a family man with any sense should really keep to himself (that’s just between me and my Garmin).
For the record, on the way up, Mr Froome’s time of 16 minutes 11 seconds was never seriously threatened.
What was threatened, as I may have mentioned, was the bond between two fellow cyclists; one of whom may have had a sandwich for lunch, and one who might not have done.
The problem arose as we parked our bikes, and plonked ourselves down outside the summit café for a bite to eat.
We had fallen into a routine of @MattyDeighton, as the (slightly) French speaker amongst us, doing much of the talking. But for some reason (perhaps my sixth sense picked up signs of a bread shortage in the body language of our waitress) I blurted out my order before he had a chance, using almost all of my available French vocabulary to order a cheese and ham baguette with butter.
As my friend tried to order the same he was sorely disappointed: no more bread, we were told.
Had I been met with that response I would have been aghast that an establishment with the audacity to call itself a café had no bread…in France…at lunchtime. I might even have flounced off dramatically – I behave strangely when I’m hungry.
As it was – sandwich safely ensnared – I found it hilarious.
And so, having achieved a long-standing goal of climbing La Planche he was left to celebrate with a microwaveable pasta box which he claims was “fine…not bad”, but which in comparison to my lavishly prepared baguette looked pretty depressing.
Let’s be honest, that’s not the cuisine you come to France for, is it?