I finished with a great big smile on my face and felt no compunction in texting my wife to request a taxi ride up the hill from Plancher to Auxelles. I think I could have done the final 140m climb, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, and it would have taken the shine off what had turned out to be a very shiny day.
I planned this route back in the winter and it was my only real target for this holiday. I probably won’t get up the Ballon d’Alsace, and I won’t conquer the 13% gradient in the Saint Antoine Forest, but I felt that the ride up to Fresse and down into Plancher was something within reach.
A sensible thing to have done would have been to drive the route in a car and familiarise myself with the turns. But then if I’d seen the climb between Mélisey and Fresse, I might well have not bothered. The 140m between Plancher and Auxelles is bad enough, but between Mélisey and beyond Fresse is one climb of 300 metres, more or less, which you take in three chunks, with a little rest (or false flat) in between each.
It’s all downhill from Auxelles to Ronchamp, via Champagney, but it’s not that pleasant. The road is busy, and, being French, people drive too fast, even if they do give you room. You ride further through Ronchamp than you really want to (there are a couple of opportunities to turn right and head up into the hills, but I didn’t fancy those. The smaller roads tend to be too steep). The downside was that I stayed on a busy RN for longer, albeit one that was pointing downhill, all the way down the valley of the river Rahin. Finally, you turn right onto the Road to Mélisey.
I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I might be involved in serious climbing straight away. The route essentially takes you out of one valley (the Rahin) and into another (l’Ognon), which runs almost parallel. In between: hills. There was a bit of a climb straight away (I was pleased to be able to overtake an old lady on a town bike on the hill – “C’est dur!” she said. “Oui!” I said), but then it flattened out, and there was a very gentle ride all the way to Mélisey, which is the gateway village to the land of a thousand lakes (lande des milles étangs), which is a fisherperson’s paradise. A right turn out of Mélisey, and you’re on a proper road to Servance, which is where you will find another Ballon (which goes up to 1158 metres, or higher if you leave the road), so you don’t want to go there. Instead, you turn right and head for Fresse, which is up at a mere 480 metres.
I was pleased with myself when I reached a brow of a hill and the road sign into Fresse, thinking that I’d done it. I stopped and took a photo. But there was more climbing to come, all the way up to the turning for Belfahy at 611 metres. Belfahy itself is 250 metres or so further up, but at the turn, there’s a little parking spot and an information sign and a very welcome descent down into Plancher – the very same on used on the Tour de France in 2012 (stage 7).
That felt good, and it felt good to be blasting down the valley of the Rahin again, knowing I could stop at my brother-in-law’s house for a bit of free internet. And next door, my in-laws themselves, who gave me coffee and biscuits while I waited for my wife to come down for a visit and a pick-up.
Anyway: fantastic ride, breathtaking scenery, and nothing too taxing (as long as you avoid that final climb up to Auxelles). This is my new favourite route.