Day 2: Gorges, Balconies, Cols and Tunnels
Col de la Machine, Col de Carri, Tunnel des Grands Goulets
Steepish climb to start the day, including double arrows on the Michelin map. Mostly 7% and 8%.
About 9km of this brought us to the beginning of the Cirque de Combe Laval. This is a stunning gorge with the road high above it on a “shelf”, claimed (by the French) to be the finest balcony road in the world. Even allowing for Gallic pride and having toured lots of French gorges, we would agree to it being the finest in France. Lots of stops on the way to peer over the edge and have an attack of vertigo. In classic French style the wall to stop you plummeting to the bottom was not unnecessarily high. The balcony and its associated tunnels was engineered in 1893-96 to give access to the area for forestry.
Through the final tunnel and a short pull uphill brought us to the Col de la Machine at 1,011m. The col is so named because it was from here that timber used to be winched down to the floor of the gorge below for many centuries prior to the balcony being constructed. A welcome sight was the auberge at the col, where we were met by applause, and more importantly stopped for cold drinks and an early lunch sandwich.
Bit of a long plunge down was followed inevitably by another climb, although not quite so steep as our earlier one. This brought us to the Col de Carrie at 1,202m. The height is a bit of a swizz because we had crested the unmarked highest point some way back and had begun descending before reaching the Col sign. Our trike was admired by a passing Dutch holiday maker.
A delightfully rapid downhill run followed to take us into to La Chapelle en Vercors, where we stopped for coffee and crepes.
More fast descending led us to Les Barraques en Vercors to the start of a new Grands Goulets tunnel funded by EU cash to replace a defunct series of older tunnels. We sorted out the trike lights before setting off through the tunnel’s 1.7km. Being downhill we sped along and only encountered one car on the way.
Even more steep and twisting downhill including a few short tunnels above a gorge, before a final flatish 6km through St Eulalie en Royans and St Laurent brought us back to St Jean.
Max Speed: 56kph (too many hairpin bends to go faster)
Climbing speed up 8% hills: about 6kph
Cycling time: 4hr 12mins.
Cafe and sightseeing time: lots
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Day 3: Wild Flowers, Butterflies, Heatstroke and a Col Too Far - Col de Prélétang
Not a very early start and the morning sun was already feeling powerful.
But for a change it was an easier start today with a fairly flat and downhill run out of town to reach Pont en Royans, where we stopped to see the old houses perched on and in the cliff and hanging out over the river below. Lots of French cyclists out – and motorcyclists – because not only was it 'le weekend' it was also the French Pentecost bank holiday.
A short way from here we turned out of the valley and began stage one of the climb of the day. Unfortunately there was no shade anywhere as we climbed the cliff face hairpins at 8%, only managing 5 or 6kph in bottom gear. At one of increasingly frequent pauses we chatted to a passing French cycle tourist sporting the typical bar bag only luggage of such cyclists. The views back to the valley and cliffs were very scenic. At the roadside there was an absolute plethora of wild flowers including orchids, mountain asphodels and many more. Also dozens of butterflies on the wild thyme.
Eventually we reached the plateau top and stopped to eat our pain au raisins, then decided on a short detour to the village of Presles to replenish our empty bottles. When we arrived we stopped in a jazz bar there for cold drinks too and John had a nut tart.
Stage two of the climb was over a forested lump of hill rising from the plateau. Despite the trees, because of the overhead sun there was still no shade and the temperature was soaring. The small road had a rather rough surface and oscillated in gradient up to 10% rather than being evenly graded. We struggled to maintain 5kph and Sheila who was running on empty (1 pain au raisin not enough for a mountain day) bonked badly and decided to give up cycling as a pastime and sit on the roadside instead.
Sometime later we did actually reach the Col de Prélétang – nothing special and no view. It should have been downhill from here. Well it was but the road deteriorated into a broken surface with lots of gravel making braking and keeping the trike under control on the steep drop both difficult and slow. Eventually the road gave out altogether into a rough track only suitable for mountain bikes. We walked the trike steeply downhill for 2km until the road was just about rideable again.
Back on tarmac we swept down to Rencourel, where we stopped at a hotel for coffee. We spoke to the hotelier who explained that when our road was being resurfaced the local authority ran out of money so they just stopped part way. He was fairly caustic about ‘Wonderful French Administration’
A fast twisting descent followed taking us into the valley where we stopped for some chewies. Then it was downhill all the way along the Gorge de la Bourne. This spectacular gorge features in all Vercors tourist information photos. We sped along between the cliffs and in and out of a succession of short tunnels and snow and rockfall shelters.
Returning back through Pont en Royans once more we continued along the valley because Sheila had worked out that although a longer route home it would cut out a nasty climb. In fact due to some not understood arithmetic curiosity, this ‘longer’ route also turned out to be shorter.
We had a shower and collapsed.
Verdict on cycling in the Vercors: Stunning scenery, as good as any in France / choose cooler weather / nothing in Britain even vaguely to compare with the climbs.
No more cycling in the Vercors, the next day we were due to pack the car and head for the high Alps.
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