Col de le Chau is a bit of an odd one. It stands above Vassieux-en-Vercors, the long climb leading to it being clearly visible from Vassieux.
Firstly, although that visible bit of climb doesn’t look very high (the col is only about 300m above Vassieux), it seems to take quite a long time to get there. Turning left at the ‘Nécropole’ (a stark and moving reminder of the wartime slaughter at Vassieux), the climb is a simple there-and-back effort, with one hairpin, and I think that the straightness and slight extra steepness of the road in comparison with others make it that bit harder.
Secondly, once you get to the col, you might be surprised to find that you then carry on climbing: in fact you’ll carry on climbing another 100m to the ski station at Chaud Clapier. The reason for this is that Col de la Chau is another of those where you pass along the ridge between two valleys either side of the road (see Col de la Machine for another example).
If you approach from the west (from either Col de la Battaille or Lente) you’ll have a pleasant but unremarkable ascent to Chaud Clapier of about 300m before dropping down to Col de la Chau, and you’ll be forgiven for not stopping (or even noticing) the col.
However, once past the col, and the Mémorial de la Résistance, if it’s a clear day, there’s no way you’ll be able to resist stopping on the descent and taking a photo of the quite breathtaking view that opens up: for there you will see the whole of the majestic eastern ridge, from La Moucherotte in the north, to Le Grand Veymont in the south, and down below you the beautiful Vassieux plains, where such horrors happened just over seventy years ago.
Despite all my grand plans, this summer I seem to have filled my time rediscovering the pleasures of (mostly) already-ridden roads round here, and it brought it home to me how little walking I’ve done when one of my guests last week was describing paths I not yet been on despite having now spent seventeen weeks down here since summer 2012. Normally in the choice between two feet and two wheels, the wheels win.
So yesterday was a good day to take one day off pedalling, and discover a bit of the Vercors plateau on foot, with friends Clare and Alan. With food in rucksacks, and a fine day forecast, we drove up to the ski station at Col de Rousset, took the lazy way to the top using the ski lift, and walked a gentle loop round to the east to take in fine views of the Vercors eastern ridge, the Glandasse, and, of interest to cyclists, views south to Mont Ventoux (the weather station being clearly visible).
As well as the fine views (the highpoint of the walk being Belvédère at 1639m), there were a few pretty wild flowers, up to twenty griffon vultures gliding over our heads, and a sheepdog who joined us for our lunchtime stop. He seemed unconcerned by the vultures’ proximity to and interest in the sheep under his guard (the sheepdogs round here stay amongst the sheep and are supposed to look after them rather than round them up), and after realising that he wasn’t going to be given any of our food promptly lay down and went to sleep at our feet. So much for the severe warning signs telling us to stay away from these fearsome hounds.
If you try and find the Col de Noyer near Die it’ll take you a while, as it’s actually in the Devoluy area, which I’ve visited briefly before on the Menée & Grimone cols route. One of the attractions of that route is the view of the High Alps, so when new French cycling friend Jérôme offered to drive over to Clelles so that we could have a ride in some grown-up hills, the idea immediately appealed. Even more so given that the Col de Noyer was one of the ones mentioned by a Bike Radar forum member.
The route itself was a good 75-miler, heading towards Corps, and coming back through St Disdier. The col road kicks up sharply at the start off the N85 before lulling you into a false sense of security in some gentler slopes. But the 12km climb really gets going after Le Village, with some testing slopes. If you can take your mind off the pain, there are some stunning views over the broad valley below. (All but a couple of my photos were taken on the move, as I didn’t fancy stopping, so please do excuse any blurriness or not-quite-level-ness.)
After the pleasing short switchbacks near the top, you come to the col, replete with refreshment cabin, but more importantly, stunning views, especially of the completely different descent. If, like me, you like a short sharp climb followed by a long steady descent, this is the way to do it. The views soon open up to the skiing village of St-Etienne-en-Devoluy, where I suppose you might consider the climb to the col to start if coming from that side. But doing it the way we did, we still had a good descent of the gorge below St-Disdier to come.
All in all a truly spectacular col: the east side is by far the more challenging going either way, but both sides are really worth the effort.
This post is a mixture of three things, I guess: a thoroughly enjoyable 94-mile ride with Keith and Ant, a paean (go on, look it up in a dictionary) to the balcony road at Combe Laval and its builders, and another entry in the 1000m+ cols list.
The ride was essentially the reverse of one I did with George Humby back during my unforgettable first visit to the area in June 2012. On that occasion Vercors weather intervened leaving us cold and wet for a good part of the ride – this time the weather was considerably more clement. So, the route: out west to Mirabel et Blacons; up north over the Col de Bacchus and Leoncel followed by an equally long descent to St-Jean-en-Royans; then back up to Combe Laval, Col de la Machine and back home. The strong headwind up to Leoncel, the gravelly descent of the newly-patched road to St-Jean-en-Royans, and the 1200m post-lunch ascent combined to make it a fairly draining day, but very rewarding.
I wanted to do it that way round so that Keith and Ant would see the maddest end of the Combe Laval balcony road first – suffice to say that they were quite astonished at this amazing feat of late 19th-century road construction, which seems to hang halfway up the side of the cliff of one side of the equally amazing Combe itself. It really is one of the wonders of the world, to my mind – and it was wonderful to see it in good weather. I’ve no idea if its constriction was actually necessary (it can be bypassed the the Col de l’Echarisson), but I’m very glad they went to the trouble.
And finally, almost as an afterthought, the Col de la Machine (1015m). From the rider’s point of view this is really one of those cols-that-aren’t, as it’s one where the road crosses at right-angles to the direct line between two valleys, as in the Col de la Battaille (report to come another time). It’s also a one-ascent col as the other side carries on along the level to Lente. But as a one-way ascent (and descent, if you turn round and ride back down) it is a decent challenge, and Combe Laval makes it unique, of course.
The ascent, from St-Jean-en-Royans is pretty unremitting as soon as you leave the town, until the spot a couple of km from the Combe where the whole view opens up on your left. From there the road widens and becomes less steep, until suddenly the first bit of the balcony appears on your left. The balcony is flat for a while, then part-way along ramps up slightly as you approach the head of the Combe. The col sign is then just after the hotel. There is running water by the side of the road about two-thirds of the way up the hill on your right.
Anyway, it’s certainly a great ride from either side: the gradients are all moderate, and there are spectacular sights on both sides, including the famous Mont Aiguille (pronounced eh-gwee, roughly) on the north eastern side. There’s nothing at the top other than wonderful views and a longish tunnel (you’ll need lights), so if you’re looking for refreshments, there are cafés at Les Nonières and Chichillianne.
For this post I started at the south western side (as usual having started at 400m elevation at Die), and was accompanied by Keith, Ant, and new French cycling friend Jérôme, who met us at the col itself. The ascent from that side is long and mostly very gentle, and apart from a few hairpins, works its way round the contours of the valleys – there are a few places where you can glimpse back on the road you’ve been on, or forward to where you are going.
The descent to Chichillianne is quite twisty for some distance and needs caution at the top, straightening up as Mont Aiguille comes into view. At the time of writing the road surface for the top part is variable, but to your right there are a few glimpses of lush pastures of valleys below and craggy high Alps beyond. (Ascending from Chichillianne gets some of the steeper bits over with early, leaving a nice run-up to the col).
Two notes from today: firstly, as well as the variable road surface on the north-eastern side, there was extensive roadside logging – there were signs, and someone riding up shouted a helpful warning, but it reinforced the need to always think ahead about what might be around the next corner – small rockfalls leaving smaller or larger rocks on the road are common, for instance. Secondly, the Météo France forecast was pretty hopelessly wrong for the second half of the day (heavy rain replacing the forecast warm sunny intervals), so do go prepared, even in the height of summer, especially if you’re likely to be at high altitude or making long descents, both of which can be chilly affairs, especially if caught by the weather.
Photos below chart the ascent as far as the tunnel; for photos on the Chichillianne side, please see the post from the somewhat sunnier and warmer ride last August!
After three thoroughly enjoyable weeks here by myself, this week I have the pleasure of welcoming four friends to the area and the house for the first time: Exeter Wheelers Anthony (Ant) and Matt, Keith who (along with Ant) was one of the Paris-to-Rome riders last year, and Sue. Sue’s a long-time friend who jumped at the chance of coming down to be chef for four ravenous cyclists: she loves cooking, travelling, being with friends… and how could I refuse her offer, in these circumstances? They survived the long drive down from Devon on Sunday, so the plan for today was group food shop, followed by a walk and foodie things for Sue, and for the four riders…?
One of the pleasures of having visitors is trying to give them a good taste of the area generally, with its varied geography and roads, and satisfying rides to match or stretch abilities. I’ve got five possible rides in mind, and thanks to great weather at the moment, the first just had to be the ‘warm up’ of Col de Rousset and La-Chapelle-en-Vercors.
This was Matt’s first Alpine ascent, his previous climbing experience being mostly limited to the lumps and bumps of Devon – I think he’ll be the first to admit he didn’t quite get the pacing right today, but he’s already talking about going back up as soon as he can to have another go – that’s the way to learn.
Certainly, quite apart from fitness, it does take some experience to feel you’re able to pace longer climbs well (and it certainly helps when you know the particular hills). But my repeated observation is that you should ride these long climbs at your own pace, which should start reasonably comfortable – if that means watching riding partners forge ahead, let them. Sometimes doing that you will catch them up later in the climb, and if you don’t, they’ll happily wait for you at the top (if they are friends), and they’ll be pleased you’ve not used so much effort that you can’t enjoy the rest of the ride.
Having said that, I’m still not quite sure I’ve cracked the pacing on Col de Rousset – it’s not a hard climb in itself, but judging pacing over a variable 50 to 60-minute sustained climb I don’t find that easy.
And as for the descent… let’s just say that all three of my riding guests got a similar degree of delight from it as I do! And it reminds me how lucky I am to have this on my doorstep.
With only two summers’ experience of the area I can’t pretend to be an expert, but if annual weather averages are anything to go by, this August must be one of the more unusually changeable ones. Average maximums in August are normally in the low 30s, but I would guess it’ll be a few degrees below that this year (but still mostly very pleasant for someone from England!)
Until yesterday I hadn’t been up to the Vercors this August (not even a dash up the Col de Rousset), and with the Meteo France website forecasting full-on sun all yesterday, I set off for a col-bagging expedition to Col de la Bataille and Col de la Chau (to document both for this blog). This was the reverse of a ride I did last summer, and would be the first time I’d ridden the ascent from Mirabel et Blacons to Leoncel.
Well, to cut a long story short, I ascended the 1100m from Mirabel to Col de la Bataille in warm sunshine, albeit with a stiff headwind most of the way. On the very last part of the climb I was aware of some clouds lower down in the valley on my left, but nothing prepared me for the amazing sight at the top: arriving at the short (50m) tunnel in sunshine, I looked through the tunnel to see dark grey swirling cloud/fog at the far end. It was like some science-fiction portal to another dimension. Having been caught out by Vercors weather before, spending two rain-soaked and foggy hours between Col de Rousset and Col de la Bataille last August, I decided to beat a hasty retreat back down to Leoncel. Five minutes were spent in the cold and wet, but then a return to a dry and warm Leoncel, followed by a tailwind-driven descent back to Mirabel et Blacons. By the time I got home I’d done 95 miles, and was happy I’d made the right decision quickly.
In other news, my bottom bracket is now running beautifully again, though it took the excellent mechanic at Vélodrôme a little while to get all the adjustments spot on. From experience it seems that Cannondale’s BB30 ‘improvement’ gives bike mechanics a bit of a headache.
In due course I’ll add one or two photos from the aborted Vercors ride (including the spooky tunnel), but for now, here’s a nice homewards view (taken with the phone camera) from my slightly roundabout walk to pick up the repaired bike. It shows the lushness that this year’s weather has produced.