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.