The goal was the Canyon des Écouges, but checking the map I saw my route passed over a 1000m+ col, so killing two birds with one stone… (or perhaps “shooting two birds with one camera”… vultures and buzzards were snapped en route).
The col first. If you’ve started from Pont-en-Royans, you’ll have climbed about 450m to La-Balme-en-Rencurel before turning left up the D35 to Rencurel and the col. I’d done the hard work earlier, with the Col de Rousset and the climb back up to St Julien, before dropping back down to La Balme.
The climb itself from there is a delightful little meander up to the col, with one or two straight steeper sections, but nothing overly demanding. At the top there are a few ski-type places, but not much going on in August. The bit of the descent I did, to the canyon, was quiet and straight.
The only thing that hints at what’s to come at the canyon is the sign at the start of the D35 saying that lights are obligatory for cyclists and walkers “at 12km” (4km after the col). The French have a somewhat less obvious health-and-safety mindset in general: for instance, the roadside barriers are generally only put on the most dangerous corners; otherwise they give people the responsibility to take care of themselves. So when something’s obligatory, take note.
The canyon starts impressively enough as it enters a high-sided section, then very soon you see what it’s all about: a dead end ahead, with a tiny, unlit, 500m rabbit-hole of a tunnel to the left. Thanks to a rear light that had decided to cast off its innards near Col de Rousset (ah, that’s what the noise was), I’d called in at one of the places at the Col de Romeyère, who extremely kindly had lent me a small head torch, but when I peered into the unending darkness of a tiny unlit tunnel, I decided that discretion would prevail this time, and that I’d return sometime with lights of a few thousand lumens power.
So, to that dead end: it led to the now-closed-to-traffic old balcony road. That road shows several things, not least how rock-strewn roads become once they cease to get cleared of debris, and how completely and utterly mad the 19th century French balcony road builders were. You’ll see in one photo the sheer drop to the road below: I was on all fours well back from the low wall. To think that cars and deliveries used to use this route is almost beyond belief. It certainly makes the tunnel look the sane option; it almost even makes Les Grands Goulets look conservative.
Do go to see all of it, for it is quite unforgettable and astonishing: but do take some good lights for the tunnel.
The route from Die: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/9666140