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An Amateur Cyclist on the Combe Laval, Vercors



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That's the first corner, looking backwards. That’s the first corner, looking backwards.

The Combe Laval (described here) is one of France’s incredible balcony roads, routes which it must have taken some serious bravado and one too many ales down le pub to even conceive of back in the 19th century. This particular example’s located on the western edge of the Vercors Massif, just to the south-west of Grenoble in south-east France (a map might have been better at this point…). Being down here in our 3.5 tonne, 3m high, 2.2, wide motorhome, I’d already discounted the idea of driving across the Combe Laval as, although we’re within the limits set for the road, I’d rather cling onto whatever sanity I have for just a wee while longer. It’s a bit tight up there!

The Combe Laval Balcony Road, Vercors, FranceThe Combe Laval Balcony Road, Vercors, France

The road hugs the heights of a cliff face alongside the top of a monumental gorge, the mouth of which gapes open above St-Jean-en-Royans, where we happily parked up for the night. While there, Ju nipped into tourist info, and came back laden with cycling routes. Route No 28 – Les Grands Cols de Vercours – included the Combe Laval, but was 62km long, estimated at 4 hours, and with 1571m of climbing (a bit less than a vertical mile…).

Route #28. I took the highlighted shortcut.Route #28. I took the highlighted shortcut.

The leaflet stated it was intended for a cyclotouriste habitué, which I am not, having used our £45 second-hand mountain bike all of twice. Fortunately Ju passed my ineptitude on to the tourist info lady, and she marked out a much shorted circular route of maybe 22 miles.

I ask you, do I look like a 'cyclotouriste habitué'? No, no I do not!I ask you, do I look like a ‘cyclotouriste habitué’? No, no I do not!

This morning I set off, loaded down with a few litres of water, map, tools, phone, figs to scoff and a long-sleeved top, in case it got chilly (it’s June, it did get a bit chilly on the way down, but not enough to bother with it). The Combe Laval, for me and for most folks I guess, is about the spectacular section right at the gorge mouth, the highest, stupidest, tunneliest, most death-defying bit. If you only want to see that bit, you’ve got about a 6 mile climb, which took me about 70 minutes (not much faster than running it?).

Coming from St-Jean-en-Royans, this is the first view of the cliff road you get. Jaw-dropping stuff.Coming from St-Jean-en-Royans, this is the first view of the cliff road you get. Jaw-dropping stuff.

I say ‘about’ as I completely forgot to look at my watch when the road finally emerged from the trees and the first tunnel framed the open sky off to my left. Jeeze. How, how, how, even with a skinful of beer and several blood-firing face-slaps, did anyone think they could build a road HERE? They did though, some intrepid, dauntless folks thought it up and people tougher than I can even imagine hacked it from the cliff face.

Just around the corner are the height and weight limits. There should be a small sign to say Just around the corner are the height and weight limits. There should be a small sign to say “sigh, look, if you’re anywhere near these limits, best write an impromptu will before continuing”…

During the night before I’d woken and imagined going off the cliff face, forced over the low wall by leaning back too far for a stupid selfie-shot, or being rammed into the abyss by an enraged white van man. I’ve not much fear of heights (unless it’s Ju near the edge…), but once up there I have to say I was careful! There was very little traffic to worry about, and plenty of space to lean the bike against the cliff and gawp around the 500m-or-so section of really intense road. Having ridden/walked up and back I got the nerve up to ride along and shoot a video, which I’ll upload here when we get some WiFi.

From here the road carried on upwards, through more small tunnels before popping out at an eaterie at the Col de la Machine. There’s a good viewpoint here looking out over the forest and cliffs in the gorge, a sticker-splatted sign for the gorge, and weirdly an old ‘many thefts here, don’t leave anything in your car’ sign, right in the middle of nowhere. After a few figs I plodded off up the road, wondering why it was still going upwards from the other side of a ‘col’, which is usually the highest point on a mountain pass.

Looking back from Col de la MachineLooking back from Col de la Machine

From here the road heads through Alpine forests and farmlands towards the village of Lente. At one point, a small monument stood out above the grass in a field, announcing the killing of resistance fighters in 1944. Just before D-Day, an uprising took place in the Vercors, with encouragement from London. Russian and Ukrainian volunteers in the German army were quickly shipped in to quell it, and the resistance fighters crushed. The monument listed a number of names, and at the bottom: ‘two unknown’, poor bloody fellas.

After Lente the road climbed up to my shortcut turnoff towards Bouvante le Bas. In all about 10 miles of climbing, which to some of the 0% body fat fellas cycling these parts will obviously be nothing, but for me it was enough. The ride back home from that point was almost entirely downhill, grabbing at the brakes, 30mph-for-free stuff, and I loved it!

I was out for maybe 3 hours in the end, including breaks, so the 4hrs for the full loop would more likely have been 6 to 8 for me. That’s the last of the balcony roads for now, having run the Gorges du Nan a few days ago. We drove the Petits Goulets this afternoon, which ends in a large, modern tunnel now that the Grands Goulets is closed. If they ever re-open the Grands Goulets, I think I’d love to see that section too, as it looks pretty amazing, but for now the fences are pretty clear: off limits!

Cheers, Jay

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Col de L’Iseran to Tignes to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, Crossing Savoie



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Zagan the motorhome’s found himself in thicker air than he’s been in for a while. We’re down at 900m above sea level at Camping Huttopia in Bourg-Saint-Maurice (N45.62250, E6.78313). It’s an ACSI site, so not expensive out of season, at €17 a night including electricity (our Remoska oven is on spud-baking duty as I type), swish hot showers (which will be in for lengthy use this afternoon), a laundry room (thank the gods, our washing pile has enveloped our drinks stash, and is threatening to bust the cupboard door) and (I’m told), a heated pool! We’ve not paid for an overnight stay for nigh-on a month, and may well be here a wee while using all that saved wonga…

Camping Huttopia in Bourg-Saint-MauriceCamping Huttopia in Bourg-Saint-Maurice

Right, what’s been happening? For this next part, I need a map, and here is such a thing, courtesy of Michelin:

If you squint at it enough, or just take my word for it, Bonneval-sur-Arc is to the right hand side, on the yellow road which then runs north to Val d’Isère, via some bendy bits, which in real life’s the rock-and-snow Col de L’Iseran. To the bottom-right is the Col du Mont Cenis, after a twisting section of red road, which leads over to Italy (you can see the border to the right). The point of all this is this: if the Col de L’Iseran’s shut, which it was when we arrived, then you can’t carry on north from Bonneval – it’s the end of the Earth – as we and numerous other motorhomes and campervans found out. In this circumstance, you have these options:

  • Option One: Wait for the col to open. This is what Cathy and Steve were doing for a few days, fellow Brits and Hymer drivers, who immediately set about feeding and watering us when we met them at Bonneval, and even dog-sitting Charlie so we could go out for a walk on my birthday, top people. They’re a fascinating couple of people who’ve lived (and continue to live) extra-ordinary lifestyles. Just one example: for a few years they managed to mix up work on offshore oil rigs in the North Sea with travelling in their motorhome. They’d spend three weeks touring, park the van at an airport, fly to the UK to work solidly for two weeks on a rig, then back out to the van. Incredible eh?
  • Option Two: Drive off in a huff. We witnessed one or two folks arrive at the red Fermé sign at the col, enter the adjacent tourist information office and emerge perplexed, before burning off south again. The problem with this option is: it’s a bleddy long way round if you want to go to Val d’Isère, at least 3 hours on the motorway at top speed, more like a full day of driving A roads for us.
  • Option Three: Go to Italy. This was our plan.
  • Option Four: Ignore the Fermé sign and plough on. Fortunate favours the brave and all that. This seemed to work for a few folks. Others got stuck up there when the avalanche which again ‘delayed’ us cut them off, requiring rescue. We’re too British (and not in enough of a hurry) to try Option Four.

So, the col was closed due to an avalanche, and we’d decided to stay at Bonneval for my birthday and then drive to Italy. In the spirit of being an old man (who was also somewhat knackered after running up to the col the day before), I went for a short amble up the valley to celebrate. Rock and roll! I was in bed for 9:30pm too… Anyway, just a 40 min walk up alongside the small but raging Arc river lies the hamlet of L’Écot. Now this HAS to be the end of the Earth! While it was all blue skies and green grass on a mid-June morning, this place will be neck-deep in snow and ice all winter, and anyone living in these all-stone houses at that point has my everlasting respect. I’ve a suspicion no-one is mad enough these days, but I have been wrong before.

The hamlet of L'ÉcotThe hamlet of L’Écot

That evening word came through, spreading across the 15-or-so waiting motorhomes: the col will open tomorrow, at 8am! The authorities had cleared enough of the fallen snow and rock to allow us to pass, and deemed the remaining snow walls stable enough to not fall on passing campervanners. Cracking! The following morning, saying bye to Cathy and Steve who planned to free camp on the top of the col, we ventured uphill.

My nerves are starting to settle down with these mountain roads now, but they’re not completely horizontal, and I was leant into the windscreen, mentally urging there to be no coaches coming the other way as we ascended.

This was the avalanche which had closed the Col de L'IseranThis was the site of the avalanche which had closed the Col de L’Iseran

The road was blissfully quiet it turned out, mostly motorbikes who we could easily pass, and we even managed to stop on the road and grab a few photos of the more impressive snow walls towards the top of the col.

Hats off to the locals for clearing the thing: there was an info board down in the town showing how violently snow-bound it gets at times.Hats off to the locals for clearing the thing: there was an info board down in the town showing how violently snow-bound it gets at times. Snow on the Col de L'Iseran in JuneSnow on the Col de L’Iseran in June

Up at the col there’s plenty of parking on one side, a short drive up a hill. We didn’t know that though, so wedged ourselves in among the gathering horde of bikers on the other side, causing a few nervous glances when we reversed out later on, threatening a domino-effect smashing of gleaming machines, and a subsequent lynching.

Topping out on the Col de L'iseranTopping out on the Col de L’iseran

Opting not to stay high (there were a few spots up there you could probably overnight), we engine-braked Zagan off the other side, which had no snow, but rather impressive vertical views down on Val d’Isère:

Val d'Isère - no drone required to get this shotVal d’Isère – no drone required to get this shot!

Finally down in the valley, a small prayer went up for the van’s brakes continuing to function, and we sniffed out the campsite on the edge of town. Ju went to investigate and found not much more than a field: no washing facilities, no shade etc, so we turning back to park4night and it’s candid reviews of parking places. The end result: the motorhome aire in Val d’Isère is expensive and rubbish, go to the one in Tignes down the road instead, which we did, weirdly by driving over a huge dam:

The dam road to TignesThe dam road to Tignes A waterfall beside the dam at TignesA waterfall beside the dam at Tignes

Pulling into where the aire was supposed to be in Tignes, we were a bit perplexed. Yes, there were a couple of motorhomes and even a caravan, but zero signs saying motorhomes could stay, and for a good while we couldn’t find the service point, finally discovering it in among some stored materials waiting to be re-deployed come winter, including a massive air bag in a container for practising ski jumping. After servicing Zagan, getting a comedy soaking from the fire-hose water pressure into the bargain, we found a quiet spot and parked up (N45.45723, E6.89692), expecting the local police to collect €7 from that evening, which they never did.

Summer motorhome parking in TignesSummer motorhome parking in Tignes

And from this point it went a bit wrong. As the day progressed poor old Charlie’s breathing became a tad ragged, which isn’t all that unusual with his heart condition, but it was preventing him from sleeping, which is unusual. This got worse into the evening, leading to a broken night’s kip, a lot of fretting, fear and tears all round. We **think** that our attempts to keep him cool by staying high have unwittingly caused him a problem by giving him air which is too thin. We were over 2000m up, so this morning we did the obvious thing and found somewhere much lower to head for: here. The campsite’s at about 900m, and having been here for a few hours he already seems more comfortable and is snoring outside as I type. We’ll get him into the local vets while we’re here to see if they can do any more for him, but we’re not holding out much hope having been through all the available options in the past. We’ll see.

Right. The spuds are ready. Time to go eat. And shower. And hopefully catch some of the England game.

Cheers folks, Jay

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Running High, Up the Col de I’Iseran, French Alps



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Topping out on the Col de I'Iseran Topping out on the Col de I’Iseran

The Col de I’Iseran is the highest paved mountain pass in the Alps, topping out at 2,764 metres (9,068 ft). It runs close to the Italian border, connecting Val-d’Isère in the north to Bonneval-sur-Arc in the south. Yesterday, as my last running act of foolery before turning 46 today, I had a run (slow jog) up it, from where we’re parked in Bonneval.

I won’t lie to you, despite the stunning scenery it was a bit of a pig, very hard to keep going up the 8 miles from here to the top, and I was one happy idiot when I finally saw the famous col sign at the top! After I’d got up to it, placed my hand on it, shed a wee tear of relief (it really was hard to keep going!) I called Ju to let her I know I wasn’t dead. A nice local French cyclist, who looked about 70 and was riding an electric bike with no battery attached, took this picture for me:

Topping out on the Col de I'IseranTopping out on the Col de I’Iseran

Like the Col du Galibier, I did a bit of research before legging it off up there, discovering that:

  • The col was closed due to the massive volume of snow last winter, which still wasn’t cleared. We knew this from a lady in Tourist Information, but it was expected to open at any time, so I decided to ignore this fact – something I was lucky to get away with it turns out.
  • The route up from here’s steeper and longer than Galibier. According to WikiPedia: “The final 13.4 km (8.3 mi) starts at Bonneval-sur-Arc and rises 977 m (3,205 ft) at an average gradient of 7.3%, with several sections in excess of 10%”. Galibier was closer to a steady 6% in comparison, and was about 3 miles shorter, and about 125m lower in altitude at the top. Gulp.

So it was by no means certain I’d be able to get up there, and I went with a ‘I’ll just see how high I can get’ approach. I stocked up on water, figs and some warmer clothes and jogged off out of the village, past the ‘col closed to all traffic, cyclists and pedestrians’ signs and off towards the first hairpin 2km away. Although the road’s closed to traffic at the moment, it’s a decent width with a white line, so should be OK to run up while it’s open if you keep your wits about you. Same goes all the way to the top, although there is a short tunnel and a few narrower cliff-face sections, so high-vis stuff would make sense just in case.

Looking down on Bonneval-sur-Arc at the start of the runLooking down on Bonneval-sur-Arc at the start of the run – you can just make out where we’re parked – to the left of the village

While edging my way up the road, a few motorbikes came past me, making me wonder if they knew something I didn’t. Maybe the road was open after all? I carried plodding on and they didn’t re-appear, although after about 4 miles the road was blocked with a fence and more ‘don’t come past this point, you fools’ signs, so I guessed they’d moved the fence. I thought about turning around for about 2 seconds before just going around the fence and carrying on running.

A few steep sections were starting to appear now, each a few hundred meters long, and breathing was getting a little difficult on them, shallow and fast. More motorbikes came past and I jogged past a worker cleaning the road, who I expected to tell me to turn around but he just ignored me, so onwards I went. The views were still stupendous, but to be honest the effort to keep going meant they were a little lost on me, as I wrestled with the usual self-suggestions that I aught to give up.

More snow started to appear as I got closer of the top, a metre or two high at the side of the road. In one section I jogged past a series of workers peering up at a very high bank of snow and ice, pointing at sections of it and making brief remarks with each other. They’d blocked the road with a truck, and again I expected to be ushered off back from whence I came, but they just glanced at me and went back to the wall of ice. I edged past the truck, a bit surprised to see a motorhome parked up on the other side, clearly unable to descend the pass any further.

From here I was close enough to the top to know I wasn’t going back unless something forced me to. Further up a small avalanche was being cleared by a massive JCB with all-wheel-chains. A few cars and cyclists were waiting either side of the JCB as it shoved the snow and rock off the road. I stopped for a minute until we could get through, then jogged on past and up to the top, now quite cool compared to the heat of the valley. Breathing became just that little bit harder as the miles went by, but I figured cyclists are going over this col all the time in summer, so it can’t be that extreme as long as you’re fit enough. It turned out to be OK, and I finally rounded a hairpin to see the col sign, with a handful of folks milling around the closed restaurant at the top.

The wonderful view from the colThe wonderful view from the col

Once I’d got the obligatory photos, I turned round and jogged back down, careful not to go too fast as my right knee’s been a tad dodgy since Galibier. The run back down was easy compared with the run up, and I enjoyed the views all the more. At one point a Polish van came past me, I have no idea how they got past the workmen, and I watched him move the fence below me to complete the pass. Back home, the 16.6 mile run took me 3 hours and 13 minutes and, according to my watch, burned off 2114 calories, making room for a couple of beers and a biscuit. So, that was it. One of the hardest and most rewarding training runs I’ve ever done, phew!

Later that afternoon we learned there’s been a decent-sized avalanche up on the pass, closing it again for several days. A photo of it showed huge blocks of icy snow and rock right across the road, and the report spoke of 3 vehicles which had ‘recklessly’ passed the barriers and become stuck up there. Yes, I did feel guilty and more than a tad relieved that I’d gotten through both unscathed and without causing bother to the locals. Better to not be like me, and wait for the pass to be officially open before attempting it…

I’m starting to ease off my training now, having done four hilly half marathon runs in 8 days. Zermatt (which will be harder than any run I’ve done in the past 20 years) is just over two weeks away. Bring it on! The sponsorship money for the British Lung Foundation and messages of support all help shove me up these mountains, and mean an awful lot to me. If you’d like to read about what this is all about, or contribute (any amount counts), you can click here or on the screenshot below.

Cheers, Jay

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The Col du Galibier to the end of the road; Bonneval-Sur-Arc



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Zagan the motorhome had an epic driving day yesterday. He’s now having a well deserved, yet enforced, rest for a couple of days at a free parking place in the ski resort of Bonneval-Sur-Arc (N45.37522, E7.05939). The reason his rest is enforced? We’ve reached the end of the road – the Col de l’Iseran, which is the only road out of here without back-tracking, is still closed following a winter of heavy snow. It’s Mid-Summers day today, but they are hoping it will open in the next day or so (update: it was clear, but a small avalanche has again closed it for several days).

Motorhome parking Bonneval-Sur-Arc

I don’t think Jay slept well on Tuesday night. He was up much earlier than usual and I could tell his nerves were a bit jangled. ‘We can go now if you want? The road will be quieter,’ and then it was a frenzy of activity as we geared up Zagan for the off in super quick time. We were on the road before 9am, which is very usual for us, but this wasn’t just any road – it was the Col du Galibier.

Driving up the Col du Galibier

Jay had run up it a couple of days before, so he knew what was coming, and I don’t think that helped. Normally when we approach a mountain pass we don’t have a clue what it will be like. By the time we have gone over it, we’re still blissfully unaware of a lot of what we’ve passed as we’re too occupied with checking hairpins and tight bends are clear, and taking in the views. Having run up to the col, Jay was all too aware of little landslides here and there, edge bits of road crumbling away, a total lack of crash barriers and some narrow sections. So as you might guess he was pleased with my suggestion to go before breakfast as we’d be less likely to meet a coach on a barrier-less bend and go crashing off the edge to our doom.

Driving up the Col du GalibierSpot the road!

Driving up the Col du Galibier

Driving up the Looking out over the road up to the Col du GalibierSo proud of Jay’s driving skills, but even more so today!

It took around 15 minutes of steady climbing to reach the traffic light controlled tunnel that goes until the very top part, but why take the time to drive all the way up here if you aren’t going to the top to see the view? So we crawled up the much steeper and much narrower final section and pulled into the small parking area at the top giggling like school girls at the views below and giving huge respect to the folks cycling up here.

Col du GalibierAt the tippy top! View from the Col du GalibierView back down the road we drove up – you can just see the motorhome parking area we stayed at too View from the Col du GalibierFor once I have the right T-shirt on At the Col du GalibierZagan at the top

I make no apologies for the number of photos, it was amazing. And of course we took a video, so I’ll post it here once we have some WiFi.

Looking out over the road up to the Col du GalibierJay looking out over the road to come

We could breath a bit easier on the road back down, still no barriers, but less chance of crashy death. Now we could take in the views, which were amazing but not as good as those from the other side (in my humble opinion). We marvelled at all the other folks making their over by various means, but the majority of the traffic was bicycles, closely followed by motorbikes, then motorhomes.

We’re glad we set off early to avoid being a rolling roadblock

Col du Telegraph

Having made journey up to Col du Lautaret a few days ago, we had forgotten just how high up we were. The drive back down the other side seemed to take ages, an endless twisting strip of tarmac cutting its way through some beautiful scenery. We stopped for breakfast at Valloire, before pushing on, down into the valley. We were relieved to reach the free public loo with a drinking water tap and drain in a layby just outside St Martin d’Arc as it enabled us to empty the loo (the reason we had to leave our lovely wild camping place) and top up with a little bit of water.

The road now became very straight and quite boring as we wound along a valley, jostling for position with a river, train line and motorway all using the same valley. After a brief delay behind a chap laying cones, we arrived at a supermarket and I nipped out to restock our empty fridge.

With an empty loo and full fridge we now turned to our next priority, Charlie. We’ve started to give him his additional pain killers that were prescribed by his vet back home, but we only have a small supply. We headed to a large pharmacy (yes, you buy dog medicine from a normal pharmacy here) and they could get what we needed in, and make the capsules to the size he needs but it would take two or three days. As the pharmacy was in a bit of an uninspiring place, we made a decision to head for a motorhome parking that our friends Joanne and Craig from had used, there we could stay while the local pharmacy made up the prescription.

Over another Col and some more twisting roads and we arrived in Bessans (N45.33165, E7.01563). After a spot of lunch we walked the couple of kilometres back to the town but couldn’t find the pharmacy anywhere. We asked at the Tourist Office and it appears that we found the only town in France that doesn’t have a pharmacy.

Motorhome parking at BessansMotorhome parking about 2km from Bessans

While at the Tourist Office I spotted a leaflet for a bike race we had seen signposted all along our route today. The Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc runs right past where we were parked and ends in the next town up the valley. So we decamped and drove a further 5km to Bonneval-Sur-Arc (another town with no pharmacy!) so we could take in the action.

Pretty houses in Bonneval - Sur - ArcBonneval – Sur – Arc

It’s now 2.30pm as I write this. Jay is just back from running up the Col de l’Iseran and reports that bikes are making it over and it should be open either later today or tomorrow morning. Once we get over the other side, we’ll find a pharmacy and get Charlie’s drugs for him – we still have a few days of supply left (update: with the avalanche we’ll be hunting for an Italian pharmacy instead).

The bike race is due here at 4pm down in the old town – we’re parked in the ski resort area about 800m away. That means that the caravan of tat, sorry the important sponsors’ merchandise, will be here in the next half an hour or so. I’d better head over there and see what delights are being thrown out.

It’s now 6.40pm and I’ve had a fun afternoon waiting for the bike race, followed by ten minutes of watching it. I learned from watching the Tour de France last year to get into a space away from the crowds to make the most of the caravan. It worked and I managed to score one of everything that was being thrown out. It’s Jay’s birthday tomorrow and I have bagged it all up without looking to see what is in there, so we both get a surprise – before half of it goes into the recycling bin… Most of the people cheering in the riders were from the caravan and support cars, so I managed to get a spot right next to the press to snap the winner as he crossed the line.

Big cheers for Frenchman Maxime Bouet who won the stage for team Fortuneo – Samsic

After a few more riders had come in, it’s a mountainous stage so no big pelaton, I was free to wander around mingling with the riders who had finished, their support crew and the many, many bikers needed for a race. I am now primed and ready to face the Tour de France in a month or so.

If you are going to have a bike race, you need lots and lots of the motorised kind too

Ju x

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