Distance: 1.4 miles. Elevation: 740 ft.
I had a bit of spare time before I left for the UK, so I decided to drive to the scary tunnel that I had failed to get to before – le Tunnel des Ecouges. Coming along the stretch of road after Chorance I could tell, driving the van, how steep the road is, so I’m not surprised at how slow I had found cycling it before. Then once past the Col de Romeyere, the road goes downhill quite steeply, and that would have been a challenge climbing back up it on the bike, had I made it that far before. I arrived at the ‘Espace naturel les Ecouges’ at about 6 o’clock.
Fifteen minutes later I was on my bike, complete with front and back lights. I first crossed la Drevenne via the Pont Chabert
… and headed down the gorge
Already the river was dropping away below me to my right
After just a few hundred yards I spotted where the tunnel entrance was
It didn’t look very inviting!
Unlike the ancient alternative…
The old road, to the right of the tunnel, was fenced off. This balcony road, finished in 1883, was closed, like the Grands Goulets, in 2008 due to the risk of rock fall.
Unlike the fence across the entrance to the Grands Goulets, this barrier was more of a token gesture and didn’t seem to be serious about keeping me out. In fact there are not even any signs to that effect. If the far right section of barrier had been fixed to the fence, I may have had second thoughts. But it was easy to move out of the way and edge my way round the end of the fence, remembering to not look at the 700 ft drop behind me!
Then over the pile of hardcore and onto the old road surface
… some of it covered with rocks and dead trees – I assume that the trees have also fallen from further up.
A particularly bad rockfall was up to the level of the small guard wall.
A notice on the wall remembers the heroic actions of the French Resistance at this location.
It seems a bit sad that the placard is on a section of road which is no longer open to the public.
I turned round at this point and went back to my bike which I’d left outside the fence.
As I approached I saw a car had stopped outside the gate. I cracked a joke to the driver about hobbling around in my ridiculous cleated cycling shoes. If I’d thought of it beforehand I could have packed some normal trainers in a backpack to make exploring easier. I got back on my bike and descended into the tunnel.
It was only wide enough for one-way traffic – there are two wider passing places inside. Even with my front light switched on I could see nothing – until I realised I still had my shades on! It wasn’t much better without them. This tunnel is certainly the eeriest I’ve been in. Even the sounds of vehicles entering from the other end sounded like an ominous growl – maybe because they were going relatively slowly compared to other tunnels. I stopped inside to get a photo.
It was very cold inside. And no light whatsoever reached from either entrance. I was relieved when I eventually did see the light at the other end.
It was easier to get past the fence this time, with no sheer drop to worry about, so I took my bike in and leaned it against the rock wall.
It’s not obvious from the photos but the road is very steep. In fact there is a difference of 100m altitude between each end of the tunnel.
At one point a grate loosely covers a hole in the road through which you can see the trees and shrubs below, further down the rock face!
I think maybe if I hadn’t had my cycling shoes on I would have gone further (in fact I now regret not doing so) but it was so clumsy hobbling around in them that I turned back before reaching what I think was a sort of ‘corner’ in the road.
Standing there I found it difficult to imagine that once it had been used for 2-way traffic! It must have been hair-raising!
As far as I can tell, the tunnel was added sometime in the 60’s and was used for the ‘up’ traffic, while the balcony road was still used for the downward traffic flow – a mini one-way system. I guess this explains why the tunnel is so narrow. In April 2008, because of incessant falls of stones on the historic road, very exposed in places, it was closed to traffic, and the tunnel became the only route to go, whether climbing or descending.
When I got back to the fence I decided to ride down the hill a bit and then back up again through the tunnel.
That’s when I discovered that the cleat on my left shoe wouldn’t click-in. All that walking around on rocks and stones hadn’t been good for my shoes. I rode back up the steepish hill to the tunnel and had one last (failed) attempt at getting my cleat to engage. Travelling through the tunnel in this direction the road is very steep. Calculations put it at 20%. ie the tunnel rises 100m vertically and is 500m long = 20%. Whether it is actually this steep I don’t know, but it’s certainly in the high teens, and I could feel my legs burning more than on any hill this holiday. Eventually I saw the light of the exit and rode straight back to my van. A ride of less than two miles but packed with excitement!
I relaxed in my van for a couple of hours before setting off. The sat-nav wanted to take me through that tunnel – but the van was too high (luckily!) I started her up and began my homeward journey to blighty.
A couple of final shots as I said farewell to the Vercors once again. I know I’ll be back one day.
See Canyon des Ecouges for more about this tunnel and the old road.
STOP PRESS: I’ve just (Mar 2022) seen that they are installing lights in the tunnel. The work is due to be completed in 2022. See here for details. Nooooo! That will ruin all the spookiness. Though I guess some folks will be happier. I imagine that the work will also involve blocking off access to the old road, as happened at Les Grands Goulets. If that’s the case then I’m glad I saw the spooky tunnel and the old road in all their glory. However, having said that, the description of the work states (via Google Translate):
“After several ad hoc emergency interventions, since 2016, the Department has undertaken a major multi-year campaign to secure the Ecouges canyon, on the RD 35, between Rencurel and Saint Gervais, exposed to natural risks. Over nearly 500 meters in length, a tunnel dug in the rock doubles the corbelled section closed since a landslide in 2008. During the work carried out in the autumn of 2021, this road was able to be cleaned, which will allow the Department to launch studies to study the conditions of its reopening. The objective is to define the future program of works to be carried out, which can however only intervene once the securing of the cliff has been completed.”
That section in bold reads as if they are considering re-opening the old balcony road! I can’t quite believe that would happen but maybe, this being France, it could!
Also, I’ve just discovered that the Tour de France 1954 edition came up the climb from Saint Gervais!
Looks like they classified the climb as a Cat 2. They would have used the balcony road (the tunnel wasn’t built then) to reach the Col de Romeyere. I’d love to see that!