Our exclusive reportage from the new route alongside the Lac du Chambon examines the chance of it opening for the coming ski season and who will be able to use it
When the road first closed back in mid April of this year due to the Tunnel du Chambon collapsing, people never questioned that it would not be open in time for the 20th stage of the Tour de France going over the Galibier, down through La Grave and then the legendray finish of Alpe D'Huez. Throughout the summer it became slowly apparent that the tunnel would never reopen due to the instability of the mountain that it was built through!
The RD-1091 is the main road that is used by people travelling to the Hautes Alpes. It is a crucial road linking the large French connurbations of Lyon and Grenoble to the winter and summer playgrounds of La Grave and Serre Chevalier.
However, it is not just for those who come to play. It's a live artery for those living in the communes of La Grave and Villar-d'Arêne whose life is dependent on being able to commute to work and school further down the valley in Bourg Oisans and Grenoble.
Currently (as at 11th October) there is a boat shuttle service running on the lake for inhabitants and the occassional cycling tourist, but as winter approaches will it be able to run, not least because the approach ramp at the La Grave end of the lake is very steep but because the lake will freeze over!
Ever since it became apparent that the tunnel would not reopen, French bureaucracy has been at its farcical best with politicians attempting to gain favour with promises but actually being unable to deliver anything substantial.
However, the above is really not too surprising given the complexities of the project, not least that one department does not really see the benefit (Isere - the tunnel is right at the end of their legislative area), while the lack of finance at a National level means that there is no hard cash on the table to even develop a potential route / solution even if there was a plan in place, though there is now a projected new route for the tunnel. that might see some light by 2017.
The media has run a series of articles (click here for just one example of ongoing features) and that is naturally where most gain their information from. However, it has been a very fuzzy and ever changing picture and there still is no definitive answer, it seems, for the 'long term'.
Even people one would think should be in the 'know' seem to be equally confused with what is happening.
However, and I've been allowed by the Editor to use this phase only once, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
Soon after the tunnel closure there was talk of how a new route might be possible where there existed an old trail through the forest. But could it ever be a viable proposition?
Fast forward to middle of October and work has been going at a rapid pace throughout the latter part of the summer in the forest on the 'other side'.
The work has been financed by the Isere Authority and they are optimistic as to when it will open and, indeed, who will be able to use it.
I've read and heard so much about the various options and being on the ground as it were these past two weeks hearing different opinions, I decided to go and see for myself!
Choosing a Sunday when, hopefully, they would not be working on the route and I would be able to gain access, I cycled from here in Serre Chevalier over the Lautaret on my Cross Dresser bike which is half road bike, half MTB as I knew I'd be doing some off road riding from where the new road starts!
My first observation was the narrrow bridge which has aleady taken the weight of the heavy machinery.
Once riding along the trail I was amazed at how wide it was in places. There are a few inclines that are no more than 5%.
A great deal of work has been done on stabilizing the rock faces with metal netting and, where the trail narrows, work is ongoing to build supports into the rock from underneath, in effect, to create a suspended platform for the route.
The main issue in creating this road was to take the existing trail and then blast a new route (rather than follow the very steep old path) along the last kilometre or so creating a balcony road; one that is cut into the cliff, has a sheer drop and is very narrow. Not the sort of road that you'd expect to be built in these health and safety conscious days!
There's more on balcony roads at www.dangerousroads.org I have cycled a fair few of them, but these, on the whole, are not used by many cars and on other old military roads traffic is prohibited due to the perceived danger of the road and the condition.
I only went as far as the headland you can see in the above photo as there were still major works going on.
Traffic lights are to be positioned to control vehicles on this narrow strip alternating the flow on a one way basis.
However it would seem that this last kilometre could well be the achilles heel of the project, as it could determine who will be able to finally use the road, especially when you speak to locals.
A great deal of the road will be in the shade for 90% of the day in the cold winter months, so ice will be a major issue; all it will take will be one serious accident for strict regulations to be put in place.
And, unlike the scenic balcony roads which are often deserted, this new road is 'replacing' in the short term a road that was a busy RN road.
The good news for the communes of La Grave and Villar-d'Arêne is that they will have a route that, at least, (hopefully) they can use,and maybe those visiting / staying in La Grave, etc.
My own observations from cycling along the five or so kms is that there is still a lot of heavy structural engineering work to be carried out as well as one would hope, safety barriers to be put in!
Yes, a new route has been cut out of the forest and rock and, yes, be it by 4x4 or cycle it will be possible to use the route; but for it to take even limited traffic then, and I'm no road engineer, but I would surmise there now needs to be laid a few hundred thousand tons of aggregate to stabilise a base for a road that I presume will be surfaced with tarmac.
That seems to be quite a logistical task to achieve not least by the end of October as media reports will have you believe but even in time to secure the road for the coming ski season, so it will be interesting to see what is achieved by December and chapeau to them if they do it!
So far I'm impressed with the work done so quickly.
It's not till the snow falls and we're really in the depths of winter will it be known as to how viable this route is and who can use it.
I'm still confused when I read in Social Media about the Ship Wrecked People of Chambon castigating various powers that be such as the President of Isere, Jean-Pierre Barbier for failing to do nothing when, as I have seen for myself, there is the very real prospect of a route to rescue the ship wrecked communities.
Should the road not open in time, then, if flying, Turin is the best option and can be far quicker than the likes of Geneva and Lyon.
If driving to Serre Chevalier and over the Lautaret to La Grave then the Frejus tunnel is still probably the most realistic option, and, hopefully, the reduced tolls will still be in place. If staying in a hotel be sure to ask about these reduced tickets and they should be able to send them to you.
We will be talking to the tourist office for the latest update on the reduced tickets, though the main issue is that you have to purchase them from the tourist office and most travelling to here will be unaware of that. Hopefully there will be some form of online system put in place.
The good news after all this in a few years time, is that there is going to be a really good cycling route so no more taking your life in your hands cycling through the Chambon tunnel, though that still leaves the Tunnel des Ardoisières!