Waking up felt like my head had barely touched the pillow the night prior. Despite the aches and pains developed from three days of banging through the French mountains, when my brain caught up with my eyes and I realized again where I was in the world, I found no difficulty in hoisting myself out of bed.
As I joined the crews at their less humble abode (no expenses spared looking after the drivers and navs on this tour, and neither should there be!), the bright clear winter weather presented more wind and fewer degrees on the thermometer than the previous days, and it only grew colder and windier as we climbed up from the valley floor and up to the playground of mountain roads for the day’s stages.
It would seem one would tire of the Alps after three days spent driving through them, but I took advantage of my time here and also every opportunity to drive the press wagon—pretending instead that I was in a Fulvia or a 911—and as the landscape poured out in front of me I drank it in with the thirst of a man marooned in the desert, not tiring of the scenery at all after all this time in it. Each view is novel, and around every outcropping of rock there was something new. The only real constant associated with this was the quality of it all—the route put together by HERO was outstanding. This is no Sunday bumble through the woods nearby. This is planned out to the hilt, a thorough piece of motorsport holding true the traditions of the first endurance road races.
The third day of the rally would not push as high as we’d been previously, but we were far from sea level, and at times, everyone else but our troupe of cars. We did drop down to the valley floor of the Rhone for a time too, and a special regularity stage had been arranged on private land through the sprawling vineyards of the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Whilst the altitude had dropped, the wind had reached new heights, with a freezing and relentless gale howling across the rust-colored earth down there. It may not have been a mountain, but the undulations of their roads were still present here, and the surface was mostly loose gravel and rocks. As the cars traversed through the renowned winery, wakes of dust and rocks spat from the ground as their tires foraged for traction. The workers in the fields looked on, amused, as the stage was completed here. The reward for the crews was lunch in the cellars of the aforementioned winemakers, a wonderful spread of charcuterie and cheeses. Distinguished eating for the drivers of distinguished automobiles you could say.
The heights beckoned again though, and the departure was set for a stage that would take in roads that descended through canyons, cutting through the ancient rock in curves and ribbons of narrow tarmac—if only there had been safe places to stop and observe! Where we could park and photograph we were treated to the late afternoon sun beating down on the machines as they pirouetted through the mountains in a delightful display of motorized ballet.
No snow surprised the teams during the day, but the traditional navigational techniques were still the cause of a few mistakes and lost time for even the more experienced crews. Talking to the contestants during the breaks, the familiar theme was that of navigational errors, and indeed even with the benefit of Sat-Nav in the press wagon, we were often caught out whilst tailing the competitor cars the wrong way!
The final coffee stop of the day took in a wonderful little town perched on a rocky outcrop high above the valley. The citadel kept watch over the valley, and the tourists, there to enjoy the views and the history, were treated to the sight of a well curated collection of classic cars complementing the surroundings. As the flotilla of 911s, BMWs, Triumphs, and Datsuns made their way to the overnight stop, thoughts could now turn to the final day ahead, the ascent of the famous Col de Turini, and the run on the ultimate prize: Monte-Carlo or bust.
For me and the now somewhat more fatigued group of explorers I had spent the past week with, the promise of our journey’s end in in Monte-Carlo was both exciting and a bit melancholic; the funny thing about the terminus of trips like this is that you spend your entire time accelerating towards them, yet when they loom large upon the horizon, you will do almost anything to slow down or rewind. We weren’t done yet though.
The morning had not begun well for me or the trapped nerve in my neck, and the excruciating pain left me wanting to remain horizontal as I struggled to put socks onto my exhausted feet. I was ready to give up the ghost: no Monte-Carlo, just bust. My thoughts turned to all I had seen over the past few days on the road though, the determination of the crews, the endless work to keep the temperamental machines moving mile after relentless mile, and especially the efforts of the team in the little blue Triumph TR4, the members of which traveled all the way to Germany and back for spare parts just to make the finish. Up and at ‘em Broadhead, and quit your whining!
As the cars left for the final day’s drive, they took to the road with renewed vigor. Perhaps it was just that I needed that inspiration myself, but it just seemed like more. Dust was sprayed liberally, and roundabouts were attacked at full lean as the convoy charged on. Our first notable location of the morning was against the stunning blue waters of Lac d’Esparron and the impressive Gréoux dam. It loomed large in the diffuse light of the morning as the cars made their way around the swirling roads of its perimeter. The noise of the group reverberated around the walls of the Verdon Gorge, their approach breaking through the silence of the morning. The 1969 Lancia Fulvia crewed by Aiden Mawhinney and Rory Gallagher was in particularly fine voice, and its advance and exit could be tracked easily as the bark of its exhaust cut above all of the other cars.
Of course, as nice as the roads and landscape of the Cote D’Azure were, I’m sure the crews—like me—were guilty of tunnel vision on this last day of proceedings. Who could blame them, the draw of the Col de Turini was a strong one. We all have roads on our bucket list: the Grossglockner, the Nordschleife, Route 66, whatever your preference. All are infamous, all have their individual draws, and the Col de Turini ranks up there with the best of them. Significant for its function in the Rallye Monte-Carlo, it’s also just a plain fabulous piece of asphalt. The Night of the Long Knives (the fun one), the infamous night stage held through the hairpins during the Rallye may not have been being reenacted by our group crossing under the sunshine, but the road was still magnificent and imposing all the same. Some would argue that the descent into Sospel on the reverse of the ‘Turini is the real driver’s road, but as we climbed up from La Bollène-Vésubie, I was too in awe of the switchbacks and hairpins and their history to believe that.
Just as they had all throughout the trip, the valley walls began to give away the approach of the cars before they caught up with our press wagon. Small hints of angry engines at first, before the ancient rocks rang out with the noise. Then the first car appears, Paul Merryweather and Tony Jolly’s Ford Consul Capri. The red flash of the 1964 machine broke through the canyon, cascading along the route. This was not dancing, but a display of aggressive driving that set the pattern for all of the other machines. What started with a steady drip of automobiles soon became a steady flow of them as the rest of the cars entered the Col, each seemingly attacking harder than the one ahead of it. The whole thing was wonderfully exciting as they sped past inches from my vantage points, usually as I was perched on the walls that lined the valley sides of the roads, adjacent to the sheer drops.
Soon though it was all over, the 911 of Paul Bloxidge and Ian Canavan signaling the end of the snake. As closing scenes go, it was a pretty spectacular one, and I took a brief moment in the now silent valley to reflect again on all of the marvelous things I had seen and experienced over the past week. It had been a riot from start to finish, a test of endurance and stamina and most importantly it had been an adventure in the truest sense; full of exploration and a curiosity that cuts through any weariness.
The winners sprayed champagne at the top of the Col (Daniel Gresley and Elise White in another gorgeous white 911), they had taken on the Alps in classic cars and won, the mountains had been tamed. Sure, they weren’t the first to do it, nor the fastest, and they won’t be the last either, but they had escaped from the security of the sanitized world and done something outside of their comfort zone.
I must finish this coverage of the Winter Challenge by saying a huge thank you to Patrick, Kev, and the entire team at HERO for inviting me along for a taste of what they’re all about. I can’t wait to join more events like this one in the future, and if you’re a classic owner with a want for adventure, I can’t recommend joining this group of enthusiasts highly enough.