The Blue Train Challenge 2017

18  -  22 September,  2017

DAY FOUR - SEPTEMBER 21, 2017  -  L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

La France Profond

We're well past the point of no return now and the Rally can smell the finish line now but today, the longest of the Blue Train Challenge was always going to need an early start. 

So it was then that the 7.15am reveille came as a shock to some but at least the journey out of town was going to be an easy one. The first 25 km was to run smoothly down the A7 Autoroute past the refineries and associated industry strung along the mighty Rhone which have made Lyon the city that it is.

That was the plan; in the event though, a local accident and the ensuing heavy traffic delayed some of the crews as they left the MTC. Extra time was allowed for the rally to regroup at the Time Control in the cafe on the bright and chilly Croix du Collet. No-one was complaining though as the staff served up litres of fresh coffee and piles of flaky croissants to the crews.

Unfortunately, Andrew and Anne Boland have had to retire their Talbot this morning even before the day got started. After yesterdays heroics, it was discovered that they’d blown a head gasket so that just leaves Max and Andrea Sowerby to fly the flag for this illustrious old marque. So, no pressure there then.

Elisabeth Hirs however is feeling the pressure of sitting in third place but she admits to enjoying the challenge of map reading which is a definite advantage in this sort of event but by the days end, she and Beat have slipped to fourth.

The first regularity, the Mont Pilat took the Rally over the Col de Œillon at an altitude of 1233m with the dark smudge of the Rhone Alps on our left and a crystal clear blue sky above us. After he challenges of yesterday, this first section was a simple one and did much to reinstill any confidence which may have been lost in the hills of Beaujolais.

From Mont Pilat there was a fast run through Annonay to a Time Control in Satillieu and then over the Col du Marchand a 911m road named after Robert Marchand, the oldest competitive cyclist in the world and at 105 he makes some of our rally cars look young.

We were now heading to the second regularity over the Col de la Justice via the spectacular Corniche road to Lamastre and on the way we spotted Andrew and Anne Boland riding in the rear of the Bentley of  Michael Cotter and Andrew O'Donohoe. Obviously, as well as a few tools and spare parts, nothing beats having an extra rally crew on the back seat.

Another fantastic lunch was enjoyed at the Domaine de Turzon in St-George-les-Bains and as there were still some stragglers from the traffic jam this morning it was devised that extra time be allowed here so that they could catch up. Those lucky enough to have escaped the Lyon bouchon got extra time to chill out, fix and fettle.

After lunch we raced along and across the Rhone, its canal and the Drome. The parched and rocky landscape interrupted by aromatic fields of basil, lavender and onions. As we climbed into the hills Alpine meadows gave way to rocky gorges which alternately rose and fell over dry creeks and deep ravines. These roads were drivers roads for sure but the navigator needed to be alert at all times as the junctions and changes of direction came thick and fast on such a cross country itinerary.

Sadly, the Rhubarb and Custard Buick Special Convertible of Neil Lawson-May and Paul Rivlin suffered steering issues and has sadly withdrawn but the crew will be with us in Cannes.

The headline act of the day, the legendary Giant of Provence also known as Mont Ventoux (1,912 m) soon loomed large in our windscreens. This bald lump of rock is both a theatre of dreams and a vision of hell for motorists and racing cyclists alike. We tackled the climb from Malaucene which, on such a clear day as this gave the best possible views of the Alps on the way up and the rest of Provence on the way down.

There was a Time Control at the top with just enough built in to the schedule to allow a quick coffee, a pastry and a snapshot for the album. The descent via the well surfaced and expertly cambered Bedoin road was a thrilling one which took in the iconic lunar landscape, the woodland below Chalet Reynard and then the lavender, olive groves and vineyards towards the town itself.

The feeling that we were home and dry by this time was pretty widespread but at the foot of the mountain we found Kate and Sophie Wickham struggling with another fuel float issue in their MG as the sun began to dip below the horizon and the last of the summers cicadas chirruped.

This has been another epic day and there’s been another shake up, in the Vintageant category, the Cadillac of James Gately and Tony Brooks is still at the top and is still being chased by Richard and Tom Jeffcoate in their Riley. Nigel Dowding and Mary Antcliff however have moved to third place in their Aston Martin.

The Classics category has also been rearranged. Xavier and Lucas De Sarrau’s Porsche is still leading with Simon Brien and David Gomes’ Jaguar C-Type now in second. Jack Baldwin and John Hoskins are sitting in third in the big 1957 - Chevrolet Bel Air.

Tomorrow sees the finale of the Blue Train Challenge and doubtless there'll be a strained nerve or two among the crews as they retire to bed this evening although the local Cotes du Ventoux seems to have settled some of them quite nicely.

Syd Stelvio



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