24th CROISIÈRE BLANCHE 2001

From the 'Spot the Dog' perspective

By Russ Brown - Photography by Colin Argent & Russ Brown

As published in the April 2001 edition of 'Land Rover Monthly' Magazine

I don't speak French and I'd never driven on the wrong side of the road - intentionally. So, when, Colin Argent, invited me to co-drive his Td5 90 on the 24th Croisière Blanche I thought, right up my street if he's that desperate I'm his man.

Colin's Defender was already pretty well expedition prepared, with CB a BRB bull-bar, steering protection, a Mile Marker hydraulic winch, sill bars by Roger's of Bedford, rear bumperettes by Cross-Axle, heated windscreen, Terratrip rally computer and a NATO hitch. He decided prior to the event that he would feel a lot more secure with a Safety Devices full external roll-cage so a few weekends before the event the Land Rover club social machine wheeled into action for a cage fitting party. Other improvements included a heavy-duty track rod, a snorkel and high level driving lights. Our tyre choice was the Michelin XZLs off my trialler, much to the disapproval of Hayley who wanted to go trialling the day we departed. Being radials they have good road manners and speed rating, but would still perform well off road when we didn't have the chains on. They also fitted Colin's snow chains.

The Croisiere Blanche is a non-competitive event open to any well equipped four wheel drive, quad or trail bike, it is spread over four days, the prologue, and the red, blue and black driving days, which you complete in a random order depending on your entry number. The venue is the area around the ski resort of Orcieres Merlette in the French Alps, a long drive from Bedfordshire, but a golden opportunity to enjoy the region. Colin is a keen skier, so having friends working in the resort of Courchevel about 100 miles north of the event we killed two birds with one stone and organised a couple of days R&R on the way down. Well not exactly R&R, Colin had an exhausting day skiing, while I set to sorting out some electrical problems to the add-ons of the Td5, sounds like a busman's holiday but it was great. We were at 1600 metres but it was warmer than my Garage had been the week before and the view was phenomenal.

This gave us a golden opportunity for a little pre-event cross-country driving for the final leg of our journey south. I had recently acquired a Garmin 12XL GPS and a laptop with some mapping software and was keen to have a play with it and prove my navigational prowess. I could blame the accuracy of the map, but to be honest it was more down to the fact that my concentration was impaired by a hangover after spending the previous night boogeying with two of Courchevel's nannys till about 3:00am. Yes there's no fool like an old fool. To cut a long story short we missed a turn on one of the mountain track hairpins zigged when we should have zagged and I got us temporarily lost. On the second trip past an abandoned bath tub Colin observed that if we passed it a third time I would be left in it, we did but fortunately I wasn't. I eventually got us back on track and we ascended higher into the mountains. Unfortunately poor French and lack of observation had caused us to miss several signs highlighting the fact that the road ahead was closed. At an altitude of 2000 metres the road ground to a halt, much to our disappointment. We had two options, a forty-mile detour that could well lead to a similar termination, or back track to main roads - we took the wimp option.

After about a four-hour drive we arrived at our destination the Hotel Relais. There were an assortment of vehicles already there, predominantly Jeeps, G-Wagons and of course Land Rovers. This revealed a great insight into the different approaches to customising a good 4x4 vehicle. The Land Rovers were all pretty standard apart from safety and expedition accessories, among the other vehicles was a wide range of high lift suspension mods, and huge tyres. Perhaps that says a lot about Land Rovers, they just do the job 'like it says on the tin'. We introduced ourselves to our fellow participants enjoyed a good meal and an informal briefing from David Davenport, the organiser of the UK contingent, giving us a feel for the spirit of the event, in simple terms, drive carefully, look out for each other and most of all have fun.

Prologue

The day begins with signing on and then the Stickage, placing all the relevant promoters' stickers on the right places on your vehicle. This is followed by a rudimentary scrutineering, as much to check you've got the stickers fitted correctly as to check the standard of your vehicle. You will notice from the pictures of our Td5 that we were carrying a few extra stickers as we are taking part in the Macmillan 4x4 charity rally in March so we took the opportunity to give our sponsors some value added exposure.

We were then issued with our road books for the day, these are a series of sketches of every junction on your route for the day, with trip distances in kilometres for those that had the added benefit of a trip counter. It was this aspect of the event that I dreaded the most, not having the greatest confidence in my navigational abilities. To add extra pressure we had teamed up with two other nineties driven by four members of neighbouring East Northants LROC, Steve Gowings, Phil Rootham, Paul Riches and Dick White, whose vehicles were not equipped with any extra trip equipment. As it turned out I took to it like a duck to water - the sketches are very logical and the trip distances extremely accurate (if you've calibrated your Terratrip correctly).

The idea of the prologue is to give the vehicles a good shake down and familiarise the drivers with the driving conditions. To this end we set off up into the hills in convoy, there was only one element missing - there was no snow.

Prologue 24th January 2001

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The day consisted of river crossings, ascents and descents and also an introduction to the camaraderie of the event. An example of this was after the first river crossing where we came across a group of vehicles. Investigation revealed a refreshment stop - not only was it free but the refreshment was Vin Chaud - hot mulled wine! I somehow cannot imagine this at the ARC Nationals! Despite the lack of snow it was also compulsory to fit the snow chains to prove our competency in doing so. I had been warned that this could be a tedious process so had prepared myself for lying under the Landy in snow, I hadn't been expecting to do it in mud. This first attempt took us about one hour, but we think we've developed a technique -hopefully we'll find out in the next few days. The addition of unnecessary chains did give phenomenal traction in the mud but after a few dozen vehicles had been through the hilly sections the course looked like it had been attacked by a JCB, which for experienced CCV triallers like Colin was brilliant. Unfortunately, a few of the more fragile vehicles didn't cope too well with the artificially severe terrain. On the steepest hill which climbed a gradient more like one of our trials sections but lasted about a kilometre, a couple of severely dead vehicles induced a traffic jam that lasted for the best part of two hours. This gave me my first true insight into the real nature of this event, those that were close enough to the problem areas pitched in and helped the best they could, those that weren't got to know each other a bit better. No one, with the possible exception of those that wouldn't be coming back the next day, were particularly put out.

Day 1 (circuit rouge)

We were booked for the earliest of the three starts for the day, 7:00am, after a navigationally challenged route to the start we set off at 7:45 as the sun came up. The first couple of hours were very much like the prologue, no snow and prematurely eroded ascents and descents. One descent nearly cost us a roll over as Colin proved that a Land Rover could drive with three wheels in the air at 45 plus degrees. Colin was unusually quiet but it did give us an opportunity to learn the French and German translations for a common expletive simultaneously as everyone around us was convinced it was going over. If he hadn't booted the loud pedal at just the right moment it would have been a gonner - top marks for instinctive panic. Not everyone escaped unscathed from this section as at lunch we came across a French Td5 looking very pigeon toed. In the spirit of the event our group took an extended break from the event to remove the offending track rod and restore it to roughly its original shape with the benefit of a NATO hitch and a sledge hammer!

Red Circuit 25th January 2001

Our good deed for the day!

Undeterred by our brush with catastrophe we soldiered on and were delighted as we ascended into the mountains to find real snow. We had only spent half an hour fitting the chains this time and it was finally justified. The view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking so we began our descent on a new high, only slightly marred as the TD5 slipped into a tree flexing the BRB bull-bar a good inch and a half putting a neat crease in the nearside wing, but preventing more severe damage. As we descended below the snow line the ground returned to its previous muddy state, but we still had one treat ahead, the river crossing that is always an element of the Croisiere was to be a true challenge this year. Due to the mild conditions the water level was twice the normal level, about two thirds of the way up the door, and running fast. Colin confidently pointed out the route from past experience as I headed into the flow, the TD5 performed faultlessly and despite a very buoyant rear end we pulled out the opposite bank effortlessly. A few more kilometres of trails and our day's challenge was complete. Our final satisfaction of the day came from the air. On our journey back to the hotel the snow began to fall, to the extent that as we drove up the mountain road to Orcieres we stopped to tow a large Mercedes van and trailer all the way to the top.

Day 2 (circuit noir)

After our lateness the previous day we ensured we were at the start and chained up with the rest of the group on time. We set off and within ten minutes were confronted with one of the most time consuming obstacles of the day, a two hundred foot long ascent. After a few attempts a G-Wagon having the benefit of diff locks all round made it to the top. From then on everyone had a go at the hill unassisted but few succeeded. You just got as far as you could and waited for someone at the top to drag you up, you then reciprocated for the vehicle following. The morning continued with a very scenic drive in the mountains with numerous delays and re-routing due to the ground conditions. One extended stop gave us an opportunity to make a field repair to a broken snow chain and get to know some of our fellow entrants a little better. We eventually moved off with a new member in our merry band, a severely customised Wrangler TJ driven by Steve Fagiolie, passengered by Adrian Ellis. We removed our chains, grouped up with the rest of the entrants and were led off the mountain in convoy to our lunch stop.

Black Circuit 26th January 2001

Arriving at lunch at the same time meant that we departed en mass and by chance we were in front leading about 20 other vehicles, putting the pressure on Colin's navigational skills. We ploughed on up into the mountains at a good pace. Covering forty or so miles a day there is not a lot of time for walking the ground ahead so, you find yourself driving terrain that wouldn't look out of place on a CCV trial reading the ground with your front wheels in, what is in essence, a standard vehicle. As the route had not been driven by anyone that day we were, quite literally, breaking the ice. Despite this we were confident that the ground ahead would be driveable since from past experience whenever there was the slightest hint of treacherous conditions we would be told to pull over and fit chains. However, our confidence was misplaced when we rounded a turn for a steep ascent covered in ice and a total absence of traction. The Td5 slid back down the hill like a toboggan and, with a steep drop to my left, I concentrated on steering into the ruts. The ABS finally brought us to a halt with the near side rear wheel sitting over the edge of a large drop. It is only at times like this you find out how good the people around you are and they were brilliant. Steve Gowing found a large log to chock the front wheels and stop me from falling off the edge. About a hundred feet of winch cable plus several extensions were laid out and a strop attached to a tree, to everyone's horror the TD5 began to slip over the edge. At this point Phil stood at the top of the hill with a tree strop in one hand and a winch cable in the other looking like a contender for the world's strongest man. Rapidly the two were connected and the winch cable wound in, to my relief I was secure. Eventually some marshals appeared with alternative ideas for speeding up my recovery, which at that point had taken about half an hour. They were robustly persuaded that we were quite happy with our own solution and that we were not prepared to compromise safety in favour of speed, they didn't seem overly enamoured with this philosophy but eventually came around to our way of thinking! Half an hour is a long time in a situation like that, but it did give me time to resolve an escape plan if something had broken - steer straight down the hill and imbed the back of the Td5 into Steve's Jeep; working on the theory that it or the three Land Rovers behind it would eventually absorb the impact. Steve was surprisingly understanding when I told him my plan.

Meanwhile the vehicles behind us refitted chains to their rear wheels and as I cleared the hill each in turn made the ascent with ease, their chains breaking up the ice to the point that the hill became quite driveable.

We reconvened at the summit and I thanked everyone for their support in what had genuinely been one of the most frightening experiences of my life, it was only at this point that I discovered just how high the drop would have been, about two hundred feet. As we relived the recovery it was evident that a bond had developed within our little band that I believe will last a long while.

Day 3 (circuit bleu)

Our last day and it looked like it was going to be a cracker. We knew that the blue circuit was the snowiest of the three so when we emerged from our hotel at 5:30am and there was snow on the ground it was a fair bet that we would be able to keep our chains on all day. In fact we actually fitted them at the hotel before heading up the mountain to the days start, we had now got chain fitting down to five minutes a corner and were pretty pleased with ourselves.

This day's driver briefing was quite daunting, about 20% of the road book had been amended for reasons unknown. We had to alter our own copy as verbally instructed by the Clerk of the Course, in French - those that have got some French translate for the rest of us as best they can, but it means you get a second or third hand interpretation of the route.

We set off just before dawn for an excellent day's white-laning, the blue circuit is not one you would choose to do on your first day. You drive down from the start on public roads, turn off down a lane between two houses that are so close that the fat footed Jeeps were leaving black marks on both walls at once. You then emerge on the side of a mountain looking down about two thousand feet into the valley below. The day continued with similarly intimidating tracks, which are actually safer than they look as you simply follow the tracks of previous vehicles. The views were awesome so we made the most of this - our last day - and took advantage of every photo opportunity. That's one of the nice things about this event, people will stop, open a bottle of wine, take a picture, have a chat, then carry on.

I had become quite proud of my new-found navigational skills, but I was about to let myself down. Due to all the changes in the road book, which we had actually followed quite well, we found ourselves looking for a right turn that we didn't have an accurate distance for. We had actually already missed the turn in a misty section when we came to a track that looked a likely candidate. Not being totally convinced, Colin and I headed down on our own. Very soon it became clear that this was a one-way-street and the only way was down. We descended for what seemed like miles then discovered we were out of CB range and potentially in a bit of a pickle. We soldiered on bouncing from hairpin to hairpin and finally came out on a forest track some considerable distance below. So, we were out of CB range with no direct route up. I took a bit of a wander but soon realised that the track would go on for miles, my one confidence boost was that the track had clearly been heavily driven. I wandered back to Colin just as a marshal emerged from the forest who assured us that we were on the right track. Then miraculously the CB started working again, so the rest of the motley crew could follow our roller-coaster ride to the bottom, emerging with big grins. It appeared that the correct track actually merged with ours higher up. So, we had a great ride and the Marshals think we can navigate (I won't tell if you don't).

Blue Circuit 27th January 2001

A late lunch with the crew from Top Gear then off up into the hills again for my first opportunity to drive with snow chains. My afternoon stints had been pretty much snow free to date, so I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity and was amazed how much traction and control they give. I also got the opportunity to drive the famous Pont-Peyron rope bridge, it looks very impressive in a 'Wages of Fear' sort of fashion but is actually less demanding than driving into my garage.

So, our Croisiere Blanche was complete and it was brilliant, but it did end on a bit of a sad note. We had been regularly bumping into a rather top heavy looking yellow Toyota driven by two French lads who didn't appear to be overly experienced. We had been rather concerned all week that they might suffer some sort of mishap. So, we were very pleased to see them in front of us as we emerged from the last of the off-road sections. After removing our chains we headed up the road and could not believe our eyes. After surviving four days of what regular participants had claimed was the toughest Croisiere Blanche ever, the Yellow Toyota was wedged up against a lamppost with a bus imbedded in its side - the lads were shaken but fortunately not hurt.

We later found that the Toyota wasn't the only victim of the day. A Fiat Panda 4x4 had gone head over heels on a drop then slid down a hill on its roof, and an X-Reg Jeep loaned to a British journalist had managed a double roll without him in it.

By now you are probably asking what the 'Spot the dog' perspective is. Well, Spot the Dog became our anthem for the event. For reasons best known to himself Dick White carries a tape of the children's book 'Spot the Dog' in his Land Rover. His theory is that at the slightest hint of a problem play the tape over the CB and it chills everyone out - it really works! Sadly Dick was a little preoccupied when I was being winched up that hill - I could have done with that security blanket.


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