Spoiling Tactics

Originally Published: August 2005 Words: Alan Kidd Pictures: Alan Kidd

The Triangle Vert is always one of France’s most popular randonnees with British competitors. And this year’s set a record in having more British than French participants – even if a little local difficulty resulted in them having to drive up a series of spoil heaps in between the usual green lanes. 

Us Brits may be nation full of seafaring adventurers, but when it comes to going abroad we’ve got a habit of sticking to what we know. That’s why you get families going back to the same villa on the Algarve year after year, and groups of lads on the costas eschewing the chance to sample some paella and crowding into sweaty chip shops while steaming on a dozen pints of lukewarm lager.

It’s the same with off-roading – once you know of a good event overseas, it’s the one you keep going back to. You probably even fuel up at the same service station on the way, stay in the same hotel, wear the same clothes…

This is why I found myself sitting in the same Tesco car park on the outskirts of Folkestone at the same time every year, the day before this year’s Triangle Vert.

It’s not the toughest of randonnees, but it’s fun, it’s sociable and it’s just across the Channel, so there’s no end of Brits who keep going back. I think I’ve been on eight of the last nine. And this year, the contingent who travelled from Blighty to rumble around the Pas de Calais actually outnumbered the locals – the first time that’s ever happened.

Regular readers might recall that the team including the man from TOR normally features two or three vehicles. This time out, however, there were no fewer than five machines on parade, including three 90s, a 110 and our ever-rattier Cherokee. So we more than did our bit for the Brit effort. Not bad going, especially when you consider that even though we’ve been meeting at the same Folkestone Tesco since the days when it was all still John Major’s fault, not Tony Blair’s, I was only there because I’d seen the word ‘Tesco’ on the directions sent by fellow Triangle Vert stalwart Kit Kaberry and stopped concentrating by the time my eyes got to the bit that said ‘Ashford.’

Things were to get even more confusing. Normally, the event starts near Wisques, where we stay the night before at a charming little place call Le Sapiniere and get completely trolleyed. This time, though, the start was further south, so we stayed in a different hotel whose name I can’t remember, and got completely trolleyed.

So anyway, the event. Why the unusual starting place? Because the combined efforts of several dozen antis had been brought to bear, leaving the organising Hors Macadam Club at the mercy of the sort of gittish stunt you somehow don’t expect to see outside of Britain.

Apparently, as part of the process by which you get permission for stuff like this in France, your route has to be submitted to some paper-pusher in the provincial capital. This year, said paper-pusher sent it to every local mayor through whose manor the event wanted to run. I’ve no idea if this is different to normal, but anyway, said mayors started kicking up a fuss.

In France, mayors are seriously powerful people. You may have heard in the news about one guy in the south who has been leading what amount to terror attacks on shops daring to sell foreign produce, with apparent impunity. Anyway, huge amounts of the proposed route were denied to the HMC, for no better reason than the mayors felt like it. One even imposed his own version of a TRO on dozens of rights of way in his fiefdom, for one day only. And you can guess which day that was.

Thus deprived of enough tracks to put together a long enough route, the club hit on a plan. And what a plan it turned out to be. Our base was in an old coal-mining area, whose landscape is littered with spoil heaps – so the organisers got permission to run the route through the grounds of an old colliery, where millions of tons of dumped shale provided the perfect playground for fifty-plus action-hungry off-roaders.

The result was that this was the most technical Triangle Vert ever. Most have involved a certain amount of rut-bashing and the occasional axle-deep mud-run, but rarely has it been necessary to engage low box and start thinking about things like choosing a line. Here, however, there were serious climbs, drops and axle twisters – definitely RTV territory, and enough to cause serious problems for some of the guys in the Land Rovers, which were shod with road-going tyres.

Actually, they did damn well to cope the way they did – knowing how much hard work it was in my Cherokee, with big Mud-Terrains, a three-inch lift and front and rear ARBs, I’ve got to hand it to the Defenders and their drivers for very nearly making it as far as me in standard trim. Ironic, then, that it was Kit Kaberry’s modded 90 which was on the back of my tow rope when I tried to yank him up a short, sharp hill and slewed sideways into a tree, making a very loud bang and leaving a superbly symmetrical ding in the Cherokee’s rear side panel.

Not to worry, that was just a war wound… And the Jeep then got its chance to do some proper showing off, courtesy of a long, really steep hill that was smoothly surfaced apart from a little step in the middle that was just enough to tease the traction out from each axle. Having watched the manual 90 ahead of me attack it with loads of power and struggle dramatically to the top, I popped the Cherokee into drive, locked the diffs and of course it walked to the top without missing a beat. On the way back down, I even stopped and, just to prove the point to my passengers (Vaughn Dennis and Tim Smee, who had decided not to risk this one with Vaughn’s bright new TD5 90), reversed back up by a couple of car lengths before gliding back down to the bottom.

If only this had anything at all to do with driver ability, rather than just being a bit of terrain suited perfectly to a particular vehicle, how proud I’d have been. Still, my feelings would have given way to relief quickly enough, courtesy of a driver shortly after me who somehow managed to end up sideways-on to the hill after booting it a little too much and slithering sideways to a perched-on-the-verge-of-disaster stop. After a multi-vehicle recovery, the organisers decided that it might be better to knock this one on the head.

Further on, a track through some trees at the side of a hill turned a little rutty and threatened once again to sort the prepped vehicles from those in road trim. Even on standard tyres, however, it takes a lot to top a Land Rover in these sort of conditions, and every single one of our convoy sailed through – with the exception of Yours Truly.

Admittedly, I was doing it at crawling pace, just to test whether the Cherokee would make it without any significant applications of the loud pedal. So I knew I was approaching each bump, hole and step in the ruts with far less momentum than I should. Even so, having watched each of the Defenders rollicking through the Big One, I eased it in and… bonk. We’ve stopped moving. Okay, back diff-lock. We’ve not started moving again. Front diff-lock. We’ve still not started moving again. Size twelves all over the throttle. We’re still not moving, though now a lot of mud is. Back up (thank God, it’ll move in that direction). Same again with momentum… and over she goes, easy as that. Lesson learned (I’m not ashamed to admit that there’s still loads I don’t know about using my ARBs).

Anyway, that’s two and a half grand’s worth of mods on my Cherokee, and now it’s just about good enough not to be totally outclassed by a standard Land Rover in ruts. Can we go back to that big hill, I was king of that? (See what I did there?)

People always tend to make a blanket assumption that the catering on French events is unfailingly five-star, and more often than not they’re right. The Triangle Vert has its ups and downs (the evening meal after the 2003 event went down in history as possibly the most inedible ever served up to a human being, and breakfast the following year would have been better but for being served next door to the rankest toilets in the western world), but this year was spot-on, with a filling a la sandwich lunch that got the job done without forcing us to wait ages in a queue.

Actually, forming an orderly queue is something the French are not known for being able to do without turning themselves into a rioting mob instead. To be fair, the assembled 4x4 crews and moto riders waiting to sign on for the Triangle Vert and events like it are always very patient (even in years when they’re not predominantly British), but following lunch we got a classic example of the country’s other great national sport. You’d think that with it being in essence a green lane run, the concept of doing it in line would be a fairly elementary one to grasp. Not for the imbecilic individual driving the Land Cruiser that fetched up behind us, it wasn’t. You get used to being tailgated on the autoroute, but on green lanes? Every time there was a hold-up ahead, he’d be on the horn, shouting, jumping out and running up to the head of the queue to get stroppy with whoever’s ‘fault’ it was. At one point he even started horning us when we pulled up at a checkpoint. And we definitely weren’t wasting time in getting from A to B.

Finally, matey’s patience snaps and he starts charging the vehicles in front of him, roaring up to within inches of their back bumpers until they pull off the track and let him past. And then off he goes, hammering it at comp safari speeds across the delicate tracks which the Hors Macadam Club worked so hard to secure the use of.

At the next checkpoint, I explained in my shamefully poor French what I had seen, and the marshal promised to hunt the guy down. I hope he managed, too, because I want to go back next year and enjoy the Triangle Vert again – and it won’t take much of that kind of stuff before every mayor around is lashing out with TROs to keep 4x4s off his or her patch.

Sadly, we didn’t end up back at base to point the villain out to the organisers (and we would have, right to his face if that’s what it took), courtesy of an early appointment with Le Shuttle which forced us to cut and run. No-one really wanted to, though – because for those of us who’ve done the Triangle Vert before, this was possibly the best yet, and for others to whom it was a first-time experience, there couldn’t have been a better introduction to the joys of French off-roading.

By one of those coincidences I’ve come to expect, after crossing back to Kent I was heading straight to the Gatwick Hilton for a stopover prior to flying to Tuscany on a business trip. As I reached the head of the queue at reception, what should happen? A dapper little French chap pushed right past all of us and, ignoring everyone’s excuse-me’s with a well-practised insouciance, latched on to a receptionist just as she was looking up to ask who was next. A stroke of genius, and no mistake.

Still, it doesn’t do to bear grudges, and shortly afterwards I was back in France, as you may have read last month, for the Trophee Cevenol… where we were horned and shouted at while airing our tyres down prior to a dodgy bit where someone later rolled. That was by a bunch of Belgians, though, which just goes to show that you can’t go making assumptions.

Actually, there is one assumption you can make, which is that the Triangle Vert will always be a brilliant event. That’s why more Brits than ever are heading across the Channel to avail themselves of something the French do so very, very well. The Hors Macadam Club pulled out a plum with this year’s event, and it did so in the face of the greatest adversity. So who knows… maybe if wrist-boy in the Land Cruiser has earned them a few more enemies, it’ll end up being even better next year.

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