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Syd Stelvio, London to Lisbon Day 9 – Serra da Estrela to Alcobaca – 289km

Syd Stelvio, London to Lisbon Day 9 – Serra da Estrela to Alcobaca – 289km

Inside number 9 on London to Lisbon, one day left to go. The distances are getting smaller now, as we get closer to the finish. Less miles to claw back valuable seconds? Definitely. Less miles to make a mistake? Perhaps not, in fact, as the end gets closer the kilometres seem to get longer, and the opportunities to lose time increase exponentially; this is the paradox of rallying.

Of course, it’s all in your head, but is it though? Stupid head, stupid thoughts of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Dreaming about being late to timing points, wrong turns and missed controls. Tied up in a mess of tulips, clocks, and timecards, and this is supposed to be fun! Dammit, if I wanted to see Tulips why didn’t I just go for a lovely relaxing break to Holland, windmills and Gouda and Dutch beer, why this? Anything but this!

Everyone is at different points as we enter the final acts of this adventure, some are hunting and some are the hunted, which would you choose? It isn’t just those at the sharp end that are feeling it either, there are class wins to decide as well, the sorting out of who is the best in similar cars, badges of honour, amongst thieves. I daresay there are a few that aren’t feeling too worried about any of it, Richard and James Bowser for example, who have laughed and joked their way through the entire competition, in it for the adventure and the camaraderie, but still performing well in seventh place overall.

For some, looking after friends is more important than all of it, and today we said goodbye to Peter and Louise Morton, who have headed to Lisbon alongside John and Nicole Whitelock. The Whitelocks are deciding not to risk their Heath Robinson clutch cable, and their friends have gone with them, to make sure they get to Lisbon in one piece, and so say all of us… Car 14 is headed to Lisbon as well, the Mustang of Rob Collinge and Ian Milne that has survived up until this point sans alternator, but now, for them, getting to Lisbon is the most important course.

For everyone else there was rallying to be done, and after yesterday I’m certain everyone was hoping for a bit of a change of pace. We were heading down today, and west towards the flat lands by the coast. The competition began in earnest though, just a few kilometres from the MTC and under threatening skies. It took the form of a steep descent, with a wicked little precipice like dirt track pinned hundreds of feet in the air on the side of a mountain. It was spectacular, and the cloud whipping across only added to the drama for those brave enough to look out – and down.

Reg One ticked off, and perhaps some nerves settled, there was a long brisk run along alpine style roads, and in improved weather conditions too. The route was excellent fun, more of the fabulous driving roads that Portugal has offered up, and these were some of the most brilliant to date. The reward at the end was a quaint little coffee stop alongside the Rio Zezere in Janeiro de Baixo, that, unlike so much of this trip, was bathed in glorious sunshine. Nearly a third of the days distance had been covered, and there were still two regularities to contend so it wasn’t time to relax too much, despite the Pastel de Nata’s that were on offer, Portugal’s fabulous custard tarts, which were the biggest I have ever seen.

Fuelled up, it was almost straight into the next regularity, that began just up from the towering Santa Luzia Dam, that was holding back the waters of the Rio Unhais. The reg seemed fairly innocuous to begin with, but contained another of Portugal’s tight little villages, that were designed long before the car was invented. Safely navigated there was then the small matter of a set of steep and tighter than tight switch backs, with a time control perched on the top of course. Time was inevitably lost here, and by lunchtime, after another long but enjoyable transit section, there were rumours that the lead may have changed hands.

For anyone who could control their nerves there was an excellent lunch on offer, but restraint would be key as there was no time for a post tiffin siesta, as the days final regularity began just 3 kilometres down the road. The landscape had changed completely, as had our altitude, and the tulips dictated a course through the stunning olive groves that are so commonplace in this part of Portugal. These trees were ancient, with thick, gnarled trunks that have seen centuries of people come and go. If these trees could talk, I wonder what stories they would tell and what they would have made of today’s unusual cavalcade.

Into the finish, and a warm welcome awaited at the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaca, an incredible Monastery that was first founded in the 12th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The rear most portion of the complex is now a fabulous hotel and would perhaps provide some solitude and opportunity for reflection before the final day tomorrow. But what of the results? Well, there has been a switch in the lead, with the Healey’s swapping places, but still only separated from each other by a single second after a two second swing on the day as Graham Platts and Neil Ripley secured the best performance of the day, just edging the Binstead’s. Dick and Harry Baines are still in third, a little further back now, but ready to hoover up any major errors on the final day’s competition, that will see three regularities and two tests offer plenty of opportunity for success or failure. The pressure is on, perhaps it is time to say a prayer? It all comes to a head tomorrow.


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