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Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 35 – Genoa to Aix Les Bains – 500km

Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 35 – Genoa to Aix Les Bains – 500km

The last long day on the road was met by a dramatic dawn sky, and the sunshine that has accompanied the rally since almost Beijing, was gone. The path of the sun has been a direction marker for us the entire way, hot on our backs in the morning and the sign of the days end as we travel towards it in the evening. Now though, the compass is largely pointing north, no longer following the path of the setting sun.

This was to be the last long day on the road, and the final border crossing. We left Genoa through a never-ending labyrinth of tunnels, like laboratory Mice hunting for a reward. The tunnels cut through, under, and over the city, and the surrounding hills for miles, and I wonder how long this journey would have taken in the days before the highway or these asphalt burrows.

Overhead the sky was an ever-developing drama, as swathes of rain blew across the landscape, at points blotting out everything and leaving the tarmac slick and slippery. It may have left some feeling apprehensive about the events final test, that would be the first point of competition for the day. The Piemonte Kart Circuit hosted us, and the track was very much exhibiting areas of low adhesion, something Patrick Debussere demonstrated as he spun his Dodge, as the leading vintage cars watched on, waiting for their turn. So much can be lost on a test, get it wrong and the seconds can soon stack up. Andy Buchan and Mike Sinclair in second are relying on a mistake from Richard Walker and Faith Douglas now, but they still needed to hit their marks and get the most from the big Bentley, which they know is at a disadvantage around a track. The Scotsman was desperately trying to apply the power to the road, balancing the tightrope of throttle application vs adhesion. It was tidy, it was good, but they still needed that error from former Truck Racing Champion Richard.

The red Chevy was next up, and Richard was in no mood to go slow and consolidate a lead. Halfway round there was a slightly late application of the brakes, and a skid of understeer as a reward, the first warning. A few corners later and this time a big swing of oversteer threatened to spin the truck, and just for a second, she almost went. But the tail was caught, and forward motion was restored. In the final bend there was another slide as the front end protested, but again the skid was arrested, and the Chevy crossed the line faster than her challengers.

The more powerful classics took to the circuit next, with the cars at the sharp end largely opting for a cautious approach, with some of them unable to properly unleash the power of their engines on the wet track. Fastest in the end was Roland Veit and Silvio Krucker, in the unclassified Escort, with a time of 1:58 seconds. Of the classified machines, it was father and son pairing Michael and Jakob Haentjes who went quickest, just one second slower in the Peugeot 504 Rally. There were some spinners as well, and a mysterious accident, where one car left the circuit and went through a fence. The culprit was never identified, but the fresh tyre tracks across the grass told the story, so it must have been one of our competitors, or perhaps it was a rogue DeLorean that had accelerated up to 88mph and made the jump to another point in time. We’re on the fence as to what actually happened, but I guess some Horses will not be tamed by fences alone.

Tigers too, do not enjoy cages, and it was perhaps for this reason that the Sunbeam Tiger of Patrick and Pam Watts was missing in action. In fact, they had gone shopping in Milan. It’s not quite what you think though, designer gear was far from their minds as they had headed to Monza for a new distributor to solve the ignition problems they had been suffering. The parts were found, but it turned out they were dealing with a mad man, whose terms of service included insisting on feeling Patricks healing hands. This is a story best heard from the horse’s mouth, and Patrick is only too happy to tell it, for a small donation to help pay for what is a world record price for a second hand distributor.

A real treat awaited everyone after the test, with what would be the only regularity of the day that travelled up the Col de Agnello. The climb was steep and spectacular, and as the altitude increased the road was often covered by the clouds that were whipping across. It was the first time I can remember feeling cold in the past 6 weeks, and there was even snow on the ground and great torrents of melt water cascading in streams and waterfalls into the rivers at the foot of the valley. The view from the top must be something else on a clear day, but we had the full drama of the weather instead, with thick fog restricting the views of anyone who was brave enough to chance a look around. At the summit the road crossed the border, a spectacular entry into France and what felt like a pivotal moment. The descent down the other side felt like a metaphor for something greater, we were now on the final leg of the journey, the momentum would be with us from here on in.

Not too much momentum though, as the visibility at the start of the descent was almost non-existent and care was needed, but when the road dipped beneath the cloud a spectacular vista opened up in front of us, an Alpine spectacular, with snow-capped peaks, pine covered slopes and quaint ski chalets in the valley far below. This would set the theme for the rest of the day, with a delightful run to Aix Les Bains.

Making it over the mountain must have felt particularly poignant for those that are either nursing cars or in less powerful machines, and those that suffered car woes much earlier in the event too. Wim Van Gierdegom and Arne Quinze climbed slowly but surely, but made the summit, Marty and Fran Dippie, who have fallen out of and back in love with their Merc throughout the event – as well as helping so many others – made the summit. Bill and Kathy Gill, who suffered suspension damage in the desert made the summit. Jorg Richard Lemberg and Alfonso de Orleans-Borbon, who have had their own issues to overcome, made the summit. Boris Ziermans and John Ziermans made the summit in the Frankenstein DS and Steve and Charlie Gray, who have had more than their fair share of adversity in the past few days also made the summit in the seemingly immortal Volvo.

One car sadly wouldn’t make the summit, there was an omission from the marshals check sheets, and it was a big one. Car 37, the machine that has sat atop the standings for so long, after losing the lead and then fighting back to the top was not there. The alternator on Red 37 had failed, and no spare was being carried. By the time mechanical assistance had gotten the machine going again the damage had been done, and the lead that had been in a vice like grip for so long, was gone. It is a cruel blow to a pair of competitors that represent the spirit of the rally so well, especially after already fighting their way back to the top once before. This time though, with so few kilometres to Paris there will sadly be no recovery for Richard and Faith, but we are all delighted that they are back up and running to at least take the finishers flag.

So, tomorrow we enter the penultimate day, with two regularities before our overnight halt in Dijon. It’s within touching distance now, but as we have seen today, The Peking to Paris takes no prisoners.


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