Surrey Off-Road Specialists Limited

This year is special for Jeep; it is the 60th anniversary of the traditional sit up and beg wartime Jeep. To start the celebrations with a bang Daimler-Chrysler UK decided to enter the Croisiere Blanche this year with a wartime Willys in the convoy. Having checked Rubicon I and II over and prepared 2 new TJ Sports and 1 new Sahara, we set about getting the Willys up to speed. Whilst the Croisiere Blanche is not the most technically demanding off-road event in the calendar, it is punishing on the vehicles due to the extreme temperatures and harshness of frozen ground and rocks hidden in the snow. Having got all the vehicles sorted and dispatched to their respective drivers, our little group met up at a Hotel in Dover on the Sunday evening ready for an early start Monday morning. Our convoy consisted of myself in Rubicon II (TJ) in the lead with Barry Stallard (DCUK) driving Rubicon I (Cherokee 2.5TD) with a trailer on the back with the Willys on. Peter Robain (DCUK photographer), Brian Rees (DCUK PR Manager) and Ian Warren (DCUK Technical Support) were driving the TJís. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast on the ferry before the long slog South. We had an uneventful run down (other than my unfortunate incident involving a peage barrier and the Warn 8274, not worth mentioning really). Having driven South for 7 hours to our usual stopover hotel at Belleville we find that there is an exhibition on in Lyon and that all the hotel rooms are booked everywhere. We opted to push on towards Grenoble and find a hotel around there. We eventually checked into one at 11.00 that night. At least it was a short drive to Merlette the next day and we could have a lie in.

We duly arrived at Merlette and had a lazy day getting the vehicles ready and the accommodation sorted out for the Press. Wednesday, up bright and early. Brianís assistant Sheena had joined us and was keen to get some Off-roading in, so whilst Sheena, Barry, Peter, Ian and myself went off to St Maurice to do Le Stickage, Brian headed off to the airport to collect the first Journalist, Emma Bradshaw who was covering the event for Top Gear magazine and possibly a couple of other publications to be confirmed.

Having completed Le Stickage we set off complete with the roadbook to do the Prologue. David and Audrey Davenport joined our little convoy in their trick Jeep YJ and we had a jolly time driving in pouring rain along riverbeds and muddy tracks. This year there was virtually no snow on the prologue route, in fact there was very little snow anywhere other than the shadier parts of valleys and at the higher altitudes. Although the event is primarily known as a snow event, it doesnít really matter how little snow there is, if there is less snow there is usually more ice where it has thawed and refrozen so it becomes harder in some respects. Sheena was at the wheel of the Rubicon I Cherokee at the back with Barry supposedly navigating, but I never saw any signs of a roadbook in his possession so I have my suspicions. Peter was driving our TJ with me navigating and Ian was in the middle. We were having a very nice time ambling along when we came to the point on the roadbook where it said the dreaded words "Chainage Obligatoire" (Snow Chains Obligatory). We were surprised to be fitting chains when we hadnít really seen any snow or ice, mainly thick mud, and the vehicles were covered in it. Barry made the executive decision that he would be best utilised in a supporting role and would go round this section and meet up with us when we rejoined the road further on, nothing to do with having to fit snow chains at all. David decided that Barry would need backup to navigate his way to the spot and volunteered to show him the way. So our convoy shrank to 2 TJís. Sheena, Peter, Ian and myself. Having got covered in mud, wrestling the chains on, we were rewarded with some of Audryís legendary fruitcake (she takes such good care of us).

Off we went up a winding track into the hills. It was obvious that there was no snow at the altitude we were driving in and very little ice so the snow chains were really unnecessary.

All that happened was that they chewed the track up. After quarter of an hour we ground to a halt at the back of a traffic jam. We could see lots of cars ahead but couldnít hear anything. This means one of two things, either a vehicle has broken up ahead and is blocking the track, or there is a very long tailback from a difficult obstacle and we are out of earshot.

It turns out that the latter was true and we had an hour-long wait before the traffic started moving slowly. Whilst we had been stationary there was a large procession of motorbikes and quads (also in the event) that struggled past us. Itís the variety of the entries and people that make these events so interesting, over here it seems that bikes and vehicles are opposed to one another, In Europe they play together, we should be doing the same. Ian had wandered up the track for a look and came back to inform us that there was a very tricky rock obstacle that was getting badly mauled by the snow chains and was stopping most vehicles. As we got nearer we were offered an alternative route off the hill by the marshals. Bored with waiting we decided to take it. We were unable to figure out where we were on the roadbook and decided to call it a day. Whilst making our way back to Merlette, we gave Barry a call on the mobile to find out that David and Audrey had given him a 2nd piece of cake (Damn!) and had moved on and that he was still at the point where we were supposed to meet him. We agreed to meet up back at the base. Later on when Barry eventually appeared, he disclosed that after he had rung off, he suddenly realised he had no idea where he was or how to get back.

Brian and Emma met us back at the base and we headed off for some food and to plan the next day. Emma wanted to actually compete in the event and see it all from the bottom up, music to my ears. I had been worried that we might just be doing odd bits and posing for photoís. The decision was made to start from Merlette on the black route at 09.00 Thursday. This route usually has the most snow and has good photo opportunities. 09.00 saw Emma, Peter and myself us up at Merlette in one of the Jeep TJ sports. Brian, Barry and Ian were heading back to Lyon Airport to collect Mike Hodges from Maxim magazine and Andrew Simpson and the crew from the Top Gear TV show.

We fitted the snow chains while Emma supervised, got our roadbook and we were off with Emma at the wheel. The black route has an interesting start to it, you start off going through a few narrow tracks between houses before driving down a track that is not much wider that the vehicle, with a vertical face on your right and a sheer drop of probably 20 metres to your left. To make it more interesting there is a telegraph pole at the top of the track on the right that forces you out to the left just as you crest the top of the hill so all you can see is your bonnet and the skyline. As the nose comes down you see what you are already driving along; it is quite an eye opener. Emma took it in her stride and we were soon down it. We were the last vehicle of the day around the route, this meant that we could stop for photographs without holding people up. Every now and again a marshal would appear to check our progress, other that that we had a very nice leisurely drive along some stunning scenery. There wasnít as much snow on this route as usual, however it was still 1-2 metres deep in places. We crossed the suspension bridge over the river and then a nice surprise. There is a massive hillclimb that usually takes about 10 minutes to climb with some nice hairpins and ruts to keep you entertained. For the last 3 years it has been shut every time we got to it due to vehicles not making it up. Emma was to be our first journalist to get to drive it. Up we went with Off-Road and 4 wheel drives Bob Cooke leading in a TD5 90. We had the back of the canvas rolled up so Peter could jump in and out easily to take pictures. I had never realised how smelly the TD5 engine was as we followed it breathing in the diesel fumes to the top. We worked our way along the route catching up with David and Audrey every so often.

There was a choice of routes just before the lunch stop, we could either take the easy one and get lunch soon or take the harder route that would take a little longer. We opted for the hard route that took us across a beautiful snowfield that was quite hazardous. Bob Cooke was now following us and apart from the appalling noise from the TD5 engine shattering the silence, we had a very nice meander around the hill tracks before stopping for lunch at around 16.00. Bob bust a chain and carried on with 3 chains on his wagon. After a quick very tasty meal we were off again, back into the woods doing some fairly serious hill descents. There was a chap in a white 90 in front who kept blasting off and then losing control before ploughing into the deep snow on the side of the track. Itís a good laugh to watch, but it is a real pain in reality because he is making ruts that you and everyone else behind end up following. When it came to an extremely tight turn off the track that required a couple of shunts to get the right line, he as usual cocked it up going very wide destroying the established ruts you would normally follow instead creating chaos on a fairly treacherous turn. Emma took the extra shunt to make sure we got it right first time but his ruts heading towards some stout looking trees still dragged us off. Showing some good driving skills Emma just saved it and got through unscathed as did Bob. We managed to overtake the 90 when he pulled over and didnít really have any problems after that. We pushed on and amazingly finished the roadbook. This is almost unheard of. This was a good start. Back to base and met up for a Pizza with the rest regaling our tales of derring do etc and rubbing in what they had missed out on.

For day 2 The decision had been made to split ourselves into 2 groups, Emma, Mike, Peter and myself would take Rubicon I and the TJ sport, and the rest would do their own thing with the Willys, Rubicon II, TJ sport and the TJ Sahara. Mike was game to enter the rest of the event. The sensible thing to do would be an early night and early start the next day. However it transpired to be a late night after investigating some of the Apre Ski facilities and a 09.00 start from Ancelle the next morning (40 minutes down the road)

We arrived at Ancelle about 08.55 to tackle the blue route and rapidly set about putting the snow chains on whilst Mike and Emma supervised. We got our roadbooks and set off. Mike and myself took the lead in the TJ with Emma and Peter following in Rubicon I. we drove along a few tracks and Mike was getting to grips with the Jeep. It was his first time off-road and then he announces that he doesnít actually drive that much living and working in London. As we turned the next corner we were faced with a 3 tier redundant pieste that probably climbed 500 metres and was mostly ice and snow. Talk about getting chucked in at the deep end. Anyway up we went, Mike took it all in his stride and we soon conquered the first 2 tiers. The third tier was proving to be a big challenge. About 1 in 8 vehicles were getting up it. There was a choice of 3 tracks all very steep and slippery. You were hard pushed to stand up on them. We were in a queue at the bottom with around 20 vehicles ahead of us. Shortly a swarm of quads appeared and had a go. It was brilliant, there was complete mayhem as assorted quads and vehicles were rushing up and down the hill most of them failing. There was a Discovery that managed to get it completely sideways luckily on the flatter lower part, he was very close to rolling it over. A Range Rover flew up the middle track struggling for grip and as he got to the top he thrust his fist skywards out of the window and promptly lost the plot and got stuck right at the top.

There was a white Suzuki on enormous Babcross style tyres that had such huge nobbles that the snowchains fell in between them offering no assistance at all. The tyres overgeared the "Suzi" so badly that it could hardly pull away. All you could hear were screams from the engine as it attempted the hill never getting more than a few metres up it before bogging down. He even attempted it in reverse before admitting defeat and taking a winch up.

At any one time there would be 2 or 3 vehicles attempting the hill whilst quads were charging in all directions trying vainly to get up. Eventually most of the quads drove up the left-hand slope as far as they could get and then started tying themselves to each other before being pulled up en masse. Eventually it was our turn (last vehicles as normal). Emma was driving the Cherokee Rubicon with all the whistles and bells and had shown good driving skills, so I decided to send her up with Pete Robain co driving, so I could sit in with Mike and ensure a safe ascent. I briefed Emma on how she should approach it; difflocks in and floor it in second was the gist of it and with Peter goading her on she conquered the hill first attempt, Brilliant! Now it was Mikeís turn. The TJ was pretty much stock and only on small tyres so it was going to be a real challenge. Mike flew at it and we got most of the way up only to be defeated by a particularly nasty rutted and polished section near the top. Rather than make him reverse all the way back down we settled for a tow. Having got to the top we were presented with some fantastic views, we were above the cloud base and there were odd portals in the clouds through which you could down into the valley. We drove across another snowfield before stopping for another late lunch back at Ancelle.

After lunch we headed back to the woods and had some quite technical bits to do including crossing a shallow stream littered with boulders before scrabbling for grip up a very treacherous slope with extremely deep ruts. It was so badly chewed up that we had to get a pull at the lower part of the slope to get us going. Having got to a safe place to stop, we went back down to see the marshal who had been hooking the cable on running for his life back up the hill with Mike in hot pursuit in Rubicon I, he hadnít expected the Cherokee to get up there as nothing else had conquered it in some time. Further up the TJ ran out of ground clearance in the ruts, so we had to back down a bit and get out and fill the ruts in with logs and rocks etc, we then sailed up to the top. Once again we finished the roadbook in the dark this time, before returning back to base to meet the others for supper. The others had been out reconnoitring for suitable areas to film on the Saturday and hadnít really done much. We relayed our days activities, getting jealous looks from the rest of the DCUK mob. As we were due for another early start the decision was made to head for the Yeti night-club. Having got fleeced there to find it only had 6 people in the place, we decided to abandon there and head for a bar. It was probably the alcohol but somewhere the idea to turn the snow machine around to fill the entrance to the nightclub up with snow seemed like a good idea. Having traipsed across the snow to the snow machine that was coating the piste, it was decided it would be more fun to toboggan down the ski slope alongside the hotel. Having found a padded mattress type thing to use, Emma took a run up and threw herself onto it. The mattress stayed put and Emma ricocheted off ending up face down in the snow, it was a classic, straight out of Chaplin film. Having decided that was enough of that, we returned the mattress to whence it came and headed for home.

The last day, we set off on the Red route; it was mostly deep rutted tracks up and down hills along the side of a valley with fantastic views. We got to one part that had a steep downhill on the roadbook. We got to the start to find a traffic jam. The marshal informed us that a Fiat Panda had dug its nose in and done a forward somersault onto its roof before tobogganing down the hill and crumpling into a heap at the bottom. We drove around the hill on roads and rejoined the other side. The Fiat arrived looking worse for wear. Luckily no one was hurt and the Fiat was back in the running within an hour. Everyone laughed at the prologue when the Fiat showed up, but it had performed well to get this far. Good for him I say. The marshals closed the section and told us to go to lunch. We sat on a balcony in glorious sunshine admiring the views when Peterís phone rang.

It was Brian ringing up to see how we were getting on. Apparently the weather had closed in and was making life difficult. We informed him of the beautiful clear blue skies and glorious sunshine that we were experiencing and settled down to a pleasant lunch, drank some wine and caught some rays before tackling the afternoonís sections. Emma and Mike were taking it in turns with the vehicles and both were doing well. The afternoonís routes were more of the same, deep ruts and mud. There was a very tricky hillclimb that the ruts were so deep on, that we had to straddle them the entire length of the hill. Emma drove really well and mastered the ruts like an old pro. Mike was following up in the Rubicon I with Peter navigating taking everything in his stride. We pushed on and started down a treacherous track with rocks, boulders and deep ruts the whole length of it. Towards the bottom we caught up with more traffic. We were at the infamous Log Bridge. This consists of 2 pairs of logs, one for each wheel with some odd planks down the middle. The whole bridge is approx. 80mm wider than the Jeeps and very treacherous. I guided Emma down over the extremely treacherous boulders and onto the bridge. She crossed it perfectly and pulled up the other side. Now it was Mikes turn. Just before you reach the bridge, there is a right-hand corner you have to negotiate just to make it interesting. I was standing on the bridge guiding Mike across and all was going well until he translated my hand signal for slight left hand lock to mean full steam ahead and try to run your instructor over. I cannot remember the last time I ran that fast. Mike had crossed the bridge in spectacular fashion and entertained the crowd. Having recovered from the shock of turning from a coach potato into Lynford Christie, I climbed back into the TJ and we pushed on. The rest of the day went smoothly and we finished the roadbook yet again, albeit in the dark. Mission accomplished, we headed back to Merlette for the Last Supper. As we pulled up at the apartments the rest of the gang were getting the vehicles ready for an early departure the following morning. As I was regaling our dayís adventures a tap on the shoulder and a pointing finger directed my vision towards the other TJ Sport. It was looking slightly more aerodynamic than usual and had a distinctly droopy look to the front end. Apparently in an effort to guarantee the vehicles appearance on both Top Gear and Youíve been Framed, it had suffered a spectacular roll over. Unfortunately no one was filming at the time so it was all in vain. After several lengths of duct tape and a little delicate tugging with the Rubicons winch it was drivable. We loaded the Willys back on the trailer and refitted the trailer hitch back on Rubicon I and got the vehicles squared away ready for an early departure. By now we had missed the prize giving, so I have no idea who won what etc.

We all piled down to the Relais de Merlette for a delicious supper with the rest of the Brits and spent an enjoyable evening soaking up the atmosphere listening to everyone elseís tales whilst sampling more of Mauriceís silky smooth Genepe.

Sunday morning,having rounded everybody up, we left Merlette and headed for Lyon airport to drop all the Journalists off. Having said our goodbyes we started the long trek home. Barry had pushed on ahead with Rubicon I and the trailer whilst we diverted to the Airport on the assumption that we would easily catch him up further on. However Barry armed with his Black Adder and Status Quo tapes and the frugal diesel engine not consuming as much fuel as you might expect despite having a trailer on the back, put the pedal to the metal and made excellent time. The end result being we didnít see him until late in the day when he decided to stop and wait for us to catch up. Kenny had called us and said that he had found a good Hotel with secure parking and they had spare rooms, so we headed for there and had an enjoyable evening discussing the event and the vehicles. Amongst the discussions the Rubicon Cherokee got discussed and how well it has performed over the last 6 years or so. It has 48,000 hard miles on the clock now. Most of the miles have been at the hands of the press who are not known for their finesse when off roading. On this event it had towed the trailer and Willys down to Merlette, completed the event and now had towed the trailer back again without any fuss or complaint. This is an event that most long distance entrants trailer their competition vehicle to; they do not normally compete with both. When we built it, we only expected it to last for a couple of years. However it is still here and as reliable as ever. We said our goodbyes the following morning and headed for our respective ferries home.

Another excellent event organised by the G.R.M. They had a lot on their plate this year considering the entries were nearly double the norm and there was a shortage of snow and accommodation. I gather that there was some dissent in the ranks on the accommodation front from some of the competitors. It is the same as everything else in life, book early to avoid disappointment. When the entry numbers are this high, you have to take what you can get.