For eight long years Jim Marsden has been trying to make the journey to the south of France to compete at this legendary event, and for seven of those, his calendar has clashed with vehicle rebuilds or other events.
But this time it’s different. France is vast and the drive is mind numbing, but that changes as I head south of Valance. Empty motorways give way to stunning mountain passes and pretty villages in the hills. The scenery is simply beautiful and the weather has also improved as i arrive at Montmorin. My right hand and co-driver for this event is Portuguese ace Helder Rocha and he arrives with the international press from Montpelier airport.
The event reception is fantastic and we are pleased to see a huge number of well-prepared cars waiting to do battle over the next 4 days. It’s Thursday afternoon and it all starts at 10pm that evening. The crews are split into two groups and we head into the mountains to take on challenging road books and tough tracks. We are having great fun but finding the road book difficult to follow and punches hard to find. We finish at 1am but find ourselves not returning to base until 3am as we stay to help recover other broken teams. Nobody wants to be stuck on a mountain all night.
Friday morning arrives all too soon and we can’t wait to get started. Twenty two rock hard challenge stages await us. The stages are graded with yellow being easy, red intermediate and black being the stuff of nightmares. We head straight into the first empty stage and find ourselves doing battle with sticky clawing clay and deep water.
It’s not the start we hoped for but we are soon into the swing and start to push our pace. At midday hell descends in section 24, “Stop the engine” yells Helder as steam pours from under the bonnet. We are at a 45 degree angle hanging on two winch ropes and somehow we have damaged a water hose! It’s two long hours before we can get repaired and drive out of the stage. It’s not quite going to plan, and we find ourselves in 7th place overall.
The next day we are determined to make a mends for a poor first day. With renewed energy we start laying down some fast times conquering some of the hardest stages I have ever seen. Helder is tireless as we tackle vertical waterfalls, chest deep water, cliff faces, rocks the size of small houses and vast gulley’s. We are staggered at the crowds that assemble as we arrive at the stages and they whoop, cheer and sigh as we tackle the ultra tough stages.
We are killing it and by 2pm we have finished all 22 stages and start our second round. This time you have to tackle the stages backwards! Our last stage of the day is another clawing clay mess and its perfect hell. We start well but soon the fan belt is torn from the engine in the clinging mud and we lose valuable time repairing the car while the clock is running. It’s a terrible end to a superb day and we are chuffed to find we have jumped 5 places to second overall.
French hospitality and food is dangerously good and we have to be on best behaviour to be sure of an early night to be ready for the following day. Sunday morning arrives and the cloud is heavy on the mountains as we head to the start. The car is not so well and for some unknown reason our engine oil pressure is almost zero. But there is nothing we do so we push on praying it will last the day. Helder is like a machine and sections are disappearing at alarming speed as we post fastest time after fastest time. It’s all going really well and we can sense that trouble or victory can only be just round the corner.
Section 25 is simply mind blowing with every possible type of madness you can imagine. Doing it backwards seemed like suicide, but you get no points for being shy at these events and we knew what we had to do. An hour later we drive out of the completed stage shell shocked that we had achieved this incredibly demanding task. The crowd is going mad and I’m just happy we did not roll the car as we pirouetted 150 feet above the valley floor.
The event comes to its twisted climax and a blast for all remaining teams through the deep, cold stage known as the swimming pool. 50 metres of uninviting water with steep banks either end await us. We have to drive from one end to the other and then return as fast as possible. With the engine faltering it was never going to be easy. The crowds cheered as the engine gave the roar of a wounded beast dragging itself through the murky waters. The huge Maxxis tyres launching vast columns of water over anyone standing to close, then we break free and claw up the final greasy slope.
It’s all over, but have we done enough on the valleys and slopes of Montmorin? The event is superbly organised and within an hour the scores are ready and prize giving is under way. It’s a real family affair with children being handed gifts and plenty of smiles and laughter. Then it’s to the serious business. We know it’s going to be tight and there are rumours flying as we are told that any one of three crews could be lifting the crown. It’s a tense moment made even more so by the fact that I am on my own as my co driver, Helder, has had to dash to the airport to catch a plane. Third place is called and a French team step forward, then there is silence as we await the final result. “Second places goes to?“ And it’s another French team, I’m ecstatic! Our first time at the Ultra tough French Xtrem and we have won!
What a great start to the season. The party goes on well into the night with fine food and drink. French guys and girls really know how to celebrate. It’s a great start to 2015 for Gigglepin racing, with Allen and Ben winning the Welsh Xtrem in March and Jim and Helder conquering the French Xtrem in April. Many thanks once again to our amazing Team and families at home and aboard that work tirelessly in the background to make these victories possible. Special Thanks to our amazing sponsors that have the continued faith and belief in our Team and give us fantastic support. We could not do it without you all. Next stop is the Croatia Trophy in three short weeks. There is going to be a lot of late nights….