Finding Leo

It’s that time of year. Leaves are falling, days are getting shorter, and we Mountain Bikers are embracing the start of the off-season. For Adam Craig and I, that means doing something different, yet kinda similar to our Enduro-racing summer jobs: Rally racing.

Adam was in France finishing up the Enduro World Series when we committed to driving to Canada and racing the “Rocky”–the penultimate round of Canada’s National Rally Championships. It would be a long drive up, but it had been a while since we’d raced the Wheels of Teal (a no-longer teal 1993 Subaru) together. It had been 18 months since my last event and 25 since Adam’s. Would we still have pace? We decided it would be worth the drive to Invermere, BC to find out.

Last Tuesday, we loaded up the old Dodge and trailer and headed north. My Dad caravanned in his own car so that 1. We’d have a car for recce. and 2. We wouldn’t spend 28 hours sitting three-abreast on a bench seat in a manual pickup. Thanks Dad!!

We arrived some time later (cue montage of drafting semis in the slow lane, pumping diesel, and eating Subway sandwiches) at the Copper Point Resort. This would be rally HQ and our (pretty fancy) home for the weekend. We had a beer to celebrate our safe passage and hit the sack. Recce would start at 7. It would be dark outside until 8. Welcome to the Arctic Circle!

Recce was two pass, meaning we’d spend most of the day driving around looking at corners and trying to imagine how tight they would be at 3x our recce speed. There were a lot of Big Horn Sheep about, and even more Loggers in white Ford and Chevy pickups with cow catcher grilles. These gravel roads were in the working forests of Canada. The logging business is booming in the Columbia Valley of BC, as evidenced by the largest log deck I’d ever seen at the entrance to the woods of the later stages.

By the end of the day, I was confident that our pace notes were good and we were ready to rally. After a few hours of trying to get my race car’s steering to feel less terrible, we had our first and only decent home-cooked meal of the trip and turned in.

Day One was beautiful. The weather was sunny, the roads were in great shape, but for just a few icy sections. We started stage one and immediately I knew that our pace notes were crap. Most every instruction understated the severity of the corner. In addition, the hours spent prone under the car trying to improve the steering were for naught. The car felt slightly wonky, the notes seemed intent on ruining us, and I was driving sheepishly. We were 12th after one stage. Hmmm.

Stage two was better. I was getting a grip on how “off” the notes were and how much grip was available. We were conservative in the few icy sections, as gravel tires are surprisingly terrible in snow and ice. Other top drivers were less patient and came out the worse for it: Patrick Richard put his car on it’s lid in the ditch, ending his rally. Crazy Leo’s car, “The Beast” (driven by Alex Beland who had rented it for the event) was in the trees outside an icy corner when we slithered past.

Stages 3 and 4 were two runs of the same track. Totally free of ice, but very straight and fast, and in failing evening light, they were the roads I was least excited to race. The first pass found us catching someone on stage. Without much dust, we were able to catch the recently rescued Beast and they signaled for us to pass on a sketchy outside line. We snuck by and finished the stage. Apparently the Beast had a boost issue, we were told.

The next pass had the Beast starting in front of us again somehow. Again, we would encounter their dust, but long after noticing the smell of burning rubber. Driving on a flat tire generates a lot of heat and a lingering stench. We knew immediately that the Beast had punctured. We slowed marginally for the dust, but never caught the Beast. A trend was developing: Crazy Leo’s fire-breather was getting in our way. But we’d managed to move up to 6th place at day’s end.

Day two was entirely different. Rain, snow, and freezing rain were falling on stages that were everything from quite grippy to dreadfully slippery. Since North American rallies don’t allow studded tires, we installed some borrowed Yokohama A034 snow rally tires. We feared that they would disintegrate on the gravel, but we knew we’d be doomed without them. On the transit to the day’s first stage, I had a “moment” just driving to the stage start and nearly left the road when we hit invisible black ice. Good call with the snow tires, then!

Special Stage conditions were diabolical. Everyone was all over the road looking for grip, as evidenced by the tracks of the top 5 cars ahead of us. We were going pretty good, keeping it on the road (mostly), getting pretty comfortable with the surface changes, and pushing harder and harder. And then I saw headlights in my rearview mirror! WTF? The Beast had put a minute into us in 10 minutes! I quickly pulled to the side of the road and stopped to let them by. We jumped in behind them excited to see an awesome display of speed.  Instead, we saw that they were on another flat tire! The last 4k of the stage we followed the Beast in all it’s savagery. Anti-lag popping, tires spinning, car yawing through every corner toward certain doom, only to have grip reappear and the car recover at the last moment. It was impressive, scary, and hilarious. In the final corner of the stage, a glassy, tightening corner at a spectator area, the orange Subaru finally went into the ditch. I feared we were going to follow and rear-end them, but we found enough grip on that ice to sneak by on the inside, re-passing them a few feet before the finish line. Incredible! And crazy. The Beast limped across the line behind us and STILL posted the 2nd fastest time on that stage. Crazy Leo had rented his car to another Crazy person. So that’s why they taped over the “Leo” and left the “Crazy”. Crazy!

The remaining 3 stages were much the same: looking at stage maps to see which way was south–ice was in the shadows of trees. Shadows were on the North side of trees. Grippy dirt and slippy ice often appeared the same.  Notes became less important as visual cues about surface grip became more so.  The conditions made crashing more likely, but made racing safer due to the reduced speeds.  It was scary and intense, but it was a fun kind of scary and intense.  Kinda.

In the final stages, the top teams all kept it together.  Attrition always wanes later in a rally, as the wheat has already been separated from the chaff.  Flat tires were had–A034s are fragile!–but they were well managed by the teams. By the end of the day, we were 5th Overall. No timing penalties, no “offs”, no flat tires. Nice and tidy. And only 1:20 out of 2nd place as it turns out. Not too shabby! Though some stages had been cancelled (in part because 2wd cars were getting stuck) the 8 stages ended up totaling almost 2 hours.

I’m always excited to get on the road to a rally race. Then I’m always excited for the race to begin. But half way through the last day of a rally, I’m always ready for it to end! Ready to have made it through alive, in a respectable position, and with a car that won’t need a winch to get back onto my trailer. And I’m excited to get home.

After Antoine L’Estage had sprayed his champagne and poured some on the hood of his glorious Mitsubishi, we loaded up the wondrous Wheels of Teal, shook the hands of a few new friends, and started the long drive home.

Turns out, the Giant AC/CD Rally Team still has pace. We just might go back to Canada to find it again next year.  I hope so.