Monday, 13 April 2009

Team Robert ride again in the 2009 Land's End Trial

My involvement in this year's Land's End Trial occurred at the 11th hour when my scrap buddy, Rob Robinson-Collins, suddenly found himself without a navigator. This was particularly disappointing because Rob had arranged to borrow the Candidi Provacatore Allard J1 from Roger Ugalde. Rumours soon abounded that Rob’s navigator had fled to the country at the prospect of writing in such an awe inspiring open top car. Some of my local trialling friends pointed out that Roger's nephews ran the principle undertaking business in Liskeard and there was even more ribaldry about my life expectancy.

But I wasn't listening. Rob and I already had some minor trialling history with this car and for a couple of years we had campaigned the Cox-Triumph sidecar outfit. Team Robert were about to be reunited, even though according to the programme I was masquerading as Robert Hall -- that would have been Robert “Facom” Hall (say it quickly.)

Roger was clerk of the course for this year's Land's End so couldn't enter the event himself but he’s such a generous chap he'll lend this magnificent car to fellow competitors and enthusiasts. He knows Rob pretty well now, especially as more buyers two Allards in kit form and is in the process of shortening one to make a J1 replica.

We met at the Roger’s place between Honiton and Sidmouth on Maundy Thursday and drove up to Rob and Tina's house near Andover. The following day was happily spent measuring the bodywork on Roger's car and checking it over. Running as number 156, we were booked in to start at Popham airfield, although a start from Plusha services would probably have been more convenient. Changing the start would be awkward at such a stage when unexpected advantage of the extra road miles was that it allowed Rob and me to get to know Roger’s Allard that much better.

The weather forecast was uncertain. We've had quite a bit of rain as we journeyed east and soon after setting out on the trial we had some very heavy downpours. But after that things began to clear up and the rest of the night was dry. When the sun eventually came up, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and we experienced ideal weather for the rest of the event.

The Land's End Trial is marked by a considerable road mileage between sections and as well Popham there were starts from Plusha in Cornwall and Michael Wood services in Gloucestershire. We all converged at Bridgewater and in the darkness of a gradually drying night we were able to check out the other entries, including this rather splendid Model A Ford.

The restart box at Felon’s Oak looked little wider than a wheels width in our headlights that due to unfamiliarity with the Allard's controls we ran back out of it so failed our very first section before it had hardly started. However, we had no difficulty getting away and when one of the MG drivers that we've been following complained about our bright headlights I suspect our wall-to-wall grins brought on by the glorious engine note were so dazzling we were potentially lighting up the night sky.

Sat on the start line of Beggar’s Roost confidence in our machine was at an all-time high but, ironically, this proved to be our ongoing for the old warhorse just died on us after struggling a few feet up the hill. Rob thumbed the starter but it was obvious to everyone that we had a ground to a halt and he gave it plenty of beans to bring us up to the restart box which we negotiated without any problems. The only thing we could think of was that, after a brief stop to check tyre pressures, on start-up there wasn't quite enough petrol in the carb to keep us going.

Rodney's Revenge was not a section that I'd come across before. We approached it through extensive Forestry Commission woods. By now the clouds cleared and there was a magnificent moon -- almost a full one. Despite this, the night was still very dark. Gazing up at the moon, in the otherwise pitch black sky, I began to make out what appeared to be red-and-white stars twinkling way up above it. As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I realised that these were trials cars ascending into the heavens. And after they’d ascended, they were reversing back down again.

It was a bit like witnessing Jacob's ladder, which many people nowadays believe wasn't Angels climbing a ladder to Heaven at all but alien astronauts being beamed up into their spacecraft.

If it wasn't for the fact that the competitors before us were reversing back down again, I could easily have suspected that they were being kidnapped by aliens with invisible tractor beams.

As "seasoned competitors", we had been selected to be travelling marshals. I suspect that this was Roger's little joke. Part of our responsibilities as travelling marshals was to investigate any hold-ups and offer our help to the marshals in charge of that particular section so I borrowed the armband of authority and wandered down to the front of the queue.

It was obvious that very little was getting up and Rob remembered Rodney's Revenge as a "stopper" from when he was passengering for Dave Turner in his BMW 318iS.

But this was the hill where the combination of Team Robert and the Allard J1 all came together.

We managed to get around the first hairpin -- not easy in a car the size of an Allard, even a shortened one -- and Rob floored the throttle. The old warhorse dug in and we had great climb, clearing the section without me really having to do any bouncing. At the top, we were euphoric.

From then on, we felt invincible. We cleared Cutliffe Lane, Sutcombe and Darracott, although we've flattened the restart boards on that last one as we slithered out sideways under power.

Growing in confidence and enjoying spectacularly sunny weather, we approached Crackington.

Conditions so far had been very muddy and the locals in this part of north Cornwall have a reputation for "doctoring" this hill and all manner of interesting slurries. In anticipation of this, Rob kept the gas on all the way up. There was no room for any slacking. Fortunately for us, there was no restart box but it was incredibly claggy and I really had to work hard, bouncing for all I was worth, to get a grip and maintain momentum.

But we did it and in the red haze that had descended upon us almost forgot to obey the stop sign that has obviously put there for a reason just after the Section Ends boards.

And when we came onto the tarmac at the top to pump up our tyres, a small boy materialised with some little Easter eggs for us. And a passerby told us that Crackington had never been so muddy following a landslide even before a load of slurry had been tipped down it.

Doing our Travelling Marshals bit, we saw Colin and Edna Perryman in their BMW 2002 by the side of the road and stopped to ask if they were okay. Unfortunately, they'd severed a rear brake pipe and although Colin managed to crimp the end they decided to retire at the Wisley Down Control. This was a particular shame because they were clear up to then.

We also saw a Spridget having a diff changed on the verge but I'm happy to say that we saw them going very well afterwards.

At Panter’s Bridge, just before Warleggan, we met Roger and Caroline and were able to tell them what a great time we were having. I had never ever cleared any of the hills that we had cleaned so far although I had already been successful on Felon’s Oak and Beggars Roost in previous events.

Roger said we should be ashamed if we failed this next section. Many years ago, I'd marshalled on Warleggan and could remember a particularly bumpy section just up from the restart box from when we attempted on the Triumph outfit. If anything, it looked worse than ever when we squared up to it but Rob just nailed the throttle and I did my bit although nowhere near as much as on Crackington.

At the top we found James Shallcross and Neil Andrew in Adrian Booth's old Peugeot 205. They'd just got a clean and were doing well although Warleggan had just caught out Lee and Rebecca Huck in a similar machine.

Down in Cardinham Woods, Ladyvale featured a cunningly placed restart box but we managed to get going again and on Hoskin Hill we sort of fluffed the start again with the motor just dying. We might have got away with this nut frankly I doubt it and we probably were recorded as a failure even before we moved off the start line. However, we negotiated the rest of the hill, including the restart box, in style.

By now, the entrants seemed quite spread out. For much of the distance we were running among many Class O competitors. At the Wilsey Down Hotel control and rest halt we heard an official asking the ladies in the restaurant to stay open for another couple of hours due to delays, presumably as a result of protracted recovery operations as people failed the very muddy sections.

What struck me was how well organised everything was. Everyone involved, either as officials or marshals, was in their place at the allotted time and knew what to do. I know many of them have been doing this year on, year out but it was still impressively slick.

Rob and I were particularly looking forward to Bishop’s Wood because, when we were on the outfit, we seem to be practically airborne for the whole section but in reality it was probably the greatest disappointment. There was an enormous lump of polished rock with a very muddy restart box at its foot and this was the only occasion where we honestly couldn't find any grip. Our wheels started to spin and eventually gravity overcame friction and we slid backwards, still with our wheels going forward. With a run-up I'm sure we wouldn't have had any trouble but a following Marlin in the same class as us managed it. We were very suitably impressed and told him so but forgot to ask how he had placed his wheels in the restart box. We reckon that he had gone further to the right and up the hill from where we attempted the restart.

Tooling down the A30, I was really looking forward to Blue Hills. In my less than illustrious trialling career, I haven't managed to clear either of these sections. The 2009 Land's End Trial had -- so far -- seen me clear hills that I never managed to clear before, either as a driver or passenger and whether on three wheels or four.

But when we came through the narrow lane that leads into the valley from Cross Coombe, the old familiar vista opened up to us again of a vast crowd on the opposite hill. It always looks so steep and impossible at this point and when we had attempted Blue Hills 2 on the outfit we couldn't even get off the start line.

Blue Hills 1 has just a fearsome reputation as the more spectacular blast up the cliff path. By looping the trial through very muddy water and place in the restart box right at the foot of polished stone setts that lead onto the tarmac road, this section was claiming many scalps.

We applied what we’d learnt so far and made the old Allard bellow in our efforts to get going again as we attempted the restart. But although we made plenty of tyre smoke we didn't get anywhere. I was shouting to Rob to “keep it in” when I heard him reply “it's no good”. Despite the crowd cheering us on, he throttled back.

But then something quite inexplicable happened -- the Allard nonchalantly eased itself up the polished stone setts and Rob suddenly had to rapidly turn the big steering wheel to stop us from hitting the opposite bank. A great cheer went up and we whooped and hollered in disbelief. But the section wasn't over. It ended on the other side of the narrow gates leading up to Blue Hills 2 and Rob fortunately had the presence of mind to keep going and the skill to aim our car through those suddenly little gates.

In front of us on the start line of the final section was an innocuous Toyota Corolla that had successfully negotiated Blue Hills 1 in style. This made it look easy but made us more determined than ever to do as good as we possibly could on what is probably the ultimate trials hill out of all the classics.

As we pulled away to come up to the start line the Allard ran out of beans again and we stalled. "Oh well," said Rob, "at least we didn't do that coming away from the start."

We nearly managed Blue Hills 2. We got away quite nicely and made our way to the restart box without too much trouble. Rob had lined us up quite nicely and I bounced furiously to get us away but he didn't quite turn the wheel quick enough and our nearside front wheel hit the outer bank of this sunken section so hard that it brought us to a dead stop.

Then there was the omnipresent Mr Ugalde. “Oh come on Robert!” he said in a loud voice that could have applied to either of us, “what are you playing at?”

We rolled back and had another go and this successful ascent is the one that has made it onto the Internet. Of course, we failed the section but thanks to my mate Pete, who was in the right place with a video camera, this clip makes it look like we didn't.

There was an extended stop at the top to swap stories and meet up with old friends. Somebody pointed out that my motorcycling over suit had a huge hole at the back. I must have bounced my way through my waterproofs or maybe it was our seat-of-the-pants performance. Although it looks sunny at Blue Hills, I was glad of my Heine Gericke gear on underneath and sundry layers below that. It must have been from shock at ascending the premier section in classic trials for the first time. (Blue Hills photos by Pete Cross)

Over the years the Allard has become very well-known - a lot of people came over to pay their respects to it.

Some people were moved to even prostrate themselves before the Allard's split axle front suspension. Pumping up the tyres was the last thing on our minds but we remembered it in the end.

The general consensus of the finish at Scorrier was that had been a particularly hard trial but for our first time out in a strange car we couldn't really have hoped for a better result.

This impression was reinforced when we saw Roger the following day when we returned the car. The results have not been published yet but as we signed off we could see how many people thought that they might have won an award. Not many were claiming Golds but there were quite a few Silvers and Bronzes. One or two people had simply written Lead.

Blue Hills 2 had seen a couple of accidents, one where a sidecar outfit flipped over onto its crew and another where a bouncer hit her head on the top of the windscreen when the car hit the same section of bank that caught us out. One of the spectators had also suffered a heart attack but the emergency services were quickly on hand and a good recovery is expected for all concerned.

A huge thank you is due to everyone involved. We were all there for the same reason and shared our mutual enjoyment unsparingly.

And a difficult trial has made attaining our simple Finisher’s Certificate all the more sweeter.

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