Today's 370-mile course included the rally's first special test, but it was less than four miles long. It was also wet and muddy, and the once-clean racing machines are now covered in mud.
At 8:00 Saturday morning, soon after the last car arrived from the first, night-time stage into Chateauroux, in the middle of France, the motorcycles headed 51 miles south to La Souterraine, where a short special test was laid out in the Croisiere Activity Parc. The test was in a field, and was reminiscent of an ISDE grass track. From there, the competitors moved south 316 miles to the stage finish in Narbonne, near the Mediterranean coast and the Spanish border. Along the way, they passed through its first check point in Brive-la-Gaillarde - site of the 2001 ISDE.
After the slower riders struggled around the slippery course, the factory pilots made it look easy, circulating the circuit in the six-minute range on their overweight machines. The fastest was unknown Frenchman Pierre Quinonero, who brought his KTM in a full five seconds faster than Finnish enduro ace Kari Tianen, though it should be mentioned that the track was badly deteriorated by the time the top riders came through. Tianen, in turn, had a healthy 13-second advantage over Spaniard Joan Roma - a strong finish for someone who said after the test, "I don't think I did so well." Just one second back in fourth was Frenchman Cyril Despres. Of course today's test was considered rather trivial by the top riders, as its short length means it will not figure in the final results (last year's overall winner, Fabrizio Meoni, was only 16th today, saying, "On the tarmac, the bike runs strong, but on the special stage today it was a struggle in the rain and the mud"). Still, just as in bicycling's Tour de France, it's always nice to win a stage, and whoever this Quinonero guy is, he's got a good story to tell his grandchildren.
The rally first visited tonight's resting point in Narbonne in 1998, and it stopped here last year as well. It's a flourishing seaport with a rich mercantile trade and many traces of the Roman period. The podium is set up in the town center, just across from the theater. The parc ferme is situated a few hundred yards away at the Foire Expo grounds.
1. Pierre Quinonero (KTM) France: 6 min., 12 sec.
2. Kari Tianen (KTM) Finland: 6 min., 17 sec.
3. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain: 6 min., 27 sec.
4. Cyril Depres (KTM) France: 6 min., 28 sec.
5. celso Gorrara (KTM) Italy: 6 min., 38 sec.
6. (TIE) Jean Brucy (KTM) France; Francois Flick (BMW) France: 6 min., 45 sec.
8. Christophe Meillot (Hon) France: 6 min., 48 sec.
9. Eric Verhoef (KTM) Netherlands: 6 min., 50 sec.
10. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain: 6 min., 54 sec.
The cold air in the special-test press room made my stiff fingers not want to cooperate with my typing of this missive, but I suppose that's nothing compared to what the poor riders are experiencing (Alfie Cox called last night's wet freeway ride "incredible" - an understatement, to say the least). Nonetheless, the fans were out once again on the drive down to the special test this morning, lining the freeway overpasses in the rain. Families, children, grandparents - they all turn out to wave at the colorful cars and bikes as they flash by on the freeway.
There was also a strong spectator turnout for the special test, where they received the award of being sprayed by mud from the cars navigating the same grass track as the motorcycles (the big trucks didn't do the special test, as it was too muddy). After taking in that scene, we loaded back into the Franco-mobile (a Ford diesel mini van painted in Acerbis colors) and headed down to the check point in Brive-la-Gaillarde, passing the site of the infamous Gilles Lalay Classic (a brutal off-road race named after the talented French enduro rider who died in the 1992 Paris-Capetown Rally) along the way. For the check point, the competitors exited the freeway and motored into town, where thousands of fans welcomed them. There was time for a quick bite to eat (we also gulped down some food) before the racers remounted and continued south to the stage's finish in Narbonne.
During that drive, the rain stopped, and the temperature picked up as we neared the coast. Hopefully, from now on, the weather will be more like what I imagined from an African rally.