It's hard to make up a better title. "Channel hopping" is the name our British friends give to the "jump" over "The Channel," that infamous sliver of water that separates Scotch whiskey, bowlers (typical English hat), and tea from Camembert, wine, and frog legs. Throw in a winch together with a Challenge, and every true four-wheeler knows we are talking about an event in which the winch plays the principal role.
It started innocently, but afterwards we were sure we had been involved in a historic event. The location supports this, because it is literally drenched with history. The name of the area where this winchfest takes place is called Les Cinq Piliers (the Five Pillars) and is located near the French town of Compigne, about 60 miles north of Paris. During World War I, there was severe fighting in this area. In addition to fighting, the German occupiers carved enormous caves into the hilly areas, which served as bomb shelters for their soldiers and ammunition. The industrious Germans chose this site for their tunnels due to its geological make-up. The local rock consists of relatively soft limestone, which is much easier for boring into than harder rock such as granite. During the 31 months the occupiers stayed in the area, they did a tremendous job, because their gallery of caves stretches out over a length of about three miles. You can easily get lost amidst all the recesses, thoroughfares, and pillars. In the forest above the caves, you also can find a lot of artifacts from the period as well. Graves of deceased soldiers dot the landscape, and German text carved into rocks can be found too. Another common occurrence found carved into rocks is an eagle, the national symbol of Germany.
The owner of 4x4winches.com asked Mick Doherty to organize the event because he was responsible for a similar event in Scotland. Mick contacted Eric Bowyer-Wilson, an Englishman living in France, who suggested the Five Pillars as a site for the event, held last December. The maximum number was limited to 20, and an announcement in a Euro-distributed English-language magazine ensured that it wouldn't be an English-only event. Two Danish teams and three Dutch teams entered-and of course they didn't have to hop over The Channel to reach the battlefield.
Being an English-organized event, it was not surprising the large number of Land Rovers taking part. Two Toyotas, one Suzuki, and one Mercedes G-Wagen were the only "outsiders" for the weekend. All were extremely well prepared, but the highlight was probably the self-built car from the British father-son duo of Steve and Oliver Lloyd. This 4x4 monster is based on a Range Rover but has axles from a Mercedes Unimog. They modified the axles by shortening them a bit and have even relocated the differentials to boot. Suspension travel is tremendous; the shock absorbers are mounted high on the rollover bar at the back of the car. As further proof, at the front of the vehicle there are two 7-inch protrusions jutting out of the bonnet. The winch attracts a lot of attention too-it's comprised of two Warn 8274s mounted opposite of each other, but using only one drum! Naturally, for this event the organizers demanded a winch on each car, but most teams had a rear winch as well. The three Dutch teams raised an eyebrow or two with a third winch-to secure the top of the car!
The morning started with a good breakfast and (for the English) the ever-so-important tea. For those with a "mental disease," there was coffee or soda available. The vehicles lined up in a circle. On one place, the circle had been broken by two birch trees, between which a purple rope had been strung at a height of roughly 6 1/2 feet-a measuring-rod for the maximum height allowed for the vehicles since one of the seven tasks would take them through the caves. (If a vehicle was too high, the driver was not penalized for not completing this portion of the course.) Four teams competed, and a draw determined the composition of the teams. A team "completed" a segment of the event only after all members of the team had passed the finish line. There were potholes filled with water, plenty of steep, slippery slopes, and here and there you would find mud-in short, nearly every type of terrain to intensify the task for the participants. The climax of the event would be the phenomenal drive through the caves, with candles burning as underground route markers and, if need be, an official pointing you in the right direction.
During the day, drivers were polled for their opinions about the different tasks. Everybody was enthusiastic, with only one complaint: It would have been nicer yet if the tasks had been a little more difficult! The ever-so-polite English organizers apologized for this, but they had a valid reason. The first winch event that Mick organized in Scotland was frequented by less well-prepared vehicles, so the tasks turned out to be too difficult. With that in mind, they prepared the tasks for the French event. To please the competitors, they promised to make the tasks more difficult and longer the next day.
To everyone's delight, they kept their promise. Long parts of the tasks from the previous day were assigned to be driven in the opposite direction, but beside this, the tasks now included a respectable number of almost-perpendicular climbs and descents. Again there was a drive through the caves, but now they added an extra dimension. Halfway down the route, the competitors would lower into a ditch, just to be confronted by a perpendicular rock face of over 6 feet. Ladders were a must here, and happily this was one of the pieces of equipment the participants were required to have.
The fact that no one managed to finish all the tasks proved how difficult they really were. The numerous heads under the bonnets of the vehicles were further proof of the difficulty of the challenges. From one team, only one vehicle managed to finish the race. The surviving car also happened to be driven by the only female participate of the event, Harriet Gowing. First place eventually went to Danish competitor Per Bertelsen; the "Spirit of the Event Award" was given to the Dutch team of Remco Peter van der Waarden and Remco Kerklaan. After the event, the organization announced that they would organize more events like this during 2006, from which two or three were scheduled to take place on Les Cinq Piliers. The news was received with thunderous applause. Need we say more?
Planning a European 4x4 vacation? You can tour the Five Pillars-and other challenging trails in northern France-as part of a weekend 'wheeling expedition. Log onto Mudplug Ltd. at www.mudplug.co.uk for details, and check out www.4x4winches.com for information on the Channel Hopping Challenge.