Bunch Of Arras

Originally Published: January 2015 Words: Alan Kidd Pictures: Alan Kidd

Bunch of Arras, Mate

 Fifty vehicles stuck on a green lane? It could only happen on a French randonnée – and the Triangle Vert attracts more British entries than any other.

The lane’s so narrow, no-one can get round it. All there is to do is reverse. But we can’t do that, either: there’s a convoy of fifty vehicles behind us. And none of the first three motors on the road have any means of self-recovery. Yes, this is definitely going to be a tough one.

The Triangle Vert is not the best known of France’s many randonnées. But it attracts more British entries than any other. A one-day event that’s usually held around Easter time, it offers a mixture of wide open farm tracks, rutted lanes and the occasional sea of mud – and what attracts so many entries from across the Channel is that unlike many of France’s more famous randonnées, it’s held within a stone’s throw of Calais.

This year’s event was in fact a little further afield than usual, being based in the town of Béthune (look on a map and you’ll see that it’s still not far from Calais). The organising Hors Macadam Club says it’s started having to limit numbers in order to avoid arousing the wrath of local ‘antis’ – a sign, perhaps, that these events, which have at times provided some spectacularly chaotic scenes, are going to have to start becoming a lot more disciplined in future.

Not that that was very apparent as the gaggle of 4x4s waited for us four hapless Brits at the head of the convoy to get our act together. Two standard Discoverys, a Cherokee and a winched-up 90 on big mud tyres… and which one do you think we chose to lead the way?

So here we are in our Cherokee, third in line with the 90 behind us, finally the Discoverys have got through and now it’s our turn. We’re on BFG Mud-Terrains, that’s something, but we’ve looked at the ground and what’s causing the problem is a set of deep ruts. And with our independent front end…

Oh well, nothing for it but to try. Select four-wheel drive, lock the centre diff, low box and give it death… Hold on, it’s an automatic, would high box be better? High box, and give it death. Or should we try and spin our way through? What the hell, just give it death anyway and let’s see what happens.

Look at that, we’re stuck.

Discovery number two yanks us off our perch, muddy ropes get tossed in the back of previously tidy vehicles, the 90 walks through the ruts as if they weren’t there and we’re away. As it happens, this was about the only really dodgy part of this year’s route – last year’s event was a breeze, and we reached the finish so early there was no-one there to book us in, but previous Triangles Verts have seen winches, snatch blocks and kinetic ropes being pressed into action to get all but the very most robustly prepared vehicles through some mighty great fields of mud.

As it happens, our group of four has previous experience of doing the Triangle Vert in altogether angrier-looking vehicles. Kit Kaberry, he of stuck Discovery number one, used to campaign a 200Tdi 90 with a winch, a Drew Bowler cage and an ARB in the rear, before moving on to the Heritage 90 that made way for his current chariot. That ARB came in handy many a time – as well as saving our collective bacon on the 1998 event, when between us we suffered four slow punctures in the space of a hundred yards. We made it home on what we had left, stopping every few miles to reinflate our flagging rubber with the air line from the ARB’s compressor.

Justin Thomas’ greatest moment, meanwhile, came when he took part at the helm of the Camel Trophy Discovery belonging to his employer, Testers Land Rover, which suffered more mechanical traumas during one day in France than it had on the Trophy itself. And he was in the navigator’s seat of stuck Discovery number two.

Last, and probably least, the bloke in the stuck Cherokee competed several times in another 90, best remembered for bearing the initials of the Land Rover magazine he used to work for and usually having an odd number of spotlights on its roll cage, before campaigning a hybrid borrowed from Gumtree Engineering which stopped for nothing and sported a set of Bronco tyres that made little girls cry. The fourth Brit, in the 90 behind us, was working for yet another Land Rover magazine at the time but has since seen the attraction of TOR; her photos are to be found on pages four and 56 of this issue.

All of which begs the question, is this kind of off-roading more fun in a vehicle that can do it at a canter, or one that’ll make you work to get through? Well, we had a ball on previous events, and we had a ball this time, too. Maybe we weren’t quite so gung-ho, though, in deference to our altogether daintier vehicles, and this to me is the nub of it.

What you want to get out of your off-roading is down to personal preference – but in my view, the main thing is not to worry so much about whether you’ll get stuck, but to be comfortable with the idea of your 4x4 sustaining a few scratches. The big problem in a shiny new vehicle is that every time it grounds out, or a thorn bush hacks at its paintwork, you cringe; and for me, to spend the whole day trying to avoid that takes the fun out of it.

Not that the Triangle Vert is ever a damaging event; neither the Cherokee nor the Discoverys suffered any woes, save from the sort we could get rid of with a bit of T-Cut. But we did get superbly muddy – and one of the most enjoyable parts of an event like this is the drive back, the looks you get in the queue for your Channel crossing, the feeling of arriving home in a 4x4 that’s seen some proper action.

In our case, you can add to that the surreal experience of pulling in to a petrol station in Folkestone, turning round after paying the cashier – and coming face to face with Vic Reeves. He was wearing a waistcoat. I was wearing several pounds of mud. Bet I looked cooler.

Keepin’ It Real

 First experience of the new Cherokee, first lane of the day and we’re stuck. Not to worry, the two Discoverys ahead of us got stuck here too. The difference being, of course, that no-one expected us to make it…Why do people think the Cherokee’s gone soft? It looks less like a tank now, for sure. But you see people comparing it to things like the Freelander, which isn’t even close to being in the same class.

Chrysler Jeep has pulled off a very clever trick with the new Cherokee. It’s different – but it’s the same. In terms of character, once you get past its rather peculiar appearance you start seeing the bloodline going back to the Cherokee that took Britain by storm a decade ago. And it’s all-round better to drive – yet somehow reassuringly similar to the much-loved old model.

Off-road, the old Cherokee was a revelation. The new one’s maybe a touch more prone to grounding out, but it’s every bit as agile, and its coil-sprung rear means you don’t get the same wheels-up antics as before. Is that a good thing? Not if you’re a congenital show-off, but I’ll try and see past that.

Our Cherokee took to the Triangle Vert like a duck to water. Its steering is better weighted than of old, its transfer lever worked more smoothly than any Jeep’s I’ve ever driven and, for all you say about its body shape, terra firma didn’t once threaten to make contact. In fact, the only damage it sustained came when a crate of duty-free beer took umbrage at the rough terrain and started exploding in the back. Bunch of proper Arras, mate.

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