Squaring The Triangle

Originally Published: May 2004

Last year, the Triangle Vert ended up with a number of vehicles being damaged by the terrain. For 2004, however, France’s most northerly randonnée was right back on track – and it attracted more British competitors than ever

France’s northernmost randonnée, the Triangle Vert, this year attracted more entries from Britain than ever before. Organised by the Hors Macadam Club, the one-day event traditionally explores the field roads and byways in the area around St Omer, but this year it headed north from its starting point in Alquines, giving competitors a surprise glimpse of the Channel as they navigated the coastal tracks between Caps Gris-Nez and Blanc-Nez.

Being based within an easy hour’s drive of Calais, the Triangle Vert has always been popular with British off-roaders. Some years ago, it used to attract a strong entry from

the Southern Counties Off Road Club, but nowadays the majority of cross-channel participants are from Kent-based Club Off Road Europe, whose members can always be relied on for an especially impressive display of modified Range Rovers in the car park beforehand.

In this case, the car park was around the back of the village hall, which appeared to double up as a café. The two parts of the building are linked by a corridor which is also home to the toilets, and as competitors walked through it for the briefing they were assaulted by a smell the likes of which can only previously have existed in Stephen King novels. There are some rank bogs in the world, but the stench was beyond description, both in terms of what it actually smelt like and how utterly overpowering it was. For those who had endured the dinner after last year’s event, it did not bode well for the likely state of our health by the time we got back to Le Shuttle.

Happily, as it was to turn out, the all-pervading queasiness in everyone’s stomachs had subsided by the time we got to the lunch break. And by then, it was becoming clear that another unfortunate aberration from last year’s Triangle Vert was not going to be repeated – normally, the event is challenging but non-damaging for standard vehicles, but twelve months ago competitors were returning to Britain with scratched, gouged panels, battered front spoilers and bent side steps. And it wasn’t just the factory motors that suffered – we spoke to drivers of modded 90s nursing tyre and shock damage after what was surely the roughest course in the event’s history.

Part of the problem last year was that there had been a complete lack of rain, meaning the organisers had to use tracks that maybe they would normally have steered clear of in an attempt to give the teams something better than a high-range drive-round. This year, on the contrary, they had set out a route that was if anything a little on the tame side – at least, it was until two days’ non-stop rain in the run-up to the event meant there was plenty of surface slime and water to make things interesting.

Even so, the organisers’ dire warnings about a river crossing during the morning’s roadbook turned out to be more than a little exaggerated. In the briefing, we were told the water was 80cm high – that’s a bit more than two and a half feet – and that only diesels would be allowed through. By the time we got there, however, having first been intercepted by a couple of very excitable marshals about a mile previously, the ford had risen to a metre in depth – three foot three inches, more than enough to make you stop and think.

With a high-spirited crowd gathered around the crossing, which was immediately downstream of an old mill in the middle of a village, driver after driver was scared off by the marshals’ dire warnings and opted to take the chicken run across a nearby bridge. Not so the team from Total Off Road, however… though even the normally fearless Kit Kaberry, in his snorkel-armed 90 Tdi, thought long and hard before easing his way into the fast-flowing water.

By the time he was halfway through, it was already obvious that the water was nowhere near as deep as the organisers were saying. Having seen this, Kat Thornton leapt into the driver’s seat of the editorial passion wagon and, in complete defiance of the marshals’ orders about petrol engines, showed that anything a Defender can do, a Cherokee with a grand’s worth of suspension can do too.

Dep Ed Tim Gibson elected not to be quite so cavalier with his near-standard Vitara, but he wouldn’t have had a problem. We can say this with some certainty, because in marked contrast to our blood-and-thunder efforts, a couple of local competitors came along a few minutes later in a 110 and tiptoed through – and the water level on their sills showed a depth of around twelve to fifteen inches. Still enough to be interesting, of course, but certainly not a ford to send petrol-engined 4x4s running for higher ground.

All the same, after criticising the organisers for the damage that was done last year, it would be churlish to have a go at them now for playing over-cautious with their punters’ vehicles. And the overall course was indeed far more appropriate this year for an event that describes itself as ‘touristique’ in character – even if the sight of a short-wheelbase Unimog and a fast-moving marshal on a quad suggested an approach to green laning that would furrow a brow or two back in Britain.

Even so, the Hors Macadam Club’s thoroughness in setting out the route most assuredly cannot be faulted. There’s a common misconception among British off-roaders that you can drive pretty much anywhere there’s a track in France, but the organisers had plenty of work to do to obtain the necessary permissions to use many of the routes included in the roadbook. Just as well they did, too, because the head of the convoy happened upon a bunch of ramblers who, having racially abused at least one British driver, angrily surrounded the first French speaker they could find and started haranguing him about needing permission from the landowner, the mayor, the principality, the regional assembly, the government and the Pope in order to drive there. As always, there’s good and bad in everyone, and some of them were as polite and conciliatory as you could want – but the irony of this incident happening just a few days after Janet Street-Porter’s now-infamous anti-4x4 tirade in the gutter press was lost on nobody.

At least we had been prepared for the bilious nature of this encounter by the stink around the toilets earlier on. And things were looking up when we got to our lunch stop, in the village of Saint Inglevert, because in marked contrast to last year, the fare we were served up with was well worthy of the reputation most French 4x4 events have earned themselves.

That was kind of appropriate, because after a bit of a blip in 2003, this year’s Triangle Vert was back on form. By the end of the afternoon, when we arrived back in toilet-stinking-hell-ville, we had only been forced to cut a few hundred yards of track where other vehicles were stuck. Our vehicles were magnificently caked in trophy mud, yet the tow rope had only come out three times – each because with its long wheelbase, low clearance and independent front end, Tim’s Vitara had grounded out in ruts or caught on a breakover.

With so much driving on hillside tracks overlooking the Channel, too, the feeling of adventure was magnified – the Triangle Vert suffers from not offering the same sort of scenery as the grand randonnées of the south, but the coast offered an unlikely antidote to this, especially as the weather proved almost unfeasibly benign. As always, there’ll be people who moan about never having to put their vehicles into low box, but as roadbook events go, the Hors Macadam Club is used to getting it right – and after failing to do so last year, it’s good to see that the organisers of the most Brit-friendly foreign event on the planet are right back on track.

 Words and pictures Alan Kidd

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