Andorra Rally 1974

Part 4: Andorra Rally 1974

We'd all chatted on the phone about our trip to Andorra for the 'concentracio motocyclista', and finally on the morning of 28 September 1974, the five of us met in Chenerailles ready for the drive to the Pyrenees.

The official announcement of the rally published in the French press at the time.

Our group comprised Serge Marie on his Honda CB 750; his brother Jean-Louis on his MZ 250; Alain Vareillaud on a Ducati Mark 450; and a guy named Champeval, a biker from Gouzon, on his Yamaha 350. In order to save money I was going to leave my machine, (a Honda CB 125 S customised in cafe racer version), at Serge's home for the weekend and to ride as a pillion behind. This meant we could share some of the expense of the trip and of course save money at the same time. Another obvious advantage for everyone was speed, since my bike would have undoubtedly slowed the group down.

Our adventure started badly though. Champeval arrived two hours late! I can't remember exactly the reason for his non-appearance at the allotted time, but I do remember the delay led to unforeseen consequences much later that day and had a marked bearing on events.

Our itinerary

The indispensable tool of the rallyist at the time was the well-loved Michelin road map with the instantly recognisable red cover. Consulting our copy showed that our starting point in Chenerailles was a little over 550 kilometers from our final goal, Andorra la Vella.

It also showed us the best route, first to the tiny town of Bourganeuf, then onto larger towns such as Limoges, Cahors, Montauban, and finally Toulouse. From there we would only have to travel around 130 kilometers to reach Ax-les-Thermes, nestled at an altitude of 720 meters in the upper valley of the Ariege, in the heart of the Pyrenees.

This is what Ax-les-Thermes normally looks like in much milder weather than the unexpected snow and cold we had to deal with that weekend in late September 1974. In this high mountain environment, sudden snowfalls and heavy frosts often suddenly occur. As such, the access and ascent to the Port d'Envalira pass therefore become extremely complicated.

From Ax-les-Thermes, all that would be left would be to climb the 31km long pass to Pas de la Casa, the border between Andorra and France, and the only road crossing point between the two countries. Then, onto Port d'Envalira, one of the highest mountain roads in the country at an altitude of 2,408m, also said to be the highest paved road in the Pyrenees.

Finally, we would descend the pass in the direction of Andorra la Vella, a distance of around 33km passing through three villages, Soldeu, Encamps, and Les Escaldes.

A good sixty kilometres separate the towns of Ax-les-Thermes and Andorra la Vella, via the high mountain road through Port d'Envalira, at an altitude of 2,408m, (7900ft), located in Andorra.

700 rallyists stranded in Ax-les-Thermes and 600 in Pas de la Casa

Our ride had been without incident until we arrived in Ax-les-Thermes. Of course we didn't expect to find any snow at all. As soon as we passed the road sign indicating the town, to our great surprise, it appeared as though a winter motorcycle rally was in progress, so many motorcycles were there. They were absolutely everywhere, many of them parked in front of the bars, restaurants and hotels.

What were all these late comers doing? They seemed in no hurry to reach Andorra, although it was already late afternoon and the light was fading. Why weren't all these motorcyclists already in Andorra, at the meeting place, celebrating and enjoying the rally?

After some enquiries it turned out that the unseasonal weather was to blame. More than 700 rallyists were stuck on the French side in Ax-les-Thermes; and around another 600 were stuck 30 kilometres away, on the Andorran side, at the border post of Pas de la Casa. All stranded by the snow.

View of the Pas de la Casa in Andorra. The origin of this name goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, at a time when this area was unoccupied except for a single shepherd's hut hence its name 'Pas de la Casa' meaning in Catalan 'passage of the house'. Nowadays, this village, nestled at an altitude of 2200 meters, has about 3000 inhabitants.

No way to get to Andorra

Heavy snowfall the night before and continuing during the day had made the road impassable and we were unable to climb to the top of the Envalira pass and therefore the final descent to Andorra la Vella.

According to those stranded, the sudden heavy snowfall was so deep that no one had been able to reach the rally in the last 36 hours. Only those who were lucky enough to have crossed the Envalira pass on Thursday had been able to reach Andorra.

Entering Andorra from France by motorcycle through the Port d'Envalira pass, the highest paved road in the Pyrenees with many hairpin turns, can be both a difficult challenge and a stressful affair during the winter months. Sometimes the road can be closed due to heavy snowfall and the risk of avalanches.

It seemed that the bravest who had tried to make it to the other side of the Pyrenees had eventually given up and turned back to Ax-les-Thermes in order to find a place for the night.

A few others, either more skilful riders than most on the snowy roads, or just more stubborn, had succeeded in reaching the border post of Pas de la Casa, but no further. Exhausted by their efforts, and having neither the physical strength or mental will to return, they had chosen to remain there. After all, having ridden for several hours, their feet constantly touching the frozen ground and at a snail's pace, it was only natural that they should seek shelter at the border.

As such, the few hotels that existed were completely overwhelmed. So much so, that as a gesture of good faith and hospitality some of the locals, having seen the plight of these pitiful frozen riders, opened the doors of their own homes to them.

So too the French customs officers: They also showed compassion and understanding by opening their customs post to those who wished to shelter there for the night, sleeping on the ground in their sleeping bags.

A view of the past showing the border between the two countries at Pas de la Casa, with their respective customs posts on each side of the road.

By chance we find my friend Pascal Salvert

As we were riding through the town of Ax-les-Thermes, I suddenly saw the red Suzuki GT 250 of my good friend Pascal Salvert parked in front of a hotel on the side of the road and there was no doubt it was his bike. I recognised it immediately.

Pascal's GT250 (imported to Europe in 1973), like its sister before it, the 1965 T20, was equipped with a 30hp two-stroke engine and a six-speed gearbox, with a top speed of 146 km/h (91 mph). This model, sold in my home town by the Berthon brothers, was extremely popular.

Pascal lived not far from me in a HLM (low-income housing) in the Fontbouillant district of Montlucon. He was working shifts in a plastics factory and earned a very good salary for the time cleaning the autoclaves, a dangerous job with attendant health and safety risks. Not only was he a very cool guy, but, like me, he was passionate about motorcycles and rallying.

The late Pascal Salvert, who died much too young from cancer, was one of my closest friends on motorcycle trips from 1973 to 1975. By chance, we met again in July 2005 in France during the party of a mutual friend.

The kind of guy who was ready to leave at the drop of a hat, even in the middle of the night, if there was a motorcycle rally in the offing. The fact that we were on the same wavelength had brought us together, although his shiftworking was sometimes a handicap to being able to ride together; between 1973 and 1975 we took part in a multitude of events all over France and abroad.

We parked our bikes in front of this hotel and asked the receptionist to call up to his room. He tells us that he arrived in town the day before, tried to climb the frozen pass with his feet constantly on the ground and at low speed, but on a solo bike without studded tyres, it was impossible and after a couple of falls he gave up. He turned back and along with hundreds of other bikers blocked by the snow from reaching Andorra, he took a room in this hotel to rest before returning home on Sunday.

Let's not listen and try for ourselves

Night was almost upon us and we'd lost two precious hours driving this morning because of our friend Champeval. It was truly frustrating to have ridden all this way and be so close to our goal, (only 60 kilometres left), to be stuck. It was galling to have spent nearly all our money on the trip and to have to leave defeated by the elements; not to mention that we would have to do without the event's commemorative badge, an integral part of the trip.

However, this was not the first time we had to face ice and snow. We had to give up the year before, in 1973, on our way back from the Hivernale du Mistral, in Vernou, near Valence. As it happens though, bikers from our group, were very used to riding in winter conditions on snow and icy roads locally. In the heights of the Creuse area where we are from, there is the plateau of Millevaches. From the end of December to the end of February, there are copious snowfalls and many treacherous icy roads. The harsh winters in these regions are icy cold and unforgiving. One quickly learns the rudiments of winter riding when these conditions appear regularly on one's doorstep.

View of the 1973 'Hivernale du Mistral' rally at Vernou, near Valence. A meeting not as icy as the Norwegian Krystall, but nevertheless certainly one of the coldest of the 1970s in France; together with that of Plancher-les-Mines 1976, the one-off sidecar meeting organised by the MC 95, the club behind the creation of the Millevaches rally.

Obviously attempting the ascent at night was much riskier and perilous than during the day. That said though, rather than listening to the spurious chatter of those around us who hadn't even tried and had given up we decided to ignore it. The recklessness of youth and our, (perhaps), undying optimism won out and we decided that we were going to try anyway.

Despite all the obstacles, we were going to attempt to achieve the impossible and conquer the pass, in order to reach the other side of the mountain. If we succeeded, once we arrived at the Andorra rally control we would register Pascal and bring him the commemorative badge, even though he could not go all the way. If we failed, we'd come back to Ax-les-Thermes, re-join him, and sleep on the floor of his hotel room.

Extreme challenge for crazy fanatics

So, there we are in the darkness, attacking the pass, driving barely faster than a slow walk, the soles of our pilots' boots trying in vain to grasp the thick layers of ice and snow that covered the road and with high snowdrift walls blocking us on either side. We are so focused on keeping our balance and avoiding the slightest slip or fall that we fail to realise that at this speed we will need all night to arrive in Andorra.

Imagine this same road (photographed here near Port d'Anvalira) but in the middle of the night, just swept by the beams of four bike headlights, slowly and quietly moving forward, nibbling away at more of the frozen road to get closer and closer to the summit.

Perseverance paid off in the end. Despite having been in the saddle all day, we all drew on the little reserves we had left to be able to continue. Despite a few falls here and there, we managed to climb relatively high in the mountain even though, despite everything we were probably still some distance from the border post of Pas de la Casa.

Suddenly Jean-Louis Marie stopped. He didn't feel at all well. Was it fatigue, too much effort, or the high altitude that made him feel unwell? He couldn't go any further and he said he was going to be sick. Serge, his older brother, was obviously worried. After a brief discussion, it was decided that the health of our friend came first. We had to turn back.

Apart from this incident, everything had gone surprisingly well despite the difficulties of this extreme challenge. What I realised later is that we'd already accomplished most of the hardest part of the drive. Of course, there was still a lot to do but I remain convinced to this day that we would have succeeded by dint of our determination and perseverance.

A personal confession

I can't explain what went through my head at that point, other than the fact that not reaching our goal would for me have been a failure.

On a very personal note, my childhood and thus my teenage years were disrupted and pretty much destroyed by an alcoholic, violent, and verbally abusive father, so that even today I have to prove to myself; (even subconsciously perhaps to my late father), that I was not only more gifted and talented than him, but that I was far better than the words with which he used to suppress me.

In a way, thanks to him, these years of pain and suffering that I had to endure forced me very early on to become a fighter, a challenger, to aspire to be the best, in everything I did and undertook.

Some of the rally mementoes won "the hard way".

Motorcycling and rallies were more than a lifeline for me from the age of 14. I can never thank enough all those people that shared this passion, most of them older than me, who showed me their friendship at times of my life when I was in distress. The trips were my escape from the hell of the family home. Motorcycle touring totally changed my life and, in a big part, made me who I am today.

The same has been true throughout my life and of course I am not alone. We all strive to beat our demons, consciously or not, and perhaps at times my enthusiasm and passion to succeed has blotted out some of the gentler things in life and the slow lane to success, but I guess I never knew how to do anything other than to extremes; having to go further in my experiences than the average person.

Please forgive my frankness but these confessions hopefully shed light on the fact that it was totally out of the question for me, that night, in that Pyrenean pass, to admit defeat and turn back with the rest of the gang.

- Jean-Francois Helias

(To be concluded ) (Continue with Part 5: Final Chapter)