Andorra Rally 1974
Part 5: For the Badge
My decision was to go on! Explaining this to the rest of the group wasn't perhaps what they expected to hear, although looking back on it now, knowing me as they did, I think they understood my motivation. For their part they were going to join Salvert at the hotel in Ax-les-Thermes, leaving me here at the side of the road.
With all the physical hardships we had endured so far, not to mention my seriously depleted finances, it was, at least for me, inconceivable that I should capitulate so close to the goal.
Don't forget I was riding pillion, so this meant that if I was to continue, I would have to hitch a lift to Andorra and luckily at this time of the night, there were still a few cars passing by on their way to the pass. Maybe, with a bit of luck, someone would perhaps stop and offer me a lift and sooner or later I would arrive in the Andorran capital. Once there, I would simply go to the rally control, register everyone and bring them back the commemorative badge and sticker. I was confident that I would be able to return to Ax-les-Thermes, the same way, by hitchhiking, and hopefully arrive back at the hotel on Sunday morning.
Of course, some of my friends tried to dissuade me, but nothing was going to change my mind. I was far too stubborn to consider their point of view. My self-confidence was such that I never doubted my chances of success and at 18 years old the carefree, enthusiastic and optimistic nature of youth puts doubt, fear and worry to one side.
Alone to continue the adventure
Everyone gave me the money for their own rally entry fee; and perhaps to ease their own collective conscience, they all waited with me for a car to stop alongside us and offer me a lift. I watched from the car as 4 motorcycles disappeared into the night in the opposite direction back down the road we had taken so long to conquer.
After several kilometres driving at low speed to the snowy village of Pas de la Casa, now of course as a passenger on four wheels; we finally arrived. The sight of so many deserted motorcycles made me feel as if some kind of parallel rallies had been run the same weekend as the Andorra meeting. So much so that an uninformed observer might have believed that there were in fact three different meetings. One on the French side in Ax-les-Thermes, another at the border in Pas de la Casa, and of course the official one in Andorra la Vella.
The heavy snowfalls stranded several hundred rallyists in Ax-les Thermes, and much the same number in Pas de la Casa. As such, the weather deprived many of the chance to participate in the great annual international meeting of 1974, organised by the Moto Club of Andorra.
By now we'd reached the top of the pass at Port d'Envalira and the descent brought us ever closer to Andorra la Vella. It was here that I noticed frustratingly, there seemed to be far less snow than on the ascent coming from France.
If Jean-Louis Marie hadn't felt ill a few kilometres from Pas de la Casa, and we had continued our climb, I remain convinced to this day that we would all have finally managed to reach the rally. However, this potential achievement would not have been without its hardships and much effort and fatigue along the way. It would have meant many more hours in the saddle, arriving at the rally closer to dawn than very late at night.
Finally, I reach the rally
The French driver who had given me a lift, and with whom I had time to talk about our adventures, was kind enough to drop me off right next to the rally site. The rally control was still open and I didn't waste any time registering the whole group. I was really only interested in keeping the medals and the stickers, everything else, including the tickets for the Sunday lottery with its legendary prizes, was given away to the first biker I met.
I was on-the-clock and didn't have a single minute to lose. I needed to return by my own means to Ax-les-Thermes, about sixty kilometres away, late in the day which I knew would not be easy. Unfortunately, I couldn't linger at the rally site to see if I could meet up with old friends. My one and only visit to Andorra had lasted all of twenty minutes!
Andorra la Vella
Despite the late hour luckily, I had no difficulty hitchhiking my second means of transportation that night. However, this driver could only take me a few kilometres away, dropping me off by the roadside. Beggars can't be choosers and it was better than nothing.
Trapped in a blizzard
As it happened, I was in for a shock.
At the time, I didn't have the means to afford the best in motorcycle clothing and the best gear of the 1970s was far removed from the quality of what's produced today. My most expensive possession back then was my Belstaff Trialmaster suit. The jacket bought new in Paris was my December 1971 Christmas present and the used trousers were a later addition bartered with a friend for something I can't now remember. I didn't even have a leather motorcycle jacket to put under the Belstaff to better protect me from the cold. To endeavour to compensate for its absence I'd put old newspapers under a thick woollen sweater. The first jacket I was able to buy for myself was in 1975 at Lewis Leathers, at their old store on Great Portland Street.
In the North of France, yours truly on his way to the 1974 Keignaert rally in Belgian Flanders. You can spot the collar of that thick knitted wool sweater I'm talking about above, sticking out of the Belstaff jacket.
So, there I am, all alone at the roadside in the middle of the mountains heading hopefully in the direction of Port d'Envalira. I should say that I am the sort of person who feels the cold and now lack of sleep, accumulated fatigue and sheer cold weather began to take its toll.
Since there wasn't a car in sight, I thought I'd walk in the hope that it would warm me up a bit. My cheap old motorcycle boots were thoroughly soaked through by now and having cold feet does nothing to help you warm up. In addition, Belstaff pants are not the type of clothing that allows one to walk easily in the snow.
Then the first few snowflakes began to fall. As the minutes passed, those few sparse flakes became thicker and thicker, until I found myself in the midst of a blizzard. I suddenly realised that I was all alone in the mountains, trapped in the middle of a storm. I told myself that there was no point in panicking and wearily continued despite the fact that the worsening conditions made attempts to walk even more difficult. I had no option but to walk. Standing still threatened the possibility of hypothermia and there was no shelter to be found out there, on this dark, bleak, soulless mountain road in the middle of nowhere.
Sud Radio (one of the main sponsors of the Andorra rally) transmitter at Pic Blanc (2650m) near Port d'Envalira. Commissioned in May 1964, and closed in November 1981 by the Andorran authorities, its two transmitters consisted of two pylons 86 metres high.
I had absolutely no idea how long this storm would last. Maybe a few hours, or perhaps if I was unlucky it would go on all night? All I knew is that to survive, I must not stop walking and above all not lie down to rest and fall asleep.
Time seemed to pass more slowly as I desperately strained my eyes searching for car headlights in the distance. My legs were stiff and my whole body was frozen and so very tired. I prayed that a car would appear by some miracle and save me. But no headlights appeared.
How long was I walking? I had no way of knowing. It seemed like an eternity, and then as if by a miracle a car appeared. Hopefully rescue was at hand. To my relief the car stopped and beckoned me inside. Two friendly Frenchmen were returning from Andorra and going to Pas de la Casa where they dropped me off at the French customs post.
Pas de la Casa
The customs officers of Pas de la Casa
Relating my sorry tale to the customs officers, they offered me cups of hot black coffee and I began to warm up. The inside of the customs post was strewn with crowds of bikers haphazardly arranged in sleeping bags on the floor.
Outside, their machines were covered in snow and among them I recognised the splendid 650 Dresda Triumph cafe racer of Christian 'Coco' Kozdeba and the Laverda 750 of his friend Jacques Daubigny, at the time, two of the most active members of the Montlucon motorcycle club. This was my hometown's only club affiliated with the FFM (French Motorcycling Federation). They'd also found themselves stranded.
Christian 'Coco' Kozdeba, one of the most active and well-known rallyists representing the town of Montlucon.
My mission was still uppermost in my mind despite, or perhaps because of, what I'd been through, and I explained to the customs officers that I absolutely had to be in Ax-les-Thermes as soon as possible to join my friends there at the hotel. Taking sympathy with my plight, one of them promised he would ask the driver of the first car coming through from Andorra to give me a lift.
He kept his word. The first car, with an elderly French couple inside, arrived at the border around 6:00 am and agreed to take me. The journey with them to Ax-les-Thermes took longer than it should because the old man at the wheel was a really bad driver, and he seemed to have no experience at all driving on ice and snow.
Sitting as a passenger in the back of their car was one of the scariest car rides I can remember to date.
Needless to say, a deep feeling of relief came over me when I said goodbye once we'd arrived at the hotel where the whole gang was sleeping.
Mission and challenge accomplished
I walked up the stairs to their bedroom and knocked on the door. Most of the gang were still asleep. I myself hadn't slept in 24 hours. Obviously they weren't expecting me so early and were surprised and happy to see me again. I pulled the Andorra rally badges and stickers out of my pocket and gave each of them their sets.
The mission I had given myself had been accomplished. To achieve this though, I had needed, amongst other things, the help of kindly motorists, without whom I may have perished, stuck all alone in that mountain pass snowstorm.
A few hours later we were on our way home, once more all together again.
The Andorra rally ran until 1977. I never went back there again. Not because I no longer wanted to, but, as any rallyist knows too well, because it's simply impossible - either for lack of cash or lack of time. To attend all the meetings one would like to, is of course an unrealistic dream. But we can all dream, can't we?
- Jean-Francois Helias