Wednesday 5th of June 2019.
Blue Sky Hotel, Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
While Herman was somewhere in the hotel plunging into the first of the three thick roadbooks to get a grip on the next five days in Mongolia, I was lying under the Contal in a shabby workshop on a dirty floor, one kilometer from the hotel. The workshop needed to be close to the hotel because I knew this the city had a problem… Ulan Bator, the capital of the least populated country in the world suffers, weird enough, from a permanent traffic congestion. The Belgian Chrysler team found a workshop 5 Km from the hotel and spent in total 5 hours to go forth and back to it… Jeezes, they were pissed!
After the ‘axle debacle’ on the second day in China this was the first chance I had to look intensively for things that could be wrong on the Contal and to tighten every bolt. There is always more work than anticipated. I worked from 8 AM untill 4 PM and don’t ask me what I have been doing. The Mongolian tracks were more demanding on the Contal than I anticipated after all. The fourth rally day, from Camp 1 to Ulan Bator, was pretty much the same as the first Mongolian track day. The only difference was that the arena of sand and grass was predominantly drivable in the sense that deep sand and mud were rather rare. But the ‘normal’ tracks remained a lot of work. Herman and I continued our compulsory off-road-driving-course-on-three-wheels with the conviction that this must be the ultimate punishment for our ambitious dream to finish what Pons had started. The general consensus between us was that if we made it through Mongolia, we would have a chance. So we sort of gladly accepted the bashing.
But something happened (again) that day. At about 20 km from the camp, two Datsun’s 240Z passed us at high speed, racing. The American and Australian team were in the fight of their life not caring who or what was around them. They passed us in the most rude way possible: coming form behind, passing on inches and cutting back on the track just before us, leaving a cloud of dust and stones in the air to meet us. I stopped the Contal to let Herman and me breath and to avoid some of the stones hitting us in the face. This was untenable. This was not why I came here. I am used to offensive behaviour in rallies, but this was just absurd. There were about twenty tracks around us when they passed us, this is no race to the finish and there was no reason to cut in just before us when passing. The doom image of an injured Herman came right back to me. I had to do something about this.
We drive into Ulan Bator just like everybody else, in a huge traffic jam. After an hour or so we arrived at the Blue Sky Hotel, a vertical American looking pancake in blue glass with exorbitant air conditioning. It looked weird, it felt akward… but finally, it was nice. The service was shit but the beer was cold. Who am I to judge?
Once in the hotel, I immediately requested a meeting with the Chris and Guy and consulted with Herman how we would go about that meeting. There were two major questions: how could we avoid the crazy Datsun’s and shouldn’t the Contal (we) go via the tarmac road to Russia instead of following the roadbook, which solved the first question also. Herman was right away against the second choice to go via the tarmac. His argument was that we were not in Mongolia to drive via the tarmac. My argument was that our ultimate aim was to get to Paris, not to get stuck on the tracks in Mongolia with a broken axle… We bickered around for a while without really coming to an agreement. So I went for the meeting with Chris and Guy, the rally organisation. They were very helpful. First, Chris made a scheme of what was waiting for us if we followed the roadbook to Russia. It looked like this:
Day 6: 220 tarmac, 150 gravel and stones
Day 7: 250 tarmac, 130 gravel and stones
Day 8: 341 gravel, stones and a big mountain
Day 9: 24 gravel, 240 tarmac, 180 gravel and stones
Day 10: border day: 46 gravel, 130 mixed = border
And then they gave me solid argument to go via the tarmac: the rules to get a gold medal were, for the Veteran Category (just the steamcar and the Contal), different than for the two other classes. We would get gold if me met 75% of the MTC’s, which meant 48 out of the total of 64 MTC’s. If I took the tarmac to Russia, we would still get gold.
Another element that spooked me was the accident Johan(!) Gitsels had with his Porsche that day. We passed there five minutes after the crash and I must admit that there was not much left of the vehicle. As a miracle Peter missed only a piece of his ear and broke his wrist, while Walter, the co-pilot, was unharmed. Needles to say that I was greatly disturbed, without showing it to Herman. Damn, this bothered me…
The concealed recommendation on that meeting was that I should take the tarmac. They would support me if I decided otherwise, but after some deliberation and with an air of hesitation their advice was: Go on the tarmac. I walked out the meeting in great doubt when I was stopped by David Main and Brian Head from car 11.
They had heard that I was thinking about going on the tarmac. They also told me that the steam car and a few other competitors would do it too and that they would do it if I did it because their wooden wheels would just not be able to cope with the Mongolian tracks. I went up to Herman with a heavy heart. Was this what I wanted? Was the result more important than the way to it? Would, as my inner circle told me, the fact that we did Mongolia on tarmac, be easily forgotten once history took note of our arrival in Paris? Wouldn’t it be stupid to lose all chances to write history, just for the fun of driving tracks in Mongolia? As the elevator went up the 1981 song from Bananarama & the Fun Boy Three kept resonating in my head: “It aint what you do but the way how you do it… that’s what gets results”. By the time I stood in the room to consult with Herman again my mind was made up. I let him explain the whole five roadbook-days in Mongolia again first and I could see he was putting his heart into it. At the end of his plea he finished with the statement that he would, of course, do as I decided. As soon as I revealed that we were going to drive the complete roadbook, I also explained my key argument for this decision to Herman. It was a very practical one. We were allowed to start first anyway, but Chris and Guy also agreed that we could start when we wanted. If we started an hour before the second car we probably would not be bothered by the fast cars any more… The fact that this meant getting up at four or five every morning couldn’t diminish Herman’s happiness and we started preparing joyous for what would become five very memorable days of our lives. Mongolia, here we come. We could not know then that we would have to conquer snow, hail, rain and lightning to drive every meter in that roadbook, to drive every inch of the tracks in that bloody beautiful but inhospitable country, to see every MTC and to become the first three wheeler to drive the whole stretch in Mongolia. Pons did not even get to Ulan Bator…`
When I came down for dinner that evening Chris walked up to me and whispered: “and… what did you decide…?” I smiled to him and said we were not doing the tarmac. The corners of Chris’ mouth went from ear to ear and his eyes sparkled. “ I was hoping you would decide that” he said, and walked on. I have not often been so proud as on that moment… but now we had to do it. There have been moments that I wished I decided otherwise. But that is in the past.