Equipped with a minuscule motorhome and a pair of cool dirt bikes, two men follow the World Rally Championship across Ireland – if only it were that simple. Words by Mark Forsyth.
Speeding away from Knock airport, we must look a picture – me and the biggest photographer in the UK (1.93m tall, 150kg and a second dan black belt in karate) squeezed into the smallest motorhome you’ve ever seen in your life, towing a ramshackle trailer with two big dirt bikes on the back. We’re on the bump stops, pedal to the metal, being blown around by a force-six gale as we desperately head for Sligo to keep a 2.30pm interview appointment with five-times World Rally champion Sébastien Loeb.
We’re going World Rally chasing. And it’s round one of this year’s World Rally Championship (WRC) – Rally Ireland. But the Citroën Nemo Romahome R10 Solo (yes, that’s its full name) delivers the goods. Through lashing, horizontal rain we make it to World Rally HQ with an hour to spare. The interview is really funny – you’d be amazed how real and down-to-earth these World Rally drivers are – but the highlight is Sébastien coming out to laugh at our palatial motorhome.
He sits in the driver’s seat and looks over his shoulder. “You travel like two women,” he scoffs, in a mocking reference to our floor-to-ceiling luggage. Thanks Sébastien, actually most of that’s camera gear.
Fittingly, Rally Ireland’s operational HQ is sited at the four-star Clarion Hotel in Sligo. It’s an imposing, grey building that used to be the area’s main mental asylum – amazing what a lick of paint and some wallpaper can do for a building. The new psychiatric unit – asylum is the wrong term today – is located next door and, while spacious, is not a patch on the current rally HQ. This madness link, bearing in mind the event, the area and our task, seems apt. The size puzzles us, though – such a small town and such a massive loony bin.
Our original idea was to chase the rally on dirt bikes. We’d been to see Rally GB in Wales last December and watched, jealously, as canny bike-mounted rally fans flitted effortlessly between the remote stages and endless traffic jams over mountain-top trails and dirt roads, thus catching all the action. Having ridden bikes since, well, longer than I care to remember, it seemed like the obvious choice.
Our plan fell through when we took delivery of a one-berth Citroën motorhome. With no heating and without space to swing the proverbial cat, we realised we’d need at least one hotel room every night. The build-up to the event involved nights of meticulous planning, ordering masses of inch-to-a-mile OS maps and cross-referencing the stage information from the WRC website. What could possibly go wrong?
Two further things do go wrong.
The weather goes crazy in biblical proportions, while the crowds expand by the hundreds of thousands. The rain falls horizontally, the wind blows harder than you could possibly imagine, and we’ve completely underestimated the power of local knowledge. It’s all very well having great maps, but only local knowledge tells you which roads are passable in rally traffic and when it’s prudent to park up and walk. And walk. And walk.
Rallying at World Championship level is a sight to behold. On closed public roads, these professional lunatics defy Newton’s basic laws to get from A to B in the shortest time possible. This involves a driving technique way beyond that of the best Hollywood stunt drivers, combined with bravery akin to search-and-rescue men. The cars jump through the air over bumps, drift sideways through tree-strewn corners and send showers of sparks up at every dip. And you can stand right at the side of the road to watch it all with just a piece of red-and-white safety tape and a marshal’s whistle to protect you. The popping and banging of the exhausts and whoosh and hiss of turbochargers echoes around the valleys. It is fantastic, make no mistake.
But watching it takes more than planning. It takes cunning and a certain amount of craftiness – something the local Irish fans seem to be very good at. Despite our best efforts, we see precious little rallying – 200,000 keen, local rally fans outsmart and out plan us. What we do see, though, is electrifying. Real cars, real drivers and real risk – the complete opposite of your average big-money Formula 1 Grand Prix.
We also see some of Ireland’s stunningly beautiful west coast – when the clouds lift, that is. We spend a couple of days on the bikes, both bitterly cold and one wetter than the other. Parking our steeds for a photo outside a bar in the village of Cliffoney, James and I both agree that even though we’re frozen stiff, soaked down to our underwear and hungry, this part of Ireland is incredible – raw, visually arresting, alive. It was quite an admission for a pair of travel-weary hypothermia candidates.
Sligo and the stylish Glasshouse Hotel provide a base for our three-day trip. Not only is the town the rally’s hub, but as one of the biggest towns on the Atlantic coast, it also offers a wide variety of eating opportunities. We have the best meal of the journey at a riverside bar called Fiddlers. If you go, check out their steaks. Incredible. My Nan always used to say “never eat anything bigger than your head”. She’d have been shocked by the proportions on offer here.
Sligo sits on the delta of the river Garavogue, its outlet to the sea providing a sheltered tidal harbour. In full flood, the river is deafeningly loud and turbulently powerful. It is also the colour of Guinness, full of peaty storm-flood water.
Dating back to prehistory, Sligo originated because of its rich abundance of shellfish and its natural harbour – a literal translation of its Irish name Sligeach being “shelly place”. The poet WB Yeats was a local, and other well-known residents have included three members of boyband Westlife.
The town itself is buzzing with a hectic and thirsty nightlife, particularly on Saturday nights. By day you’ll be amazed by the surrounding mountainous landscape and the friendly and approachable locals. It’s easy to see what inspired Yeats’ verse. The locals here have a poetic knack, their language peppered with flowery words and orchestrated with almost musical expression.
But it’s the natural beauty of Sligo and its dramatic hill-and-cliff-dominated coastline that wins me over, and a pair of dirt bikes are the perfect way to see it all – you really breathe in the feeling of a place when travelling on two wheels on the open road, it’s a visual feast. And of course the bikes themselves are brilliant conversation openers with complete strangers.
On our one-hour drive back to Knock, squished inside our mini-caravan, all biked and rallied out, we tune into a local radio station only to catch a Sligo songwriter singing one of his folk ditties. “You’re the onions in my burger, the sugar in my tea, I’ll have another pint of stout before I go and pee. Oh Cynthia, oh Cynthia, you’re the girl for me.” Perfect.
Bike rental in Ireland
We took a BMW F800GS and a Yamaha Tenere. Both were perfect for the narrow, bumpy, twisty coastal roads. Also worth checking out are KTM bikes. You can hire a wide range of similar bikes from www.irishbike.com, from about €100 a day, a rate that comes down after the first three days. You’ll need to be over 23 years old and have held your licence for at least two years.
We drove the Citroën Nemo Romahome R10 Solo motorhome. If you’re travelling and exploring an area on your own, this cheeky little bed-on-wheels may be just the ticket. Fitted with a 1.4 turbo diesel engine, it’s nippy, thrifty and fun to drive – not something you could normally accuse a motorhome of being. You’ll have to travel reasonably light – and eating, living and sleeping requires something of a well-practised knack – but this is the perfect way for the solo traveller to really explore every route. We didn’t find anywhere that the Nemo wouldn’t fit. On-the-road prices for this model start at £20,000 (€20,590).
For more details, visit www.romahome.com
World Rally 2009 dates and venues
Fly Ryanair to watch the World Rally Championship in destinations across Europe
2–5 April, Vilamoura
RALLY ITALY SARDINIA
22–24 May, Olbia
26–28 June, Mikolajki
31 July–2 August, Jyvaskyla
2–4 October, Salou
RALLY GB WALES
23–25 October, Cardiff/Swansea
To find out more about the rallies, drivers and teams, as well as further race destinations, visit www.wrc.com