Outside magazine, March 1996
With a liter bottle of Coca-Cola in one hand and a mayonnaise-slathered salami sandwich in the other, Herve Dubuis, captain of the French Team Intersport in last December's Raid Gauloises adventure race, pondered the sporting event's eternal mystery: Why do French teams always seem to win?
Dubuis gazed toward the heavens, admiring Argentina's Mont Tronador--which he had just descended by means of rappelling and jogging--the way a lesser man might gaze upon a new Porsche. "I think," he said at last, "we do so well in this race because we like doing it very much."
It was blatant understatement. The Frenchman and his teammates had just spent four days and nights scurrying up 14,000-foot peaks, paddling down cold-as-a-glacier streams, and riding horses across Patagonia's windswept desert, all without sleeping. And now, at a mandatory stopover, they were taking a break under a tree, fueling up for the coming stages as if they were at a Super Bowl party. Sipping red wine, eating brie, and smoking unfiltered cigarettes, they even managed, between mouthfuls, to belt out a few merry ditties about friendship and the mother country.
Such hedonism, of course, was harder to find outside the 20 French camps. Sunburned and dehydrated, many of the Americans, Japanese, Italians, and Australians, among others, looked like candidates for emergency rescue--and some still had a week to go. Sipping at protein drinks and gnawing low-fat energy bars, they talked with painful frankness about blisters and backaches. "You," French sportswriter Antoine le Tenneur told some Americans, "have not learned how to do the Raid Gauloises."
Conceived in 1989 by journalist Gerard Fusil, the Raid is a ten-day, 400-mile stage race held in a different outback locale every year. In 1994 it took place in Borneo; the year before that, Madagascar. Five-person teams, each with at least one woman aboard, must navigate their way over mountains, down rivers, and across deserts. All team members must cross the finish line together, or the squad is disqualified.
As expected, when the starting gun blasted near the town of Barilochi, French teams took an early lead into the mountains. Teams Coflexip and Intersport then added distance between themselves and the pack during the canoeing and horseback-riding stages. On the eighth day, Coflexip surged into first place for good. They cinched down their packs and ran four hours across the plains to the finish in Traful, posting a time of eight days, two hours, and 45 minutes. The leading American group, Team Extreme, finished two days later, officially clocking in at ten days, two hours, and 26 minutes.
A disappointment? "Nah," said Pat Harwood, a Californian. "I don't think Americans will ever win unless they go to France for a year and learn to think like Frenchmen."
"In this way," said le Tenneur, puffing deeply on a cigarette, "I think the Raid is very much like life."