Fulda Challenge
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Story and photos by Laurance Yap

I guess it serves me right, after all the grousing I’ve done about so-called active lifestyle vehicles and most drivers’ lack of active lifestyles, that I’m standing here freezing my butt off in Whitehorse watching a bunch of Toyota-driving extreme-sports athletes crossing the Yukon river on a rope. Observing the active lifestyle I’m supposed to have.

Well, okay then.

This is what Fulda–fully-owned subsidiary of Goodyear that doesn’t sell its products in North America–and Toyota wish every RAV4 driver would be doing. Tearing out the rear seats, loading up on accessories, and charging through the snow off to the latest adventure. I’m here for just four days of the Fulda Challenge, which takes the athletes through two weeks of extreme-sports events and across thousands of arctic kilometres. Among the headliners are events like dogsledding, canyon-crossing, car-pulling. If nothing else, this should be pretty interesting.

Fulda Challenge

Fulda Challenge

Fulda Challenge

Fulda Challenge

Fulda Challenge

Fulda Challenge

Fulda Challenge

Fulda Challenge
Click image to enlarge

The athletes are mostly top-name Europeans, and come from a wide variety of disciplines; rally drivers Hans-Joachim Stuck and Jutta Kleinschmidt, olympic medalist Markus Wasmeir and extreme climber Olaf Reinstadler laid the groundwork for the original event three years ago and leads one of two German guy-girl teams here. There is one Canadian team, too: climber Shelley Wynne-Nairn is from Canmore, and police bomb squad operative Jean-Guy Lavoie comes from Montreal (though he now lives in Edmonton).

They do okay on the first ski-rally event, which is sort of water-skiing in the snow behind a car; Lavoie says “he had a good driver” in Wynne-Nairn, who counters by saying she had “a lousy skiier” when she let Jean-Guy drive. They do pretty well in the dogsledding event, too, although it’s the first time for both of them on the dog-driven wooden contraptions.

In pairs, the athletes are driving Toyota RAV4s with the “Chili” pack, mainly consisting of fancy wheels and hood scoops, but their rear seats have been removed in order to fit all the gear–winter clothing as well as various bits of climbing and pulling equipment–in. They’re riding on Fulda “Tramp Yukon” winter tires and special alloy wheels, and just for fun have also been fitted with a fancy-pants skirt kit. That’s okay: off-roading isn’t on the official, and grueling, 2500-km schedule.

Why RAV4? Partly because Toyota Canada, which provides the vehicles for the teams, has an interest in moving more of them, and more of their new RAV customization parts. But also because there’s a great deal of interest in the vehicle in Europe, and the teams are eager to try them out and customize them. Already the Germans have brought over some unique interior and exterior pieces to try out, and every dashboard sports a tricked-out audio system and various other stylistic accouterments (my favourite being the Italians’ pair of miniature yellow high heels stuck to the dash with bubble gum). Who said extreme athletes didn’t have a sense of humour?

The Canadian press contingent–me and five other guys–are following the event around in a stock Toyota Sequoia. Despite six of us plus luggage packed in–we’ve folded half of the third row to jam in our duffel bags–the big truck makes for a comfortable home, with a powerful and refined engine, great seat warmers, and more than enough room, even though we’re all wearing winter gear that makes us look like abominable snowpeople.

The roads up north are littered with Toyotas, most of them old 4Runners and Corollas still going when most of their similarly-aged compatriots have given in to rust in other, more heavily-salted parts of the country. At our hotel in Whitehorse, there are a couple of new Highlanders, and on the Alaska Highway, every other car seems to be a Tercel or a Matrix. When gas stations, let alone repair shops, are so far apart, the traditional Toyota virtues–bulletproof reliability, exceptional economy, and mechanical longevity–are all the more important.

On the drive to Dawson City, the rear-seat DVD entertainment system keeps the passengers entertained, and the four-wheel-drive system never puts a foot wrong on roads that are frequently snow-covered, and often also sheeted in ice. However, with four sweaty bodies aboard, the HVAC system was overtaxed, leaving a sheen of ice on the inside windows thick enough to need a scraper (we should have stopped talking, one of us said). On the plus side: a stability-control system that saves our collective bacon more than once, and a third row so comfortable it’s actually the preferred passenger seat.

But by far the most amusing part of the trip is the Whitehorse’s one FM radio station, or at least the only one we could pick up. Rather than just one format, it switches from top-40 to talk to country and classical and hip-hop every two hours. This is a good thing: only one of us has thought to bring along a CD, and one of our contingent is NOT a fan of the Eagles. I offer to burn a music CD off my computer but there’s nowhere to buy blank discs from. It’s that kind of trip.

Perhaps befitting the Yukon location, the prize for winning the overall rally is a bunch of gold nuggets worth a total of $10,000. To win, teams have to demonstrate more than just physical fitness and resilience to the elements: they’ve also got to be superb drivers and navigators. Between the fifteen various athletic events are a series of road stages that must be completed in a prescribed time, despite the worst possible winter road conditions–deep snow, sometimes even sheer ice. Thanks to conditions so cold that would prevent any engine from starting after a good night’s sleep, the RAV’s engines are kept running all the time.

They’re kept busy too–not only are the RAVs transportation between events, and a carry-all for the athletes’ camping equipment, but a couple of events involve driving them in pretty extreme ways. There’s an ice-race component to the competition on a frozen lake, for instance, which Jean-Guy does just okay in (surely he has experience power-sliding a Crown Vic), though Shelley does manage to understeer into a snowbank and knock over enough cones for a 50-second penalty. Still, Shelley led the women in the river crossing the night before–good enough so that by now, she’s in second amongst the women, with the Canadians lying fourth overall.

Late into the evening, on an ice wall in Dawson, the Canadians both redeem themselves, clambering to the top at the top of their respective classes. Jean-Guy says he’s had some practice in his spare time (unlike most of the European teams, the Canadians are last-minute entrants and haven’t had months to train), and Shelley makes her living teaching climbing: “it’s just the ice that’s different,” she says. The fact that the entire local population have come out to cheer the Canadians on probably helps, too.

Here’s the weirdest thing about the Fulda Challenge. It’s been run in the Yukon for the last few years, Canadians have participated in the last three, and they even won last year. And yet the event has zero North American coverage–in fact, there’s a TV blackout of the event here in Canada, because Fulda doesn’t sell tires here, and its parent company doesn’t want its own product competing with its own product, so to speak.

Over in Europe, it’s a very different story. There are almost two hundred German media alone in the press contingent, and many of them are sending back live reports to their home country on TV and Internet; the television audience in Europe alone numbers 650 million.

This is a really big deal. Tryouts for the Challenge begin in the spring and the selection process runs until September, and are as eagerly followed as the main event. Once in, athletes pay none of their costs–Fulda picks up their airfare, hotels, and gasoline–but getting in can be time-consuming and expensive in and of itself.

Chickens that we are, we head for home long before the Fulda Challenge actually finishes. As the teams head toward Tuktoyaktuk, we’re back in the Sequoia, watching Terminator 2 on the DVD screen, warming our butts and swilling Snapple. Today, Friday, the teams did a snowbound ATV race in the morning and pulled cars down Dawson City’s main street in the afternoon–all this after sleeping on an ice bridge. Their only consolation is a hotel room made available to them for showers during lunch.

Four days, more than a thousand kilometres, and more than two hundred photographs later, I think I’m maybe willing to reevaluate my thoughts about the sedentary youth of today. Maybe it’s only me and my pals that are sedentary, because Fulda received almost a thousand applications for the eighteen athletes’ spaces, and interest in the event in the areas we travel through is amazingly enthusiastic. It’s all enough for me to think about giving rock climbing another shot, or maybe taking up ice racing or car-pulling.

It may not be quite enough to get me to swill drinks which have pickled toes swimming in them (the bar in the Downtown Hotel has a collection of six), but I had a sufficiently good time that I really, really want to come back next year. What a fabulous place, and what fabulous fun. If your lifestyle is active enough, and you feel you’re up to it, the pre-screening process for the 2004 event starts this month; visit www.fulda-challenge.com for more information.

Laurance Yap is a Toronto-based automotive writer.

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