This is a tale for 8-15 year olds who have an interest in France, the French language, or auto racing. A hair-raising adventure, it follows a two-cousin racing team entered in the Mille Bornes – a one-time real road race in France. They drive through the actual race route from Paris to Genoa encountering trouble along the way. The story features many French terms that we use in English, which appear in blue text.
It was the eve of the biggest race of her life and Suzanne LaPlante couldn’t sleep. She rolled over in the luxurious bed in her room at the Paris hotel where she and her cousin and racing partner, Jean-Claude had checked in for the night. They had dreamed of being racecar drivers ever since their grandfather had taken them to the Grand Prix race near the town of Nevers when they were kids. It was in their blood.
Motor racing was originally a French sport. It started in France, they say, as a result of the enthusiasm of the French public for the newfangled “horseless carriages” near the turn of the twentieth century. The first official motoring contest took place in 1906 near the town of LeMans and had been a French tradition since then.
Now, here they were, about to compete in the Mille Bornes race that would run from Paris all the way to the Italian border. Not a Formula One race, but a high level one none-the-less. The LaPlante’s turquoise A110 Alpine-Renault with the silver racing stripe from tail to hood sat safely tucked in the garage waiting for its debut on the racing circuit. The nifty two-seater was perfect for Suzanne and Jean-Claude. Their tag-team driving had seen them win medals at many local races. But this one was the biggest yet.
The Mille Bornes race was for amateurs, but elite ones for sure. She and her cousin had had to qualify to enter, and she knew her competition would be formidable. And she knew who their main competitors would be. They’d met them in several races before and so far the record was even-steven: two gold medals apiece. Sylvia and Henry Leopold were the crack Ferrari team that had been dogging Suzanne and Jean-Claude for three years. They’d finished either first or second in each of their meetings but this race would be the pièce de résistance. Suzanne wanted nothing more than to stand on the podium one step higher than her rivals. But if she couldn’t find sleep tonight, she wondered if she would have the needed reflexes she’d need for the grueling drive ahead.
Mille Bornes. The word echoed in her restless mind. Mille meaning one thousand, bornes meaning milestones. There were one thousand distance markers on the road between Paris and Genoa, Italy. But they measured kilometers, not miles. The thousand kilometers in the race equaled six hundred twenty five miles. By Suzanne’s count, that would take them less than six hours on a race track. But this was a road race whose route would wind through towns, down local roads, over rivers, and through forests and mountain ranges. There would be dangers on that course – and some of them would be man-made.
Henry Leopold and his sister Sylvia, drivers of the championship red Ferrari, were known for their underhanded racing strategies. They had been suspected of sabotage of a sleek Bugatti belonging to one of their rival teams last year. Nothing had been proven, but Suzanne thought she’d seen Sylvia kick wire-cutters under the Ferrari when the investigator had come around. The drivers of the Bugatti had been able to repair their cut cables to get back into the race, but the delay had cost them their lead and the Leopolds had gone on to win. The LaPlantes had come in second, but Suzanne knew they would have won bronze instead of silver if the Bugatti team had been able to drive the course as planned.
The morning arrived in spite of Suzanne barely closing her eyes all night long. She rang up Jean-Claude to meet her at the café across from the cinema for breakfast. It was early but the restaurant was open to accommodate the drivers and the tourists who would be there to watch the commencement of the big race. Suzanne sipped her coffee and nibbled on her croissant while perusing the menu and deciding whether or not to order an omelette. And then she saw her: Sylvia Leopold! And she was heading straight for her table. Suzanne desperately looked around for the maître d’ to bring her the bill, but he was nowhere to be seen. And besides, she had promised Jean-Claude she would wait for him.
Sylvia was a petite brunette with thick straight hair that flowed down her back. When she wasn’t in her racing outfit, she always looked chic, dressed in the latest fashion. The first time Suzanne had ever seen her was at the Motor Vehicle Bureau where they were both applying for their special racing licenses. She had sported a beige beret smartly tipped on her head with her long brown hair held back by a red barrette. She had been trying to look very French and had made Suzanne feel out of place in her own city. But today was not a day for fashion. Today, they both had something else on their minds. And Suzanne no time to put up her guard before Sylvia was standing at her table looking down on her with a superior expression.
“Bonjour, Suzanne. Ready for the race?”
“Of course we are.”
“Yes, I’ve seen your new little turquoise toy.” Sylvia barely hid her snide tone, implying that her sleek red Ferrari would barely notice the competition. “Hank and I look forward to meeting her on the road.”
Before Suzanne could think of something to say in response, Jean-Claude was there to rescue her and end this unhappy rendezvous.
“Come, Suzu,” he said breathlessly. “We need to get going.”
And off they went to the garage and, soon, to their destiny.
Suzanne and Jean-Claude headed out of the restaurant and turned down the long boulevard toward the garage where their Alpine-Renault awaited them. En route to the garage, Suzanne noticed something bizarre, but it didn’t occur to her what it was that she’d actually seen, so she said nothing. Yet the image stayed in the back of her mind until a day later.
An hour later, their jumpsuits on and their helmets in place, the LaPlantes drove out of the garage and on to the starting gate of the race at the Avenue de Fontainebleau. They eyed the scene nervously. Where would their car be placed in the pack? They hoped to be far from the Leopolds. They would have plenty of time to be meeting them along the route. They didn’t need to have them on their backs from the beginning.
They checked in with the race organizers and got their racing numbers which they affixed to their jumpsuits, pulled into their assigned spot, and fastened their seatbelts. Jean-Claude revved the engine and Suzanne took a deep breath and wiped her sweaty palms on her pants.
“Ready,” she said, only half aloud.
“Suzu!” Jean-Claude barked at her, jostling her out of her reverie. “Snap out of it! You’re only half awake. What’s with you? I need you to be your best – today of all days!”
“Sorry, JC. I’m fine. I’ll be fine. I will.” She tried to convince her cousin as well as herself.
A few speeches at the podium, the starting guns fired, and they were off. Jean-Claude’s steady hand on the wheel and foot set firm against the accelerator set them on their course. The streets of Paris whizzed by and in no time at all, they had cleared the Orly Airport and were gliding down the Route Nationale #7 along the Seine and out of the city and suburbs. It wasn’t until they’d crossed the Autoroute du Soleil – the large highway leading south named after the sun – that they breathed a sigh of relief; they had reached their first landmark without incident. Now, on to the town of Nevers.
There were other racers in this event, but as far as the LaPlantes were concerned, there was one rival alone. They could hear the roar of engines behind them but could not spot the red Ferrari in the rear-view mirror. Jean-Claude pressed his foot to the floor while Suzanne anxiously searched behind them for the elusive Leopold team. Nowhere to be seen. This was a bad omen, she knew. They had just passed through the town of Nemours when the screeching of the tires hit her ears and the sudden onset of g-forces pinned her against the door. J-C fought against hitting the brakes as he swerved hard to the left to avoid an obstacle directly in his path.
“What was that?” Suzanne screamed. Her cousin couldn’t answer, but she could see the strength of his grip on the wheel causing his knuckles to turn white.
A cloud of dirt and debris kicked up behind them, blinding the racers following in their wake. J-C righted the car and continued on, barely able to hear the skidding and crashing and piling up that swallowed the unlucky first cars to reach that spot.
“Nerves of steel,” Suzanne thought to herself, feeling lucky that her cousin was at the wheel. “He’s got nerves of steel.” And she wondered what that was – a tire left in the road? – and how it had gotten there.
One pit stop for the crew and Suzanne took over at the wheel. As she bounded into the driver’s seat, she could hear some of the others – the ones who had managed to recover from the fiasco back at Nemours – just as she pulled out of the pit area.
The town of Nevers was their first overnight stop. Narrow winding streets lead from the quay on the river Loire through the old town. Nevers is the home of the Magny-Cours race track where the French Grand Prix was held until 2008. That magnificent circuit of smooth terrain features long straightaways and hairpin turns that make for exciting races. Someday, the LaPlantes would compete in a Formula One race!
A warm shower later, Suzanne and Jean-Claude headed down to the restaurant and the maître d’ showed them to a table with a view of the Loire Valley below. Before they ordered their meal, they needed a glass of wine to celebrate the successful end of the first leg of the race. They lifted their glasses and clinked with the customary French toast, Santé, meaning “to your health.” Then they set to surveying the menu while the waiter brought them some hors d’oeuvres of pâté and toasted bread, which they hungrily devoured. Not the best restaurant etiquette to be sure, but their adventure on the road that day made them not care.
“Bon appétit,” the waiter muttered as he shook his head and headed back to the kitchen.
They ordered a meal of lobster bisque, veal in a sweet wine marinade, and a side of pommes frites (better known by Americans as French fries). They were just about to relax with a dessert serving of a fruit tarte à la mode and a glass of Cognac when out of the corner of her eye, Suzanne spotted the Leopold siblings heading to a table just to their left. There was no ducking them; Suzanne lifted her gaze and nodded, hoping they wouldn’t have to actually speak to them. But no! Sylvia marched straight to their table and looked Suzanne squarely in the eye.
“We heard you left quite a mess on the road back at Nemours,” she said. “Is that your technique of winning – planting garbage behind you to thwart your competition? Luckily for Hank and me, we were ahead of you anyway.”
Suzanne could feel the blood rise to her cheeks and suddenly it became clear what had happened on the road that day: The Leopolds had struck again. Her memory suddenly flooded with the image from the starting gate that had so troubled her. There had been something black piled in the back seat of the red Ferrari. The scraps of tire that Jean-Claude had so skillfully skirted were left on the road by their rivals in the hope of causing an accident. And it very nearly had worked. Were they now blaming the near catastrophe on the LaPlantes?
Suzanne shared her suspicions with Jean-Claude. They knew they would have to make a plan if they wanted to arrive at the finish line alive – never mind if they hoped to actually win. It was Jean-Claude who came up with the idea and Suzanne had to admit that it was pure genius.
The LaPlantes had another cousin who lived in the next town. Her name was Cécile and her fiancé’s name was Louis. Louis, unfortunately for him, was in between jobs. But fortunately for Suzanne and Jean-Claude, Louis was in between jobs. That meant that he would be available to do the favor that the intrepid racing duo was about to ask of him. They phoned him immediately.
“Salut, Louis. Jean-Claude here.” He reprised for his soon-to-be cousin the events of the opening day, including the enterprise that he was proposing.
“You can count on me!” Louis jumped on it. And he ran to put on his camouflage pants and vest, befitting the reconnaissance mission he was about to undertake.
Jean-Claude returned to the restaurant where Suzanne was finishing her meal and was ordering some snacks for the road – a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette with some biscuits and oranges. She was relieved to hear that Louis had been such an enthusiastic conspirator and felt relaxed enough to go up to bed for a decent night’s sleep.
Up at dawn, the two drivers were ready at the starting gate after a satisfying breakfast of crêpes and eggs and a quick check-in with Louis who had already scouted out the first leg of the day’s race. Nothing to report. So far, so good.
After the RN 7 passes the Magny-Cours race track, it crosses the Loire River and follows the valley through gently rolling countryside. At the town of Moulins, the road heads east, climbing over hills and crossing the river again until it hits the beautiful gorges overlooking the Loire before heading south again.
Suzanne was making up time that they had lost on the first day. She felt confident behind the wheel as her sure foot gunned the accelerator and propelled them forward. But then, just after they had passed through the town of Rouanne, Jean-Claude’s mobile rang. Suzanne gripped the steering wheel as her cousin answered, knowing that there could be only one person who would call them in the middle of the race – Louis. And he wouldn’t just be calling to say hi.
“Jean-Claude? Louis here. I’ve spotted something just before the RN7 turns east to head down into the town of Tarare. It looks like several small boulders completely blocking the way. And if you get down there, there is no way other than to turn around and go back. But I’ve found a detour that can avoid that spot entirely and get back on the RN 7 before you get to Tarare.” And he laid out the new route for them.
“Merci, mon cousin! We’re on it.” Jean-Claude looked at Suzanne with determination and grabbed his map.
“Pull over, Suzu. We’re on to Plan B.” They did a quick review of the map, switched drivers, and they were off once again.
The obstacle was on the spur of the road heading east to Tarare. So instead, they would join the N82 and continue south until it hit the N89 and take that right into the town from the west. But they knew they needed to do more. They couldn’t be sure that it was team Leopold that was to blame, but they didn’t think it was right to let all the other drivers fall victim to this malicious trap masquerading as a mere roadside mishap. So Suzanne got on her mobile to alert the Milles Bornes race officials. It goes without saying, of course, that they would be the first team in their pack to merge onto the N89 and reach Tarare. Jean-Claude loosened his grip on the steering wheel slightly as they descended through the series of ridges leading from Tarare to arrive safely at their hotel in Lyon.
At dinner that night, all the racers could talk about was the disaster on the road. Most of them had gotten the notice in enough time to do the same detour as the LaPlante team. But a few unlucky ones hadn’t checked their phones and had come upon the blocked off road at full racing speed. At least one team didn’t make it. Their vehicle was totaled and the two drivers were in the hospital. For others, the only souvenir they took away from the experience was a flat tire or scraped up fender. Still, they had all lost time.
Except one team. Sylvia and Hank were sipping champagne and popping escargots into their mouths when Suzanne and Jean-Claude – who were the second team to reach Lyon – joined them in the restaurant. Suzanne had an eerie déjà vu when she saw the smug look on the visages that greeted them. Where had she seen that same expression before?
“Wasn’t it terrible? I just couldn’t believe it when I saw those big rocks in the road. We were so lucky I spied them before we crashed. Thank goodness we knew the alternate route to Tarare or we would have lost even more time.” Sylvia feigned a breathless sigh as she brazenly lied right to their faces.
“It’s okay, you can give up this phony charade.” Suzanne was in no mood to play along and her anger overtook her. “We all know that you couldn’t possibly have beaten us to Lyon if you hadn’t known in advance about the detour. And if you had gotten there first, why didn’t you warn everyone? The Bugatti team is in the hospital and several others have major repairs to do before they can continue tomorrow.”
“And how did you get here so quickly too, if you’re so innocent?” Sylvia looked accusingly at Suzanne. But Jean-Claude broke in.
“Don’t even, Sylvia,” he said. “Save it for your memoires. We got a call from someone who saw that the road was impassable and wanted to warn us. As soon as we figured out which way to go, we called in the alert so that no one else would get hurt or lose any more time than was necessary. When we win this race – and we WILL win – it will be legitimately.”
Suzanne dipped the ladle into the soup terrine at the buffet table and made her way back to her cousin seated at a comfortable distance from their foes so they could attempt to enjoy their evening meal of sautéed veal, spinach soufflé, and potatoes au gratin. They reviewed the route they’d taken that day and exchanged thoughts about how to sharpen their driving for the following day. This next day, they knew, would hold the key to the whole race.
The day started out smoothly enough. The cousins got up early, had a quick breakfast of café au lait and éclairs, and headed straight to the starting gate. Suzanne took the wheel first and off they headed out of Lyon toward the town of Avignon. To keep their concentration on the goal ahead and to keep their minds from dwelling on the mishaps of the previous two days, they sang loudly and repeatedly the childhood song about the town that was their target for the day.
🎶 Sur le pont d’Avignon,
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le pont d’Avignon,
L’on y danse tout en ronde 🎶
The road crossed the Loire river and turned south through the Bois de St. Jean toward the town of Vienne. This was Suzanne’s favorite part of the route and why she had wanted to drive this leg of the race. The lush Loire valley was the home of the Côtes de Rhône wines. The ruby red wine grown and bottled in this region is a full-bodied blend of Grenache and Syrah wines with a complex aroma of raspberries and cranberries. But the Côtes de Rhône blancs were just as good, with their fruity and full-bodied blend of apricot, white flowers, and acacia. As Suzanne zipped their Alpine-Renault through the vineyards, she could almost taste the wine that would grace their table at dinner that night.
But that wasn’t the only reason that Suzanne loved this part of the race. They were headed to the town, Défilé de Donzère. Geologically, this area features spectacular cliffs of limestone through which the Rhône swept many ages ago, forming a steep-sided passage. Tall cliffs tower majestically over the river and you could still see the many caves carved into the limestone which were homes for early civilizations. Suzanne hoped one day to be a geologist and study these cliffs – once her racing days were behind her, that is.
They would soon be driving over the breathtaking Robinet Suspension Bridge and cross the Canal de Donzère which was built back in the 1950s. The canal serves to regulate the flow of water from the Rhône, feed the hydroelectric power plant perched above the river, and to be a source of cooling for the Tricastin Nuclear Power Plant just north of the town of Défilé de Donzère. The LaPlantes didn’t know it yet, but that was to be the site of the next disaster this Mille Bornes race had in store for them!
By the time they reached the Canal, Jean-Claude had taken over as pilot. No phone call from cousin Louis was taken as a good sign by the racing pair as they headed across the bridge. But before they reached the opposite shore, they heard the deafening sound of emergency sirens, and vehicles with flashing lights that appeared out of nowhere. Jean-Claude whipped the car over to the right to let them pass, his heart pumping hard as he felt the whoosh of ambulances, the fire brigade, and the entire police corps of the commune of Défilé de Donzère just barely miss them on their way to whatever emergency awaited on the other side of the bridge.
Suzanne madly grabbed her phone to see if she could find out what was going on. As she searched the newsfeed, Jean-Claude noticed something strange: The Alpine-Renault was the sole racing vehicle stranded on the bridge. Where was everyone else? Suzanne found the notifications of an accident at the nuclear power plant and the alerts that the road was closed to through traffic. They should have been re-routed to the Autoroute du Soleil, but they hadn’t seen any detour signs.
“Call Louis,” Jean-Claude shouted.
He couldn’t understand why his cousin hadn’t warned them of this road hazard. Suzanne hit her speed dial, but it was no use. Louis’s phone went straight to voicemail over and over. Not one to panic, Suzanne gathered her courage and dialed 112 (Note: that’s the equivalent of 911 in France), while Jean-Claude carefully backed the car off the bridge and drove it onto the Autoroute du Soleil. They had lost valuable time, but he felt confident they could make it up. Tires screeching, Jean-Claude hit the gas and the car careened around the ramp onto the main road. His jaw clenched and a barrage of angry words poured from deep within him: “Coup-fouré, coup-fouré, coup-fouré!! (That is what a fencer cries as he thrusts his fencing sword in a defensive, then offensive move). Take that you Leopolds!” Because he knew deep in his heart that they were at the bottom of this. They were truly the essence of evil.
As he continued to shout, he waved his right arm wildly in the air holding an imaginary épée (fencing sword) as he gripped the wheel with his left. Suzanne, in the meantime, was met on the other end of the phone line by a brusque but efficient sounding emergency operator. She was able to determine that an unidentified male in his mid-thirties fitting Louis’ description had been admitted to a local hospital. She contacted her cousin Cécile and let her know. Cécile promised she would get back to her as soon as she had any information. As she turned her attention back to the race, she could now see other racers on the road. Apparently, they had all seen detour signs before getting onto the bridge. How had the LaPlantes alone missed it?
“No matter,” she thought. “J-C will make it up.” And make it up he did, as he passed racing car after racing car. And then they saw it up ahead: the red Ferrari. Suzanne held onto her seat as Jean-Claude floored the accelerator. They were gaining on it, but catching them wouldn’t be easy. It would be like a game of Russian roulette. But who would end up with the bullet?
Fumbling with her mobile phone while trying to keep her eyes on the road, Suzanne read the on-the-scene reports of the accident. The actual power plant had not been involved. There had been a series of explosions outside the gates, but the noise and smoke from the blast had caused such confusion that everyone had been evacuated, the road had been closed, and fire trucks and emergency crews had been activated as a caution. It had clearly been a diversionary tactic not meant to damage the plant. Suspicions confirmed: Leopolds round three.
Thanks to Jean-Claude’s steady wrists gripping the wheel, his insistent foot on the gas, and the sheer will of the cousins, the LaPlantes had managed to mitigate the damage done to their racing time and had taken up a good spot in the pack as they headed south along the Rhône to the town of Orange and into the Provence region. As they sailed along the route, Suzanne thought about how she would handle herself when they met up with the Ferrari team in Avignon. Playing tricks along the road was one thing. But putting Louis in the hospital was quite another. This was now a matter for the authorities.
Jean-Claude guided the Alpine-Renault into Avignon in record time. While they weren’t the first to reach the check-in point, they hadn’t lost enough time to threaten their overall standing in the race. If they had a good last day, they could still win it. At least that’s what he said to reassure his cousin, as she fretted both about their race and Louis’ condition. She wouldn’t be able to relax those worries until she had heard back from Cécile.
Showered and somewhat rested, the LaPlantes headed down to dinner in the hotel’s bistro. Tonight’s dinner would be a simple quiche Lorraine. That was Jean-Claude’s favorite quiche. As they awaited their meal, he could almost taste the creamy gruyère cheese and flavorful bits of bacon on the crispy crust. It would make the perfect meal with a niçoise salad that was the specialty of Provence, having been invented in the city of Nice on the Mediterranean coast. The waiter arrived carrying two simple wooden bowls rubbed with garlic and with an adroit motion, set them down in front of the cousins. Inside was the delectable mix of salted tomatoes moistened with olive oil, hard-boiled eggs and anchovies. These were attractively arranged with cucumbers, artichokes, green peppers, and black olives. This combination was delicately flavored with spring onions and basil. Jean-Claude especially loved this salad because it had but no lettuce or vinegar – both of which he hated. And it was pretty to look at with its vibrant and contrasting spring colors. They would top off this light meal with a lemon meringue and a light white wine.
Notably absent in the dining room were Sylvia and Hank. Suzanne had been itching to confront them, but she’d have to wait. Cécile had called her from the hospital to report that Louis was doing fine. He had a concussion and a banged up knee, but nothing worse. They were keeping him overnight for observation, but she was sure he would fully recover. He didn’t remember much about what had happened, but apparently he had been hit from behind while conducting his espionage, and had been knocked unconscious. His cell phone had been smashed so that when he awoke, he had to stumble down to the road to look for help. Fortunately, there were police and ambulances swarming the area because of the explosion, so he was treated promptly and transported to the emergency room. What an escapade!
So far, this race had been marred by road blockages, missing road signs, and now a feigned attack on a nuclear power plant – to say nothing about the assault on their cousin. Suzanne and Jean-Claude sat back in the relaxed milieu of the informal bistro and sipped their Côtes de Rhône blancs. They turned their minds to the final day of the race. They would have some time to make up, but they felt certain they were up to it. However, the question remained: what to do about the Leopolds?
Suzanne gritted her teeth as she stepped into the car for the last day of this ill-fated race. She took hold of the wheel, opened her eyes wide, and focused on the road ahead. Today they would be winding south across the river Durance through the town of Aix-en-Provence where the famous painter Cézanne lived and had his studio. Then they would head east over some mountainous terrain before reaching the Mediterranean Sea at the town of Fréjus. From there the road would hug the coast through the posh towns along the Côte d’Azur, known as the French Riviera, and around the Principality of Monaco. For much of this route, the RN7 would parallel the A8 super highway before it would turn into the Autostrada 10 at the Italian border. The A8 was the quick way of getting to Italy, but not the way they’d be traveling today. This would be a challenging leg of the race and Suzanne needed to operate at peak efficiency.
The weather, as it frequently is in the south of France, was spectacular. The clouds were high in the sky promising no chance of rain on this critical day. At least they wouldn’t be fighting slippery roads on some of those curves. But what other hazards would the red Ferrari have in store for them? Due to his accident, Louis was no longer available for surveillance. Today the LaPlantes would have nothing to rely on but their own wits.
After they left Avignon and crossed the river, they turned southeast through hilltop hamlets until they reached the first landmark – the town of Aix. This had always been a favorite spot for Suzanne. She loved the view of its mountain, Mont Sainte-Victoire, with its snowy top. Cézanne had liked it too. So much so, that he had painted it dozens of times.
As they passed through the town, Suzanne noted that she hadn’t yet observed the Ferrari on the road. “J-C, she called out. “Can you see the Leopolds?”
“No,” he answered, suddenly panicked. He had been so focused on Suzanne’s driving that he hadn’t been aware of their absence. Had they passed them on the road when he hadn’t been looking? It wouldn’t have been like him to miss something as crucial to their race as keeping track of the competition. It was his job when he wasn’t at the wheel himself. Perhaps he had felt so much relief at the smooth sailing so far that he had let himself relax. That relaxation now ended as his eyes anxiously scanned the roadway.
The road turned east and they could see the A8 highway above them. The two roads would run parallel all the way to the Italian border. The RN7 was challenging under any conditions. But driving that road with its narrow lanes winding through mountain passages at racing speeds required full concentration and minimal distractions. And so far, this Mille Bornes race had been nothing but distractions. As Jean-Claude watched his cousin navigate the distance that stood between them and the sea, he felt proud to be her Mille Bornes partner. A steady hand and a brave heart, he thought. There was no one he would rather be sharing this adventure with.
It felt almost eerie that no disasters had struck yet that day. Jean-Claude wondered. How worried should he be? But the day continued to pass by uneventfully. After they reached the town of Brignoles and passed by the Parc Mini France, they turned east. They half expected the next roadside surprise to hit them at the park, deserted as it was since its closure years ago. Jean-Claude kept his eye trained on the road as they passed the park which had housed a zoo and a series of models of popular French landmarks. It had been a favorite destination for his family when he’d been a boy. But he had no time for nostalgia now as the road dipped south heading straight to the sea at the town of Fréjus. His heart leapt as he spied for the first time the blue waters of the Mediterranean. In Fréjus, with the smooth routine of seasoned drivers, they changed seats and Jean-Claude took over at the wheel.
Now that Suzanne was able to stretch out and prepare for the last leg of their journey, she marveled at the stunning sights as they made their way along the coast. The Côte d’Azur was aptly named; the sea was a luminescent blue, the color of her favorite gemstone, lapis lazuli. Now it was her turn to keep watch on the road and alert J-C of any trouble ahead. And it was up to her to locate their rivals, whom they had not seen since leaving Avignon. This was alarming.
The route continued along the sea to Cannes where the famous European film festival was held annually. Then it wound around the Principality of Monaco where the American actress, Grace Kelly, had become Princess when she left her movie career to marry Prince Ranier. And then they saw it – the Italian border and the final roadway, the Autostrada 10 that would lead them to the conclusion of the race in Genoa. And still no Leopolds!
Up ahead, right at the border town of Ventimiglia where the French RN7 fed into the Italian Autostrada 10, Suzanne saw an entrance ramp that merged with the highway on the left. She gasped and pointed madly, causing Jean-Claude to veer sharply to the right. Barreling down that chute was none other than the missing red Ferrari! It had appeared so suddenly and at such speed, that Suzanne thought she’d seen a mirage. But no. It was the Ferrari racing team that had given them trouble from the moment they’d left Paris. They had skirted the entire racing route from Avignon to Italy by taking the super highway A8, thereby missing the local roads and beating everyone to the border. Now they were on the final section of the race and they were in the lead. The LaPlantes would have to catch them. They could not let this subterfuge stand!
The Autostrada 10 heading eastbound to Genoa was in pretty rough condition, much rougher than the recently upgraded westbound lane back to France. Jean-Claude now found himself in a driving duel on a treacherous road. He would need to draw strength from his inner reservoir to keep alert and alive.
Inside the Ferrari, Hank was at the wheel. He had chortled with glee as they’d whizzed onto the Autostrada, ahead of all the others who had had to navigate the difficult terrain in southern France. He knew they were ahead and were certain to win. Until Sylvia let out a scream followed by a barrage of angry words as she gaped in horror at the sight in her rearview mirror. It was the snazzy turquoise Alpine-Renault with the racing stripe from its back to its front. And it was on their tail!
“Those sniveling French cousins are behind us in that blasted machine,” she yelled.
“Calm down, Syvia,” Hank shouted back. “Stop yelling! I need you to do your job. You’re not just here for the ride and I’m not your chauffeur!” Sylvia did not appreciate her brother’s ridicule. What did he want from her at this point? They’d run out of dirty tricks. What else could they do? Take the métro? But she held her tongue and put on a brave façade. “It’s okay, Hank. You’ve got this. You are the premiere driver on the racing circuit. We can win!”
With Jean-Claude’s foot on the pedal, the LaPlantes were gaining on the Ferrari. Soon they were neck and neck on the narrow road. They were so close, Suzanne could see Sylvia’s profile silhouetted in the passenger side window. Sylvia turned and saw Suzanne glaring at her eye to eye. “Step on it, Hank,” she hissed.
Hank looked over and saw the cousins keeping pace. He clutched the wheel and swung over to the right. Could he run them off the road, he wondered? To avoid being side-swiped, Jean-Claude jerked the car onto the narrow shoulder. But he miscalculated and the Alpine-Renault ricocheted off the guard rails. He righted the car and got back into his lane, but he was shaken enough to back off a bit. They drove the next several kilometers with the siblings in the lead – but just barely.
Then, out of nowhere, they heard sirens and had to pull over. But of course, the Leopolds took this as their opportunity to take off. Jean-Claude and Suzanne watched as the red Ferrari zoomed out of sight followed by a parade of police cars. J-C could hear other racers beginning to catch up from behind him, so as soon as it was safe, he pulled the car back onto the road and continued on, pressing as hard as he could. They were getting close to the end. This race couldn’t be over soon enough, he thought!
As they rounded the curve toward the finish line, they saw flashing lights up ahead. Racing past the line of law enforcement vehicles, Suzanne thought she saw a speck of red among them. When they approached the finish, they saw that the tape was intact and the flagmen were standing by still waiting for the first to finish. They glided across the line and to their astonishment, they were hailed as the winners!
Collapsing and embracing at the same time, the LaPlantes were speechless. And then they saw Cécile rushing up to them with an armful of flowers. She had come in earlier that day from the train depot. “Congratulations, cousins! I’m so proud of you two.”
“Where’s Louis?” Suzanne asked. “I’m so confused. We thought we’d lost out to Sylvia and Hank again. We were sure of it.”
Cecile grinned broadly. “You won’t have to worry about them any longer. Louis spoke to investigators while he was still in the hospital and told them everything. It turns out that there were closed circuit cameras at every juncture where the roadside accidents occurred. They were able to spot Hank’s brother Paul and a friend laying traps and removing detour signs. And DNA evidence taken both from Louis and the site of his attack was enough to arrest them all.”
Suzanne remembered the dot of red among the police cars. The Leopolds were in custody and the LaPlantes were Mille Bornes champions. She couldn’t have possibly envisaged a better ending to this day. They were all in accord. She threw her arms around her two cousins and they all three jumped for joy (to use a cliché).
There was no way to overstate the prestige that the LaPlante’s had gained in winning gold at the Mille Bornes race. Not only had they won the race in record time, but they had exposed the criminal nature of the Leopold siblings, getting them arrested for vandalism and reckless endangerment and booted permanently from the Ferrari racing organization.
The hotel in Italy where the awards ceremony would take place the next day was truly luxurious. It had earned three stars in the Guide Michelin four years in a row. They pulled up to the main entrance and were met first by the attendant for valet parking. He took their bags from the car and whisked the championship Alpine-Renault to a secure garage. Then the bellhop carried their bags into the lobby. The Concierge desk was to their right, the check-in desk to their left. But all they could do was to look up. Above them hung three amazing crystal chandeliers that cast a shimmering light on the parquet floors. The lobby was decorated with amazing antique furniture as well as more modern lounge chairs and sofas for sitting in comfort while being served apéritifs and hors d’oeuvres by a team of waiters. Bouquets of flowers graced every side table, and an elegant boutique displaying perfume bottles filled with fragrant cologne stood off to the side near the elevators. Suzanne made a mental note to schedule a massage with the hotel’s masseuse before leaving.
Dinner that night was the most gourmet that the LaPlantes had ever had. They had been expecting an Italian meal with piles of pasta. But being so close to the border, the hotel’s chef specialized in French cuisine. The feast began with bouillabaisse, the famous fish stew that’s the specialty of the Provence region of France. For her entrée, Suzanne chose the pan-seared scallops in a tangerine sauce, while Jean-Claude took the grilled veal topped with a pea purée. Both dishes were accompanied by a light salad with croûtons in a vinaigrette dressing. Dessert was a choice of chocolate mousse or crème brûlée with macarons. As most French are, the cousins were connoisseurs of fine wines. So, of course, they ordered a bottle of the best champagne!
The next morning, they stood on the podium, together holding up the Golden Cup in triumph. It was heavy in their hands, made of pure gold. This was no papier-mâché version, like the one that Jean-Claude had made in primary school when he was only ten, dreaming of his future as a race car driver. A reporter from the local gazette was there to record the celebration for posterity. As they gazed down the promenade at the cheering crowd, they could see cousin Louis, with a cane in one hand and his head in bandages, sitting next to Cécile, pumping his fist in the air. From their perch on the dais, Suzanne could hear him roaring, “Encore! Encore!” And she knew he was right; they’d be racing again. And soon.