Team #180 Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Jessi Combs were the first American team through the dunes.

Team #180 Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Jessi Combs were the first American team through the dunes.

After skirting around the Erg Chebbi dunes for the last three days, competitors finally got the chance to tackle them Saturday morning. Striking and magnificent, Erg Chebbi are the tallest dunes in Morocco and less than 100 kilometers from the Algerian border. Not only did majestic dunes present the Gazelles with challenging driving conditions, but rewarded them with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

“It was intense–literally and figuratively,” said Sarah Saxten of Team #175. “There were peaks and valleys—emotionally and physically, and they seemed to come pretty close together.”

Competitors competing in the 4×4 class had the choice of three checkpoint (CP) options through the dunes depending on desired difficulty. Once they chose their route, however, they had to stay committed to the route’s designated CPs. All routes included six checkpoints total and five that were in the dunes.

The easiest was Route Z, which skirted around the dunes, but still crossed some of the smaller dunes at the bottom. Route Y zig-zagged through medium sized peaks. While the navigation was not as difficult, the terrain was more rugged and increased in difficulty as the day progressed. Route X presented the Gazelles with the steepest peaks. The coveted red flags, easily visible from the peaks at a distance of several hundred meters, proved difficult to reach. For many competitors, Route X was not only difficult, but scary as peaks were sharp and steep.

Teams in the “Expert” class had an extra checkpoint and had to take a harder route. On the course, though, they crossed paths with teams who chose the X, Y or Z route at certain CPs.

Overall Big Picture—Eight American Teams Make All Check Points
As of Friday morning, a record five American teams were in the Top 25 of the   4×4 class and all five teams made their checkpoints during Saturday’s third leg, which means they will likely break even or improve their position. Official results won’t be released until Sunday morning:

-Team #218 Rachelle Croft/Rhonda Cahill
-Team #182 Patricia Klishevich/Véronique DeSybourg-Siffert
-Team # 107 Jo Hannah Hoehn/Susanah Hoehn
-Team # 175 Sarah Saxten/Susie Saxten
-Team #180 Nicole Pitell-Vaughan/Jessi Combs

*One of two American teams competing in the Crossover class, Team #317, Chrissie Beavis/Alyssa Roenigk, were leading the class at the start of Leg 3. After another solid day, they will likely hold on to their lead.

*The only American team competing in the Expert class, Team # 400, Amy Lerner and Sabrina Howells, were sitting in the Top Ten starting Friday morning, and they also made all of their checkpoints on Saturday.

Team Updates
Team #180 Nicole Pitell-Vaughan/Jessi Combs Lead the Way
While the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is not about speed, Team #180 Nicole Pitell-Vaughan/Jessi Combs, who are competing in their first Gazelle, set a fast pace through the dunes, in addition to hitting all of their checkpoints accurately. Pitell-Vaughan’s Toyota Tacoma is equipped with custom suspension from her company, Total Chaos, and the truck handled the terrain with ease. Combs—the team’s navigator—also seemed to hit her stride. The team was one of the first back to the bivouac and have likely improved from their overall standing of 19th from Friday morning.

The only place teams are allowed to follow each other during the Rally is in the dunes. Working together to make all of their checkpoints in Erg Chebbi boded well for both Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn (Team #107) and Rachelle Croft and Rhonda Cahill (Team #218).

“Working with Rachelle and Rhonda was such a gift today,” said Jo Hannah about Team #218. “The dunes just clicked for Rachelle today, and she was so tough. She was so intuitive– she had it. They could have made better time, but they waited every time for us, and then they made me lead. I felt like they were nurturing us the whole way through.”

As of Friday morning, the Hoehn sisters were the top ranked American team overall in 13th place while Croft and Cahill sat in 22nd.

“There was a turning point in my fear level,” said Jo Hannah Hoehn about the day. “I don’t know what it was but things just started to work more smoothly. I was being really cautious when I was going up and stopping too soon on the dunes. Eventually, I figured out what the sweet spot was.”

Beavis and Roenigk Continue to Prove Themselves In the Crossover Class
While the Crossover class didn’t go into the Erg Chebbi dunes, the class still had their share of sand, as well as impressive mountains. At the start of Friday morning Team #317, Chrissie Beavis and Alyssa Roenigk, led the class after a strong stage two. Another solid day on Saturday means they will likely hang on to their lead. “We had a really good day,” said Roenigk. “We would stop a lot and get out of the car and run ahead, but we didn’t have any big mistakes.”

Spirit of the Gazelle—Sarah Price and Erica Sacks
Yes, the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is a race, but often it’s the team with the best adventure that gets the biggest props. Winner of the best adventure so far in 2015 is Team #23: Sarah Price and Erica Sacks. The first American team to compete in a Side-by-Side, Price is a former X Games medalist in motocross, while Sacks is an accomplished gymnast with desert racing experience.

Their adventure began before the race even started. Their vehicle didn’t arrive in time for the Prologue because of a snowstorm in the Atlas Mountains. Then when the team took the line for Thursday’s Leg 1, they made a navigation error and went to the wrong checkpoint. Because of this, they missed one of their potential fuel spots and eventually ran out of gas. The women had to spend the night in the desert, until rally officials were able to deliver fuel. They didn’t return to the bivouac until 3:30 a.m.—just 30 minutes before Friday’s wake up call.

While the team seemed to shake off a tough first go and made five of Friday’s checkpoints, bad luck struck again when they got stranded near a cliff band as it got dark on Friday night. Because they couldn’t see any features to navigate, they had to spend another night away from the bivouac without a sleeping bag or tent. While most competitors would likely have thrown in the towel, the American team dug in.

After arriving back to the bivouac at 10 a.m. Saturday morning (four hours after the start of the third leg) they picked up their maps, plotted their checkpoints and went on to complete all of the “X” checkpoints before making it back to the bivouac well before sunset and in time for a shower.

“We were struggling in the dunes,” said fellow competitor Sarah Saxten, “when out of nowhere came Sarah and Erica. It was like a gift from heaven. Right when I wanted someone to drag us out of the dunes, they came and nudged us in the right direction.”

Team # 400 Amy Lerner/Sabrina Howells
The only American team competing in the expert class, Lerner and Howells made all of their checkpoints. “I love these dunes because they were the first dunes I ever felt comfortable in,” Howells said. “I feel like I worked out for a year, though. We were digging ourselves out and another team. We had to change a tire which took 30 minutes in the heat, and I was running ahead all the time to make sure we didn’t waste any kilometers.”


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