An extract from this book – Sports the Olympics Forgot.
The annual raft race down the River Rhone from Lyon to Arles is one of the longest team raft races in the world. The rafts are rowed down the river by teams of four, who have created the rafts themselves from empty wine bottles. The rule that each team had to drink the wine from the bottles before using them to build the raft was waived in 2002, after the 2001 race was blighted by a number of competitors suffering from alcoholic poisoning in Lyon. However, some of the teams who enter the race still drink the wine beforehand, however their rafts tend to sink well before the finish line.
The race begins on the third Saturday in September, when the teams assemble by the river to have all their bottles inspected by the judges. Each bottle must be an empty, corked wine bottle and be normal size (750ml). The teams are allowed to construct small shelters on their rafts, but these are entirely at the discretion of the teams and aren’t inspected. The shelters don’t have to be made from bottles. The oars that are used must be standard canoe oars.
At 11am the Chief Judge pops the cork from a Champagne bottle and the race begins, with the teams constructing their rafts from the bottles and lashing them together with rope, string, raffia, and even large elastic bands. The race doesn’t end until the last floating raft crosses the line in Arles regardless of how many oarsmen are aboard at the time. If the raft hits an obstruction and some of the bottles are broken then the team can replace them at their own expense. It is entirely optional whether the contents are consumed by the team or not.
The distance between the two cities is approximately 280 kilometres along the Rhone. The record time for the winning team has declined rapidly since 2002 and now stands at 14 hours 34 minutes set by the Pride of Lyon team in 2013. Jacques Olivier was the captain of the craft that set this time: “Well it certainly helps a lot to steer the raft, if you haven’t drunk 24 bottles of wine previously – you can see the right way and you can avoid the trees, banks, bridges, and other boats on the river. I entered a team in the 1998 race and I was the only one on the raft when we arrived at Arles – although I don’t really remember as I was still hungover. I never saw Charles, Bertrand, and Alec again – someone said that Bertrand was found on the bank in Valence but I don’t believe it; Alec might be in Montelimar living under an assumed name – as for Charles, who knows.”
Eric LaClair won the race three times in a row between 2008 – 2010 and remembers clearly the entire race in all three years. “Yes, we did a lot of paddling and so our time was half the time we did when we won in 2000. In 2000, none of us paddled at all, we just floated along and then when we were about to hit something we jabbed our oars at whatever it was so that it went away from us. That worked even for bridges. We then laughed a lot and ate another ten aspirins. In 1998, we hit a bridge somewhere, I can’t remember where, somewhere near Lyons, and we smashed around a quarter of the bottles. We sank near the bank and tried to get more wine from the local village, but they only had 54 bottles and accepted just cash, so we stopped there and forgot about the race.”
The 1986 race was particularly memorable because no team completed the course due to flooding on the Rhone, which meant that the teams couldn’t pass safely under the main bridge in Valence. One after another the teams smashed into the bridge and sank causing a major headache for the local lifeguards.
Tournon-sur-Rhone, just north of Valence, saw a very strange disqualification in 1988 when a member of the public, intending to commit suicide, jumped off the bridge but landed on one of the rafts in the race instead. He was offered a very fine Chablis by the crew, who forgot about the rule saying that teams were limited to just four people on the raft. The whole team was thrown out of the race, but the jumper was so impressed by the wine that he entered a team in the following year’s race and came fifth.