A last-minute Detour switch leads to a shocking finish that determines the final 3 teams
Credit: CBS

Losing a fan-favorite team at the last minute thanks to one or two tiny wrong moves is not a good time — but the underdog team swooping into the finale in a nearly unbelievable fashion — is good TV. I was really rooting for Burnie and Ashley; they were level-headed, kind to each other, and obvious fans of both the race and what it represents. If they had unexpectedly lost in the final moments to — I don’t know — Dana and Matt, that might have been enough for this betting recapper to turn off this totally unpredictable season…

But Sheri and Cole?! SHERI AND COLE?!?! Those two need to get themselves to a Chinatown, Alabama gas station the second they get back home (presumably with the million and Phil’s personal cell phone number in their pocket), buy a Powerball ticket, and cash that sucker in, because their luck is simply unbelievable.

You have to admit, that even if Team Alabama hasn’t made it to the final three on sheer strength… or skill…o r even street smarts… they have made this far by being entirely themselves. They face every leg of this rrrrace around the world as exactly what it is: a huge, almost insurmountable challenge. And then, somehow, they surmount. Whether it be because of their own luck, or someone else’s misfortune (pouring one out for the Gamers as I type), and definitely due to an unlimited supply of pluck, Team Alabama has made it through. I’m not saying that’s a winning approach. But it is an endearing approach. Here’s how they did it:

Cole says it himself at the top of the episode as the teams head from Bali to Shenzhen, China: “We just aren’t really up to par with the rest of these teams.” But when everyone keeps ending up on the same flights, the definition of up-to-par gets a little bit broader. The first clue is located in the departures hall of the Shenzhen airport, and though Team Torey finds it first, they try to play coy with Team Alabama, then the Gamers as they all exchange their currency. When Burnie figures out that they lied about already having the clue (even though they were really trying to lie to Sheri and Cole, not Burnie and Ashley), it creates the first bit of real animosity this season has seen (other than Dana’s near-constant evisceration of Matt).

Team Torey has apparently always gotten along really well with the Dancers — they can get along with others! — so they decide to team up as much as possible on this leg. It’s a strategy that proves very useful in the ROAD BLOCK: IT’S A SMALL WORLD. The teams find their next clue at Window of the World, an enormous Shenzhen theme park with miniature versions of 130 of the world’s most iconic landmarks. One member from each team must solve six riddles which lead them to six landmarks, collecting stickers as they go for a provided passport. Once they’ve gotten all six, they get their passports stamped and move on. I will say that it’s a little hard to keep up with who’s confused by which landmark riddles and for what reason.

Dana and Tyler get a quick lead by working together, and have four of the landmarks on lock, but struggle with the Colosseum and Taj Mahal clues. Burnie is clearly very bright, because everyone is intimidated by the fact that he’s competing in this Road Block, but it’s also exhausting having to run around the park if you’re not positive of a riddle’s correct landmark, and the Burnster is in a bit of a mood once he discovers Dana and Tyler are working together: “Good, a couple of jackasses working together,” he mutters while cruising past some tiny Egyptian pyramids. But it’s no matter, Burnie still completes all the stickers correctly first, with Dana and Tyler just minutes behind him.

And then…there was Sheri. Sheri looks like she’s about to cry as soon as she reads the clue: geographical knowledge—me?! But there is something very special about watching the way Sheri often seems to doubt her abilities, and whether she pulls through in grand fashion or not, she always pulls through and keeps on truckin’ all over that huge park with her tiny little legs. Cole’s advice: “You’re awesome mom! Don’t cry! Stay calm!” And she does. She guesses; she asks for help; she gets a holy calling from the miniature Vatican; and eventually she makes it through. Very eventually. I get the feeling they were a good 30 minutes behind the other teams heading into the… DETOUR: COMMUTER CYCLE vs. MASTER OF ARTS.

NEXT: The art of commuting…

DETOUR: COMMUTER CYCLE vs. MASTER OF ARTS: The teams have to climb the Moon Bridge to receive their next clue, right past Phil who’s laying out the rules. In Commuter Cycle, the teams must master the modern Shenzhen commuter’s form of transportation — a tiny electric unicycle that you balance between your feet — and successfully traverse a specified route carrying a briefcase and cup of coffee. I really enjoyed watching Phil look about 78 percent confident on the thing as he demonstrated. Riding on them looks — how do I say this — IMPOSSIBLE. The teams don’t get the luxury of seeing them first, but still Team Torey and the Dancers head straight to the Master of Arts, saying, “The other detour was unicycling with coffee and a briefcase…just seems like nobody is going to pick that.”

Wrong. The Gamers head to Commuter Cycle first, agreeing that if it immediately seems too difficult they’ll switch, and still be in good shape. The only thing is, it’s hard to immediately tell if one might get the hang of electric unicycling. First you’re guided around by some young men — who, frankly, seemed to be giving Ashley a little too much assistance — and then you try to go a little distance on your own. It takes a little while for Ashley and Burnie to realize this is going to be very tough to master before they head to the other Detour, where the Dancers and Team Torey have already been through one failed attempt and are well on their way to completing Master of Arts, where each team must pick up a collection of paintings in the famous Dafen Village (which specializes in mass-producing oil painting replicas), bring them to an art gallery, and correctly assemble them on the gallery wall.

The paintings create a sort of puzzle, but the spacing between them is the most important, and neither the Dancers nor Team Torey realizes each painting needs to be evenly spaced both vertically and horizontally using the leveler as a measure, and have to rehang most of their paintings. But they’re still almost done by the time the Gamers arrive. Luckily they seem to intuit using the leveler as a measure, and it only takes them one try. And then…

There’s team Sheri and Cole. I assume that Cole was keen on the electric unicycles because they’re kind of like those two-wheeled “hover boards” that every Viner seems contractually obligated to ride at all times. And Sheri’s center of gravity is very low, so if anyone is predisposed to favor this Detour, it’s Team Alabama. Now, I wouldn’t say they were good at it, but they were determined. They rightly assessed that as they were firmly in last place, there was no way they could switch detours and overcome another team (short of someone, like, hammering their hand into a wall), so they know they just have to get through it. I loved that Sheri was better at it than Cole, and that he was openly admitting that fact. It took a lot of guiding and a lot of practicing, but when they finally took to the streets, Cole and Sheri barreled through locals, dodged cars, and occasionally chased their cycles down the street screaming “WATCH OUT!” when they lost control of them. It was pretty hilarious to watch, and I’m glad somebody made it to the end of it.

And somehow, the Gamers lost enough time switching Detours that as each team hops into a cab to head to the PIT STOP at Shenzhen Library Terrace — a tough-to-find spot beneath Shenzhen’s enormous roofline structure — it seems like they’re almost neck-and-neck, with Sheri and Cole maybe just a minute or two behind. Now…when two teams are racing for last, it pretty much always seems like they’re neck-and-neck. And then the team that you know in your heart is ahead peels around the corner and makes it to Phil first. Here, however, the two teams hop out of their cabs, not within sight of each other, and we see Sheri and Cole intuitively head in the right direction. And that one right decision — and Ashley and Burnie’s subsequent wrong decision to head in the other direction first — sees Sheri and Cole running around the corner first, to huge applause from the Gamers and Team Torey and utter shock from all parties involved. It was pretty fun to see Sheri and Cole be so overwhelmed that they were somehow, against ALL odds, still in this race. But it was also a little devastating to see…

1: Team Torey

2: Dancers

3: Team Alabama (?!?!?!)

ELIMINATED: The Gamers—This really felt like it was going to be a repeat of last season where the Reporters took their second places in stride all race and then got the first where it counted — on the Final Mat. Alas, Burnie and Ashley were a great team, whom some might say got a spot swiped out from under them. But as true fans of the race, they know what’s up and went out with class: “We just had a classic bad day on the race, and you can’t do that this late in the game.”

What a twist! What do you think of the Final 3 teams racing for the million? Are you glad it’s back to a Final 3, no more mid-finale elimination (hopefully)? Were you in as much disbelief as I was when Sheri and Cole rounded that corner? Sound off in the comments!

Episode Recaps

The Amazing Race

Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.

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