Trans Provence 2012- The best riding of your life
I race mountain bikes because of the places it takes me. For the last 12 years I’ve traveled around the world riding in the woods. Normally these rides were centered on a Cross Country racecourse, which was normally located somewhere pretty nice. A few rides were always thrown in around said nice place to explore a bit and get a feel for the surroundings.
Trans Provence is the culmination of an impressive amount of exploring by one man, Ash Smith, in one amazing location, the Provence region of France. He had the vision and trail knowledge to put together what’s being called The Definitive All Mountain MTB Race. It’s both a strong statement and an understatement. This past week of riding the trails outlined in our trusty Annotated Route Description has quantified exactly what I’ve been looking for on all of those mini-missions for the last decade. A bike race that’s just as much an amazing ride, except you only race on the good parts. The really, really good parts, made up of an amazing variety of mostly downhill French hiking trails, which happen to be perfect for bikes.
I’d been looking forward to this adventure since seeing the coverage from last year and securing a place in the camp. Because of the logistics of housing, feeding, and getting folks an uplift every morning, the race is limited to seventy lucky souls. It sold out fast, to say the least… The energy amongst these seventy folks at Camp Zero the day before we started our trek was palpable. The moment everyone had been anticipating all year had finally arrived, confirmed by our receipt of the above mentioned route books on Saturday evening. This is an amazing tome. Seven days of riding laid out on topo maps with navigational descriptions to lead us on our merry way. Aided by spartan, but sufficient, signage placed by the course marking crew, two lucky guys who rode a day ahead of us, showing the way. We also were given our timing chips. This is the amazing part. To start each Special Stage, you simply wave this card past a Belise, hung from a tree on a ridge some, it beeps, then you give ‘er until you get to a valley, presumably, and careen into the arms of someone holding another Belise, and, beep, you’re done. At the end of the day your chip is handed in and a paper printout of your times is immediately generated. Slick. An amazing system that makes racing multiple daily stages in the middle of nowhere, France, possible. We need this system for North American Enduros. Period.
When I handed in my timing chip on day one I gave Ash a high-five on the day’s route and general amazement of the event. He apologized for the trails not being in better condition and promised that the rest of the week would be more ideal… Day 1’s trails were plenty amazing for me, a mix of open ridgelines, steeps, millions of tight switchbacks and overall awesomeness. I almost was nervous to think about how much better it could get. I was also nervous about betting beaten by all around legend Anne-Caroline Chausson. It happened on the final stage of day 1, but only by a second… She must go around switchbacks fast (as do all of the French riders).
Everyone was quite curious as to where riders from each discipline would stack up. Established Enduro stars such as reigning champ Jerome Clementz, Nicolas Lau and Nico Vioulloz had World Cup DH riders like Joe Barnes, Matti Leihiokkenen and Matt Williams and the XC trio of Ralph Naf, Geoff Kabush and myself to face off against. It turned out that we all were pretty close at the end of the day. Clementz honored his #1 plate, I was 6th and quite happy with the day’s cleanliness. Rabobank/Giant teammate Rosara Joseph was one missed turn away from surprising Anne-Caro after day one, she was second in the Women’s race by a scanty two seconds. Riding my borrowed Reign like she stole it!
The ensuing week was a blur. The rhythm of the group was soon established, wake up with the sun, eat, board shuttle to the day’s start, ride amazing trails all day, climbing and descending interspersed with brutal hike-a-bike sections to keep us humble, arrive at camp, massage, shower, eat, hang out, work on bike, be stoked, try to sleep, repeat. While it flew by, it also seemed to last forever. Or at least I wanted it to.
Here are a few anecdotes from each day-
Day 2- Never play games with mountain weather.
Refusing to acknowledge the possible severity of the very obvious approaching storm, we lazily climbed up to the first special of the day, as was the program for most of the days, chatting, stopping to take photos of a herd of sheep grazing in the alpine, etc. Then Jerome started to hurry. The smart few of us followed his lead. It was too late. Just as we got to the first stage, perched on a barren alpine ridgeline at 2,000 meters, all hell broke loose. Wind driven sheets of hail, lightning everywhere, immediate flooding, zero visibility. We all threw on our pads and took off into the maelstrom, racing for time, but mostly to get the hell out of there. I got lost in a creek bed, only to see Kabush twenty meters above me on the “trail” shouting to follow him. Ben Cruz flatted, but, after beginning to fix it with lightning strikes all around, he thought better and rode the flat into the valley. Good call. We all made it down and continued on to the next stage and throughout the day. Eventually the sun came out and we were rewarded by the classic Donkey Darko stage to finish after a decently brutal two-hour hike along a ridge, accumulated hail glowing through fall foliage. Nice.
Day 3- Once bitten, twice shy.
With threatening skies once again, the XC crew set out to get day three done as quickly as possible. Normally casual groups form on the liaisons between specials, talking, eating, taking photos, etc. After yesterday’s deluge, we decided that it’s no harder to ride light tempo for the day possibly avoiding getting ruined by the weather, and possibly getting to a stage in the dry before some others get wet. Strategy. Turns out the Enduro guys can climb too. We all gained an amazing ridgeline above Dignes-les-Bains at the same time, enabling some entertaining spectating to take place atop the Montagne de Coupe stage. Our little XC posse checked out after that, only slightly delayed by Geoff fixing a flat (on the liason) and me slapping the ground on the Cheval Blanc stage hard enough that I saw stars (but still tied Anne Caroline, yesss!) and got a quick head check by Doc Jo at the bottom. We fancied ourselves quite clever as storm clouds surrounded the day’s final stage. But the rain never came, we just got to camp first, which means shower priority and more time to crack open a bottle of Single Malt…
Day 4- Into the Maritime Alps. Clouds, loam and Grey Earth
This race is amazing. Today we went from the alpine Col du Champs, elev. 2100m and well into the clouds to racing hub-deep black loam on a trail you could barely make out in the space about fifteen minutes. I followed Chausson for the downhill liason to the start. She’s really good on the wet rocks. More loam and burl on stage two, but also a solid 100 meter climb, everyone said that was a stage for the XC guys, but Clementz still beat Kabush by 30 seconds. Wow. Then, what we’d all been waiting for- Grey Earth. On the other side of the same loamy valley was the surface of another planet. Grey shale arroyos with a trail racing over their fading crests. Awesome. The cadence of the days was pretty funny- end a shred-fest like Grey Earth all pumped and five minutes later you’re groveling up an hour-long carry. This time on a trail that the Enduro Portes de Mercantour had raced down recently. Instead of asking the riders to not cut the hundreds of switchbacks, someone simply piled logs from apex to apex. Clever, effective, and brings us to day 5.
Day 5- Cornergate
The problem with racing in the middle of nowhere is that it’s impossible to mark or police the courses. This leaves the door open for people to take all manner of shortcuts. To combat this, Ash implemented a rule in the first night’s briefing that anyone caught cutting the course would receive a time penalty. He simply stated that trails are there for riding and the future of the race depended on good land stewardship and relationships with the municipalities who’s trails we used. That said, the French are notorious for cutting the shit out of switchbacks. So much so that they always ride near the back of the group to avoid having secret lines seen and replicated. This was obviously continuing on plenty of pieces of trail, hidden from the view of most. But, on stage three today, a bunch of folks grossly cut the course before the first turn, in plain sight of everyone. That’s a touch disrespectful. Fifteen people were fingered, subsequently admitted their transgressions and were penalized thirty seconds. We all still had an amazing day of riding, with the best liason yet, a passage through the ancient village of Rubion before an amazing balcony trail leading around the valley to the final stage, which was a red-dirt romp to the valley floor and subsequent pub stop. Not to be confused with the café stop in the ski village of Valberg for an Omlette and Frites earlier in the day…
Day 6- The best trails yet and Captain Switchback lives in a forest year you.
Nothing like starting your morning off with a climb to a beautiful alpine ridge with views of the Mediterranean Sea and perfect trails falling in all directions. We rode southwest, continuing the perfection. And I finally switched to Downhill tires, upping the hooligan stakes a bit. We had an uplift in the middle of the day, which meant a nice lunch stop in the town square of Lantosque. The mid-day feed stations were a daily highlight, but even sweeter when you could really stock up, then take a nap on the shuttle… After the previous day’s cornergate, we were warned that there would be folks out on stage 3, Deadleaf Toboggan, watching for cheats. I had already been cackling with laughter and cheering to myself when a voice from the forest said “thanks for riding that switchback.” which meant I had someone to share the cheers with. Others had the certain displeasure of hearing “that’s three minutes, sucker!” from the voice… Highlight of the day, other than the radness, was following eventual race winner Nicolas Lau on the final liason out of a “wild canyon.” That guy is like a feather on his bike. A ninja feather. Always light and always moving around, searching out and using grip, then flipping around switchbacks like they’re a highway. Impressed. Nice guy too.
Day 7- Running from the Rain to the Sea.
Normally ten-time Downhill World Champ Nicolas Vioulloz rides near the back, taking his time, resting, contemplating. But on this rainy morning, almost in his backyard, he was hurrying. When I jokingly asked why, he responded, “you know why.” I did, and I hopped on. Weir, Kabush and I rode the first two slippery, rocky stages on Nico’s vague but helpful beta and were soon eating stroopwafels out of his Father’s car with his wife and son. It’s good to be a local. Then the sun came out and he started riding at a more Mediterranean pace. We were eager to see said Sea and topped out soon thereafter to an amazing scene. All week we’d anticipated the emerald waters of The Med and they didn’t disappoint. The final two stages passed in a flash of perfect dirt and white limestone. Was it over already? The final timing station and open cases of beer confirmed our suspicions. Everyone was exhausted yet elated, amazed at the week of riding they’d just experienced and happy to have completed it. I was kind of wanting more… Which we got, in a shred-train down to the Med, chased by yet another thunderstorm into a beachfront café. It was a perfect end to a perfect week. The best yet.
It’s funny to think about the fact that everyone actually raced a few times a day over the course of what was otherwise a week of riding and camping with your friends on the most condensed, diverse, quality trails I’ve yet experienced. It was a good excuse for a great ride. I yo-yo’ed around in the top ten all week, eventually having my relative consistency pay off with a seventh-place finish. Nico Lau capitalized on a tiny bit of bad luck from Jerome Clementz to win the overall with his smooth, consistent style. Vioulloz was second for the second year in a row. Recently crowned XC Eliminator World Champion Ralph Naf was one spot ahead of me as both the first non-enduro rider and first XC bandit, with Brit DHhttp://www.trans-provence.com/hopefuls Joe Barnes and Matt Williams just behind me. Great mix of riders, and not surprised that Enduro guys are the best at, well, Enduro racing… In the ladies contest, Anne-Caroline won by a comfortable margin but with Rosara keeping her honest in the pedally stages. Anka Martin used her two years of experience and DH skills to sneak into second and Rosara rounded out the podium in third, keeping the diversity theme going.
I’m no bucket-list believer, but this week of riding through Provence is something everyone should do. Even if it’s just one of the guided tours Ash puts on in May. Get out there, it’ll blow your mind.
There are daily videos up at http://www.trans-provence.com/