An Icon put to rest
The Trans-Provence’s last ride
Words by Jeff Carter
Images by Trans Provence
The Trans-Provence is a mythical beast: an event formed in the mists of enduro history, before stage racing as we know it today was dreamt up. Even in 2019, there’s really no comparison. The TP concept was birthed in 2008 from the minds of Ash and Melissa Smith, a couple with English roots who transplanted into the European Alps where their wild ideas were free to bloom like an edelweiss.
Their concept: take a hundred gullible mountain bikers, sprinkle in a healthy dose of professional level riders, and shepherd them on a six-day journey from Barcelonnette high in the Haute-Alpes of France, through the Maritime Alps, to Menton on the French coast. You read that right, six days! Twenty-four enduro stages, 20,000 metres of descending, 10,000 metres of climbing, with the remainder of ascent assisted by eleven CoolBus shuttle vans. Move a full camp of individual tents five times, cook and serve world class cuisine breakfasts and dinners, with lunches in roadside tents and tasty French baguettes for snacks. Course setters, massage therapists, mobile mechanics. It sounds like a crazy dream, right? Anyone who has ever run an event will understand that the logistics of successfully pulling this off are truly frightening. Ash and Melissa, together with an incredible crew of 90 helpers, have done this not just once, but ten times.
Since the first Sven Martin pictures emerged from the original 2008 TP, I’ve had this event on my bucket list. But I have to say it wasn’t at the top of that list; the thought of six straight days of racing filled me with equal parts awe and dread.
Could I handle it?
My friend James Pretty, aka Dirty Nomad (DN) had raced TP in 2015 and couldn’t shut his potty endurophile mouth about how good it was. When it was announced that 2019’s TP would be the last, it was time to push my doubts into a dark corner and see what DN was frothing about. Click click click—entered. Well, entered into the lottery to get an entry, as the event is so popular it needs a system to give everyone a fair chance to be a part of it all.
Ash has an Instagram account, @itinerology, where he cryptically chronicles his explorations with the perfect amount of tantalising detail. He prides himself on discovering trails, mostly those built for donkeys taking supplies to summer grazing or for trading between mountain villages; many are long overgrown and forgotten. Ash visits village libraries, pores over ancient parchment maps, magnifying glass in hand, and spends most of his year on solo trips exploring and uncovering overgrown ribbons of history. This principle of exploration is so fundamental to the TP ideology that there was no TP event in 2018, as Ash needed a year off to search out more trails. For 2019, the final TP, Ash revealed at the Day 0 briefing that 22.5 of the 24 stages would be new, never raced before, and for one virgin stage on day 5, racers would be the first to ever lay tyre tracks down it. Mouths were agape; DN stuttered, “No f’ing way!”
Rewind. Having clicked the entry button, I was now committed to getting a starting spot in the event. A trip exploring the riding potential in the Richmond Range near Blenheim resulted in grams copiously hashtagged with #itinerology. Ash “hearted” them. Mid-TP at a lunch stop, between mouthfuls of sweet French jet planes, I asked Ash if that’s how I got an entry. He replied that it made no difference; Melissa decides who gets in. Oh. Right.
In the leadup to the event, nightmares fuelled by Anja McDonald’s tales of painful butt blisters from her Tour Aotearoa ride haunted my sleep. In the euphoria of the email confirming I’d won a starting spot, DN and I booked a pre-TP week of tight switchback and almond croissant training guided by Lorenzo Suding from Aosta Valley Freeride. Copious fresh Michelins were panic-ordered from the Italian eBay and shipped direct to Aosta. It was on!
What was the event like? I’m not sure a few paragraphs here can really do it justice. DN has chronicled the whole experience, committing a hefty 6000 words to a daily blow by blow of our epic battle for Enduro supremacy and Katy Winton interviews in our journey across Provence. It’ll be summer when you read this, so spread out your beach towel and take a Spoke-unsanctioned digression on your favourite digital time-waster to www.dirtynomad.com to get the full TP immersion experience.
For me, the days blur into a messy, awesome, acid flashback-like haze. There were liaisons to hate and stages to love, there were hike-a-bike climbs in intense heat, biblical thunderstorms, hail and lightning, plus more incredible French food consumed than seems humanly possible. On multiple stages I laughed out loud to myself in a magical, maniacal, oxygen-deprived zone of fatigue and adrenaline.
Here are four standout memories.
Day 3: A bike park stage?
After two days of endless rocky-straight-to-tight-switchback combos, I was beginning to understand that French natural riding is not something you can prepare for by riding loamy Rotorua pump and flow. Even the nearby Aosta Valley trails were nowhere near as challenging as the trails Ash had selected. So when we pedalled up to a chairlift to race a stage in a bike park, the contrast felt like a homecoming. Those berms felt like heaven. I also landed my best result of the week—stoked!
Day 4, Stage 2
DN had prepped for TP by racing The Pioneer, a scrotum-punishing, multi-day XC stage race near Queenstown. He was pedal fit, fitter than me, and I was worried. DN regaled me daily with tales of his phoenix rising performance in the 2015 TP, where others faded in the wake of his enduro glory, climbing through the leaderboard in the final days. On day 4, stage 2, his dream had a whiff of coming true. I had a couple of moments early in the stage, losing the front wheel off a corner then again off a bank. Scrambling to get going, I could hear DN behind me, rapidly closing the 30-second start gap through a never-ending series of back-to-back, tighter-than-tight switchbacks. My mind screamed ‘Nooooo!’ If I had to let him pass me I’d never hear the end of it.
The switchbacks relented at a river crossing with a 300mm-wide rocky bridge. I dismounted and ran across, hearing DN’s brakes squealing behind me. I glanced back—damn it, he was right there! Time to drop the hammer before this rabbit gets chopped into enduro stew. The trail’s character suddenly changed to sidling beside a stream, so I opened the tanks and let her rip. A minute of rock-smashing later, hssssssssss—a rear flat—seriously? With an ENVE rim protector, Panzer tyre insert, I ignore the flat and carry on at full speed, dealing with the rear tyre drift, laughing out loud, going so fast I can’t see. After three more minutes of flat-out, panting, rock-pinging, I’m desperate. I clock out of the stage, quiet the mental chatter and count, 1….2….3… where was he? I got to 23. DN clocks out looking disgusted. There would be no stew today. Whew!
Every day: Crazy Liaisons
Who puts a rocky, uber-technical, three-hour long cross-country ride in the middle of a day of enduro stage racing? Ash does. I never consumed more watermelon in a sitting than after that liaison. DN got so mad he had a hunger-induced meltdown after his brand new Megatower was brutally scratched by hectic French gnar. Who shuttles riders way up to a 4000m mountain pass before sending them on an untimed five-hour descent and big hike-a-bike mission just to get to the first stage of the day? Ash does. In fact there were quite a few fun untimed descents in the course, added just for fun. Day 5 started at an incredible old Italian military fort. Most days were 10–12 hours of being outside on a bike in amazing places—this carefully-crafted journey designed to bring you to the brink of fatigue is part of the beauty of TP, revealing it to be so much more than a stage race.
Day 6: Stage 24 Descent to Menton
The final stage of TP was planned to start right at the top of a massive hill looking down into the alluring azure-blue of the Mediterranean Sea. As we moved out of the alps towards the ocean, the temperatures had slowly risen until it culminated in this last climb, in 35 degree heat, with both bottles sipped dry, the last baguette inhaled, suffering endless carrying and pushing until we crested the climb and saw this incredible view. This was it: the end in sight. It was hard not to get emotional. Ash saved the gnarliest trail for last: a steep, rocky, dusty number, with arms dead and minds blown. An explosion of high fives and relief at the final stage clock out, we’d made it! Followed by a rider train of coaster wheelies and driveway side-hits towards the sweet cool waters of the Med. Splash, rinse, and smile: an incredible end to an incredible week of good times with good people.
Travel Tip for Italy: Make sure your passport has three months validity past your return date. If it doesn’t, the airline won’t let you on your flight, and you’ll spend a frantic day in Auckland getting a replacement. If you’re flying with the unsympathetic Qatar Airways, you’ll have to buy another flight and your travel insurance won’t cover any of it. Plus you’ll owe DN croissants for the rest of the trip.
Footnote: I can’t help but wonder what the incredible minds of Ash and Melissa will dream up next. I put that question to Ash and haven’t heard from him since.