Trans Provence is a wrap! What a week, what an experience, what an adventure! I don't even know where to start, or where to finish.... After a jumbled 2 months leading into the event I was slightly nervous, having had injuries that stopped me from doing much at all in the way of training, let alone simply riding. There was doubt in my mind whether I could even manage to make it through the first few days of the event. I suffered with a weak right leg after my back issue and the resulting limp and nerve damage left it a shrunken shadow of its former self. Any decent climbing or powerful pedalling was basically off the menu - to be fair though it barely mattered, TP is easily as much about technical ability and race nous as it is physicality. Mostly you just need to be fit enough for long days on the bike, some hiking and long climbs. Your "money is made" on the downhills so it's certainly no fitness freaks' XC race! Fortunately I survived and rolled to the finish in Menton with a huge smile on my dial! Here's how the week shook down.....
The week started on 'Day 0' (Saturday) at Nice airport where people jetted in from all over the globe. Bikes were assembled just outside the terminal and we were loaded into vans for the 3+ hour journey north to Camp Zero. Being the last van arriving to the camp I was on the back foot a little but quickly got the lay of the land, attached my number plate, checked out my home for the week (a 2 person tent), topped up the air in my mattress and headed for dinner, where a bit of a briefing from Ash set the tone for the week. This is serious mountain biking, read your map, help your mates out and stay safe. In order to finish first, first you must finish. Taking a look around the field it was apparent this really was a who's who of mountain biking. Former World Champions, current EWS series champ, loudmouth ex downhillers, top level pro XC riders, and plenty of no-namers and cling ons who were almost every bit as fast. A bit of a late night and I headed for some some much needed shut eye in preparation for Day 1.
Day 1 was one of the toughest days of not only the event, but any day of my life on a bike thus far. The day started warm and dry enough but pretty quickly turned to custard - just in time for the start of stage 1. Dropping into stage 1 we were introduced to one of the things that became very common throughout TP, switchbacks. If you made it through them all cleanly (I bet no one did) you were greeted lower down the run by some riverbed crossings, a quick change from 'switchback assassin' mode to XCer and sometimes trials mode was required, especially if you weren't keeping your eyes up for the course markings. By the end of stage 1 it was raining, and getting worse. Starting the ride/ hike up to the second stage things went from bad to worse. The wind whipped up and rain got heavier and colder. Taking shelter behind some bushes I began to wonder if this was it for the week, cold and wet. Pushing on in the elements we made it to the halfway point of the day, marked by a feed station. After consuming multiple cups of coffee (yes Sven, we drank it all!) and my weight in sweets and snacks it was into the mother of all hike-a-bikes. I'm not even sure how many hours it took but all I know is the ground was slippery, stodgy clay to start with and then turned into rock further up, everything was wet through, there wasn't much descending and as we progressed up the ridge,the peak we were looking for seemed to be moving away, from us as we fought the elements looking for it. Finally we topped out and dropped in. Sweet, sweet singletrack greeted us. Even though it was wet it was great to have the bulk of the day's climbing done and get some flowy trail under the wheels.
Arriving at camp late afternoon, we washed up our kit as well as possible. A few lucky ones managed to get some gear into the campground's dryers, while the rest of us turned the site into a Chinese laundry of sorts. After a huge meal and lots of high fives around the dinner table, everyone was stoked to get through a tough day in the mountains, but somewhat nervous that this was the weather for the week.
What a difference a night can make; day two dawned clear and mild, and we headed once again into the hills. From day two onwards it's hard to pick out one trail from another, or even one day from another. Days consisted of a 7am wakeup, followed by as much breakfast as you could stuff into your face, quickly pack up your gear, grab your bike and jump on the morning's uplift, an easy way to get your first few hundred metres' elevation for the day. At shuttle drop off Ash gave a quick run down of the day's trails, anywhere where major danger existed (ie. big exposure) and we were into it, generally for another hour or so of climbing mixed with some hike a bike. Drop into a trail, shred it as hard as possible while trying to stay on your bike, go fast, and not wreck your bike, or fall off one of the many 1000ft cliffs! Finish a stage, regroup with a group of new mates, make repairs where necessary, meander to the next stage, stop for coffee and/or beer where possible, discuss where you went wrong on the previous stage, fill up CamelBak at nearest village, continue to next stage, probably in the sun, quite possibly up a road, and most likely smiling broadly!
After wrapping the 4th stage of the day it's a gentle roll for only a few minutes to the next campsite. Depending how leisurely you took the liaison stages you could have a good 2-3 hours of daylight left in which to try to dry your still-damp gear from Sunday's deluge, or if you were a member of the almost always home last (but at the pointy end of the rankings) Dark Cloud Crew you were home on dusk, saying "maybe tomorrow we'll get the 'chammys' dry". Bike cleaned and tuned and it was onto the final and one of the most important stages of the day, dinner! Three courses each night meant no one was left hungry, even those whose allergies or beliefs left their plates somewhat sparse looking were taken care of, ensuring everyone headed to bed with a full stomach. But not before watching the previous day's highlights video on a projector and getting a brief of the following day, with Ash pointing out the points where, if you crashed, you'd die, or if you ignored your route book, you'd get lost and spend hours climbing back to the course. Next day, wake up and repeat. Do this for 6 days and you've got the general gist of the Trans Provence event; no phone calls, minimal internet, no work, no worries, just sleep, eat and ride. Certainly a false reality but one that's amazing to live, if only for a week.
As far as the riding goes, it's real mountain biking. No bike park groomers, leaf blowers or astro-turf here (although this year saw the first inclusion of a chairlift for the first time in TP history, the trails weren't cliche bike park style) just rocky, flowy, singletrack goodness. As much as the race stages were amazing, some of the the liaisons were equally good, and you really had to try and not blow yourself out before the next special stage.
One liaison that comes to mind was on the biggest day of the week, Friday. Transitioning from the third stage to the fourth, following yet another monster climb, we topped out in some treeless rolling fields splattered with rocks. The trail ran like a ribbon down the hill, a foot or so wide and with high speed sections leading into rock gardens that were long enough to really blow out your arms and legs, and test every ounce of skill you had. Just as you were really starting to feel the burn you'd fire out onto another high speed, relatively smooth section of trail, coasting just long enough for the body to be back to relative normality before you were funneled into another rock garden.
With huge climbs come big descents and race stages well over 10 minutes were pretty common, something you struggle to find in New Zealand, that's for sure. Needless to say we Kiwis were suffering some good bouts of arm pump!
Part of the challenge of the event is to get your bike to the finish in one piece. I'm sure everyone had some bad luck somewhere along the way, some more than others. I had a little bad luck, flatting on the longest run of the week which cost me a huge amount of time (not that it really mattered!) and breaking a chain. I was stoked to get through the week pretty well unscathed, although I did have a crash on the first corner of one stage in front of an appreciative crowd! Unfortunately there were a few casualties over the week; a couple of broken hands, one separated shoulder and scuffed up face involving a heli-evac (get well soon Olly!) and one of the Russian riders took a big digger, apparently breaking a wrist.
It's hard to explain just how good the Trans Provence was. Between the riding, the people, the organisation and the killer trails it really was a once in a lifetime experience (although I'd be stoked to go back next year!) Thanks to Ash Smith for creating such a great event, to Torpedo7 (my work) for giving me time off and a bike to ride, all the awesome people who came along for the ride, and my wife Gemma for letting me go racing while on holiday!