By Seb Kemp
"In the dry, this trail is very fast and physical. Today, in the wet…phfff, it will be hard and very rad!" bellows Fabien Barel.
We are in Fabien's backyard, standing on top of a hill within the Maritime Alps, twenty minutes drive inland from the opulence of Nice, France. Villages are scattered everywhere below us, the snow line (something this area doesn't get much of, but seemed to be perfectly fitting for our arrival) is etched on the higher hills around us, and, in the distance, we can see the Mediterranean Sea. I'm also sharing this view with Fabien Barel, Jerome Clementz, and Anne Caroline Chausson, three heroes of mine.
I, along with a cluster of other journalists, have been brought here as part of Mavic's mini-Trans-Provence, a two day sample of the real deal, seven-day, 300-kilometer beast of an Enduro race that takes place in September each year around this area. I was lucky enough to make it onto the start list in 2012, but now I'm back again less than six months later because I want to understand more about the Enduro phenomenon that is sweeping the world of mountain bikes.
The 2012 Mavic Trans-Provence was my first experience of Enduro, but with the subsequent formation of the World Enduro Series , as well as Enduro being the current flavor of the year, I need to find out more. Furthermore, Bike Magazine's premiere, Brice Minnigh, has ordered a comprehensive investigation into the Enduro trend for the June issue of the magazine.
I have time to take in the surroundings before Fabian says, "Right, now you come on my back." A slight fumble in Fabien's impeccable English has us all good-naturedly laughing, including Fabien. I beep my timing chip into the balaise unit and then we are off, me following the three-time downhill World Champion down his local trails. I’m riding blind, choosing lines almost before I can even register what is ahead. Making decisions based on guess work and instinct. I'm riding raggedly and very untidily. I get offline, lose momentum and have to pedal like a maniac to catch back up to Fab – who has backed off to allow me to get back on his back, so to speak.
It's when I catch up to him that I become aware that he is guiding me down the trail. I can hear him calling out instructions and giving me clues to the upcoming trail. "Stay high right…now left…off the brakes and pump this…now pedal…left then right…now drop!"
I'm still riding with instinct and rough calculation, but now also with the words of advice of one of the world's very best riders. It's magic to be in this position, and although I should be concentrating on the trail and Fab's instructions, I do find myself grinning and thinking to myself 'Bloody hell, this is incredible. I'm a trail-riding guided missile with the computing power of Fabien Barel's brain.' Those six minutes of descending will stay with me for a very long time.
At the bottom of the track I make my apologies to Fabien, I know he was cruising along, modestly giving me a glimpse into a world I will never be fast enough for, but helping rub my ego enough to make my self-esteem fly.
One by one, the group comes thrashing down the trail, tagging into the timing unit, registering their efforts. We share war stories and high-fives then lockout our suspension, raise the seats and pedal upwards towards another trail.
This next time I tuck in behind Jerome Clementz, probably the Enduro champion of the world. He has won more of these rally style and mass start Enduro races than anyone on the planet. He is also a supremely modest and humorous chap.
This trail is slicker than a nonstick frying pan slathered in KY jelly. The overnight rain has turned the marl surface to a twelve-inch wide Slip `n Slide. Jerome, like Fabien, calls out instructions and gentle guidance, all while hammering down the trail. I'm impressed that these riders can ride so well while giving me pace notes, in their second language no less.
Off the start line, my tires have clogged immediately, making them hold like greased up slicks on a buttered baking tray. It's loose and a lot of fun. Jerome dives into corners, feet up, sliding around till he finds traction. I try to follow his example but generally find myself dabbing or losing speed coming out of the corners. I pedal hard to keep some momentum, but my bottom bracket seems to be filled with Quikrete.
I feel like a newborne giraffe, my legs all wobbly and uncoordinated. I would have probably sat up and cruised the rest of the stage if I hadn't seen Jerome jumping, bunny-hopping, and generally playing on the trail. If he can have fun then why can't I? Well, I tried, but that is Jerome Clementz, probably one of the best bike handlers riders out there.
Later I ask to follow Anne-Caroline Chausson, 12-time downhill World Champion, five-times World Cup series winner, two-times Four-cross World Champion, and Olympic BMX gold medalist. I count Anne Caro as one of my all time mountain bike heroes. I followed her into yet another incredible trail above the village of Blausasc (Fabien's hometown). She skimmed along the ancient trails; trails that have connected villages and towns for hundreds of years. These trails have trod by villagers and their horses for centuries, but now with roads ribboned everywhere between the communities, the world-class singletrack network has been left to the recreationalists to enjoy.
In North America, we usually ride on trails that were built within our lifetime, often for the specific purpose of mountain biking. Here, and indeed across most of Europe, the riding is on trails with more history than silly wooden ladders. These trails weave across the land, thoughtfully holding onto elevation and holding a sensible gradient rather than plummeting with the fall line. They might have sections of switchbacks that seem tortuous to the uninitiated and they might be cut into the hillside leaving puckering exposure to one side, but they are blissful lines in the terrain.
These trails are where Enduro racing came about. Anne Caro explained that because Enduro racing, certainly in France anyway, is raced blind, to lessen the advantage that local riders have and to keep things fresh, organizers will seek out overgrown and forgotten trails in the hills. Opening up trails, reinvigorating them, and giving them a new lease of life.
We roll back in Peillon, an ancient fortress village that is precariously perched on a rock high above the valley floor. We are staying in Auberge de Madone (the fabled road climb of the same name being just over the way) and the Michelin-starred restaurant has our dinner waiting for us. I've never eaten so well in my life and may never do so again, unless Mavic and Trans-Provence want to spoil us again. Foie gras, a steak so perfectly cooked that I was able to cut it with the back of my knife, and an impeccable chocolate desert were the clincher to what was one of the most memorable days riding in my life. Following legends down storybook trails and finishing in a fairy-tale village with show-stopping food.
Fabien sums it all up, "Now this is mountain biking!" He pronounces it more like "mon-tane" and although he says it numerous times during my stay there, every time he uses this statement he hits the nail on the head.
Mountain biking is about the trails to discover for yourself, the people you ride them with, the places you see, the experiences you have on and off the bike, the jokes that are shared, friendly races between mates, trying your best to keep up or stay ahead, waking up with sore legs but wanting to get back on the bike, sweating up the climbs, freewheeling down, and getting into situations that you wouldn't if you stayed at home playing computer games or 'taking it easy.'