Words and Photos by Seb Kemp
The wait has been exhausting.
Last Tuesday I packed my bag with my bike, an A4 page-long list of spares, and more changes of clothing than Lady Gaga would feel comfortable with. Wednesday consisted of the long list of connecting flights to Nice, France – the only airport I've ever seen where parked private Lear jets outnumber the commercial aircraft. Thursday was spent meandering along the beachfront of Nice, taking in the scene of leathery handbags tanning themselves on the beach, semi-professional boules games, and the urban Ferrari racetrack that makes up Promenade De Anglais. Friday was spent searching out the few key items that somehow didn't make it on to my obviously not-so-comprehensive packing list and then driving for four hours through some of the most intriguing French countryside and geological oddities. Saturday was spent lounging about the camp, swimming in cattle runoff, and getting to know the local customs (lunchtime drinking).
None of the nights have contained more than a dash of sleep. Partly driven by jet lag, but mostly the cause for lack of sleep has been due to the waiting game. Not quite nerves, but more excitement for something which has a giant question mark over it. No one in their first Trans-Provence really knows what to expect, except that anyone who has done it previously has said that it is perhaps one of the best weeks riding they do all year and certainly the best race they have ever done. The nervous excitement has tangled with lack of sleep to leave many of us feeling like a racehorse with startgate jitters.
And then Sunday finally came. Sunday, the first day of racing/riding of the Trans-Provence – the 350-kilometer, seven-day race, which crosses Provence and finishes in Monaco. An almost totally off-road and singletrack adventure that contains 10,000 meters of ascending and – the next statistic being the one that attracts most of the entrants – 15,000 meters of descending.
It has been a long time leading up to the Trans-Provence. At midnight on December 1st was when the race to secure an entry began. The 2012 Trans-Provence sold out in 8 seconds, so perhaps it could be said to be as big as The Who.
This is not just a Trans–race, but a race within an epic ride. Over the course of the week, 26 "Special Stages" are contested, generally downhill stages where the riders need to propel themselves to the top. After completing the first day of racing I can say that this makes the long and demanding days much mellower as the climbs and transfer stages aren't timed. However, the 3 to 6-kilometer, 4 to 14-minute Special Stages result in quite the thrill. Hitting trails utterly blind while the clock ticks is a recipe for some hairball maneuvers at speed.
The Trans-Provence bills itself as The Definitive All-Mountain MTB Race
It was good to get the first day out of the way, because now the second guessing (Am I fit enough? What is the riding like? Have I brought the right bike with me? Will my tires last the week?) has been settled. Tonight, I'm hoping the jetlag and question marks will take a backseat to eight hours of blissful sleep under the stars of a warm night in the south of France.
Day one saw Jerome Clementz take the lead over Nico Lau and Nico Vouilloz. The pace that these guys are setting is unsettling but also inspiring.
To find out more about what this whole event is about I sat down with race organizer, Ash Smith.
SK: So where did the idea to create the Trans-Provence come from?
AS: Basically, I have always been into long distance adventure stuff, but not just because of the adventure and beasting yourself but also the element of bonding that it creates. I'm also really into proper trails riding.
In 2002 I planned to do the GR5 which is a 600-kilometer route from Genova to Nice. It is pretty easy to follow, but I suspected that perhaps no one had rode it all the way on a bike. But right before I was going to do it I got a proper job – working for Swiss Rail –which derailed me from the GR5 and anything like that. But then a few years later I got made redundant, which was the best thing that ever happened really. I used to visit Sospel in Provence with my wife Melissa and we fell in love with it. I started to realize over the course of several visits that I could assemble out a route to ride. So it started as a ride, but then I figured why not make it a ride with some races within it.
2009 was the first year I ran the TP and it was just my mates and I. There was just 32 people – then 45 next, 55 next, and 72 this year. Back then I had a lot of people that signed up because it was a Trans- style adventure and wanted to race point-to-point.
SK: The format is rather unique: long days with a lot of climbing but the emphasis has been put entirely on the more downhill orientated "stages" of the ride, making the race a battle that requires a packed armory of skills and fitness. Why format it this way?
AS: I'd like to think this event is the perfect idea of what I think makes the best mountain biker. You have to be fit, and possess insanely high technical skills. You need everything, not just technical but the long descents take it out of you. You also need to survive each day, physically speaking. They are long days. Plus you have to ride it blind, so you have to be a very good instinctive rider and very talented to hit it blind and speed.
SK: How do you come up with the route?
AS: I'm a bit of a map freak. I've always liked seeing geography described on a piece of paper and then to go out and discover stuff. The route finding is very grassroots; basically it is just me going out on my own, in the snow, getting lost, hitting dead ends, trying things out until I get a route. Greg Germain is a young French guy who is an amazing resource and he helped me out on some stuff.
As riders keep coming back I'll need to change it up each year, which is a shame because then we will have to loose a few great trails. I just want to keep it fair and interesting enough for people to come back.