Editor’s note: Our man on the ground, Seb Kemp, finished a very impressive 12th on Day One and concluded Day Two of the race in 15th position, overall. Click here to check out the results page. Read on for the video and Seb’s excellent story.
Words by Seb Kemp
There is no man who could possibly describe what happened today. So I won't really try, but maybe I can give you some idea.
The assembled Trans-Provence riders are spilt into two groups of 35 riders. The first "wave" of riders were sent out of the camp at seven o'clock in the morning. The second group was supposed to follow one hour later. Murphy and his Law were close at hand, however, so the second group of riders were over an hour late to leave the camp on this second day of the race. This one hour was all it took to turn a beautiful, alpine ride into perhaps, one of the scariest, most exhilarating and utterly exhausting days riding I have ever experienced.
As we hike-a-biked the last few hundred meters up a valley that reminded me of a Scottish Highland glens, an ominous cloud stormed in and enveloped us. Within minutes it became almost impossible to see the rider fifty yards ahead. Then the wind started to challenge stability, jabbing and shoving at us, and threatening to send us tumbling down off the narrow singletrack and onto the rocks below.
Jackets were donned and gestures of submission to the weather gods were given. It was quite good fun.
I remember Jon Cancellier beaming to me with a shit eating grin, "Now it gets real". However, just minutes later three dozen Trans-Provence riders would be wishing to their god, their mother, and their holy other that they were any place on earth other than that barren mountain top.
I was hiking just 20 yards behind Jerome Clementz as I approached the saddle and the start of Special Stage 4. He turned to me and we both silently communicated that now was the time to get off this mountain top because all hell was about to break loose. I watched him drop into the trail and disappear into the gloom. Then the thunder cracked.
Thunder, as loud as anything you'd hear during the fourth of July, began clacking, cracking and booming all around us. Then the rain came down hard. Then harder still, until it relented, by turning into a punishing shower of hail.
Those of us already on the mountain top who were readying ourselves to drop into the "race" all looked at one other with fear before pour ourselves into the trail. As we bleeped ourselves into the belaise I looked back and pondered the fortunes of the riders behind me. Things were not deteriorating fast—they were instantly turning to trouble. I decided there was nothing any of us could do to help one another, other than get off this mountain as fast as possible.
I dropped into the trail, which had turned to a river within 60 seconds, and started survival mode. Racing had gone out of the window. I wasn't looking for fractions of a second or seconds, I was looking out for my life. This may sound a little melodramatic, but as thunder rolled constantly (I've never heard a continuous roll of thunder that lasted thirty minutes), flashes of lighting went off like strobes, and my body temperature plummeted to North Sea dunking levels, I knew that something bad could happen.
My run was poor. I don't care. I wanted out of there and knew that risking it all for a shot at the overall prize was not worth the overall prize of my life. I have never subjected myself to such extreme conditions on my bike. Never.
I got to the end of the stage and the other riders who had finished before me were huddled under the cover of a thorn bush, which afforded them as much actual coverage as a cabbage strainer, but gave the illusion of sanctuary. Again, we looked at each other and just muttered the few words we could, "Let's get the fuck out of here, now!"
As we attempted to pedal out we were forced to cross a mudslide that had materialized out of nowhere. There was no option other than to attempt to wade into fast, flowing river of dark custard that spilled across the road. We were soon knee deep in the stuff, our ankles bucking. All the while the rain did not stop, the thunder kept rolling, the lighting kept striking and we all took another step closer to becoming hypothermic.
Amongst the maelstrom the distance between Special Stage One and Two went awfully quick. By the time we approached Special Stage Two we were more than ready to check out, so we tagged the bleeper and sent it into the sludgy, slow-rolling, creek bed of a trail. Once in the woods, the trail became fun and afforded a glimpse of happiness amongst the madness. We were all brought back to earth, however, when the final obstacle of the stage was to cross a raging torrent of a flood creek. Bar-deep, brown mud. Bleep and gone.
At the feeding stage – only 17 kilometers into the 48-kilometer day – stories were swapped and tales were told. Shivers were shaken, chills were breathed, and warm drinks were clasped.
I was ready to fold, but as more and more riders came in, all with massive shit-eating grins that said, "I did Day Two of the 2012 Trans-Provence and survived" I knew we could help each other go on.
After a spray, lube, and hearty lunch, we were off. Only 25 kilometers were left until Special Stage 7 (Special Stage 6 being cancelled due to Murphy having his way).
Those 25 kilometers were a good ride, especially as they followed the Morning To End All Mornings and they eventually led to another 8-kilometer downhill and then a 5-kilometer commute to beers, a warm shower, and an evening meal. More so, that 25-kilometer stretch included an unholy amount of hike-a-bike, a metric shit ton of amazing singletrack, and enough water-color vistas to see us through the rest of our lives.
Special Stage 7 was a beast. Fast, narrow, knife-edge singletrack with whiplash-inducing switchbacks, high-speed, rock garden hops, and slalom-skiing pine tree turns. A truly amazing 14 minutes of ascending. And absolutely at odds with the nine types of hell we endured in the morning.
This is only day two and my mind has been blown. Today is a day I will not forget for a long time, not just for the ascents, but the pure survival aspect of it and the camaraderie. I feel I shared an experience with several dozen people that none of us will ever forget. I feel I could see these same people in 30 years time and we would recall tales of lightning-dodging, river-running hell.
Amazingly, amongst the madness of it all, there was still a race going on. Jerome Clementz was leading at breakfast, but suffered a puncture on Special Stage 1 (the biblical storm stage). Then a huge crash claimed his trousers on Special Stage 2. Given those two setbacks, most expected Clementz to be way down the rankings. Clementz, however, went for stage domination on Special Stage 7 and at day's end he was only bumped back to second place overall, just one minute behind Nico Lau.
This is seriously impressive. The guy lost his trousers. John Cancellier came across him on the trail waving his trousers above his head and smiling. Then as he rolled into lunch, rather than feeling bitterly beaten by the racing gods and the fortune of speed, he laughed and shared jokes about his whole experience. The guy is good on a bike. Actually, not just good, but mind-bendingly good on a bike. However, beyond being the best mountain biker currently on two wheels he is perhaps one of the best humans and greatest spirits put upon this earth. Humble, happy, and content to be having a laugh, Jerome Clementz is a legend.
It is only day two and already there has been pandemonium. Sleep needs to come soon because I can't wait for tomorrow to bring more of the same. Something I would not expect myself to have been saying about twelve hours earlier while on the top of Mount Storming Hell.