By Andreas Hestler
Day 4 – Hump Day
Villars-Colmars to Guillaumes 41.5 kilometers
965 meters UP
2434 meters DOWN
Hump day, as we’ve started calling it, came on the heels of a night spent at 1200m (4400 feet)—which always means cold. I was ok as my ever-conservative self says – "be careful, carry a good sleeping bag and always have a down jacket near by". We awoke to another beau day (Author's note: that's French for beautiful).
Our shuttle was so beset by ancient ruins on the drive up to alpine altitudes that we nearly missed our launch time; ruins, castles and old chalets accosted our vision, passing by as we ascended an endless stream of switchbacks. Our shuttle felt like a goat on steroids, moving us steadily upwards.
SP1 (Ed. Note: SP stands for special stage, a timed portion midway through the day's stage) was below us by the time the vehicles stopped well above the tree line. There would be no long, early Liason (Ed. Note: a non-timed portion) today but instead a vertical descent from grass through the forest and into the rocky, rubble-y side of the mountain. The day's description included a long descent, so the only question was: "Will the climbing come all as one or in small bits?" At the end of the day, dropping in at 6000+ feet means every climb sucks the air out of your lungs and the will to pedal out of your legs and soul, but every turn inspires and energizes—a perplexing juxtaposition as we headed down the first special stage. Amazingly, I lost something like two minutes to the fast guys, due both to fear of the trail's exposure and speed (my lack of it), while later in the day I would be within 4 seconds of some of the world's fastest downhill men. Strange, but that is the beauty of the Trans Provence.
Tracey Mosley and Anka Martin are certainly two of the most amazing gals I have had the pleasure of meeting and riding with. They are an awesome addition to the Trans Provence, and while the men have stepped up their game, so too have the women. Sometimes during the long days of a stage race I get tired of the machismo and so it's refreshing to have a woman's perspective. These two have a long history in the mountain bike world and have more than criss-crossed the Ocean of Amazing. I'm thankful they are here to keep me sane and they add a wonderful perspective to this awesome event. This year they started the season with the Cape Epic and now they will finish with the Trans Provence—how's that's for a bookend to a great year?
We finished SP1 and headed to SP2. Once there, it was to be one of the last special stages with over 110 meters of climbing, a.k.a. the last opportunity for the XC guys to pick up some time. For me, to gain time on guys like Nico, Weir, Jerome or Fabian on a downhill is impossible, but throw in some up and the field becomes vaguely level. I didn't come to the Trans Provence to race really, but pin a number on me and I will go hard and fast like any donkey who's flogged repeatedly.
A little down, a little up, a little more technical down and it was time for lunch. SP2 was such a beautiful blend of technical down, punishing up and more flowing down that there was really little to complain about. Not so, someone is always unhappy, but getting lost or flatting is the nature of the 'race' game. But, once you lay out a course and pin numbers on, you become liable for an earful of opinion, because, no matter what you do, someone else can do it better. Thank goodness, the voice of reason resides with the masses or these loons would sway the sane to insanity.
Lunch in Provence; need I say more? I will. Set on a grassy field above a river in the sunshine with a bunch of other smiling cyclists it was sheer perfection.
Day Four delivered more diversity than any other, from the alpine landscape to the forest and then onto open scree-filled slopes that instantly brought the origins of freeride to mind. An old course used in the past for Enduro's -'Grey Earth'—something reminiscent of middle earth and Mordor—was a smooth, fast flowing Utah-like experience that one wished could go on forever. Onto SP4, it was another ramble through the woods, down fast, flowing trails, around multiple hairpins and switchbacks—all the while reading new terrain at Mach chicken, what a joy.
Rolling into town, just 3 kilometers before the campsite, a whole bunch our brethren were hunkered down having beers at the local café. Ben Cruz had wrecked in the 'Grey Earth' stage and was awaiting an ambulance, and with mixed emotions we enjoyed our beers. It wasn't until Ben headed out for X-rays and gave us the thumbs up that we truly unleashed our gusto. This is an adventure in full swing and holding back is just not possible. Viva Trans Provence!
Day 5 – Another Amazing Day – Deep in the Ozarks of France
Guillaumes to St-Sauveur-sur-Tinee– 39.2 kilometers
977 meters UP
1954 meters DOWN
"It's the journey, how could Ash have found this route" or, "It's the race, how can we all be shredding the singletrack and having so much fun?" The debate will rage on far into the winter: what is the magic here? Why is this a 'must-do' race?
Why? Because the people behind the scene really care and have taken the time to put on an amazing all-inclusive event.
Day Five is bringing home this strange dichotomy: race or ride, what is the greater part of the experience? I will currently reserve judgment for myself, but know where my thoughts are leaning. We shuttle up to another amazing small French town perched high on a hillside, "What do they do for work," I think to myself, and begin a traverse around the mountain through grassy fields and stunted oak trees. The trail climbs up to our first special stage and it all begins again, but there seems to be a prevailing empathy for the overall journey, and while some are still focused on the 'race' many are defaulting to the overall experience.
This particular route demands 110% and is technically challenging. Seven minutes later we are in another town, breathing hard and remembering the recent blur of trail. Moments later our wheels are pointed up towards the next segment of our adventure, Liason 2. Up the mountain buffeted along by the Trans Provence winds, with panoramic views at every turn we navigate into the ski resort of Valberg and continue on. SP2 is short but enjoyable and delivers us to lunch—another amazing small town with a history we can only sense through the plaques and battered shutters, it feels like we are riding ourselves off the grid of civilization and backwards into history.
We are moving into the Maritime Alps, and as we get closer to Nice, the topography is getting steeper and it feels like we are more cut off and more remote than ever before. Like turning back time, access to modern conveniences is becoming harder to find. At the same time though, paths wind through hillside villages and mountain farms with fertile vegetable gardens. There is 'plenty' here, it's just not what we are used to.
SP3 delivers us to Roubion the proverbial hillside town. We are riding the walking paths through the town center, under tunnels and arches. We can't stop ourselves from taking photos of what is an absolutely iconic reflection of old Europe and this amazing area.
Onwards we go towards the end of Day Five. Descending some singletrack, I take Rowan Sorrell's wheel for a number of turns and giggle, just a little, because the trail is so sweet. The traverse to our final stage is very special; the sun is setting over large mountains to our right, from where we have been, and it's warm and strong as it shines down the valley like a beacon to where we are headed.
This last SP whips about corners, blasts berms and slices through rural hinterlands the likes of which we only wish were possible elsewhere. It's a short run to the finish, steep and deep, and I find another sharp edge to frustrate myself on, but c'est la vie, it's the end of a 'wicked, wicked' day and the French pub we roll into is already populated by our people. Weir, Beaumont and the crew have already stacked up a bunch of beers, and without hesitation we jump in.