By: Chris Lesser
Photos: Courtesy Trans-Provence
Video: Rob Hamillton-Smith
Ash Smith has never been much of a fan of big, elaborately staged, mass attendance mountain bike races. Instead, as the owner of trailAddiction, a mountain bike guiding company based out of Les Arcs, France, Smith makes a living taking small groups of riders into the Alps, showing them the kind of riding experience that he is a fan of—epic all-day adventures across stunning terrain, following singletrack as much as possible.
"I don't have any experience organizing mountain biking events…. I haven't even participated many, either," says Smith. But that didn't stop him from dreaming up a seven-day, point-to-point stage race across the Maritime Alps the likes of which hasn’t quite been done before. In total, says Smith, the Trans-Provence boasts more singletrack descending than any other seven-day race in existence.
Beyond the exotic route—340 kilometers of mostly singletrack that starts in Gap, France, and traverses the Maritime Alps to end in an urban descent into the ancient Mediterranean city of Monaco—the unique format of the Trans Provence sets it apart from most other mountain bike events.
The concept is simple enough, although its never been brought to a full seven-day format.
"The one-day enduro format has really taken off in Europe. It involves riding up the hills, un-timed, chatting at the top, and then racing downhill. Each race might have four descents all in one day, each one timed. It's more of a rally format, and the person who ends the day with the shortest [combined] time wins," says Smith. "So I thought, why not do a point-to-point ride with this format, but do it over seven days, and make it a course for 5- to 6-inch travel bikes."
And that's exactly what Smith did, staging the inaugural Trans-Provence race last September with 32 riders from around the world. Each of the seven days started with a shuttle—not because this was a DH event. Not at all, in fact. With more than 30,000 feet of climbing over the seven days (averaging out to some 4,200 per day), riders still very much earned each turn. And the turns—and the berms and the long flat-out speed sections and the untamed technical sections—were what riders came for. The course included nearly 50,000 vertical feet of descending, approximately 95 percent of which was pure singletrack.
Each day held four or five descending stages. The climbs were un-timed, but as riders passed the apex of each climbing section an electronic tag would register a timing post, and record the time it took to get to the corresponding timing post at the bottom. Over the week-long route there were 26 stages ranging from 8-minute plummets to hour-long, brake-pad-scorching singletrack sessions.
Riders would finish the last section each night to find their tents already arranged for them and two professional chefs preparing the night's meal. Smith and his team of organizers—there were 18 staff members taking care of 32 racers—would tally the day's results each evening and announce various stage winners, and the day's overall winner and/or race leaders. Prizes each night included giant bottles of German beer.
"It's not that we had a lot of heavy drinking, per se, but a whole lot more than you'd generally see at a seven-day point-to-point stage race," says Smith. And therin lies the heart and soul of the Trans Provence, and of this fast-growing Euro Enduro style race format—ride singletrack (lots of it), enjoy, repeat.
The winner of the inaugural event last year, he who tallied the shortest combined time of all 25 stages, was a Brit named Dan Darwood, racking up a cumulative time of 4 hours, 44 minutes and 9 seconds, beating out second place by more than 20 minutes.
His prize? A Dog steel hardtail frame.
The race is about the competition, sure, but it's really about the riding and the experience. Sound right up your alley? Tickets for next year's Trans Provence—which Smith has expanded to 64 riders for its second running—go on sale Monday, December 14. The second annual Trans Provence will run from September 25 to October 3.
The 1,195 Euro (approximately $1,750 US) entry fee covers everything from pickup at the airport, all food and lodging for the duration of the event, and transport back to the airport at the end. Smith is quick to point out it's significantly more affordable than comparable events such as the BC Bike Race or Trans-Portugal. For more, go to www.trans-provence.com.