The itinerary. Ash Smith obsesses over it. He loses sleep worrying over piecing together ancient pathways that crisscross the Maritime Alps. Yet miraculously, it comes together. Here's how it happens, well, sort of: A municipal office worker in some sleepy mountain town begrudgingly hands Smith a faded, crinkled map. He scours it for dotted lines traversing contours, references it against Google Earth, studies the map again and hits dirt with his two wheels. Sometimes he strikes gold on the first attempt. But most often, finding rideable routes through the southern Alps is a process of trial and error requiring the curiosity of an archeologist, the map-reading skills of a cartographer and the tenacity of a gold panner.
A week ago, I flew to Nice on the French Riviera. It was a warm week in late October, the sky sparkling blue, mirroring the Mediterranean Sea. I joined Smith, founder of the legendary Trans-Provence enduro for some ground truthing. Trans-Provence's popularity has risen meteorically since its inception 10 years ago. Its unwavering commitment to blind-racing rugged trail was second-to-none and noticed by all. But then in 2018, it ground to a halt—Smith said no more—why? I'm here to hear Smith's story.
Over the past five days, we've feasted on a smorgasbord of singletrack: Trans-Provence classics like Wimbledon and Red Earth, others newly discovered like the one that has our attention today. We're on a trail so new it doesn't even have a name—well, a riding name. New in this part of the world means new to mountain biking, old to humanity—centuries old. We're deep in the Roya River Valley, tucked against the Italian border a few mountain ridges over from the Mediterranean. Our nameless trail has flopped us onto a farmer's field and a pair of sheepdogs snarl menacingly as we use our bikes as protection, flanking the property. Luckily, the hounds quickly lose interest. Back on our saddles, we follow a trace of trail that dead-ends into a steel ladder affixed to a limestone bluff as the valley pinches to a canyon. We shoulder our bikes, and awkwardly ascend the ladder. I don't ask questions. I follow Smith, and notice a raw hamburger abrasion on his right forearm. I figure if we're climbing a ladder with bikes, there must be a reason, a good reason. So I savor the thought of what lies ahead. As we clang up the final rungs, a rush of musty cold air envelops us; we're inside. To our left, a rusty steel door grasps aimlessly at worn hinges. We're inside a World War II bunker. Nearly 80 years ago, poor French recruits sat as lonely sentries safeguarding the narrow slot below from German and Italian soldiers.
"You guys are in for a treat now," Smith tells our group of riders, which includes French Santa Cruz rep Loïc Delteil, and photographer Sam Needham. Smith doesn't make statements like this casually; he can be his toughest critic.
After the beers had stopped flowing, and the rush of Trans-Provence number nine subsided in the summer of 2017, Smith suddenly announced that this nearly 190-mile stage race from the high Alps to the sultry Mediterranean was taking a year off. But it wasn't going away. Smith needed a year to unearth hidden gems, invoking the same passion and adventure that catalyzed the seven-day enduro back in 2008.
"I set a standard that there needs to be at least one-third, to 50-percent new trail every year in the Trans-Provence. It was time to take a year off," explains Smith, in his typical no-nonsense fashion.
Were that not enough, Smith's model demands each day has a minimum of nearly 10,000 vertical feet of descending—5,000 feet of that accessed by pedaling and 5,000 feet by shuttling.
Smith doesn't do anything half-assed. Last year, after announcing the hiatus, Smith and his wife rented out the family house in Sospel, bought a camper trailer, pulled the kids from school and hit the road. The entire family went on the hunt for hallowed singletrack.
Raised in Belgium where his father worked as a diplomat, the British-born, fluent French-speaker went on to study transportation engineering in university. Afterward, Smith was hired by SBB, the national Swiss railway company.
"Basically, my job was to help trains run on time," Smith says, about a job that's almost like a parody of one the most enduring Swiss stereotypes—punctuality.
But the Brit's true passions lie in the mountains—riding bikes and big skis. After his position at Swiss Rail was made redundant (British for getting laid off), he got a job for half the pay but twice the fun with Trail Addiction, a mountain biking tour company in the Savoie region of France.
Still, there was something in Smith's restless nature that soon grew dissatisfied with guiding "plunkers" on mountain bike holidays on the same trails again and again.
He headed south, searching for a longer riding season and mountains with the promise of discovery. Eventually, Smith landed in Sospel.
"We were living in Basel at the time and I had drifted apart from Trail Addiction. I wasn't really thinking about business," Smith says. "I had been traveling down to this area since about 2006 to see what the riding was like in the southern Alps."
Situated a half hour's drive from the Mediterranean, and a mere 15-minute pedal from the Italian border, Sospel had what Smith was looking for—seemingly boundless opportunity for two-wheeled exploration, year-round riding and a comforting sense of obscurity. Aside from an impressive Roman Catholic church and the Fort Saint-Roch Musuem, there's little in Sospel to attract the sightseeing tourist.
"After a few years exploring down south, I felt I had found a set of trails that I wanted to share with a wider audience," Smith explains, a time when the enduro format was novel and when thoughts of creating a stage race began percolating. "I really wanted an event that wouldn't favor cross-country racers."
He launched Trans Provence in 2009 with 30 people. Four years later, it topped out at 82 participants, a number Smith believed was the maximum given the logistics of shuttling riders and crew along serpentine mountain roads in the Maritime Alps between various stages.
Needham and I poke around the concrete bunker, letting Smith's words soak in while imagining bored French soldiers posted here to guard this obscure valley from an incursion of enemy troops.
Then it's time to drop in. Our narrow gorge suddenly broadens to a panoramic sweep of the valley beneath us. I can see a thread of dirt through thick brush, transforming a bench-cut trail contouring through sun-kissed limestone bluffs—just wide enough to allow two loaded mules to pass one another. In places, it's bedded with paving stones, polished smooth by centuries of foot and hoof traffic. It dips in and out of ravines, with occasional knee-high manuals and corners so perfectly banked you'd think an IMBA-certified crew was responsible. Every so often, there's a turn with life-ending exposure adding to its pucker factor. I pause and shake out my forearms, taking in the view. Back home on Vancouver Island, this trail would be an instant classic: absorbing technical power moves, fast corners on limestone pavers as grippy as 60-grit sandpaper, spine-tingling exposure and postcard views. It's easy to forget this isn't a purpose-built mountain bike trail. Just another recent Smith discovery, uprooted from the complex, layered history of this rugged landscape, hidden and melded like the mix of dirt and sweat on the forearm of a mountain biker who hasn't showered in weeks.
"These trails are four, five, six—even 700 years old. Nobody really knows. They were utilitarian routes for trade and defense," Smith says, pausing on a corner that offers up another majestic Maritime-Alp panorama. "As far as I know, nobody was riding these trails before I came down here and started exploring."
We've been spoiled today. It's been one of those days when a ride transcends into a journey through space and time. In the morning, we pedaled up through the Col de Tende Ski Area onto a barren ridgeline straddling the French-Italian border, passing before the 19th-century ruins of Fort de la Marguerie and Fort Pepin. Later, we sliced through a technical thread of singletrack switchbacking down a gorgeous sub-alpine basin, full of larches blazing in autumnal gold. After winding through a trials-like rockgarden, we granny-geared past cool trunks, cresting to a stupefying view of Mercantour National Park towering north. A quick plunge toward a pastoral valley belched us down a characterless jeep track of loose rock and rubble, a far cry from our sinuous salvation earlier.
"My map said this was a trail. Sometimes it doesn't work out," Smith told us, at the bottom of the crappy descent. "Other times I'll find a good trail but it takes one-and-a-half hours of hike-a-bike to get there, so it could never work as a route."
But today's finisher—a balcony of ancient singletrack high above a valley—had been making Smith giggle all day, as though all that had come before was mere preamble.
And when Smith does nail a route, he can be secretive, downright proprietary.
"Trans-Provence participants and guided groups are asked not to use Strava. If they do, we ask them to leave the trip," says Smith bluntly.
I take it as a warning to not get too descriptive of this trail, too finite in location details.
As we wind down, technical power moves and steps carved into limestone by centuries of footfalls demand my immediate attention, as does a bone-breaking plunge to the right were my focus to wander. Though I'm engrossed, my mind drifts to thoughts of origin—was this once an escape route for villagers trying in vain to flee the scourge of the 14th-century Black Plague, traders carrying goods to market over the Col de Tende into ancient Italy, a secret path for World War II soldiers skirting enemy troops? Likely it was all three at different points in history. It makes the purpose-built mountain bike trails of my home seem somewhat vacuous and empty in comparison, like the outline of a plot without characters. Smith admits he has relatively little experience riding outside of the Alps, except for a handful of trips to Whistler where he worked a few winter seasons and met his Canadian wife. He doesn't claim to have any special perspective, but he has a gut instinct for a soulful ride.
Late in the day, as the autumn sun dips to the west, we stuff bikes and bodies into Smith's Sprinter van for the shuttle back to Sospel. We follow a winding mountain road into the tiny Italian town of Olivetta. In a dark doorway I see an older man tending to a small batch of freshly pressed olive oil. A few middle-aged couples sit on an outside terrace sipping wine.
After Olivetta, the road dips toward the French border and Sospel. Suddenly I hear Smith cursing upfront.
"Bunch of twats," he says, after spotting flashing police lights in the rearview mirror.
Soon we're piling out of the van, while a terse exchange in French between Smith and the gendarmes ensues.
"You have to show them your passports," he says, with resignation.
Arguing with cops rarely bears fruit, but Smith seems to relish in the challenge no less.
We learn that the authorities are cracking down on the flow of migrants from Italy into southern France, and Smith's panel van bumbling down the mountainside loaded with riders and gear must've been a glaring eyesore. We rummage through bags of sweaty bike gear for our documents. The cops study them closely, uninterested in the rattle of poorly concealed empty beer cans at our feet.
Fifteen minutes later, we're back on our way. Sospel is enveloped deeply in evening shade when we return. Though the sun set on Trans-Provence in 2018 it will shine brightly next summer.
"People want the event to carry on. Really I can't think of anything I'd rather do than go out and find ancient trail," Smith says.
Some can't help but follow what breathes life into their souls. For Ash Smith, the pursuit of happiness sprouts singletrack seedlings that have grown into the mighty Trans-Provence.