When Mavic Trans-Provence founder and organizer Ash Smith announced that his popular enduro race would go on hiatus in 2018 with an uncertain future beyond that, bucket lists all over the world crumpled up and landed in the bottom of trash cans. Over the course of its nine-year history, Trans-Provence has become a must-do for any serious mountain biker, lauded for its authenticity and raw racing experience. Its 24 stages are truly blind and take place on unmanicured, primitive, centuries-old trails in the French Maritime Alps.
But almost a decade in, Smith started feeling like the race was losing some of what made it special. He no longer had time to scout fresh routes every year, and he needed time to reflect.
“I got into a rut,” Smith says, “and was like, ‘Ash, let’s stop for a second, stop for awhile, and think about how this has worked in the past with a view toward answering what we’re doing next.'”
In this episode of “Itinerology,” the first in a four-part series shot by filmer/photographer Sam Needham, Smith speaks to how he will spend 2018 without the pressures of a summer event looming.
“Everything I said in the announcement video is 100-percent, down-the-line true. I literally have run out, for now, of the ability to bring enough new stuff for me to consider it genuine. It’s reached a bit of a dead end.”
Trans-Provence was never imagined as a race. In 2007, Smith, a native of the U.K. then working as in engineer for Swiss Rail in Basel, organized a week of riding in and around Sospel, a mountain town in southern France he’d fallen in love with and started using as a base as he and his wife, Melissa, explored the nearby trails. He’d done some guiding in a different part of the Alps, and was inspired by the beauty of Sospel’s unrefined singletrack to put together an itinerary on the trails he was discovering.
“I just formed this idea that I could put together this route. It was supposed to be a guided mountain bike week, but over the course of the next year, I became persuaded to share it with a bigger audience and do an event, even though I had nothing to do with mountain bike organizing at all. It was very much ground up, about the trails. It was never, ‘Oh, I’m going to create an amazing and successful mountain bike event.’ Ours was genuinely very much from the ground up. It completely happened by accident that it became a mountain bike race.”
In 2009, he invited some friends, who paid €500 each for food and accommodations, and sunk $15,000 of his own money into that first event, which he and Melissa planned and Melissa handled all the logistics (which she still does today). The first year, 30 people showed up. The next year, 50 people signed up. In 2011, a crop of influential pros, like Fabien Barel, Jerome Clementz and Anka and Sven Martin, caught wind of the race and signed up, and former Dirt editor Steve Jones wrote a feature about Trans-Provence, all of which elevated the race to an international stage, where it’s stayed ever since. Every year, Smith has aimed to change eight to 12 of the 24 singletrack descents of the six-day race, something he feels is integral to keeping Trans-Provence genuine.
Watch the first episode to see how Smith is embarking on his first break in nearly a decade, and stay tuned to bikemag.com over the next 10 months as we share the full “Itinerology” series.