Trans-Provence Days Enduro race

Trans-Provence Days Enduro race

By Alpkit

Days 1-3 of Trans-Provence invite you into the heart of the rugged landscape, where trails weave tales of endurance.

In the first of a series of reports, Dave ‘Bearded Man’ Warren will be filling us in on the daily happenings at this years Trans Provence Mountain Bike Event. In its second year, we are very happy to support them again, and hopefully, all the racers will have a good night’s recovery kip on the Fat Airics from last year and the new Dozers.

7 days of rally-styled racing, ‘predominantly’ downhill singletrack (I’ll probably regret saying that), sounds too good to be true. However, the Trans-Provence offers just that. The race starts in Gap and finishes in Monaco – so only the Mediterranean Alps stand in our way before we reach millionaire's paradise.

Now in its second year, the word is out, and the 45 riders ascend from all over the planet – Australia, Canada, the UK, Italy….the list goes on. From my experience of intimate races like this I am expecting some competitive rivalry on the trails and sociable times at the camps.

Now to the interesting stuff! Each day’s riding has either three or four timed sections, all of the times accumulate until all stages have been completed and the TP champion 2010 will be named. We are expecting 1,000m+ elevation a day and 1,500m+ descending – take these stats as brash averages. The distance covered each day is less than 60km, but I am guessing this is a moot point considering the profiles.

I don’t know much about this event but considering the stats I am sure there will be some pretty hard riding and some extreme climbing – time will tell.

Day 0 – The long road ahead
After a three-hour transfer from Nice airport, it was time to meet and greet Ash and Melissa (event organisers), register, sign disclaimers and unpack our bags into our tents. Food good enough for champions was served in an open air ‘hall’, which was a real treat having just arrived from London with a winter jacket on!

The rider's briefing was something that either scared the hell out of everyone or lifted excitement levels – either way, we are in for an epic journey through Provence. My bike choice (steel hardtail 29er with not much front suspension!) might not be ideal but I am hoping gravity is on my side and a bit of luck.

Finally, time to hit the sack with the Alpkit mat as the protection between mother earth and my sleeping bag.

Day 1 – Is this for real?
Breakfast served at 7am meant that shuffles started shortly after 6am. Cereals, porridge and strong coffee were quickly consumed before the first load of riders were shuttled at 8am to the start of the mammoth climb (500m vertical). Almost silence in the bus as we were making our way up.

After the 10km climb we made it to the first timed section - on came the pads, down went the seats and mindsets changed.

For most of us this is where the rude awakening began! After swiping the timing chip at the start we were faced with sweet singletrack that meandered along a ridge with varied steepness, some of which felt almost vertical at times. Sometimes there were loose rocks, sometimes the rocks grounded, but all of the time it was insane. Lose concentration for one second and there are sections where you would end up 200m below the trail! This is mountain biking at its best, this is what makes us come back time and time again – I can’t believe this is possible, trails of this calibre normally only last a kilometre or two.

Trying to explain section by section would be stupid, simply because it would sound like I am ‘selling’ this event and also everything is a blur. After day 1 trails are already just about corners and ‘almost’ situations. It is times like this that I wish I spent more time at Cwm Carn or Fort William, but I haven’t so I used the brakes too much and am too cautious, but hopefully by the end of the week that will all change.


Relaxing at the end of the first timed section

The last timed section was a favourite amongst the riders but unfortunately I pinch flatted almost at the top and took a view that running down was quicker! My times would be compromised either way so there is some catching up to do.

Day 2 – Extreme proportions
Billed as the toughest day of the tour, day 2 didn’t disappoint. From the shuttle drop off point it was a short climb until it was hike a bike time – almost all the way until we reached our first timed section of the day called Les Monges. If anything was to be taken away from the effort put in to get there it was the vistas of various mountain ranges appearing out of the mist – almost breathtaking.


Misty start to Day 2

Another wild descent put the smiles back on our faces and the temperature warmed up, which meant all the morning layers started coming off. The final climb (700m vertical with a mix of walking and riding) of the day meant that most riders were conserving energy and mentally preparing for the latter stages of the day. That said some incredible times were set for the second and third timed stages – not surprising considering the competition is wide open.

The final climb can only be described as brutal – it was like a recurring nightmare after each turn presented another 50m climb, it just never ended. It consisted of a short tarred steep section at the start, followed by loose gravel and finally a steep damp forest section until we eventually reached the final section suitably called Donkey Darko. We were tired but the trail ahead was rated by Ash as one of the best the Trans-Provence offers, so expectations were high.


Steeper than it looks!

The fact is Donkey Darko is undoubtedly the best singletrack I have ever ridden – it was long and had a combination of fast bits, steep bits, rocky bits and everything else that goes with bliss riding. There were switchback sections that required precision (pretty tough on a 29er!) with little room to fail. There were sweeping sections that could only have made every rider scream out loud – which I did about ten times “THIS CAN’T BE REAL!” It was and we are only on day 2!

I had a great day riding with average times posted for the day – but I am hoping to man up and let go of my brakes!

Day 3 – Go straight and stay upright!
A shaded and chilly climb/walk of 400m got us to the first section, which was a free rider's dream! Very quick with loose gravely switchbacks that required a bit of skill to keep momentum and speed high. I walked down the trail a bit and watched some of the top riders absolutely kill the top section – it is quite impressive to watch.

There were only three timed sections today. The first I managed to complete with few errors, so I was pretty chuffed. The second was a complete disaster – heading in the right direction, I chose the wrong line and found myself eating dirt. And then, still throbbing all over, I took a wrong turn, which added 150m climbing before I realised my mistake – I was basically at the point I started at. By this time I was almost broken.

I was not the only one (the top woman was amongst the ‘wrong turners’), so in my opinion, the signage didn’t work. If the stage stands it will mean my times will be shocking, however it will probably mean that the pressure is off and I can focus on styling some of what’s ahead – more lush singletrack.


Day 3. Spot the rider.

Today was the first day with a decent amount of climbing included in the timed sections, so the fit riders will gain valuable time on the leaderboard. It is now clear that anyone can win this event – a technical error, a wrong turn, or a bonk can lose valuable time, so the leaderboard is definitely going to change.

Tomorrow has lots of downs and less climbing, so everyone is in good spirits. Time for food and well-deserved wine.

Day 4 – A day of mixed emotions

Starting a day with an 8km descent, which drops almost 750m down, can only be described as epic – it’s almost as if I was sitting in my office daydreaming about the best start of a day. From about halfway down the trail, my body was screaming for a break and, in particular, my arms, which were on fire. The variation in everything, including speed, trail, scenery and altitude, made this trail legendary in the camp. If you ever do this race remember the name – Col des Champs.

Unfortunately the Col des Champs claimed this year’s first victim, who was airlifted to the nearest hospital with a broken shoulder. So, hopefully, Markus Boscher (Ger) will recover soon and be back on his bike in no time.

A day of 30km should be something of a ‘rest’ day, but a few missed signs due to a lack of concentration meant that a group of us were scaling back up almost vertical descents – Alp descents! At this stage, it was hot, and a mood of elation turned quickly into one of frustration. When this happened for the second time we all started feeling a bit despondent, however we were treated with Grey Earth.

Grey Earth was a unique trail that was made up of black shale rock which was almost completely clear of vegetation. It could have been a tarred road it was so smooth. Let go of the brakes and the combination of gravity and smoothness made this run super fast. It was undulating in some places, but because I could carry so much speed into the up sections, no pedalling was needed. I had never ridden anything like this before, so I was grinning from ear to ear when I got to the bottom – my day’s blunders were now forgotten.

Today was yet again another crazy day at the Trans-Provence. Considering the level of trails we ride each day I can’t imagine how I am going to feel when I get back home!

Day 5 – What goes up must come down

2 road cyclists ascending in the Alps

I never really understood why people travelled to the continent to ride mountains on tar. I know lots of people that have and they all rave about it. Well today we had a taster of just that. After the first timed section called Col de Segiliere we found ourselves at the bottom of a valley in a tiny village. From there we had to make our way up to Vallon du Nai, which was about 15km away with an elevation gain of about 700m. All of this was done on tarred road and surprisingly it made a nice change from the brutal terrain we have become accustomed to.

What made this a real treat was the fact we could look around and enjoy the scenery without worrying about what our front wheel might hit. The road meandered its way through small villages and provided some spectacular views. We managed to sneak in an espresso or two along the way, which was a real treat.

Mountain bikes offroad in limestone terrain

Aside from the tarred road ride it was again a day of incredible riding between stages. Some immense cliff edges, rock falls and precarious rock hops made for adrenaline levels to almost pop – something they are getting used to.

Last night we were briefed about the trails and again the ‘one of the best trails’ stories was told. The trail is called Roure and descends almost 600m in very little distance (I think less than 2.5 kms). This makes for steep riding with very tight switchbacks. Roure was a completely mad trail – I can’t think of any other way to describe it! Large portions of this trail were smooth which really encouraged speed and flowing riding and then all of a sudden, without warning there would be a steep tight switchback! The penalty for failure of overshooting a switchback was about a 50m+ freefall, so my common sense took over!

Offroad mountain biking in the Alps

The other highlight for me today was on the third timed trail of the day that had a few hundred metres of natural steps to contend with. About half way down the steps section I realised that control was overrated and the bike appeared to be managing itself. The only thing I could offer was direction, the rest was up to gravity, luck, rock placements and the end of the trail. If the marshal at the bottom of the trail had known how out of control my bike was I can almost guarantee she would have been hiding behind something solid – instead she complemented me on a nice finish!

All in a day’s mountain biking.

As we sit eating another meal for champions in the camp this evening the rain has started coming down so fingers crossed it clears for the morning because we have another monster day to contend with. And then we have a clear run to Monaco.

Day 6 – A tough time on the saddle
We always knew that day 6 was going to be tough. The fact that the start time was an hour earlier clearly meant that we were expected to be in the mountains for longer than usual.

Today we started riding from the campsite and headed straight up a 700m climb, which was plagued with wet roots and rocks from the rain the night before. Fortunately, the weather was on our side all day, so when we reached the summit, we had magnificent 360-degree views of mountain ranges, small villages and ‘almost’ the sea. The bonus for cresting the mountain was a few kilometres of riding along a trail that was cut out of the mountain and provided some very interesting riding with exposed sections and loose stone – I almost felt on top of the world.

The big talk of the day was the next two timed sections, which, unbelievably, in 2009 was one-timed section. Due to the trail's distance (9km) and altitude drop (1200m), the organisers decided to give us a break in between so that we could get the most out of a colossal descent.

Each trail was epic in its own right but the two together were something indescribable. So far on this tour, I would personally rate the second run as one of my favourites, simply because the top section was steep and rocky, the middle section was flat and required pedalling and the bottom section was littered with steps and switchbacks and had a kind of urban feel to it, so we had a mash-up of everything. I could almost imagine hundreds of spectators lining the trail clapping and shouting encouragement at riders as they blast through the run, i.e. in my opinion, this run could be on the world circuit. At the bottom, I had a throbbing head, legs, and arms, and I was pretty exhausted – so it must have been brilliant.

Where else is this possible? Day after day trails just keep impressing and offering a variety of challenges to EVERYONE!

Saying that, today I was faced with the first eyebrow-raising trail of the entire tour. It was our last timed trail of the day called Granges de Cuous and it was purely insane. 90 percent of the riders pushed down certain sections because it was extreme in all ways. I had absolutely no control of my bike (when I was on it) because my tyres would grip the gravel, which would then start sliding with the bike! This is normally when panic set in, and I did everything possible to get my feet out of the SPD pedals to save myself a cliff dive. Even walking with my bike proved something of a challenge with no grip at all. It was intense, and after a full day in the saddle, my brain was overloaded with fight-or-flight fluid trying to get me down safely.

The camp is clearly very tiring, and I am definitely looking forward to the ride down to Monaco. Any exposed bare skin now has grazes, bruises and cuts from falls, trees and shrubs. One more night in a tent and then time to crack open the champagne (I mean beer) in Monaco.

Day 7 – Scruffy man’s rampage
This whole week we have been looking forward to the dive in the Mediterranean Sea once we reach Monaco. By the time we reach the final destination, we will all be grubby and sweaty from the 32km of trails we need to conquer before we hit the streets of Monaco. I personally couldn’t think of anything more fitting than a bunch of mountain bikers mixing it up with the rich and famous in this rich man’s paradise.

The day started with a dreamy climb up to St Simeon, our first timed section. It was dreamy because the climb was on a decent fire road, and the gradient was easily manageable. We were entering new territory with St Simeon’s trail, which descended almost 700m in about 3km’s distance. The gravel was definitely changing and provided less traction than any of the other days’ trails; in fact, this was a characteristic of the day.

I had considered myself quite fortunate over the week as I was still in one piece and I didn’t have to deal with any major mechanicals – I spoke too soon! Within 20m of the first run my valve was blown clean off my wheel so my tyre was flat within seconds. Soon after replacing the tube I used my last CO2 canister and managed to break another tube valve. After fitting my last tube, I cautiously made my way down the run and was confronted with a reasonable size drop, which caused another pinch flat. The pinch was on the seam of the tube, and the patch didn’t seal the hole properly, so I then had a slow puncture – it was almost comical, given that all I wanted to do was get to the end so I could celebrate.

Again, we had an amazing climb of about 700m straight after the first run, all of which was on a tarred road. The scenery was amazing, and for the first time, we could see the Mediterranean – it lifted my spirit almost instantaneously. Once we reached the second timed section of the day we knew that it was all downhill from there, literally.

The next two timed sections were sketchy and loose. The vegetation was also completely different with plants like roses and cacti scattered everywhere. Steep sections, steps and switchbacks (the theme running through this report) provided the entertainment before finally reaching the final checkpoint. It was a moment to savour – we had come so far and endured everything the Mediterranean Alps could throw at us.

The cherry on this amazing experience was riding down to the beach in Monaco jostling with Ferraris and Lamborghinis and using back alleys with uncountable steps (some marble) to find the quickest way to the beach – it was a memory I won’t forget. Although Sam, one of the riders, almost had a head-on with a Lamborghini – that would have been a story for the grandkids! A couple of beers later and time to get to the campsite and prepare for the after-party!

The Trans-Provence is a truly unforgettable experience.

The Trans-Provence winners of 2010 were:

Men
1. Chris Herraghty – 4:54:37
2. Michael Watton – 5:11:32
3. Ola Carmonius – 5:16:57

Women
1. Ingrid Hohermuth – 6:12:29
2. Stephanie Tuck – 6:52:24
3. Heather Hudson – 7:25:12

for more information check out their site Trans Provence Mountain Bike Event

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