My Take on the Trans Provence
“I’m off to work for 7 days in France on the Trans Provence stage race,” I told my wife. “So you’re going on a biking holiday?” was the reply. I tried to explain that I had been running skills days for some of the competitors and that the trip was a fact finding mission, to help me plan further collaboration with the race organisers for 2012. She was having none of this though. It’s hard to present the concept of riding a bike for 7 days, over 300km of amazing wild singletrack trails, with 15,000 metres of vertical descending, which ends on the beach in Monaco, as anything but a bloody good time.
The Trans Provence is a mobile village. 58 competitors, supported by a team of drivers, cooks, fixers, tent pitchers and guides. There is a camp team, not in the Lionel Blair sense, but rather a group of people who every day, put up and take down all the tents in an event village. There is a kitchen team who produce and serve delicious food morning, noon and night. And there are organisers, organising stuff, all the time.
I was working alongside Jenn, Dom and Rich as a member of the ‘mountain team’. We got up bloody early every morning. Our reward, and it was one of the best parts of the event for me, was to see the sun rising most days, as we set off on our bikes in the mountains. Every day we would ride out an hour or two ahead of the racers to pre-ride the day’s route. We would check the signage, adding any extra signs as needed, and then each of us would be responsible for managing the start and finish of a special race stage for the day. When all the racers had come through a stage, we would then sweep, adding encouragement to the weary, bodging up mechanicals and stuffing the broken with sweets. The job involved riding most of the route, but without having to redline the stages like the competitors. Instead we could ride the trails, and have plenty of time to stop and high five and perform knuckle taps, whilst catching our breath before scooting off down the next bit of awesomeness. Trans Provence are also running the route as a guided trip rather than a race and I can vouch that this will be a great.
We usually encountered moments of drama each day and often from the same characters. Joost Van Mechelen was always the first guy through our stages. Man did he like to blast up the fire roads and linking stages, almost as if he was wanting to catch us up before we’d set the timing. At least he kept us pedalling hard. We were constantly aware that somewhere out there, we were being hunted down by the Joost. His arrival was always happy and he would whoop and grab his dick to show that he was having a nice time.
You can always rely on the journos to be ‘high drama’ and Dirt Magazine’s Steve Jones and Vital MTB’s Sven Martin didn’t disappoint. You could usually hear Steve swearing before catching sight of him. He’d come pinning it down the trail with full commitment, hurling abuse about the signage and swearing like a Welsh Father Jack. As soon as he was checking in at the finish line, he’d be thanking me for doing my job and saying sorry for the language! A genuinely good guy and very good value.
We each carried a timing ‘balise’ and were responsible for getting the racers to press their ‘chip’ onto this phone sized device to record their times at the finish of each special stage. Essentially this meant that you would be standing in a fixed position as the highly charged, adrenaline and testosterone high competitors came sprinting at you to clock in. Some of them were very cool and would show amazing braking control and inner composure as they stopped with precision and grace to clock in with efficiency. Not Sven Martin though! He’s a big lad who can ride a bike really well. He rode fast and was hard on himself for any mistakes he made on the stages. Sven would explode onto the finish line, grappling wildly trying to get his chip onto the balise. This would usually lose him a whole hundreth of a second and he once even lost maybe half a second as he accidentally knocked the balise out of my hard. Then he would complain about the lack of signs on the trail and explain how he had got lost and had to spend five minutes with the map out, only for us to sometimes find out later that he had won the stage. He did chill out eventually and even gave me a manly cuddle in the spirit of reconciliation. I have to say my day was made much more entertaining with all the fuss. Nice one Sven.
At the other end of the scale, Iain Matthews (one of the ‘not famous’ people) would come into the finish in a very good time, dressed in Lycra shorts, with his seat post at full height, with no knee pads or peak on his helmet. At the end of the hardest of all the stages, which I’d actually describe as ‘death tech’, he rolled in and calmly uttered with Bond like understatement, “that was a touch technical”. He then clipped back in and sprinted off up an unrideable climb. Pro racer, Mark Weir’s priceless words at the end of this most demanding stage were, “that was above my pay grade dude!”
You’ve probably seen the excellent videos from Matt Letch and his team from the event and heard some of the hype. It’s all true. This really is an epic event and I don’t use that word lightly. The trails were sick, rad, gnarly, awesome or really fucking good, depending on your country of origin. Plenty of flow, with turn after sensual turn. In fact some it was just greedy. I mean, after 10 minutes of the best trail ever, you think ,”this must end” but instead it just keeps on going for another 10 minutes of bike heaven. The trails are all natural and all set against an amazing back drop of mountain views. Sometimes in fact the view was over a vertiginous edge and it was best not to look. Making a wrong move here would as Rowan Sorrel described it, “put you in a coffin.” It’s beyond imagination that this race could happen in the UK, and definitely the US, with all the fear and red tape that comes with fun stuff. Rather than just “All Mountain”, Chris Porter, the boss of Fox importers Mojo, and a competitor in the race, described the riding as, “All or Nothing Mountain”. I’d have to agree.
If you like switchbacks then it was heaven. If you weren’t very good at riding them, by the end, you had had so much practice that you couldn’t help but improve. Watching the French Pros like Nico Vouilloz, Fabien Barel and race winner Jerome Clementz was a real treat. This is their terrain and I’ll try and explain how they went round the switchbacks. Feet up, clipped in and drifting was one technique they have dialled. The other way, and it was beautiful to behold, was when they would come in fast, unweight the rear and roll the first part of the turn on the front wheel. Then with no break in rhythm or pace, they would come off the brakes, transfer the weight to the rear of the bike and fire out of the turn. It was switchback porn and I loved watching it.
An event like this brings out the resourcefulness in one’s character. After a spirited ride down the spectacular and technical Col des Champs, I battered my rear mech to pieces. Bodging and the help of my mountain team comrades kept me riding, but at the end of the day, my bike was in reality a bit broken. On the same day Ben Cruz, who was up there at the very front of the race, crashed and bust up his ankle. As we were all having beers in a bar I got to chatting to Ben, as he waited for the emergency services to take him off to hospital. I had spotted that he was running 10 speed Shimano XT on his bike. “You won’t be needing that mech on your bike now will you mate?” I asked brazenly, to which he replied, “take it dude, it’s yours.” What a gentleman he is and what a shining example of the spirit of the event. I suppose you could say I’m a bloody chancer, but hey, I had a job to do and I was born cheeky and born in Yorkshire. That night I stripped the mech and chain off his lovely Cannondale Jeckyl and was rolling again for the morning.
Riding bikes and sleeping in the mountains for a week was a real treat. This was brought home to us when we arrived in Monaco, which is all fake boobs and poodles. Quite a contrast to the wild beauty which had been our world. Jumping in the warm, clear water of the Mediterranean was a treat though, especially after a giddy ride down a cheeky trail with massive steps, into the heart of the tax haven. This last ride was a bit like being back home in Hebden Bridge, except that it was warm, the trails were dry and the water is warmer than the Calder and Hebble Canal.
In your best French accent, shout out the following sentence with great exuberance, “This is what fucking ‘montain’ biking is all about!” I think this is probably the best one line description of the Trans Provence and often we would hear it coming from Fabien Barel, as he’d cross the finish line. He was loving it, and I can’t help but keep using his line now that I’m back home, every time that there is a great moment on a ride.