Embrun, France. Camp Zero, tent number 67, June 19. It’s 1:30 am and a steady rain is falling on my tent. I’m suddenly wide awake and my mind decided to be busy. I’m at the eighth edition of the Trans-Provence MTB Alpine Rally, and I have a race plate. Just over a month ago, I received a message from Sven Martin that went like this, “Yo. How does shooting Trans Provence fit in your schedule? Can you check? Would you be keen? We can squeeze you in the early morning media shuttles and mid-day media shuttles. It will be the best week of your life.” Sounded like the adventure of a lifetime. After Fort William, I went home and did as much training as I could in eight days to shoot the event, as I knew we would be putting in the miles. But now I have a race plate and that’s a different ball of wax. I haven’t raced in many years, and I have serious reservations about my fitness level. I know I can ride the terrain as I’ve ridden similar in Verbier, but I’m doubting whether or not I can hack six days, twenty-four stages, 271 kilometers, 9177 meters of climbing, and 18,003 meters of descending. All blind. Ash Smith tells me to give racing it a try and report on my experience. I don’t want to be that guy who can’t get to the end. It’s a long, sleepless night.
At 6.30 am I’m up and dressed, staggering to breakfast. I’ve slept three and a half hours and my stomach is in knots. I cram as much food in me as I can and drink down four cups of coffee. I grab my camera gear, load my pack, and put my bike on the shuttle. There’s no turning back. It’s time to be the mule. What was rain in camp last night is snow high up in the Midi Alps, and all of us racers are happily taking pictures of the beautiful scenery. We get to the bottom of the transfer, and Ash tells us, “There will be snow on stages zero and one. Take care, you have a long week ahead of you.” And with that we start the long climb into the higher peaks.
When we reach stage zero, we have pedaled and pushed our way through six or so inches of snow by the time we get to the top of the col. As we dip down the other side, most of us are just hanging on. It’s a slick open scree slope for the first half of the run. Luckily, we aren’t being timed. The next part of the transfer starts off easy enough: gradual dirt road's a few hike a bikes, and utterly breathtaking scenery. Then we turn a corner and start climbing back into the snow. We see some the other riders more than a mile away, post holing up to the next col. Many are suddenly asking aloud, just what the hell they had gotten themselves into. Stage one was much like stage zero. Open Alpine scree, covered in snow. I’m feeling ok as I reach the top, but I’m not so sure about this first stage. I chip in, and head down, but I’m not entirely committed. I’m more concerned with all the camera gear on my back. I slide about like a total hack, and when I reach the finish, I’m just relieved it’s over. The transfer to stage two is pretty gentle, and I recover quicker than I thought I would have from the efforts of the first half of the day. I let a few riders head out on stage two in front of me, still not convinced of this racing thing. When I feel recovered, I drop in. I find a fun, beautiful, rooty single track. Just my kind of trail. I pick up speed and I’m having a hell of a lot of fun. I blow a corner and shout “f#!% big mistake, big mistake!” and sprint off. I suddenly realize that I am racing.
With each day, I embrace the racing more and more. I find myself slipping into a routine and with each stage finished, the thought occurs that I could pull this off. Now I need to have some goals. First, Finish. That’s everyones main goal at TP. Next, don’t break my camera gear, as I need it to shoot XC Worlds next week. Finally, it would be nice not to be DFL. I’d have to mind my bike as I don’t have any spare... anything... with me except two sets of brake pads. Each morning we are greeted with a new and amazing landscape. Each day I find myself riding with new people and making new friends. We eat together, we camp together. By day three, we are a family of MTB gypsies so to speak - all sharing stories, sharing bike parts, and sharing life. That’s the beauty of Trans Provence. Pros, Women, Amateurs, and Masters are all riding, racing, and living together. It’s less about racing than about mountain biking in it’s simplest, purest form. Sure, we are all checking our results at the end of each day, but we are all more pumped on the adventure. That’s part of what keeps me going, wanting to see what little town we go though next, what amazing view is around the next corner. I'm wanting to see just how hard I can push myself.
As we push into the Maritime Alps, the terrain gets more varied and tracks tend to have a chunky, loose feel to them. They tire you out quickly. By day five, all of us are feeling the fatigue. Bodies are sore and instead of winter we are faced with a blazing hot sun. Mistakes are easier to make and many of us make wrong turns. Ash said at the start of day one that going 100 percent on these trails will result in a crash. Sometimes crashes happen at 80 percent. Day five is a long one. Sixty six kilometers, 1,800 meters of climbing. I keep my pace steady throughout the day. As I round a corner en route to stage three, the air changes - it’s salty and humid and as I look over the next two ridges, I notice that the mountains have disappeared. I see the Mediterranean and realize that I’ve all but made it.
I wake up groggy as hell on day six. My legs feel full of lead. I’m generally zapped. So are many of my fellow racers, but we are all anxious to head out from Sospel and get this day going. We all want to swim. By the time we are into the second transfer, I’m finally waking up and things are coming around. Stage two is brilliant, it’s the last stage of the day where I feel like I’m in decent form on my bike. The last two stages I’m just a passenger. My hands and arms are shot. Now all I need to do is hang on and avoid making any big mistakes in the loose Mediterranean terrain through two more stages. Then I see stage four, which looks utterly terrifying. Old Roman roads with switch backs and cliffs. When I reach the finish, I’m so pumped I don’t even know what to say. I’m surprised it’s actually over. It takes a few minutes to process and I get to take that well-earned swim. Now that it’s all over, I already miss the adventure. I started out unsure that I was up to the task and finished wishing it wasn’t the end. Sven Martin was right - it was the best week of my life. I learned more about myself than I ever thought possible in those six days. I tamed mountains. Both on my bike and in my mind. Thank you, Trans Provence, I can’t wait to come back.