I think that everyone who rode the TransNomad
arrived at a low point some time during their race. For me it was on day 4 after hours of climbing and carrying when we were faced with a green wall of mountain-side which we needed to carry our bikes over. This was a race which took you to your limits and then brought you back with amazing descents, jawdropping views and cold beers at the end of hard days.
It was a race of contrasts, with a serious race going on between some of the best riders in the sport and on the other side a massive adventure through some of the best trails in the Pyrenees. It was a race that was fiercely contested but where everyone looked out for each other and shared stories in the bar at the end of the day. This was the TransNomad and I´m going to try and tell you about the mixture of racing and adventure and share my experience. These are areas I know well and guide mountain bikers through here as a job but when I was offered a space on the TransNomad I was excited by the chance to experience the trails in a different way. It would be a busman's holiday for sure!Day 1: +2050m / - 2540m from Bielsa to Saint Larry.
Day one of TransNomad was billed as the longest, hardest day. With over 2000m of hard climbing and pushing ahead of us, we set off from the hotel at 7:30am after a shockingly early breakfast. Our first task was to push and carry our bikes for around an hour, to reach a high mountain pass between Spain and France. This is an ancient route for smuggling, both of goods and of people, between Spain and France. It was famously used by the Republicans to flee into France in 1938, during the civil war, to escape from the Nationalist soldiers during very difficult conditions.
Crossing it this morning, with perfect sunshine and light winds I can only imagine how those heroes managed. We only stopped at the top for around 30 minutes, to prepare the course for departure, and the cold was intense. From here we had a long descent, split into 3 stages which took us to the Val d’Aure and the ski station of Saint Lary. The trails were prepared by Pyrenees2Vallees and it was incredible with big sweeping turns and nasty rock gardens, which you came into blind and hard on the brakes. The ground was really grippy, apart from in the places where it wasn´t and many people were caught out. We saw some of the best riders set off only to trip up with cold hands and bodies on the first corners and the rest of the pack set off at a more normal speed.
After lunch and a visit to the mechanics for many people we set off on the "big climb" of the day. It was everything we were promised; hard and steep but with amazing views as we worked our way into the French Pyrenees. As we worked our way higher we had time to talk and many people made new friends as we did so. Arriving at the top we were treated to the fourth timed stage of the day, which dropped from a ski station down into the valley with some narrow sheep tracks that were desperate to catch your tyres and send you tumbling off the hill.
It was a really hard stage to race; very physical and fast with big exposure in places. This was followed by a short climb and then the most incredible stage down to Saint Larry, the sort of trail which makes you forget your tiredness. We experienced perfect banked corners and a scattering of technical rocky sections which you scraped through struggling to keep your speed and were finally spat out at the campsite where we were fortunate enough to have warm bungalows to sleep in. That evening we were a bunch of extremely tired mountain bikers, however new friendships had been made during the day and that evening were reinforced over dinner and drinks. During the evening briefing, we were promised an easier day to follow which helped settle our nerves.
During the stages of day 1, Damien Oton (Devinci / Unior) took an early lead, closely pursued by Vid Persak (Orbea), a theme which was to continue to the end. Fighting over 3rd and 4th were Francois Bailly-Maitre for Santa Cruz / Raceface and Gabriel Torralba for Orbea. Local hero Cesar Garin (Orbea / Jeanstrack) was hot on their heels despite "taking it easy". There were sadly only 3 women's competitors and Kristien Achten from the Swooth MTB Team was a long way in front with a very respectable time. In second was Beatriz Diniz Ferragi (Cannondale Brazil) who came all the way from Brazil. Sadly Isabel Van de Voorde was ill and had to drop out. She would return for the later stages but there was no way to claw her way back from 3rd place. Day 2: +1350m / + 1800m around the Louron Valley on the Pyrenees2Vallees Trails.
Day 2 started with a long uplift and a difficult push / carry up a ski piste before we reached the first stage. Here we see more of the contrast that makes this race special with the top 5 riders shouting and cheering the first riders away. After the fun, the top riders put their game faces on and it´s all serious as they sprint out of the start gate and dispatch the first section of trail at a speed that seems impossible. The first two stages are more bike park than high mountain, using the excellent trails of Pyrenees2Vallees which offer slippery, technical challenges through the steep forests here. The trails have been built by someone with a real eye for using terrain and keeping it all flowy and these trails include everything from seemingly vertical root walls to wooden bridges suspended from the trees on ropes. Bizarre and brilliant!
The top 5 remain largely unchanged with Damien and Vid changing places a few times and Francois and Gabi doing the same. Cesar remains in 5th overall despite Markel Uriarte (Orbea / Jeanstrack) and Daniel Prijkel (Kona) pushing him back a few places on stages 1 and 4 respectively. Only 2 seconds seperate Damien Oton and Vid Persak and the same goes for Francois and Gabi in 3rd and 4th. The women's field remained unchanged with Kristien Achten stretching away in front of Beatriz Diniz Ferragi. Lots of riders found these stages tricky, especially the final stage which was very steep and plenty technical. Quite a few riders roll into the camp with their clothes showing the muddy telltales of their mistakes.
After riding most people visited the local thermal spa and soaked their aches and pains away. Dinner that night was subdued and people were noticeably tired. Many people slipped away before the dessert to find their beds. Day 3, we were told during our evening briefing, was going to be hard and it would be another 7am start. Day 3: +1500m, +1600m from France to Spain.
Today we started with a fairly long uplift in a bus to the north face of the high French Pyrenees. Here the wall which separates Spain from France is littered with waterfalls and is famous for ice climbing in the winter. We started with a tricky 90 minute carry up a steep, slippy rock face to reach a narrow pass through the rock which opened up to show us an amazing looking trail which lead off down to Spain. The 3000m mountains of the Pyrenees stood watch over our passage as one by one we threw ourselves down that trail.
Damien Oton quickly found out that there wasn´t much grip in the perfect corners and went down hard only to spring to his feet again to the cheers of the watching riders. He wasn´t the only one and we watched rider after rider go down on these tricky corners. It seemed like slow in and fast out was the way to get a decent time. This was one of the longest special stages of the week at over 4km and it was very physical. After this, we had a long climb before we finished off with Zona Zero´s amazing Comodoto trail which took us back to Bielsa. This is one of the must ride trails in the Pyrenees, starting high in the mountains above Bielsa and dropping through the forests to the valley floor with a series of flowing corners expertly cut into the hillside. The last special stage is steep and rocky and it literally drops us at the hotel bar, where most of the riders immediately headed.
The top results today showed some change with Vid Persak for Orbea beating Damien Oton for Devinci / Unior to narrow the overall gap slightly. François Bailly-Maitre also edged in front of Gabi Torralba to take 3rd. Cesar Garin stayed super consisten with a 5th place. Kristien Achten kept hold of her lead in the womens group with some really consistent and quick times, she looked to have it all sewn up. Day 4: +1400m / -2415m through some remote Zona Zero trails.
Today's riding started with a very exciting uplift in a series of 4x4 vehicles. On the steep, rough and exposed dirt track up the mountain, we had a puncture and a broken trailer as well as a few of the vans stuck and needing a push to get going again. Hands were sweaty by the time we reached the start of the trail high up on the French border. Our route would take up across into France briefly before dropping back down through the Puerto de Madera, a high mountain pass they used to use to carry wood between Spain and France. Here we enjoyed two spectacular high mountain stages, separated by a rocky pass we needed ropes to cross. The riding here was fast, exposed and flowing but any fall would be high consequence. We plummeted almost 1000m down to the valley floor, riding from the barren high alpine, through the layers of vegetation until we finished in a rooty pine forest. To win these stages you needed to be an all-rounder, happy on whatever terrain the mountain could throw at you.
After the frantic racing, we worked our way along the river on a very technical singletrack which caught out a few riders. Eventually, we reached a rough road where the TransNomad team was waiting with smiles and hot food. It was really a welcome sight I have to tell you after a cold start up on the mountain top. The next part of the day was pure suffering, we winched up a fireroad that was too steep to relax on but not steep enough to give you the excuse to get off and push. Pretty quickly we spotted the high pass and most people worked out where we were headed, looking at the green wall ahead with dread. Sure enough the last climb of the race was a steep and tough hike-a-bike that hurt deeply with our already drained legs.
Sitting at the start of the last stage we were treated to soaring eagles and warm temperatures. We were repeatedly warned not to let our guard down and that this stage had teeth, something which served to concentrate minds that were already wandering towards thoughts of cold beer. The stage dropped down from the pass into a steep-sided ravine and we could see the very narrow trail stretching away along one wall of the ravine. Damien Oton set off first, he only had to stay ahead of Vid Persak to win. The speed he dropped into that first section of trail was breathtaking and he was noticably faster than everyone else. Vid set off after. The last three special stages would decide the race overall. Further back in the pack lots of riders were involved in their own battles, either with friends, new rivals or just with themselves. Other riders were just trying to get to the end unscathed and had already decided to back off for the last stages.
We heard over the marshal´s radios that one of the course setters had fallen off and had a minor injury and the nervous energy tangibly ramped up a notch. Then we heard that Damien Oton had gone down hard and was being rescued from the river at the bottom of the ravine. He was OK but had had a nasty crash and lost time. All these bits of news served to increase our concentration as we set off on the best stages of the trip in my opinion. Fast, exposed and flowing with the ever-present drop to the ravine on the left calling for your attention. As promised the stage ended near to the hotel and after handing in our race chips everyone converged at the hotel bar. The overall results were in!
Vid Persak from Orbea
took first place with Damien Oton from Unior
nine seconds back in second. Francois Bailly-Maitre from Santa Cruz
took third with Gabriel Torralba from Orbea / Huesca La Magica back in fourth. Cesar Garin from Orbea
was back in 5th place. Kristien Achten from the Swooth MTB Team had a comfortable win thanks to her fast and consistent times. Beatriz Diniz Ferragi came second with Isabel Van de Voorde in third largely due to her DNS on day 1.
Thanks to everyone at TransNomad for organising such an amazing race. I ride these trails regularly, guiding people from all over the world, but it was amazing to ride them in a different way. The organisation was perfect and rider safety was very slickly managed in these high consequence environments, something demonstrated by the lack of hospital visits. Thanks to the sponsors, Orbea
and Met Helmets
. Thanks to the trailbuilders of Pyrenees2Vallees and Zona Zero.