Trans-Provence is the undoubted queen of multi-day enduro stage racing events. For more than six days, the riders battle across the French Maritime Alps, from Embrun to Menton, to the Mediterranean. It’s the ultimate mountain bike adventure! The Swiss Gehrig Twins, Ines Thoma of Germany and Katrina Strand of Canada also known as #thefüstlicrew tell us about their experiences.Katrina Strand Reunited with my favorite crew
It seems now that every time I connect with #thefüstlicrew it is through some borderline lunatic adventure. From self-supported alpine journeys through Grizzly Bear country, to chasing EWS dreams (which could be seen by some as lunacy!). I could lump Trans-Provence in that category, as there are many times that you are so incredibly challenged emotionally and physically. The Füstli Crew secretly likes to suffer, and complaints are few and far between even when digging deeper than you ever thought possible because we all know—it’s better to be out here than inside living a mundane existence. For us at least.
2014 was our first group mission, although we didn’t know it at the time. I went to the TP knowing these girls, but certainly not well, and by the end, we had written an entire book, shared many stories, experiences, and bonded over the daily dig deep missions up and over mountains through France’s southern alps.
It seemed, of course, the normal thing to do, to have a reunion at the 2016 Trans-Provence. We recruited others, our ‘ambassadors,’ to add some flair to the group as we are clearly not exclusive! When you are out there all day scaling mountains in snow and/or scorching heat (you get it all), it is important to stay light and connected to the essence of this ‘race’—the epitome of challenging adventure with like minded people. The Füstli Crew and our ambassadors were just that, a team of passion driven people who seek challenge through the adventure. And typically use bikes as the tool. A crew that understands that these tests are what shapes us, and without them we become stale. A crew that can laugh at the lows and jump for joy at the highs. A crew that can understand what the cryptic stage descriptions really mean (we now know that ‘Chess Moves’ means ‘incredibly sketchy’, this knowledge proved to be very valuable!).
Although the reunion was totally unique from our first experience in 2014, the underlying life themes were the same, including the final destination of rinsing off in the Mediterranean as this episode of #thefüstlicrew came to a close.
Anita Gehrig "It's not over until it's over!" – It's safe to say that this applies to any race.
At the end of some races, you can be left terribly disappointed. The Trans-Provence is different. This event is about the most important things; having a great time with friends and riding the best trails in the world. But no one, really nobody, is spared along the stony path to the sea. Some small (even more not so small) crashes are part of the process. The fortunate are those who can shake the dust off and continue racing. Others spend the rest of the day suffering the effects on their body of a detour into the bush along the trail. Technical problems of all kinds are part of Trans-Provence.
For me, a broken fork was my hitch on the first day. After a short burst of rage, the mishap was shaken off and I continued by then holding firmly onto the handlebar for the rest of the day. Besides, it could have been worse. I could have had the misfortune of a fellow racer who, far from civilization, crashed his carbon frame into a rock and had to brace the frame with branches and duct tape. All part of Trans-Provence!
Although there is good signage on the stages, there is always the possibility of getting lost. We do our best to look as far as possible ahead to avoid missing a single signpost. But every year it happens again! One sign missed and Caro heads in the wrong direction and doesn’t realize until a few minutes after. When she finally arrives at the finish she is fury-stricken. That's just part of the game, you could say. But if you’re the unlucky one, it's difficult to stay cool. It was a pity, especially because Ines, Caro and I were tight for four days straight—within 15 seconds of each other. Nonetheless, it's quite cool if you can battle such a tough battle among girlfriends. In the end, the battle could not have been more stunning; Ines suffered a flat tire on the last stage. This meant that after 24 stages and over 3 hours of accumulated stage time, I rode into the port of Meton as the winner by a mere 12 seconds.
Because it's over when it's over!
Caro Gehrig "Moderate Exposure—Attention; the trail is exposed in places, take caution."
These are the route warnings listed daily. If you didn’t have a number plate on your handlebars, you would surely pack your bags and hit the road never to return. But after all, this is the Trans-Provence.
I consider myself to be a little bit risky, but when I read such route descriptions for the trails along the Trans-Provence, ice runs down my spine. In some places along the trail, a careful hiker might secure a fixed-rope; Ash, speaking with the slightest raise of an eyebrow, exclaims: "moderate exposure."
Racing is like constantly walking a tightrope. I don’t want to fall down a rock-face doing what I love most only because I’m going full gas. However, the fact that you have a number plate fixed to your bike gives you a whole different level of focus and concentration. In races like Trans-Provence, you must estimate risks in split seconds, rely on your instinct, and completely trust your riding skills. All I can do is trust myself, hope to find the fastest line, and pray that I make it through the stage safely.
It was the second day where I found my flow. The stages offered a fair amount of exposure and while the steep cliffs bother Anita, who had begun the stage before me, I didn't let it get into my
head. The next thing I knew, I passed Anita and while I was feeling confident, she was scared as hell asking herself what the hell had gotten into my head. Hadn’t I noticed the 200m cliff?!
Sometimes it's better to not be bothered and stay focused. Nonetheless, the risks along the trail and never knowing what is around the corner can’t be completely ignored. A small error at the wrong moment can have fatal consequences. The warning signs at the start of each stage can’t help but make you consider how far you want to push it, if even at all. At these moments, you must remind yourself of the bigger picture and remember why you’re truly here.
For this reason, Ines, Anita, and I joke with each other and declare "Say no to the graveyard." It is meant to remind us that we are only participating in a bike race. It’s not worth it to risk our lives only to arrive at the end a few seconds earlier! Besides, we want to rock the trails of this world together for many years to come!
Ines Thoma Trans-Provence—A Philosophy for Life?
I would not call myself an overly philosophical person. I prefer to read Jonas Jonasson over Sartre and I can’t stand the thought of "what would have been if…” Nevertheless, as a professional athlete, I like to ask myself what the meaning is when it comes to races, adventures, traveling, performance pressure, injuries, success, and defeat.
The Trans-Provence is a race, or better, an adventure, that asks you to give everything you possibly can. It is demanding and tiring no doubt. But every day it offers in return breathtaking landscape, the most brilliant trails, and countless lasting memories. Such an event is not just a race, you get the chance to collect experiences, learn things and build character. After the race in 2014, my complete season highlight, I couldn’t help but travel to Provence with great expectations. Let’s rock!
The multi-day race, which is ridden in a "blind racing" mode, requires different skills than usually needed in Enduro races. Not knowing what to expect on routes forces you to look ahead and react spontaneously and creatively. This year, there were creek crossings, tree trunks, 200m cliffs and gaps you don’t dare roll. I love that. You can’t ride at 120% flat out because you don’t know you have ahead and you need to be able to perform constantly over six days without getting hurt, injured, or tired. At the end of the week, as always, it comes down to seconds, especially this time.
I really had some hurdles this year. Besides a pretty stupid crash on my head during the second day, I broke my brake lever off a day later in a crash in the incredible “Grey Earth”. You must constantly roll with the punches. The days are long, hot and tiring. You are not able to return to the camp until well into the evening. And still, you must push past stiff muscles, headaches, and exhaustion to complete the evening routine of bike care.
More than any other race, you learn to never give up. No matter what goes wrong in the stage, the week is so long, anything can happen. It must be fought until the end. This year the women's race was more exciting than ever before. It was unbelievable that we (Anita, Caro and I) were only a few seconds apart from each other during the stages and after every race day.
After 5 days in the lead and a solid last day, the impossible happened to me during the last stage of the week: glass shards on the track cut my tire. Shit! At that moment, more than ever, positive thinking was easier said than done. The mishap cost me 12 seconds and the overall victory of the 2016 Trans-Provence. But that is racing. The negative feelings soon disappeared into the air on the last meters towards the sea. To be able to cross the Maritime Alps on the most awesome trails in the world and then share the podium with Anita and Caro is an experience I will always cherish. What good are negative thoughts after such as week?The Trans-Provence showed me once again:
1) Winning is nice but not everything
2) adventures would be only half as beautiful alone
3) even during 3 hours of race time, it’s worth fighting until the end. Just like in life! Must Haves:
• Blister bandaids (there are plenty of hike-a-bikes)!
• Flask—to protect against cabin fever, or any other pain (preferably filled with Heuschnapps).
• Chamois cream—Yes, it sounds funny, but try a week-long bike race for yourself and then see who is laughing without it.
• Fresh bike clothes for each day—who wants to spend their valuable (and limited) relaxation time washing?
• Tire plugs—fixing tubes is really annoying.
• Favorite snack—Everyone has their bad moments, chocolate helps.
• Recovery Shake—starving when you arrive back at camp, dinner feels forever away. These helps, and besides no one likes someone who is “Hangry.”
• Pillow—makes sleeping on an air mattress much more enjoyable.
Photos: Sven Martin, Matt Wragg, Irmo Keizer