Trans-Savoie: Unfinished BusinessAli Jamieson, founder of the Trans-Savoie Big Alpine Enduro (pronounced Sa.vwa), just got in touch to share with this video. He initially claimed it as a “Trans-Savoie Retrospective ” edit, but it took very little arm-twisting on our part to get the low-down about what really is going on out in the French Alps right now…
Its been almost 5 years since the last edition of the Trans-Savoie in 2016, but to be honest, we weren’t hugely surprised to have it confirmed that ‘something’ is back in the pipeline, since there have been rumours flying around the internet for months now about a potential comeback.
If you’re hoping for definitive answers, sadly, you won’t find them here just yet, but meanwhile, we’re very happy to add fuel to the fire. In these lockdown and travel-restricted times, we figure its best to at least pretend to have something to look forward to this year, even if the details are still a little sketchy!What’s with the release of this video, and why now, more than 4 years later?
Like everyone else, I’ve found myself in various forms of lockdown between NZ, France, and the UK in recent months - and it gave me time to reflect about what’s important to me. I came to the conclusion that pulling off the Trans-Savoie was the most challenging, yet most rewarding thing I’ve done with my life so far - and in spite of some big changes since the last edition, there’s still a gaping hole in my whole “reason-for-being”, where once was the Trans-Savoie. I got digging through some old footage and before I knew it, I was putting this edit together. Luckily, they didn’t film the countless hours of me pulling me hair out or getting shouted at by grumpy French farmers or walking guides - which leaves only clips of beautiful scenery and smiling faces, and great vibes to remember it all with. It just seemed too good not to share.For those who don’t know, can you sum up the Trans-Savoie in a few short sentences?
It was a week-long, point-to-point Enduro race across the French Alps. Although I changed the route each year, typically it started in Val d’Isere and finished in Chamonix, via as much alpine singletrack as possible. I did throw in a few of the region’s best bike park trails, but it was mostly about the spectacular backcountry in these parts. As the 100-or-so riders each edition hit up the trails and raced across the Alps, my team moved the basecamp every day; and like that, we moved from one place to the next like a kind of racing-travelling-circus.The Sounds very familiar…so just like the Trans-NZ, Trans-Maderia, Trans-Sierra Norte, Trans-BC, Trans-Cascadia, Trans-Nomad….?
Well, yes indeed, although I’d like to think that what we did with Trans-Savoie, in some small part, helped to establish the framework for these events (which all came later). I haven’t raced any of those myself, but its a small world in this game. Each of those certainly has its own special “flavour”. The Trans-Savoie was unique because its the only “Trans-“ race, at least that I know of, to ever have combined ski-lift access with a point-to-point, multi-day itinerary, on mostly “natural” singletrack. I’ve been fortunate enough to work as an MTB guide on several continents and after more than 20 years in the game, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Savoie region of France is one of only a handful of places in the world where this format could even be theoretically possible, never mind actually pulled off. First of all, there are literally dozens of large ski resorts (and therefore hundreds, maybe even thousands of ski-lifts) all densely packed into a small area, in this part of the world. Many of these resorts are vast, some with over 100 connected lifts…top the point where you can pretty much get the lift to the top of one mountain, drop off the “back-side”, descend 2000m to the valley floor, pedal just a little bit further, and you’re at the edge of the next resort (and therefore the next lift in the chain). Add to that the thousands of years of civilisation on the border between Italy and France - think Roman roads, ancient smugglers trails, farming tracks, etc) and valleys that go from 500m up to 3800m+ with lush forests, floral alpine pastures, glacial caps and everything in between - and you’ve got the potential for something very special indeed.Trans-Savoie had a reputation, in some circles, as being hard-as-nails. What that always your aim?
Well, I think that’s probably a fair comment, and no, that wasn’t my aim at all. I’ve always taken great satisfaction in guiding people 1:1 in these mountains for trailAddiction
- and I’m not much of a serious racer myself. However, there’s a lot to cram in, in only a week, and the mountains here are rather large. Also like I said, these are all-natural trails, not built for MTB. Sometimes that means exposed, steep, switch-backy, or whatever else the mountain throws at you. If a tree falls on the course just a couple of days before the race, chances are its staying there for the duration and you’d be climbing over it, on the clock! I certainly never set out to create something to “break” people but perhaps my enthusiasm to cram in just one more trail each day, was a little much at times. I certainly do look back with a lot of respect for the guys who took on that first edition in 2013. Just normal guys and girls from all over the world, most who had come straight out from their day-job. Fair play to them, for seeing it through! As I took on board the feedback, I will admit that every edition got just a little bit softer from year-to year, but I hope without ever losing that spirit of epic adventure and achievement.What do you mean by ‘Epic’. Can you give us some stats?
The average for a total of 6 day’s racing on the Trans-Savoie were about 25,000m of descent, 5 to 6,000m of climbing, and 250 to 300km distance travelled; with about 5 to 7 timed stages per day. Some of those stages were pretty crazy - up to 2000m descent (25m+ for the pro-team riders) in one hit. That’s higher/longer than even the infamous “Top of the World” EWS stage in Whistler, but ridden totally ‘blind’ - and then straight back on the lift and on to at least another 3 or 4 stages thesame day. One particular observation really sums it up for me: Nico Lau won the Trans-Savoie in 2015 in a total time of 4h24m on-stage. The same year, he raced the Enduro World Series and I think finished inside the top-10, with his fair share of podiums, too. This guy ‘aint slow! But his total combined time for of all his EWS races for the entire season; was still less than only 6 days on-the-clock at the Trans-Savoie.
Looking back, what were the best and worst things about the event?
Bringing people together from all over the world to spend one intense week of eating, voyaging, racing, and camping together is quite an emotional experience for everyone. It was a great leveller to see some of the world’s top pros lining up side-by-side for the camp showers with Dave from the Lake District, Jim from California, and Meggie from New Zealand. I also got to meet some truly wonderful characters from all over the world on my volunteer crew (which itself was up to 40-people strong). The intensity of it all meant that friendships formed during the week were profound, and genuine. I’m proud to think that many of those friendships endure still today. If you’re one of the few-hundred people out there with a Trans-Savoie headset cap on your bike, its both a badge of honour as well as a membership card to an international fellowship of comrades. At least that’s how I see it - but I might equally be completely full of cr*p on that one!
The worst of it was definitely the politics in authorising the race in the first place, each year. Which I’ve been enjoying again rather a lot this past year as I start cranking the handle again. We are very privileged as riders, in France, to have the right by default to ride wherever we want, on any trail - both on private and public land. However, when it comes to racing, that’s a different matter. Add to that an exploding population of MTB since 2013 and the environmental factors of riding these “natural” trails also increasingly became a greater concern for me personally. This is one which still asks more questions than we have answers for. Oh, and don’t even get me started on Strava and Trailforks. Sorry, but as much as they are truly wonderful tools, they’ve got an awful lot to answer for too in terms of upsetting a very fragile balance of politics, on shared, multi-user trails. It took endless negotiation to approve a route each year, and as the race got close I would spend a lot of sleepless nights wondering if the landowner or Mayor on a critical bit of single-track was about to U-turn at the last minute and deny us right of passage, usually based on a change in political opinion rather than anything more meaningful.Why did you stop short of a 5th edition in 2017?
Things were pretty intense, and I just needed to take a step back. But I had a lot of ideas for new projects elsewhere and probably had spread myself a bit thin, looking back. The politics I mentioned earlier were getting more and more difficult each year in France. I’d also naively picked a fight in France with some very important politicians over UK guiding qualifications, who simply could not afford to back down, and it all got really, really nasty. On top of that I had some family/personal issues I needed to deal with. Whilst it literally broke my heart to pull the plug on the 2017 edition, it was definitely the right thing to do rather than risk delivering something that could not live up to the high standards we’d set in the past.What have you been doing since then?
A long-time guide and close friend of mine from our guiding outfit trailAddiction
runs Vertigo Bikes in Queenstown NZ, and he’d always been bugging me to go over and do a season with him. I finally made it happen, and whilst 3 months in QT was a blast, I felt I’d pretty much seen it / done it all there, in that short time. Before I left NZ I spent a month touring the South Island with Canadian Megan Rose (who I’d met as a volunteer at the Trans-Savoie), checking out all the top backcountry spots. (That little trip eventually evolved into what is now the Trans-NZ
Enduro). Then literally a few days before I flew back to Europe, I made a solo mission up to Nelson at the Northern tip of the South Island, mostly to check out the Kite Surfing which I’d heard is superb (it is, by the way). I immediately fell in love with the place, and saw some huge potential for further exploration. Why had I never heard of this place before? On the plane out of NZ, I was already planning my return trip. I’ve been living back and forth between The Alps and Nelson since then, enjoying what I think its NZ’s finest riding spot and definitely its strongest and most welcoming MTB-community. If you know the right people, sorting out a backcountry heli-trip down there is almost as easy (and cheap) as calling an Uber. It turns out my hunch was right, by the way - Nelson will be kicking off Round 1 of the EWS season in 2022 and people are going to be blown away, I guarantee it. Oh by the way, if anyone is keen to come and visit and ride in or around Nelson, do hit me up
As well as getting to know NZ, I also was really happy to have more time to focus on growing my pairs-format weekend enduro series Enduro2
. I genuinely love the pairs-format - for me it takes the pressure and seriousness out of racing and just allows people to have a good time with their mates, like the EWS used to be before it went all ultra-professional. In addition to the Les Arcs Enduro2, I went on to launch a sister event in Davos, Switzerland and then 3rd edition in Nelson NZ (of course!).
All that said, barely a day went by when I didn’t think back fondly of my big adventures in the French Alps which in spite of everything, I still think are probably the best place to ride if you want epic scenery and almost infinite possibilities for adventure. So in 2019 I came back to France for the whole summer, and starting quietly working on a new project. I even decided to voluntarily leave a COVID-free NZ last July in order to come back again and be based in France full time, in order to knuckle down on getting things moving forward. We’ve now re-opened the trailAddiction chalet for business in 2021 and I’m really enjoying putting together and guiding our bespoke packages in these truly beautiful mountains. But its in personally sharing these experiences with my customers, that I get my true job satisfaction. I formerly worked as a Chartered Engineer for 12 years in the UK and I don’t recall my boss or my clients ever giving me a man hug and thanking me sincerely for enabling one of the best weeks of his life..!).Did we see you out riding with Ash Smith (founder of The Transprovence) on Instagram the other week?
Let me stop you right there with that line of thinking! Ash and I go back a long way - we were flatmates at Uni and we actually started trailAddiction together, many moons ago. I’ll openly admit that a bit of rivalry-between-friends gave me the extra motivation to push on with the Trans-Savoie project back in 2009-11, when it was seeming like an almost impossible mission to get off the ground. These-days, Ash is a family man and he runs Sapaudia Brewing Co
that makes rather fine Artisan beer here in the Alps and as far as I know, that’s more than enough to keep his hand full. I hope he’ll hopefully be serving up his beer at the Les Arcs Enduro2
this July, but that’s about as far as any collaboration is going, for moment at least. Although of course, I’d never say never…Let’s stop beating around the bush. When are you going to announce Trans-Savoie 2021?
Haha, well, not yet! To be honest, whilst I may have come back to Europe in 2019 with this specific plan in mind, a lot has changed since then. I now feel that original Trans-Savoie, at least in its original form, is probably best left just as it was. Having worked hard on the “comeback” edition for nearly 2 years now, I’ve concluded I’m never going to be able to ‘better’ it…so why even try? Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’ve learned a lot from the Enduro2 about how to give people a good time as well as a memorable experience - and for me, hardcore racing just isn’t it. These-days I’m all about creating accessible adventures not necessarily the biggest/baddest/hardest ones. Technologies and trends are changing fast too. Back in 2011 and 2012 when I was fine-tuning the original Trans-Savoie, the EWS didn’t even exist, nor did decent e-bikes…so I figure I should probably move with the times, too.Hold on, did you just say “E-bike”?
Oh, there’s no question for me, e-bikes are the future of adventure-based MTB. I’m especially excited at the move to lighter / mid-power bikes, with modular batteries that can be swapped-out in order to increase range without carrying too much extra weight. However, we’re not quite there yet. With current technology you’re just not going to do 5000m+ vertical every day. And even if you could, it would take too long. The thing about ski-lifts is that they are just so bloody efficient at getting you up a hill, and fast. You’ll fly up 1000m vertical in 10-15 minutes on a chairlift. That would take you an hour on an e-bike and your battery would be almost flat at the top, not to mention all that dead weight to carry on the way back down. Plus you can forget it, if you have to shoulder your bike at all to get over the crest of the mountain. Flying with e-bike batteries is still quite difficult too. Since most of my customers are arriving internationally, this is a problem, although we’re seeing some innovative courier solutions coming through now that look very promising.
So all-in-all I think ski-lifts will probably play a sizeable part in anything we’re doing here in the Alps for at least the next three to five years. Even using shuttles, you’re looking at 45 minutes plus lengthy loading and unloading times, to equate to 10 minutes on a ski lift - and that’s without even considering the negative environmental impact of road-based transport. But I’d be very happy to eat my words on how quickly e-bikes will take over - the potential of complete freedom to go literally anywhere does excites me an awful lot! I’m already doing guided e-bike trips around the Alps, and most of my personal exploration missions are now done on my e-powered Liteville
. So, back to the point…what’s next? Are we looking at a Trans-Savoie comeback this year?
Well, with the current uncertainties around COVID-19 and travel, its not the right time to be making any announcements. I’m not ruling things out for 2021 just yet, I’m just saying I’d rather wait and see how things pan out. I’m pretty useless at keeping my mouth shut so word will probably get out soon enough soon what and where this new project actually is, and how its going to look different from the original Trans-Savoie. What I will say though is if anyone’s keen for something definite to look forward to this summer, I’m back in France offering guided Trans-Savoie Enduro-Tours, hut trips, and other similar adventures from trailAddiction’s base In Les Arcs. We’re offering a 100%, no-quibble refund or date-change policy in the event that COVID-19 prevents you from travelling at the last minute.Fair enough…Let’s rap this up so we can buy you a couple of beers to loosen you up, and maybe you can tell us a little more, “off the record”!
No, no, nooooo…..Oh, go on then! Actually, just to finish, I do want to put out a massive and genuine thank you to all the riders and volunteers who had faith in the Trans-Savoie project - without you and your epic efforts to make it all happen, we wouldn’t have these awesome memories to dream about, during these difficult times of confinement. Wherever you are, I hope to catch up and ride with every single one of you again, sometime soon.
If and When Ali does finally spill the beans on what he’s got in the pipeline, we’d recommend you get in quickly. There’s a mailing list sign-up (and an ominous countdown timer) appeared recently on the Trans-Savoie homepage, or you can follow developments via social media @transsavoie
For information about trailAddiction’s guided trips, go to their website
or simply email Ali directly: Ali@trailAddiction.com(Photos: Mick Kirkman / trailAddiction / Ronan Dugan)
(Video: Mad Productions / Ben Gerrish / Adam Schlang / SpeechBubble / Aigal Studio)