TRANS-PROVENCE -This time it’s personal
Matt Letch sets himself the challenge of completing the 2010 Trans-Provence race.
I’m not the only one coughing – In the shadow of the mountain looming in front of us the early morning air is icy cold. We’ve already pedalled as far as we can up an old broken access road in to the hills as far as it will take us. Now we’re off our bikes, some of us pushing, some of us carrying; all of it in silence except for breathing and the occasional crackle of disgruntled lungs.
Were used to this by now. It’s day three of a seven day journey through Provence and the mornings always have a shock for the body in store. I’m cold, but damp with sweat and the perspiration from the previous days’ endeavours are starting to drip out of my helmet and into my eyes. My right hand crank arm and pedal are tapping a beat into my lower back; a constant reminder of the bike’s weight across my shoulders. I just ignore it now. On the first two days, each morning filled me with doubt about my ability to complete the event and why even I was there.
But not any more – I know that we will top out at some point. I know that the sun will be there to warm me through. I know that when we do get to the Col somewhere between the jagged tops far above us, another view of endless mountains will be there to greet my fellow companions and myself on this journey, and most importantly I know there will be something amazing to ride on the other side.
The Trans- Provence is a 320Km race crossing the backbone of Provence ending in Monaco after seven days of competing. Of the 320 km, each day has four ‘special’ stages which you are actually timed on. They being ‘predominately’ (we’ll come back to that later) downhill and singletrack with the vast majority of the climbing being made up on the liason stages (non-timed sections.) On top of all of this, each day you’re given an uplift at some point to add to your own height gain efforts – so in totality you get more descending everyday than you do climbing.
2009 was the first year the event was held and a few good friends of mine had taken part – all of them coming back with glowing reports of travelling through a beautiful country and even more amazing trails to ride. When a chance to do the event appeared this year I jumped at the chance, but also with some trepidation.
The last couple of years have not been the greatest for me on or off my bike and a combination of body breaks and bar-propping had seen me heavier and more unfit than I’d ever been. So, this summer, I decided to do something about it and had four months of abstinence and more exercise than I’d done in a long time.
The Trans-Provence had rapidly turned into something more than an event for me to report on but something to work towards, and to see how far I’d come in the months in between.
The last weekend of September saw me board a plane to Nice; a lot thinner and a lot healthier – I still had massive trepidations about my abilities to complete something so big. Even though, over the years, I’ve ridden a lot, I’ve never actually ridden for seven days in a row in my life – and I was looking at seven days of big days in big hills.
I was first to land in Nice and spent half an hour feeling warm autumn sun on my shoulders while waiting for my cohorts for the week to appear.
Gradually fellow competitors started arriving from all over the airport. A plethora of frames and posts and bars were pulled out of bags and reconstructed from their constituent parts. Bikes started to appear – every thing from big all-mountain rigs to little XC race bikes – and the joker in the pack: a Jeff Jones. Phil, the owner of the Jones rapidly explained his reasons for his bike of choice while the rest of us just picked our jaws up from the floor. Seven days of riding big mountains on that? The building of the bikes was a good chance to gel a little and to get to know each other and start the normal pre-event chat of how a) You weren’t as fit as you wanted to be and b) The injury(ies) you were already carrying – strangely, I felt a little calmer – my anxieties were clearly a shared phenomena, not just my own.
A four hour transport saw us at our first campsite of the week – 100’s of little identical tents scattered through the grounds of the campsite, A individual electric blue monastic cell for each and everyone of us – The rest of the afternoon and evening consisted of sign in and being given various tags and placards to be attached to either bike or bag as well as a thoroughly daunting folder with each of the seven days being mapped out with a graph showing ascent and descent over the day.
SO IT BEGINS.
7.00 am and I’m standing in a queue waiting for coffee and breakfast, tired and groggy – last night was spent flipping between sleep and waking up to pre-analyse my performance of the day ahead.
Looking around me, I’m clearly not the only one, there’s a lot of tired looking people and not a lot of chatting. For myself I feel a knot of anxiety; how hard will today be? We’re going to be climbing the equivalent of Snowdon one and half times today and the rumour is that Ash the organiser’s height-gain map is a little on the low side of what we’re actually going to do – I force some bread and jam down, slug most of a pot of coffee and head back to the tent to get my gear for the day.
Today we’re starting with a uplift – two minibuses loaded with very quiet people as we wind our way up a tiny mountain pass onto a flat shoulder of hillside where we disembark and start turning pedals.
Finally, after weeks of waiting, the journey begins – a steady start and then an increasingly steep fire-road is the route upward to the beginning of trails.
There’s initial test of who’s who in the pecking order of fitness; some people shooting off ahead, while some people are straight in to their granny rings and myself somewhere in the middle. Middle ring, middle gear, middle of the pack, trying to settle into the rhythm of things and also trying to remember that this is the first half hour of seven long days ..
The first climb of the first day – I know some people find quietness in the turning of pedals; that steady state rhythm and breathing – I spent the whole thing twirling over thoughts; none of them constructive. I know myself quite well enough and I can quite easily talk myself in to a place where I’m not capable of anything. Certainly not hauling myself over a reasonable chunk of France…
And then I’m there – the start of the first stage, my legs still work, I wasn’t last and I hope that these stages are where I can do myself some justice. Like so much of my life, I’ve always been a one for a quick fix: technical mix and match rock-sections and loamy corners dusty plummets… I’ll openly admit that I would not pedal uphill without something technical on the other side.
After the aforementioned loamy start into some swoopy singletrack – the trail suddenly turns steeply upwards and I’m off the bike, lungs crying out for air. I feel absolute despair. I’ve only just started and I’m off? I look back and see others off their bikes as well, heads bowed and belly breathing. I remember that I’m at nearly 2,000m and continue pushing (literally) on. These trails are to become a feature of the week: the ones with ‘some’ climbing in them. People that know Ash better than myself have started to call theses sections ‘updulations’. I don’t call them anything – But I call Ash lots of things..
The trails are amazing: pine forest surrounds us – cool morning air and already deep blue sky flutter past my peripheral vision, patches of damp black earth interspersed with streams of dust as you scream round a bone-dry corner. Gunning round the corner is a steep drop-in with roots crossing it – most of this negotiated on the front wheel; this is my place for the quiet space that I don’t very often find climbing uphills.
And as soon as it starts it stops – Jenn, my friend from home is at the bottom of the first section (She’s acting as mountain guide on the event) to tag our electric timing devices, I babble excited syllables in no order which are meant to tell her how good it is, she just smiles and says “yes dear…” Jenn knows exactly what I’m on about without a producing wall of sound. The ‘Yes dear’ does the job perfectly.
I sit against a grass verge and remember after that first section why I’m here: I’m here to be here; to look up, see the sky; to look across, see new vistas. I don’t need to have my head down being introspective – if there are any answers to be had, they’ll be found out there, not in some unreachable place inside.
I’d like to tell you that the rest of that day was breeze – but it wasn’t – I really wanted the first day under my belt and pushed on and on – In the process only drinking a litre of water, which in the end meant I propelled myself over the bars as my legs cramped on standing out of the saddle as I stood up to crest the top of a hill.
Despite the insane cramps and popping massively due to not eating enough – I finish – and I’m not last in, As I lie on the grass completely empty I wonder what tomorrow will bring.
What tomorrow brings is a talisman for the day – in this case two large salty pills to put in my water: “They’ll help with cramps. Especially if you actually drink”
Today is the biggy; everyone is saying that if you can make day two you can finish the event. My body is shockingly tired – I found it hard to eat the night before, I was so tired it felt like an effort to put food in and I just wanted to lie down and sleep.
One of the things I’m already learning, like in life itself, is the spaces in between the things you are doing are as important as the doing of the thing itself. If you want to push your body hard for a day, or days on end you need to nurture it; water it, feed it; listen to it, cherish it. Whether that’s feeding it so you can pedal all day or not poisoning it every night with drink so you can function properly in your own day-to-day life, the same rules apply; you get out what you put in (or not, as the case may be)
As soon as we unload the bikes from the van this morning I pedal off alone – I need to sort myself out – and some time to ride at exactly my pace without pressuring myself to ride at someone else’s .
I’m the first out of the wooded tree-line and out onto the open hillside and into heavy freezing fog – I wait to regroup with my new-found friends and try and work out where we need to go next – There’s no obvious signage I can see and the mist has visibility down to 50-60 meters – the map says we should head up a incredibly steep slope but no one is sure .
As we huddle (as we find out later) half way up the slope the mist starts to dissipate – it’s not mist or fog, but a cloud inversion and we’re now above it. Looking across the hills you can see the cloud being burned off with wisps holding on in the valleys where the sun hasn’t touched them yet. No one’s pedalling, but for many of us it’s one of the visual highlights of the week, watching the country around us literally wake up and shake off the clouds from the night before.
The rest of the day is another literal and metaphorical rollercoaster – technical open trails start the first special section, with a hundred line choices and a big crash for me, followed by another pedal/hike a bike. Then another special section: a sinuous traverse before plunging into dark soil and increasingly tightening switchbacks before ejecting us back into the glaring sunlight and hot tarmac to reach the feed station .
The final stage of the day has been promised to be amazing the trail is named Donnie Darko, which is fine except for the 700m metre height gain in front of us which, looking at the profile map, closely resembles the final ECG spike before the patient keels over.
This is my true ‘into the wilderness’ moment: halfway up the climb I pop like I’ve never popped before. I eat everything in my pack. I then look through it again to look for more food, which clearly isn’t there, then carry on bowlegged and pushing, cold and sweaty. An endless climb leads to un-rideable singletrack (For me at least, my limbs are now replaced with pipe cleaners.)
I top out on something like the South Downs but at 2,000m+ There are loads of other blown riders up here: food is shared and tales are told. The sunlight has that soft gold of autumn and portent of earlier nights to come; red and brown bands of leaves punctuate the forests. I lie on my back for a while, roll a cigarette and blow smoke into the sky; it’s caught by the wind and is gone, a miniature cloud from my lungs. There’s something in being so completely emptied, Colours seem brighter, emotions heightened, and that quietness inside.
It‘s that contrast with the timed sections that makes it so special – Really hard technical, on the limit riding; so utterly involving and, if you want to ride fast, committing; especially compared with the cadence and the carry that makes up the liason stages in between. Donny Darko is all that is promised: steep technical at the top, rock gardens, potentially life-threatening exposure at one point; that then implodes into a central section of switchbacks, finishing in a ‘fast as you dare’ woodland singletrack to the road. The bleeper is tagged and I lie on the floor absolutely spent. I’m not sure that I’ve done much breathing in the last ten minutes – so occupied was I with the next 20m in front of me.
It’s a couple of kilometres to camp and I wearily pedal my way. I have ridden farther in a day than I have today, by some amount. But have never felt so spent – or so elated.
After day two, something happens; it’s true what they said. Each day is a journey through highs and lows: food-consumption-based babbling (depending on whether there was any in me or I’d completely depleted myself), really amazing riding (‘I’m on it!’) or incredibly poor, holding-on riding (‘I’m f**king useless!’) But one thing I’m sure of is that I’ll finish the event.
Highlights of the rest of the week?
Day four and the Grey Earth Special stage. Utah-esque black rock: it looks like the slipperiest thing in the world but has more grip than anything I’ve ever ridden – I have to lie on the ground and belly laugh for ten minutes after the trail – and almost consider the half hour climb back to the top to do it again. Special stage 19 ‘Roure’ is basically a great big helter-skelter with tons and tons of exposure ending in countryside that reminds me a lot of home.
Day six and the liaison stage at the beginning of the day: leaving the campsite as the sun is just starting to light the sky and climbing forever on road, then fire road, then singletrack and finally carrying to a col and looking across the Maritime Alps. An un(p)dulating path carries us for 10km across incredibly remote country; kicking up dust with my feet on one of the innumerable hike-a-bikes I can smell truffles in the woods and then a smell of rosemary as I scuff the edges of the trail – and all of the time the sun is steadily rising.
Sharing tales every night over dinner: from the fastest people to the slowest, everyone looks frazzled, sunburnt, with tales of trails, crashes, incredible highs and massive lows. It doesn’t seem to make any difference where you are overall in the race there is a common shared experience. For a lot of us the overall positions are academic; finishing is what matters. I’ve made friends this week: my regular climbing friends; fellow sufferers that I may have not finished without.
To the sea.
Saturday and the final day. It’s relatively short and sweet and my‘gang of fellow travellers are euphoric. We’ve all got into a rhythm now: eat, pedal, sleep. It’s no more complicated than that, but it’s not sustainable forever. I feel the need to finish; to know I’ve completed this thing. On this last day no one is going to get left behind and everyone works together. There are some big road sections and suddenly we’re this incredible road team: taking turns, dragging others on, sharing sweets, in a last blaze of friendships new and possibly fleeting. I tell people around me more about life in a hour than I have in the last week. They reciprocate; none of us are so very different it seems …
Monaco is shock after a week without seeing other people or much traffic and the loudest thing you’ve heard is your own freehub. Monaco is sensory overload; we ride down steps through trails between gardens almost as steep the trails we’d been riding during the week, and then we’re there, on a jetty in the middle of Monaco. We’ve finished. I’m passed a beer and feel elated and sad all in one proud moment that I’ve finished but already wonder whether I could have done better.
Sunday sees me aquaplaning my way from Gatwick Airport to the north – flatter than I can remember in along time. I’m desperate to get home to my girlfriend but every mile nearer to home seems further away from the warm sun of Provence… the following Wednesday sees me back in London at the Cycle Show – it all seems a bit grey really .
Weeks later and I’m still amazed I did it and have looked hungrily at pictures of the event – and snippets of video on the internet – and think about next year.
Where did I come? It was race after all. Well my best position during the week was 11th and I ended up overall 18th out of 40. Like I said, next year.,
First of all a huge thanks to Ash and Melissa at Trans-Provence for the invite and the incredible effort that they’ve both put in to make the event happen. Thanks to the incredible camp staff – cooks – bus drivers – mountain guides –and hand holders who make the event possible at all.
Camp: Chris Smith, Matt Birkby, Pat Coyle, Lesley Boyd
Catering: Gordy Hughes, Tim Everett, Bryony Giles
Mountain Staff: Addy Pope, Sam Morris, Jenn Hopkins, Dom Perry, Graeme Blance, Rich Norgate, Ben Jones.
Doctor: Daniel Hughes
Uplifts and Transport: Cred Snell, Hugh Tingey
Mechanic: Stéphane Guichard, Reah Eslick
Massage: Anna Beadle, Rich Crowe, Su Leeming
Babysitting: Helen Smith
Every single person I met along the way – particularly ‘Jones’ Phil for giving us someone to laugh at (he’s since bought a nice new full- suspension bike…), the gaggle of ‘doctors’ (Many of my complaints were diagnosed on the long climbs), Paul for giving me his last bar of chocolate, Chris (the winner of the event ) for easing my pain with evening nips of Highland Park, Alex from Italy, and Heather who seemed to have to suffer my suffering on more climbs than most. Cred, the man with the plan and a van for providing me with baccy when I ran out – thank you all.
Thanks to Amanda at Lapierre & Hotlines who helped me out with my bike for the event and my long–long termer: my Lapierre Spicy – have a look at singletrackworld.com for a review of this amazing bike. Ran at 2 pure who hooked me up enough Cliff Bar products to feed a very large army and a Joplin Seat post. I’d say an Uppy- downy seatpost is a must have to fully enjoy the event .
Nuun electrolyte replacement tabs – Take it from me as a man who can cramp watching other people do sports, this stuff is amazing. Like a Horse lick for Humans.
Stuff to take
In a classic, crap journalist way I was hideously under-prepared for the event .
Here’s a list of stuff I didn’t take and should have:
Puncture repair kit
Spare tyres (I’d even consider carrying a spare lightweight one for emergencies.
Spare brake pads
I would recommend a complete toolkit in your bag – with odd bolts spare links – spare cleats, gaffa tape and zip ties. If you have it you won’t need it. If you don’t, you will
I lost nearly an hour over the event after tearing my tyre and not having any tape to pop inside my rim so that I could run a tube without tearing the neck off the valve every 100 metres.
Anti inflammatory creams – pills and anything that makes you ache less.
The event is incredibly well organised and there are people that can help fairly regularly – but for a lot of it you need to go in with the attitude that whatever happens you can get out to a road on your own.
Train!! I rode loads more than usual but I could have ridden a lot more!
If you’re good at technical stuff – but not good at stamina, ride a road bike. Don’t spend your riding time riding steeper and steeper stuff (ahem)
If you’re a stick-thin whippet, with a fear of drops go and do some skills days.
Try to ride for 4-5 hours a day for a few days in a row, to see how you get on.
Know how your bike works; and be able to repair it (see my above list about tape and tubes) Be able to read maps, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try to follow a route from a guide book to get used to understanding course descriptions in general.