This article was originally published in issue 92 of Singletrack. Whether fast or slow, there’s something special about the way the French organise mountain bike races. Beate tackles the Transmaurienne.
Words and illustrations by Beate Kubitz. Photos by Chipps.
I did almost give up on the awful, garish, white-writing-on-red event website, but there was a tantalising picture on the home page which made my painstaking deconstruction purposeful. Alps. Blue sky. And a mountain biker apparently disappearing off the edge of the world. My French is sketchy but after a few days of clicking and cross-eyed note-taking, I had a basic outline of the event to sell to my boyfriend as our summer holiday plan. The website is probably why, when we finally lined up on the start line, we were two of a grand total of five Brits participating in the event.
The Trans Where?
The Transmaurienne is five days of racing in the Sybelles, in the Maurienne region of the French Alps. The days range from a 12km prologue with a mere 500m of climbing, to a monstrous 60km tour of the area, clocking up 4,000m of altitude in one stage. Exciting and intimidating in equal measure.
The Sybelles in the Savoie is a ski region in the winter. The road winds up from Saint Jean de Maurienne, signposting seven villages and topping out at the infamous Col de la Croix de Fer. In the summer, the main lifts still hum for mountain bikers and hikers, while a steady stream of roadies take on the Croix de Fer.
Despite the relatively busy resorts, everyone there seems extraordinarily enthusiastic about taping off town squares, sticking in inflatable arches, timing tents and bike washes and generally creating a fête du velo. The race is like riding an advert for mountain biking in the region, with each day starting in a different ski station with routes criss-crossing the valleys, looping through the landscape taking in rocks, wooded singletrack and high alpine meadows.
It’s soon clear that within a few hundred metres of the off, three hundred plus mountain bikers are pretty much absorbed by the vastness of the Alps. Our race begins with a mass start and fanfare each day and within minutes we’re just about the only people on the network of trails, apart from cheery and encouraging marshals and a few enthusiastic supporters, whose enthusiasm never faltered.
We lined up at the start of the prologue, six at a time on the start ramp. I realised, with growing horror, that I was surrounded by hardtails and lycra skinsuits bearing slogans like ‘Team Adrenaline’. These chaps (chaps were a very large majority) were clearly of the dedicated racing snake persuasion and would take no prisoners. There was no time to change my mind though. The commentator was busy giving it his all and every group of six was cheered off the ramp.
My group departed at breakneck speed and I struggled to keep with them to the first bend. By the first descent I had stars before my eyes and as the route climbed back up I felt decidedly sick. The steep hairpin corner ahead of me afforded magnificent views of the valley below and the peaks beyond. Probably. My vision was a bit patchy. But there was a marshal urging me onwards.
I was doing my best but it was time to ease back a bit on the racing and just try to make it to a descent that would give me back my self-esteem. It took a while, but gradually the course started to turn. Stretches of singletrack swooped around the edges of fields. Little dirt chutes plummeted through trees. And the final straight catapulted us down the four flights of stairs around the Mairie. Suddenly my full suspension bike and baggies felt at home.
All over again.
Holidays when you need to be more organised and get up earlier than you would for work are a bit bizarre. We retired to our chalet for an early night, making checklists of our kit for the morning and questioning our sanity.
But when the morning came, it didn’t seem such a bad idea to be embarking on a monster ride from Albiez-Montrond after all. We lined up in results order. Our allotted places were virtually at the back. There was one other woman in the long race – in full lycra with knee pads (quite a popular look in France if the race was anything to go by).
A racket of cowbells and hooters cheered us under the inflatable arch and we were off for a quick lap of some woodland before the climbing began. And climb we did. I’d printed out course maps and tried to memorise the routes but all sense of direction quickly left me. I soon started to watch the altitude numbers increase on my Garmin rather than second-guess where we were. We progressed satisfactorily up through slippery, muddy woodland trails (an unseasonable amount of rain was responsible for this) into the more open upland landscape, but my self-congratulation came to an end when I realised that I’d been watching the calorie counter and not the altitude readout. Unhappily, 1,200 calories translated into a mere 700m of climb. Only 1,300m more to do then.
Just as it all seemed a bit lacking in fun, the route dropped down a stony chute straight into a burbling brook and onto a ribbon of red singletrack through pine trees. Of course it didn’t last, but that tantalising rush of flow spurred me on through the next section of never-ending climb.
Somewhere on one of these hot slopes, I realised I’d run out of water. There was no need to worry though – the feed stop was surely nearby. Sure enough, as we began crossing high mown meadows, I could hear cowbells in the distance and started looking out for the eagerly anticipated stand full of cheering, cowbell-clanging marshals. Rounding the next bend my face fell as I was confronted with a herd of actual, cowbell-wearing, cows.
I’d started to wonder whether I’d missed the stop, when the path was flanked by two small boys, handing up orange segments. I’ve never been quite so taken by either small boys or orange segments. It was a perfect prelude to the feed stop, a hundred metres on, well stocked with cakes, bananas and other goodies.
Unbelievably, we were still climbing. The feed station lay at the foot of what I remember (less than fondly) as the ‘giant hogweed death-march of doom’. Only then did the course turn to more entertaining things. Fast paths, technical descents into rocky alpine rivers (make your own stepping stones). Oh, and more climbing. Granted, it was through alpine turf, dotted with intense blue harebells, but climbing nevertheless. It was almost surprising when we were finally pointed downhill into a wooded hillside, descending on rooty switchbacks to the finish.
The finish appeared to be sponsored by the local saucisson seller. Middle-aged women poured Coke into plastic cups and enthused about the region. I concurred wholeheartedly, mouth full, that it was both beautiful and delicious.
By the second stage, our holiday was beginning to feel like a task to be completed (albeit with nice views). So I was not really expecting that, on stage two, the intensely stupid climbs would be truly and properly rewarded. After a brief and near-vertical warm up climb of a mere 400m followed by a pleasingly knobbly singletrack descent, we recommenced the now-familiar uphill march.
This one distinguished itself by a relentless start, from which it kicked up into barely rideable woodland paths then, at the treeline, ceased all pretence at reason and began zigzagging in minuscule increments up a turf wall in the full glare of the midday sun. After about an hour of this, a rider came haring past, all wiry fell-runner, holding his carbon hardtail aloft. ‘The descent had better be good’, I muttered, reminding myself that despite full suspension, my Ripley is a miracle of lightness and will make the descents – when I reach them – a million times more fun.
A Red Bull arch and feed station marked the high (2,100m) point at which we finally ran out of mountain. And within a few seconds, the memory of the climb was obliterated. The trail crested a ridge, a tiny cinder rollercoaster edged with pretty meadow flowers. Truly the top of the world. Then it began to wind its way down off the exposed spine and into trees. A little singletrack ledge, just wide enough to skim down. I passed my wiry hardtail friend making hard work of the tiny rock lumps that popped out occasionally.
A few muddy sections slowed progress and even stopped the bike as goo packed between tyre and frame. I began to remember the climb. But then turn after turn the trees became taller and the path dried out, the caked mud crumbled off with a satisfying patter as it spattered the trail, and the winding red earth began testing all my hairpin skills.
For a few hundred metres it turned out onto a ledge, halfway up a scree cliff. The valley floor, it turned out from a sideways glance, was still a long way below. A first-aider in a Red Cross T-shirt looked on nonchalantly as I ducked back into the woods for an extra helping of singletrack rooty hairpin goodness. I lost count after 60 singletrack switchbacks. 60! Where else would you find that kind of descent in a cross-country race?
By stage three we were embracing the early starts and the climbs. If we had descents like yesterday, it was all worthwhile. So I really didn’t have a trip in the ambulance marked into the plan. But sure enough, I was seeing the mountains disappearing through the rear window of an ambulance.
One moment I’d been flying down a gravelly descent, the next I was sitting myself upright with concerned voices all around me. I’d clearly decided to use my chin as a brake and blood was splashed on the pebbles around me. While I was trying to work out whether I could continue to ride, the marshals conjured up a 4×4 and stashed me (and bike) into it. Good job too – I emerged from French A&E several hours later with 11 stitches as holiday souvenirs.
The racing might have been over for me, but, perhaps oddly, I was still enjoying my holiday. I packed the boyfriend off for the final day of the race and inched my aching self along on my bike to find a nice view to paint. Then the camaraderie of the race beckoned, and battered though I was, I joined the finish line dinner. The quality of the food was a constant throughout the race and this was no exception: generous, steeped in local cheese and accompanied by wine. We sat on benches in the sun, sharing our stories in broken French and English and chatting about next year’s offering.
The Transmaurienne is not the only such race in France. If the leaflets in our starter packs were anything to go by, stage races pop up here, there and everywhere, from the Vercors to Corsica.
Usually there’s choice of courses – the Transmaurienne offered the monster Grand Parcours that I did, the shorter Petit Parcours and a Randonée, which is basically a sportive version on the shorter trail. All for a very reasonable €35 a day, or €110 for all five days. You can do any number of stages and spend your days in the mountains, on a fantastic route where you’re counted out and back by intensely cheery French people, and handed water, oranges, bananas and cake at very welcome moments.
And if it all goes tits up, the same cheery first-aiders dispatch you to hospital with the Pompiers. Just don’t forget your EHIC card.