Tuesday, 17 June 2014

L' Ete en France

It’s been a non-stop few weeks since I started work back in France, and this is the first time I’ve actually had a day to stop and even open up the computer to start typing!

Old ruins, springtime flowers, and one of my favourite Trans-Provence trails
First up was a Press week for Juliana Bicycles ahead of the launch of the Roubion, the bike I’ve been riding since Chile. Female journalists from around the world, Juliana brand manager Katie Zaffke, Ambassadors Anka Martin, Kathy Pruitt and myself, as well as Photographers Sven Martin and Gary Perkin, and of course Mr Trans Provence, Ash Smith who organised the week, all gathered near Roubion for a few days of riding the beautiful new bikes, on classic Trans Provence terrain. J

Kathy, me and Anka with some very pretty bikes ;) Photo: Sven Martin

These bikes can even tow chariots don't ya know?! Photo: Gary Perkin

Anka, Kathy and I shredding Grey Earth gullies Photo: Sven Martin

Riding above Roubion Photo: Sven Martin

Beautiful new Roubions on an alpine hillside
It was a fantastic week of shredding the trails with a great bunch of girls. Awesome riding, delicious food in lovely hotels, lots of red wine fuelled games during the evening, and a good time had by all. The week captured a little glimpse of what the spirit of the Juliana brand is all about. Encouraging fun adventures on great bikes in incredible places, with awesome people. I think everyone went away with the same impression I’ve had of the bike…that it is totally rad and such good fun to ride.

Roubion Bike Park
Of course there was always going to be one of the days during that week that felt harder than the others. Thursday May the 22nd, what would have been mine and Gareth’s 4th Wedding Anniversary. I felt pretty close to tears at the slightest thing all day if I’m honest, but somehow kept busy enough to hold them at bay for most of the day, guiding the group down the trails into Roubion village, chatting to everyone about bikes and the good food we enjoyed in the restaurant, amongst other things.

Riding down into Roubion on my Roubion!
As places to spend a wedding anniversary go, it was beautiful, but without Gareth, it could only feel empty and remind me of how much I missed him and wished he was there with me. In the afternoon, a huuuuge storm erupted above us, thunder and lightning echoing around as we rode down an increasingly slippery trail, with rain falling so heavily we were drenched completely. It was one of those times where if the rain had been like that when you set off, you would never have gone out, but once in it, the ridiculousness of how heavy it was had us all giggling with how crazy it was to be out in such weather. On reaching the bottom we learned that there’d been a landslide that had blocked the road, meaning the second group had had to turn back before even getting to the start of the trail, and we had a long diversion via another road to get back to the hotel. The day had turned into the kind of adventure that Gareth would definitely have approved of, and I couldn’t help but be cheered by that thought. Still, it felt very strange to be having fun but not in the way I ever would have expected, and without Gareth, the only other person to whom that day was so significant.

Photos of an amazingly happy day...
At the end of the Juliana week, it was straight into two weeks TP guiding. The first was definitely a shock to the system, as I did all the guiding that week due to Mary the other guide being new and never having ridden the trails. Thankfully, despite feeling quite unfit, my level of fitness was high enough that I at least was suffering less than the guests, and could still remain full of encouragement and cheerfulness when they needed a bit of motivation! J It has been so good to be back on these trails, I never get tired of them, and despite the job being physically exhausting, there is never really a bad day. When your office looks as amazing as this how could there be?! The last few weeks have just reminded me that I do indeed have the best job in the World.
Fernando from Columbia enjoying "Wild Wednesday" on the Trans-Provence guided week
We were unlucky enough to get drenched in thunderstorms every afternoon during the week, and one morning took twice as long as usual due to the large amount of snow we had to carry our bikes across, kicking steps across steep snow fields. It definitely felt more like mountaineering than riding! All part of the adventure though and the guests loved it.

Lenny from Singapore negotiating one of many snowfields en route!
The second week the sun shone brightly for us and the snow had almost all melted on the trails. I could feel my bike fitness coming back, and it was great that on my new bike I felt I could ride more smoothly and confidently through sections I’d found tricky last year.

In guiding mode high above the Vesubie valley
Straight after finishing the first 3 weeks of work, I headed to Roubion (with my Juliana Roubion!) to race in an enduro. There were a few faces I knew from guiding and other races and also some of the Roubion bike park staff who’d helped out at the Juliana week. Lots of people commented, “Oh you’re riding a Roubion!” which was awesome. This tiny village and the people in it are super proud that a bike is named after the special place they live…it felt great to take my bike to race there.

It was, like most French races, a crazy but brilliant affair. Three special stages, groups of 10 starting together, no pre-practice, a chairlift ride and short pushes for liasons, and straight into some hard riding!
The first stage was the longest, hardest stage I’ve ever done in an enduro race! It started with a steep uphill grass slope to spread us out. I pushed hard, knowing I needed to be near the front going into the singletrack as there would be few places to pass people, and managed to settle in behind the back wheel of Nadine Sapin (3 time winner of the TransVesubienne, uber-fit, seems to float effortlessly uphills…). We were quite a bit ahead of the other girls as we headed down into some swoopy grassy turns, before the trail narrowed to tight singletrack. Despite shouting, Nadine would not let me past, and it was too narrow to try and overtake, which unfortunately meant we were moving slower than I wanted to. She would gain a few metres on me on the climbs, before I gained them back on the descents. As the trail got steeper and more technical I began to get frustrated at not being able to go faster, got too close behind her as she stalled in the bottom of a compression, and then having lost all my speed, had to get off and run up the short climb. By now another girl Mary had caught us up, and as I was getting back on she came past me, then promptly crashed in front of me, blocking the whole trail! We lost sight of Nadine at that point, and yet again I found myself stuck behind someone I wanted to ride faster than who wouldn’t let me past! I was missing the normal style of Enduro races where everyone starts separately at minute intervals!  

I finally overtook her on a long climbing section, my heart pounding and lungs burning with the effort, trying to make up some of the ground we’d lost on Nadine. By this point we’d been going for 15 minutes, and I was so tired that I missed a tight corner and rode straight on into a field! In the time it took to get back up, Mary passed me, then crashed again on the next corner! I tried to take a very steep tight inside line on the switchback to ride past her, but it didn’t work and I crashed hard, landing heavily on my hip and shoulder. I was so far into race mode though that it didn’t really hurt, at least not at that moment!

Unfortunately I was stuck behind Mary the rest of the way down, with nowhere to pass and me not feeling assertive enough to try and overtake in case I just crashed in doing so again. As we neared the bottom of the gorge we had been riding along the side of, Nadine was in sight, but then the last section was a slippery, slime covered wooden plank across a stream that you had to carry your bike over so the gap between us opened up a bit. In the end Nadine was 18 seconds ahead of Mary, and I was 6 seconds behind her, after 39 minutes of racing!! My hands were hurting from braking so much on the steep descent, my brain was frazzled from the concentration required to negotiate the steep technical, loose switchbacks, and stay focused on the narrow trail where a sheer drop of several hundred metres down to the ravine below lurked, and I couldn’t talk I was so exhausted….all I could do was collapse on the ground beside my bike whilst I tried to recover…It was an amazing, scary and super hard trail to race down!

From there we were shuttled up in a coach to the base of the chairlift again, before taking this and then another short push to the start of the next stage. I sat in the sun with a beautiful view over alpine meadows to the snow covered mountains in the distance, talking in French to some of the other girls, and trying to relax before it was time to switch into race-mode again. It was peaceful, calm and very hot, and to be honest I could quite happily have just forgotten about racing for the rest of the day and stayed up there for a snooze!
The news began to filter through that someone had fallen on stage 1 and we were going to be a bit delayed, and shortly afterwards a helicopter flew over in the direction of where stage 1 had been….never a good sign.  In the end we waited for 3 hours, lying in the sun, enjoying the view, and feeling less and less like racing again, but as stage 3 was now cancelled, it was going to be all or nothing on stage 2.

This time it was flat from the start, then into wide open grassy turns down across a big field before entering the tight twisty singletrack. I’m not great at powering off the line, and with no hill to slow the others down this time I was worried I was going to get stuck at the back and frustrated again. However, I managed to get into 3rd place going into the first corner, then took a tight inside line on the next two, overtaking until I was in the lead. Once there I sprinted hard down the open grassy slope, pedalling like mad, and a quick glance behind showed I’d opened up a gap, exactly where I wanted to be so I wasn’t stuck behind anyone in the switchbacks. I got to the first switchback to the left and tried to put in a pedal stroke to get my right foot down for the turn…but the pedals wouldn’t turn. To my absolute dismay I looked down and saw the chain had come off and was twisted into a huge mess…presumably on the last bumpy section before the corner…merde. I decided I had to keep going as everyone would catch me if I stopped to fix it, and started praying it was downhill all the way. Two switchbacks later I was down….having to keep my feet flat in the same position meant on tight left corners my inside foot and pedal was hitting the inside corner and knocking me over, and they were such tight turns that taking a wider line wasn’t an option. Mary and Nadine came past me and there was nothing I could do…and then near the bottom there was a flat rubbly section that you needed to pedal through, great. I got off and ran, soon being passed by another girl, and ended up running for the last 3-4 minutes which was flat and uphill across the line. It’s the only time I’ve ever had a mechanical in a race so I guess my luck had to change sometime, and I’d been convinced it was impossible to drop a chain with an XX1 drivetrain…so I suppose it taught me a valuable lesson.  It meant I’d stay in third overall which I was a bit gutted about after it had been going so well at the top and I’d got myself into the best possible position to do well.

Still, it was only a race, and I’d entered it for a bit of fun, to meet people, ride great trails, and share the race atmosphere, and those boxes had definitely all been ticked! It was a great feeling to be on the podium, where I received a big basket of fruit and local foods, and experienced the scariest bit of the whole day, when I was interviewed on the podium in French! I managed to say something which I think made sense, at least everyone clapped politely anyway and liked my accent!

Big smiles after a fun day on the bike
It’s hard to imagine anyone could not have had a good day when mine had seemed so happy and fun, but on Monday morning, when checking the results and split times online, some incredibly sad news came through. The racer who had fallen on stage 1 had died of his injuries the previous evening in hospital. Suddenly the bright sunny day that we’d had seemed very different. The trails that we raced on were steep, technical and dangerous, with plenty of sections where a crash could see you falling into the canyon below…that’s part of racing and what made them so exciting and exhilarating, but in this case, that appears to be what happened, with tragic consequences.

The very nature of accidents is that they are unpredictable and unexpected, there is no way the rider or his family or friends could have known when they awoke that sunny morning, that life was going to change in a way they could never have imagined…That's what makes them so hard to understand.  The sad news inevitably brought back memories that are seared into my mind forever.

I felt deflated and sad all that day. I cried a lot. For Gareth, and for Christophe, the rider who died in the race, and his family. Remembering the terror and fear I experienced on the day of Gareth’s accident, hoping and praying that he would be ok, and knowing what Christophe’s  family and loved ones would have been feeling as they watched their son being taken to hospital in the helicopter. The long anxious hours of waiting, the uncertainty, the helplessness you feel at being unable to do anything, the disbelief that what has started out as a day like any other, could have turned into a day you hoped you would never have to experience. The feeling that time has been suspended and you’ve been removed from the real world, caring only what happens to the person you love, the sensation that what is happening isn’t real. I can imagine what that family are feeling now, and know that there are no words that will take away their pain or console them. Life has changed forever for them.

Time does not heal as so many people tell you. It doesn’t make things easier or take away the pain, it simply gives you chance to slowly learn how to manage it. It will always be part of you, you just have to figure out how to live with it, and try to use it in a way that is positive, that honours the memory of the person you have lost....I'm still figuring that out, and I hope in time the family of Christophe can come to do that, but there are sure to be many hard months ahead, and my thoughts go out to them. As for Christophe, I hope, like Gareth, that he is riding free somewhere, on an endless ribbon of amazing singletrack, through the most staggering scenery it’s possible to imagine…

This week I’m taking a break from the bike, it’s had some much needed attention given to it in the form of fork and shock servicing and brake bleeding, and is taking a little rest before the next guiding stint starts! In the meantime, my Mum and Dad are here visiting, and it’s been really lovely to show them some of the places I’ve been talking about since I first started working here last spring. Despite spending lots of time in Winter in the Alps, due to work on the farm being too busy in the summer, this is the first time they’ve been able to come walking in the alps in the summer, and it hasn’t taken them long to see why I love it here so much...

Among the Alpine flowers by Lac des Millefonds

Group selfie high above Valdeblore

Dad enjoying the view above the Tinee valley
It’s been really nice for me too, to get up a bit higher than we do on the Trans Provence route, and walk some new trails with different views. You notice different things when you are walking than on the bike too, and as my mum absolutely adores the alpine flowers which are covering the meadows like blankets at this time of year, I’ve noticed them more than ever and even learnt a few of their names thanks to her too. So far we've avoided the afternoon thunderstorms each day, managing to finish just before they start...fingers crossed we stay as lucky the rest of the week! But if not it'll all be part of the adventure ;) Ciao for now!

Uh oh...storm on it's way!

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful photos and wonderful sentiment. A really honest update, with love and life and mountains in near equal measure.