Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Crazy Trails and Epic Tales of the Trans-Provence!

It’s almost a week since the Mavic Trans-Provence finished , but I’m only just beginning to process what was a crazy whirlwind epic of a week, and I’m definitely suffering from the post-event depression that follows weeks as intense, action-packed and fun as this. It’s great to be back in the UK and to see my family and friends, but it feels kind of lonely not sleeping in a field of tents surrounded by fellow competitors, sharing meals together, riding all day in beautiful places on great trails, all the little things that become routine during event week that you miss afterwards!

Start of another beautiful day in the TP race village
So much adventure, so many stories, and such good times packed into one small week which felt like it flew by. It was without a doubt the best week of my summer, and one of the best events I’ve ever done, with so many memories to take away. It’s hard to describe the special atmosphere that exists at these kind of things, and makes them as memorable as they are, but I’ll give it a go!

Day zero:
I arrived in Clamensane, a small village near Sisteron where the race was to start from, in bright sunshine on Friday afternoon. Too excited to stay in Sospel, I’d driven up early to catch up with some of the camp staff who I worked with last year, and to try and be as prepared as possible for the start of the race. Everything was already under control on the camp, under the supervision of camp manager, Lesley, who knows so much about how the logistics of the race work, that without her I doubt the race could run! It was good to catch up with some familiar faces, and scare the new ones with comments about how they were in the “calm before the storm”! Last year I worked on the race, and remember well the week of 18 hour days packed full of things to do, and the level of stress accompanying the job I was doing…I was looking forward to simply racing this year! The catering team of Gordy, a chalet owner in Les Arcs and amazing chef, and his team had arrived, meaning a delicious dinner that evening, the first of many during the week, shared with the few other racers who had arrived during the day. There was an air of excitement and apprehension for what lay ahead and what Ash had in store for us. As we retired to bed for the night, lightening was flashing in the distance, making no sound but lighting up the sky, and I wondered whether the storm would reach us during the night.

I woke up in the middle of the night, soaked in sweat but freezing cold, with some of the most intense stomach cramps I can ever remember having. A few drops of rain were starting to fall on the van roof, and within minutes there was the rumblings of thunder. I tried to ignore the pains, and must have dozed back to sleep for a short while. When I woke up again the storm was raging, with continuous thunder and lightning all around. The rain was lashing down, but by now I was feeling sick as well, and I knew I had to run to the bathrooms. I didn’t even make it there before I’d thrown up. It’d been so long since I’d been sick I’d forgotten how horrible it felt. When I stopped retching I stumbled into the bathrooms and spent the next 3 hours there, either throwing up or on the toilet. When I eventually crawled back into bed at 6 am I was completely and utterly exhausted and feeling horrendous.

A few hours later I woke again, still feeling sick and with even just water making my stomach cramp. I was really upset. All the fitness I had from guiding all season, and the extra preparation and training I’d done felt wasted. I didn’t know how long I was going to feel ill for, or whether I’d even be able to race, I was completely gutted. As everyone else was arriving, excited and full of energy for the start of the race, I was feeling weak and drained of energy, my muscles cramping and aching from dehydration and lack of salts. I didn’t feel like eating, or like my stomach could tolerate food, yet I was terrified that I had a tough six day race ahead of me and needed to eat to have the energy to get through each day. I drank rehydration drinks all day, missing the prologue, and sleeping and resting until late afternoon, when I managed to eat a banana and some mashed potato. I was starting to feel better, but really scared of how weak I’d feel the following day. This wasn’t the start to the race I’d planned!

Day 1: 
I slept deeply, and thankfully felt much better when the morning arrived. I ate as big a breakfast as I could manage, hoping that it would go some way to making up for the calorie deficit of the previous 24 hours, but realistically preparing myself for what I knew was going to feel like a hard day. I set off super slowly, pedalling and pushing up at a pace I hoped was conserving energy, but worryingly feeling empty-legged from the start. When I reached the start of special stage 1, loud euro pop music was blaring out from a random party in the valley below, reminding me of the start of the Megavalanche! It was not helping with the nerves I was feeling! I decided the only thing I could do today was ride steadily, and get through the day without crashing, as I knew I’d feel wobbly and weak on the stages.

Pushing on the way to stage 1
Stages 1 and 2 felt ok, I didn’t crash, but I certainly wasn’t riding my best, let alone feeling like I was racing…it was purely a matter of survival. The temperature hit 30 degrees on the long afternoon push, and I was forced to resort to walking a few steps then stopping. With only Henry, the sweep behind me, I was right at the back. I had nothing left, I had been running on empty all day and that afternoon was one of the hardest I’ve ever had on a bike. My body felt drained, I couldn’t eat enough to fuel my muscles and knew I was probably already running on my body’s glycogen reserves, not a good thing on the first day of a six day race…

Taking in some more awesome views during the morning's liasons
I was really lucky to have MaryAnne patiently waiting for me, chatting and encouraging me to take my mind off the effort of the uphill slog to the last stage, it would have been even harder struggling on my own! I’d done this afternoon many times before, normally being the one encouraging and motivating others when energy levels were flagging, but it had never felt quite so hard as it did today. The last stage was Donkey Darko, one of my favourite trails, and I somehow found some reserves of energy to get down it. It’s a long, completely awesome stage, full of exposure, switchbacks, flowy sections, stream crossings, rocks, woodland, a little bit of everything! It felt crazy to race down it when I’d always normally stopped to rest with the group part way down when guiding. But it was so much fun that by the time I reached the bottom I felt fantastic and like I hadn’t been struggling all day at all (well, kind of...)….amazing what a fun descent can do for you!

Ash had decided to torture us all by giving us a 10 minute shuttle, followed by a “20 minute easy pedal” (which was actually 50 mins, including 300m height gain, on which we had no food or water left!) to ride back to camp. Fortunately I was accompanied by Anka, MaryAnne, Photographer Gary and Rich from the timing staff, so there were at least other people to moan to! We got to camp in the small pretty village of Prads after a 10 hour day!

I was just glad to have made it through the day, and after a soon to become regular routine of massage, recovery drink, compression tights, stretching, eating lots of food and a rehydrating glass of red wine, and briefly noticing that the sky was impressively clear and very beautiful (and even seeing a shooting star), I passed out in my tent, keen to get as many hours of sleep as possible before an early start and an epic looking day two.

Day 2:
Ash had told me that he fully expected everyone to completely hate him by midday on day 2, and looking at the route map for the day, it was easy to see why. We were faced with a 1400m climb, most of which looked incredibly steep and definitely unrideable!

Jeff and Sean still smiling despite being 4 hours into a 5 hour climb!
It was both of those things, however, I secretly loved it! I felt so much better than the previous day, my energy levels were recovering, the temperature was pleasant, it was going to be a beautiful sunny day, and we were moving at a steady pace, stopping religiously to eat every hour. There was a refuge part way up where we sat in the sun drinking cold coke, eating lunch, and taking in the mind-blowingly beautiful alpine scenery all around. I felt privileged to be in such a stunning place, and to wonder how few people before us would have made the effort to hike up with their bikes to such a special place. In the end we climbed for 5 hours, with 2 of those pushing and 2 carrying bikes on our backs. 
Just a small section of the carrying involved on day 2!
There were some comedy moments near the top when Anka and I had such tired shoulders and arms that we could no longer lift the bikes off our backs, and had to drop to kneeling, put the bikes on the floor, and slide out on our stomachs from underneath them…it must have looked ridiculous to anyone who didn’t know what we’d just done!

Photo by Gary Perkin, taken mid morning day 2
It was tough, but it was real adventure biking/mountain bike-aineering and one of my favourite mornings of the whole week. The mountain staff had left a suggestions sheet to Ash at the top, and before descending, Anka and I wrote a note to him to say we would be resigning as TP Guides if we had to do the same climb every week with guests all next summer! Once was beautiful, but quite enough!
Suggestion sheet at the top of the climb, be interested to know what was written on here by the time everyone was up!
As a reward for all the hard climbing, we got to the top to find the descent on the other side unrideable! So we pushed down to the start of special stage 1, arriving 6 hours after we started the day, with wobbly legs and minds struggling to switch on for racing downhill! It was hard to find flow on that trail, and I’m pretty sure no-one felt their best on it, especially on the short punchy climbs that were in the middle of the stage! A shuttle from the feed station took us up to Col d’Allos, where the next 3 stages were full of switchbacks, flowy contouring woodland trails, and fast, fun riding. It was fun for me to ride a day of completely new trails, and despite being out for another 11 hours, it had been a wonderfully epic, adventurous day, celebrated with a beer in the bar in Colmars on the way to the campsite.

Day 3: 
Always one of my favourite days, I was pleased to see a lot of the old favourites, and some new ones too, were featured in today’s route through the “Valley of Endless Trails”.

Thanks to Anka Martin for the photo of me at the top of Col des Champs, day 3
Making the way to stage 1, Col des Champs
From the alpine scenery and whistling marmots at the top of the Col des Champs, to the crazy exposure of the Rochers de Bramus, the high-speed flow of Grey Earth, the loamy fast switchbacks in the woods below Sussis, and then two of the fantastic trails down from Sauze through the woods of endless speed, and wild, loose rocky switchbacks. I whooped my way through the day, enjoying every minute of the riding. I rode smoothly and cleanly, feeling fast and like I was actually racing for the first time during the week. It was a great day, I was cruising near the back, relaxed and feeling unpressured, stopping for some photo-shooting with Gary and Sam on the Rochers de Bramus.

Photo by Gary Perkin, stolen from VitalMTB slideshow
We finished in Guillaumes where once again the recovery process started….shower, eat, drink, stretch, clean and sort bike for following day, sleep!

Day 4:
Today started with a big uplift to the ski resort of Valberg and in theory an “easy day”, although having ridden this day before, I knew we weren't going to be getting much of a rest day! I felt sluggish and like I couldn’t wake up all the way to the start of the first stage, and managed to crash on the first corner, right in front of everyone watching! It kind of set the theme for my day… I crashed again further down the trail when I clipped a fence, and then flatted on a steep rocky section and was forced to ride down the rocky gully that followed with no air in the tyre… bike hated me L The tyre was wrecked, with 3 huge tears in it, and unsurprisingly I’d dented the rim too, all through careless and sloppy riding through fatigue. We had a short climb and descent into Roubion next, the pretty village that my bike is named after! And it would be rude to pass through this beautiful little place perched on the clifftops without stopping for some photos!

Kerstin Kogler obliges for the classic Roubion photo shot.
Thankfully the feed station and mechanics were waiting at the base of the chairlift which would take us up to stage 2, and I was able to get my tyre changed by the lovely guys from Mavic. Stage 2 was a bike park stage, not my favourite kind of riding but still fun, and then a liason up to stage 3, a super fast, very short section of singletrack on a ridge. The drone was filming as I set off so I definitely rode faster than I would otherwise have done, as I was being filmed, so fast I scared myself a little bit! I prefer more technical trails than fast flat-out stuff…more speed equals higher consequences when you crash in my mind! It was starting to rain as we pedalled across to Hobson’s choice, the final stage and one of my favourite trails in the world.

MaryAnne on the way to Hobson's Choice below threatening skies.
I’d come across it whilst doing some trail recconaisance for Ash last year and this was now the second year it’d been in the race. It’s an incredible trail, but hard to race, especially when tired, and I really didn’t want to think about how tricky it’d be in the rain! The top section is great, tight singletrack winding down through ancient terraces, with steep rocky chutes, tight corners, and the trail concealed at times by long grass…it’s wild! This is followed by endless steep, loose switchbacks, interspersed with sections of trail contouring the hillside with masses of exposure. My description doesn’t really do it justice, but take my word for it, it’s hard, but totally brilliant! The rain held off and I managed to make my way down it pretty well. One crash where in a moment of tiredness and because my hands were hurting from braking so much, I stupidly grabbed my front brake mid-switchback and jacknifed the wheel, diving over the bars, but otherwise a clean, if slightly ragged and tired run!

Stu Thomson and Joe Bowman on the exposed (but thankfully untimed this year) section at the bottom of Hobson's choice
The rain held off until we were in the vans on an uplift to the campsite at Valdeblore, much better than riding in the rain but still making sorting kit out in a small pop-up tent more tricky than normal. My preferred technique of throwing everything out around my tent in a kit explosion, a technique adopted by most of the other racers too, was suddenly not possible! By now I was running out of kit so needed to wash some stuff. Leaving this until the day it rained was in hindsight an error…nothing dried, and I then spent the second half of the week carrying around still-damp clothes.  Having to put on a cold damp pair of chamois shorts in the dark at 6am is not fun.

Day 5:
We started early, with a long fireroad climb, followed by a push out into the sunshine on a ridge, making the early start oh so worthwhile.

The sun starting to come out after a cold early morning pedal up the fire road.
That’s what I love about events like this…when else would you be likely to make yourself get up early enough to be out as the sun comes up, seeing the dew glistening in the early morning light and feeling the sun starting to warm the air? I wish I could say I did it more often, but it’s hard to motivate yourself when your bed is comfy and warm and the temptation of an extra couple of hours sleep is too strong! It’s always worthwhile when you do make the effort though.

Carrying up the ridge with magnificent views to make it all worthwhile.
The views for the rest of the morning were rubbish, the trails were crowded and uninteresting, and I wasn’t enjoying it at all…..actually I’m lying… was a beautiful day to be out in the mountains, on fantastic trails, with epic views!

It was a long morning to get to the stage, but worth taking time as I knew the trail was rooty and would be easier to ride if it was drier! After a rubbish day 4, and not feeling as fast or smooth, I decided chilling near the back again would make me more relaxed and able to enjoy the day more, and hopefully therefore ride better. It worked and I felt smooth and fast on the two morning stages, without really trying to race.

A beautiful day to be out in the mountains.
There were 2 new stages for the afternoon, along with plenty of energy sapping pushing to get to them, but by now 10 + hour days were feeling normal so they didn’t feel too bad! Stage 3 was great, there were some scary sniper rocks hidden in long grass near the start,  then a fast rocky trail, followed by exposed rocky traversing and descending down to an old ruin. I missed a corner that came up on me super fast, and had to get off to turn round at one point but otherwise it was a good run and definitely a lot of fun!
Photo by Gary Perkin, stolen from VitalMTB slideshow
Stage 4 was best described as “hectic”! It started flowy then soon became mental. Uber tight switchbacks, rock drops….it was not easy. I crashed at one point and ended up lying like a beetle on my back, not wanting to get up! I even had to run round some of the corners and think I was probably faster than if I’d tried to ride them! It was a fun day overall though, and I think my best day results wise, finishing 35th overall and even 28th in one stage, only a few seconds behind the fastest 3 girls, whoop!
I hadn’t tried to “race” all day, just concentrated on riding smoothly and having fun….seemed to work much better than when I tried to go fast and turned into a muppet! I was pretty proud of myself...not too shabby for someone who can still count the number of Enduro races I've done in my life on one hand ;)

Day 6:
From first seeing the route for day 6, I was nervous about it from the start. We were to start by riding Ze Holy Trail…a trail I’d only ridden a few times but which was fast becoming one of my favourite trails in Sospel. However, that was to ride it….with rests when hands got tired from braking or the mind needed to stop and refocus, stops for a snack or to take photos. Racing it, in one go from top to bottom was going to be a different matter….I was scared. It was steep, technical, awkward in places, with tight loose switchbacks and off camber sections, not to mention long….gulp.

 During the long pedal up with fellow Juliana riders Zea and Mary Anne, I decided I just had to try and ride it like I was guiding it, but without rests!  I set off smoothly, not fast but riding everything cleanly with no mistakes. I was feeling good and enjoying it, but then a slight error of steering on the exit of a corner saw my front wheel wash out. It was a slow tumble, but somehow I managed to fall with my bike down off the side of the trail into some shrubs. I’d gone about 10 metres down and couldn’t get my bike out of the scratchy bushes. If I’d calmed down and not got angry with myself I would probably have been a lot quicker in extracting myself and my bike, but that sense of being against the clock and time ticking away meant I thrashed about and swore a lot and consequently lost a lot of time getting back up, at least a minute….what an idiot! All that smooth, clean riding wasted! After that I was more rushed and didn’t ride as well, too annoyed with myself to calm down! Anyway, I made it to the bottom in one piece, glad it was over and looking forward to riding it again without being timed next time!

Stage 2 also made me nervous. The first half of it was new and I hadn't ridden it, but on the second part I’d witnessed guests crashing when guiding, necessitating hospital trips, and I couldn’t help but think of that as I stood at the top waiting to launch myself down it! I actually loved racing it as it turned out! I managed to pick some good lines and find some flow through the jumbled, nadgery rocks. I crashed once, but was quickly up, scaring only some passing walkers who I think thought we were all insane! Stage 3 was one I’d ridden before through the Foret de Menton, and it was another good run, I even found some energy to stand up and pedal on the climb in the middle! Juliana girls Anka, Zea, Mary Anne and I, as well as Valentina and Kerstin all made it up to the final stage at the same time.

Just before the last stage, the end is in sight!
Of all the stages of the week, this was the only one I actually hated. It was super steep, gnarly, with no flow and no easy lines through the huge jumbled rock steps. I had a big big crash, one of those where you have time to think as you are flying through the air over your bars. My thoughts were that as a minimum I would break both my arms, and smash my face up. I have no idea how I got away with only a badly bruised hip and hand and a few scratches….it’s times like that when I swear Gareth is acting as my guardian angel and saving me from certain injury! After a crash like that you’d normally sit for a minute to calm down after being so shaken, but as it was only part way down the trail, that wasn’t an option. Instead I gingerly climbed back on my bike and sketched my way down the continually gnarly trail. I was so relieved to get to the bottom, and still so shaken that I burst into tears! What a horrible trail to finish with! I resolved to tell Ash I hated him at that moment.

The day and the race finished with a leisurely ride to the beach via the beautiful old town of Menton, followed by a swim, delicious ice cream, and sharing stories, results and celebrating surviving with everyone else who’d raced! Oh, and then the famous stage 25…Jerome Clementz led dozens of us on a crazy route the wrong way down one-way streets in rush-hour Menton to the bar! It was probably the most dangerous stage of the race, but everyone was so keen for beer and chips that we didn’t really think about it! Unfortunately, contrary to popular belief, getting more drunk does not then make the uphill ride to camp any easier!

Photo of stage 25 by Sven Martin, stolen from VitalMTB slideshow
There were a few sore heads on the campsite the next morning after the party which for some people went on most of the night! Fortunately the catering team had prepared well for this, and sausage and egg buttys and strong coffee were sorting most people out. I was gutted to leave on the bus back to camp zero to pick up my van...I didn't want the week to end!

Lac du Passy, relaxing and recovering with quite a good view!
I spent my last day in France lying by the Lac du Passy, near Chamonix. Swimming and lying in the sun with the spectacular view of Mont Blanc behind, reflecting on an epic week. The stories, the friends made, the trails, and how lucky I was to have been part of the adventure. Things like this are the reason I love riding, for the places it takes me, the people I meet, and the adventures and fun I have.

Girl shredders!
It was great to see the biggest ever entry of women racing, and awesome fun to have lots of great girls to ride and shred with during the week, including five of us from the Juliana Crew! Our bikes were made for these kind of trails and adventures! #RoubionsAreRad!

Photo by Matt Letch. Juliana crew rocking our Roubions on the Col des Champs!
So there it is...Trans-Provence is over for another year, but there are oh so many memories that we'll all take away and be dreaming of to keep us going until the next adventure.

Photo by Gary Perkin, stolen from VitalMTB Slideshow
A week of physical and emotional highs and lows, tough times, good times, lots of smiles and laughter, some blood (and bruises, scrapes and blisters), a LOT of sweat (the thought of the stench from my bag of dirty laundry after it had festered for a week is still making me feel sick), a few tears, damn thorns stuck in arms and legs that I'm sure will take all year to work their way out, breathtaking views and mind-blowing scenery, sunrises, bright sunny autumn days, clear starry nights in our blue-tented village, crazy hectic trails, trails that you didn’t want to end, and those that you definitely did. Tired bodies, happy faces, stories of near misses, crashes, rad moves, amazing saves, and wheelies on exposed trails…An epic event in every sense.

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