, during the 2013 TransProvence
, during the 2013 TransProvence

When does a race become and adventure? When does an adventure become an epic? During a week in the French Alps at the tail end of the summer, I was lucky enough to be involved with the now legendary Trans-Provence race…

DIRT ISSUE 143 - JANUARY 2014

Words by Nick Hamilton. Photos by Sven Martin and Sam Needham

“Ash Smith is a mad man". This is a quote I could attribute to several of the people I spoke to over those amazing seven days and (for good reason) he truly tests the limits of his racers. Ash is the man who runs and has developed the Trans–Provence over past five years; a race from Sisteron to Menton in France. Originally living in Switzerland and working the 9 to 5 he had been taking trips down through the Alps to explore the endless trails and randonnees the mountains have to offer. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the trails due to obsessional map studying. In 2006 he took a trip further south to Provence and was immediately taken with the area. With the beach within reach, it’s not hard to understand the draw. He kept coming back and it was during one of the recce trips in 2008, where Ash was putting together a route for a guided trip, that the idea to make it into a race instead came about. At the time it didn’t seem like it would be that much harder to do; an itinerant trip with sections against the clock. The Trans–Provence was born.

In its first year there were 32 racers and this has steadily grown year on year until the fourth edition where numbers levelled off at 72. Ash reckons this is the maximum number without significantly changing the style of the event and has no plans to expand. I had read a lot about TP and had seen some amazing videos, but I wanted to know what it takes to actually put on such an event. It really is an amazing undertaking: a six day race, transporting 72 racers over 300km, moving locations and campsite every night as they get closer to the sea. Every racer needs to be fed and watered three times a day, their tents need to be collapsed and erected, their bags need to be in the right place at the right time. Their bikes and bodies need looking after daily, not to mention their spirits and safety. There is a lot that can go wrong, but thankfully, on balance, it all goes very right.

So how does it happen? At the top of the tree sits Ash, the grand chief, and as with most good men, there is a good woman with him, his wife Melissa. They plan, place orders and apply for permission from the regional governments and municipalities. The more I talked to Ash and the other staff, 32 in total, I began to realise that the story is not a list of facts, figures and logistics. It’s actually about them, the amazing people who work their arses off to make the race happen and allow the 72 competitors to get the most of those six days of incredible riding.

The staff can be broken down into Camp, Mountain, Support and Media. My small part of this tale was one of the mountain crew; as a team of four we were charged with timing the race. Rich (Norgate), Shaggy (John Ross), Henry (Norman) and myself rode a couple of hours ahead of the racers setting up the timing belises (a box of electronics) at the start of each stage and depositing one of us at the end of each stage. It was our responsibility to tag the racers ‘in’ at the finish and make sure they were all off the mountain. This meant very early starts and being the last ones off the mountain at the end of a very long day. We all revelled in it.

The other elements of the mountain staff are the trail tapers, the sweeper and the Doc, Andy. The course is marked out two days ahead of the race to minimise the chances of the any signs being taken down. Ewan, Emma and Chris ride the whole route and shuttle each other around attaching arrows and tape where necessary. The sweeper, Juan, was truly the last man on the mountain each day. He’s making sure the TP leaves no trace… doing it all on a hardtail!

The camp staff are responsible for housing and transporting the racers each day. They’re headed up by Leslie, the camp manager, who’s got an eye for detail combined with motherly compassion. She loves the event and has worked taping the course previously. “I’ve ridden it. I know how difficult it is, I have huge empathy for how hard it is on these riders". When she rode it, she would be so tired that she wouldn’t want to ride the next day. Ash would just say “you’ll love this next stage" and she’d saddle up again knowing he was right.

Alongside her husband Pat, who coordinates other staff, they start breaking down the camp each morning as soon as the first tent becomes empty. Each morning the riders get uplifted to the trailhead in two waves of vans driven by Mansel, Dom, Emily, Bryan, Ross and Matt. Ideally by the time the second wave of shuttles are back in camp, all the tents are down and ready to be transported to the next site. It’s a one–run job with everyone involved, all the vans get loaded and they ship out.>>

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[part title="BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE TRANS–PROVENCE PAGE TWO..."]

, during the 2013 TransProvence
, during the 2013 TransProvence

They’ve been to all the sites before so on arrival they know roughly where everything will go to create a village atmosphere, maximising comfort, convenience and the valuable impact for the sponsors. All the sleeping tents then get pitched and the ‘Massage Me’ team ready their beds for weary bodies. Pat observed “we have a lot of people that are very, very good and don’t require much management. They think on their feet and it’s going to be done right. They pre–empt problems rather than walking in to them." They’re tight on time, with the keenest riders arriving back around three in the afternoon and it all needs to be ready for them “with a smiling face to greet them". Leslie summed it up “it’s the staff that make the event happen, plus the amazing trails of course. Oh and the chefs are incredible and the food is just great".

Gordy and Tim are the chefs in question feeding 100 mouths each day from a portable kitchen. They are up at 7am and work through until all the washing–up is done at midnight and all the kit is packed down with breakfast set for the morning. Karen and Tim, also known as Podium Catering, work alongside them are up at the crack of sparrow to serve breakfast to the first wave of riders and keep going until dinner is served. Gordy is pretty philosophical “I keep saying by the end of the week that I don’t think I could go through that again. Eighteen–hour days, non–stop, is very full–on. But we keep coming back every year as it’s a great adventure and we just love doing it. It’s very satisfying"… just like the food they serve in this movable feast, which has gained a huge number of plaudits from all who ate it and the 100 baguettes a day they get through.

There is a food stop half way through the day’s riding which was wo–maned by the ever smiling Julia. As well as making sure the racers have opportunity to replenish their supplies and get a hot drink she has a second role. She collects each of the riders timing chips at the end, which she will then hand out again the following morning. It’s a great system as they are able to get their times instantly. “It’s a privilege to see some of the world’s best racers arriving and see what times they have before they do".

Also at the food stop and in the camp are the support team made up of three mechanics from Mavic: Alexy, Ludo and Kevin, and Paul from Mojo Suspension. The Trans–Provence is notoriously hard on bikes and it truly is a wilderness out there with no local bike shops for a few hundred miles. These guys keep everyone running as smoothly as they can.

The unseen side of the race is the media team, the ones behind the lens. For a relatively small race, there is a team of five shooting and editing photos and videos to sum up the action each day. Headed up by Matt Letch, with Sam, Michiel and Irmo out scouring the mountains for great images of the race all day (in between coffees). They work to a very tight deadline each night and Dom has to get a video out in time to be sent out accompanied by a press release to be disseminated by the world’s mountain bike media.

The immediacy of this feedback from the race is one of the things stipulated by the event’s sponsors and it is also what attracts them. Will Ockelton, first time TP racer and marketing manager of event sponsor Santa Cruz, said “Last year we were following it from California, refreshing the results sheets to see who had won. We got drawn in by all the photos and videos each day, and as bike riders that event is exactly what we want to do. At Santa Cruz we jumped at the chance to be involved".

Ash’s dad Chris, who helps out in many ways, sums it up very well. “The reason it’s successful is Ash’s passion and that he is able to encourage others to share that passion. The unsung heroes of the race are those back at camp making the race happen. They believe in what Ash wants to do. It’s a team effort".

Nico Lau won this year’s race by an unbelievable one–second margin over Jerome Clementz. That’s one second over six days and over two and a half hours of racing! Nico remarked, “this is my most important, most crazy race, but the spirit of the event is not so much the racing, it is more to enjoy the trail, ride the trail with fun. To race Enduro for one week, on blind trails, and to be separated by only one second, it’s too crazy". Keeping the trails blind is something which Ash is very passionate about, he believes enduro should be on–site. To prove his commitment 14 of this year’s 24 stages were new and some of those stages earned Ash that moniker ‘Mad Man’. When I asked him about the precipitous nature of some of the trails after long days in the mountains he mused, “in terms of the exposure, it’s the nature of the trails in this area, there is less switch–backing and they just tend to traverse across the mountainside. It’s pretty mean really, but no pain, no gain. You can’t get to these places in any other way. I am quite mean, but overall hopefully people appreciate it". That they most certainly do.