Saturday, 6 October 2012

Trans Provence...It was epic!

Just over 2 weeks ago I flew out to France to ride in this year's Trans Provence. For those who don't know (or haven't heard me banging on about it), it's a 7 day enduo race from Rochebrune, near Gap in Provence, to Monaco.

It's described as an all mountain race, which means you pretty much have to ride everything...the ups, the downs, the alongs, and everything in between. Not all of the riding is racing though - each day there are timed stages, generally technical and predominantly descending, where you race for your life. In between, there are linking stages, where the riders ride at a slightly more leisurely pace to get to the start of the next special stage.

Sounds easy, eh? Well, watch some of the video footage on the website before you say that too quickly!

Anyhow, I headed out to France just over 2 weeks ago and spent a couple of days with friends in Chamonix to try to get my sea level lungs used to working at higher altitude in the sun. After 2 days of wheezing around Chamonix, I headed south with Dan and Jo (one of the race doctors) to camp 0.

Because Dan and Jo were both working on the race, we arrived a day earlier than most of the riders, so I planned to have a quiet time getting my head ready for what was ahead. What I hadn't realised was that most of the pro riders were also arriving a day early. On one hand that was great and I got to meet a lot of the very quick folks, however, it scared the living daylights out of me! I knew I wasn't really in the same race as them, but having dinner with the likes of Mark Wier, Ben Cruz, Fabien Barel and Anne-Caroline Chausson (yes! The Anne-Caro!) is pretty daunting.

Start times were staggered each morning with the mere mortals setting off an hour ahead of the pro's and fast boys (I think the idea was to give us a chance to get out of their way!). So day 1 started with an early morning uplift to the start of the first linking stage and after a few words of wisdom from race organiser, Ash, (basically don't go flat out or you'll kill yourself and don't get lost) we were off.

Although our group of 50ish riders were the meant to be the slower amateurs, the pack very quickly spread out and I found myself riding with a happy little pack of riders who were enjoying the views whilst we suffered up the first climb.

That first climb of maybe 2 hours gently broke us in and got us to the start of the first timed stage.

I was really worried about how I'd cope with the technical, fast, steep descents, so at the top of that first climb, looking at the starting dibber for the first descent, I was feeling pretty nervous and I'd been warned of a scary loose chute on stage 1, so I wasn't feeling overly confident. I'd ridden all the way up there though and wanted to get it over with so that I'd be able to get a feel for what the week was going to be like. So I tugged on my knee and elbow pads, pulled up my socks, had a gel, checked my shorts were synched up and weren't going to fall down (come on! admit it, you all do that!), dibbed my timing tag and was off.

Pedal, pedal, pedal, whoosh - drifty corner - , pedal...oh, this'll be the chance! I was off and slip sliding down the dusty trail until I could get back on again. Pedal, pedal, pedal - oh that's a really tight switchback, pedal, tight switchback...I could hear my heart thumping hard as I tried to concentrate on staying upright and focusing on where the trail went. Before I knew it, I saw a gaggle of riders and a timing guy and I was at the bottom.

I'd survived the first trail. I couldn't ride it all, but I hadn't expected to. At least I now had an idea of what this was all about.

Day 1 carried on in much the same way. Pedal hard up and down. Concentrate hard on picking a rideable line. Remembering not to slam on the brakes. Oh, and whilst all of that's happening, taking in the amazing scenery!

Day 1 done, 6 more days to go.

I started day 2 feeling really enthusiastic and excited after a great day on the bike the day before. I was tired, but looking forward to whatever the lay ahead.

However, as soon as I started pedalling, my heart sank. I was tired. Really tired. Then I saw that we had a massive hike-a-bike up to a col and felt totally overwhelmed. There was no way I could do it. I couldn't get myself up to the top, then ride down and keep going for another 6 days. I couldn't do it.

All the months of working up to this, and I couldn't do it. It was too much. I just wasn't fit enough or strong enough to be able to do it.

I felt the tears welling up in my eyes as I watched rider after rider pass me and start walking up the mountainside. I was now almost the last rider. I'd never make it. I just couldn't do it.

I sat down at the side of the trail and cried.

"Just keep going 'til lunch then you can get in the van and go to camp, but just get to lunch." It was fellow Scottish Minx, Jo. The concern on Jo's face convinced me that I had to at least try to make it to lunch, then I could pack it in, but I had to make it to lunch.

So I dried my eyes,  picked up my bike and started trudging up the hill towards the ever lowering cloudbase.

I don't know how long it took me, but there was still a big gaggle of riders at the top trying to figure out the best line to take at the top of the first stage. The weather was closing in fast and it was as cold and windy as a Cairngorm mountain top, so I didn't want to hang around. I dibbed my chip and was off.

"Nice line!" I heard someone shout, as furiously pedalled down the skinny trail. Then the trail opened up...just like the stuff I ride with Ciclo.

Pedal, pedal, pedal. Wooooohooooo! This is ace! Drift....pedal, pedal, pedal....woops, that was close....oh, pants! crossing, pedal, don't fall in...pedal. Timing guy. Stage finished.

From then on, I knew there's no way I could pack it in, no matter how tough the climbs were. These timed stages were just too good!

Day 2 was a tough day for all the riders....our bodies were still protesting against being made to ride day after day, the weather was properly bad (the heaviest rain I've ever seen combined with wind, thunder and was pretty scary, especially for those still up on the mountain top when it really closed in).

When Jo rolled into camp 2 at the end of the day, I think we were both pretty emotional...we'd conquered the demons and the weather....we were both going to do this thing!

As the week rolled on, my body finally accepted the fact that I was going to be trying to break it for 6 hours a day. The general pattern emerged...3 hours of climbing / hike-a-bike; ride a bunch of the most exciting, scary, demanding trails you've ever ridden; stop for a baguette for lunch; another couple of hours of climbing / hike-a-bike; more epic techy descents; back to camp for shower, organise kit for tomorrow, dinner, share tales of near misses, then bed.

I managed to find myself a little group of riders to ride with for most of the week - Team Scotland of Andy, Kenny, Jo, Chris and I as well as our honourary Welsh guest, Aimee  and an occasional English, South African or Aussie guest) and we kept eachother going when times got tough...and they did at some point pretty much every day.

There really wasn't a day that went by where one of us didn't have some challenge. Whether it was bike or kit related or mental or physical, we all had demons to contend with during the week, but  we knew that we were all going through the same thing and we all worked hard to keep eachother going.

I was collecting bruises and scrapes by the bucketful, but was surviving and having nothing more than silly little off's. I wasn't quick on the descents, but I was making it. Jumping off and running sections which were just too big for me, but I was riding far more than I thought I'd be able to.

In general Team Scotland were being caught be the quicker of the pro riders at the top of the final timed stage, so we were lucky enough to see some of the quick guys riding stuff. They were quick. Very, very, very quick. And smooth! Their times were about half of mine if not even quicker!

It was really refreshing, though, to hear the pro's commenting on just how tough the race was. Everyone from Scottish Minxes to pro DH and XC racers were commenting that the race was epic and one of the toughest things we'd done....but we were all loving it!

Day 6 was the first day we saw the Mediterranean. After a 3 and a half hour climb and hike a bike on a very crisp morning, we reached a col and had a 360 degree view of the Maritime Alps and all the way down to the sea in the distance. It was a massive milestone. We were nearly there - the end was almost in touching distance.

Riding along the narrow ledge with the Alps to my left and the sea off somewhere on my right, I finally knew I was going to do it. It was the first time I let myself believe I could actually finish the race.

With very bad weather forecast for day 7, we had to set off earlier than usual and started the climb up to the first timed stage in lashing, icy cold rain. The trail conditions turned from buff rocky to slippery, muddy and quite sketchy! I had a stupid off at the top of the first stage and landed on my ached, but I had to keep going. My body was cold and soggy and achy, but we were nearly finished.

The first 2 staged on day 7 were probably my worst of the whole week. My legs didn't work; I had no co-ordination and I just couldn't pick a line. At the bottom of stage 2 I was really frustrated with myself and the demons had started to come back to tell me I couldn't do it.

A hug and a kind word from one of the honourary Team Scotland riders convinced me to get back on the bike and keep turning the pedals. Then the sun came out and we started the final climb up to the final mountain top before our long descent to the coast. 2 more stages to go!

The last 2 stages were back to being loose and rocky with no mud, but they were very loose and very fast. Although my body was screaming, I was pedalling my heart out, breathing hard, my heart pounding in my chest. I was going to finish this!

Pedal, pedal, pedal. Heart pounding. Drift. Ace! Fast! Pick the right line, Don't touch the brakes. Big drop. Phew! Made it. Pedal, pedal, pedal...drop...woops...oh-oh....oh no! Bang!

I'd lost my front wheel on a stupid little drop and flew over the bars (again). I had landed with a real thump but, learning my lesson from last year, put my hands out to avoid smashing up my face again. My right hand ached, but I only had a little bit further to go, so I jumped back on the bike and pedalled hard to the finish.

I got to Ed, dibbed my timing chip and sat down and cried. I had to convince Ed that I was crying with joy and not anything else (the blood and mud and scratches all over my body didn't look good).

I had done it!

Chris came down just after me and gave me a big hug. We'd done it!

After a few photos we hopped on our bikes to roll down to the timing tent. It was then I realised that I couldn't grip anything with my right hand...not good!

We were joined the rest of Team Scotland at the timing tent for a celebratory beer, but had to drink quickly so that we could get off the hill before the storm hit...this was a proper storm with lightening hitting bits of the hillside all around us and plumes of smoke and flames and the smell of burning right by the trail.

Back at the campsite Dr Jo examined my hand and said with an apologetic sigh that she thought I might have fractured my scaphoid, so she bandaged me up with strict instructions to go to A&E as soon as I got home to get it checked out properly.

Sore hand aside, I'd done it. All of Team Scotland had done it and all of us were in awe of what we'd just been through.

It was tough. Very, very tough. But it was also the most incredible week's riding I've had. My race times weren't great (in fact I came dead last!), but I had finished which was what I had set out to do.

And I made some great new friends along the way.

So, before I get all emotional again (I can feel the tears welling up again), I really want to thank Andy Lombardini, Kenny Alexander, Jo Cardwell, Aimee Dix and, of course, Chris Marquis, for being the most fantastic riding buddies who kept me going and were top company for an amazing week of riding! Thank you!

And also a massive thanks to Ash and all of the Trans Provence team for putting on an amazing event and generally being great!

Oh, and quote of the week from Fabien Barel when asked for tips on how to ride the trails faster...."Don't brake!"