The Final Trans-Provence
Roughly twelve years ago, an English gent by the name of Ash Smith had a vision. Vision to provide a point-to-point mountain bike race that crossed through the Provence-Alps-Cote d'Azur. A rally format where navigation, fitness, bike handling skills and mental strength would all be equally important for survival. Racing everything "blind" meant no practice laps and instead just reading the terrain as it comes. Twelves years later, he has successfully organized nine editions of the race, which has honestly changed the way mountain bikers look at racing. This has also paved the way for other 'Trans" style races around the world, none in which can seem to match the pure point-to-point concept Ash created, but all still showcased and celebrated the blind racing format fueled by adventure and the camaraderie of riders. These races are a a true celebration of life on two wheels, showing the world what is possible when you combine adventure with mountain bikes.
During the 2019 event, it was clear the final edition of Trans-Provence was a very emotional and special moment for Ash and his team. At times, the route would pass through similar villages and share campsites from previous years, but only two of the 24 stages had been raced in past years of the event. Yup, that's 22 new stages! Hats off to Ash and his crew for all the scouting and prep work that going into making this ride so uniquely special. This year offered more descending, more riding and more time on the bike than any other Trans-Provence in years past. This was the pinnacle of the event's legacy.
When you start this kind of race, there are many unknowns. First of all, am I even going to make it to the end? Will I have a mechanical? How gnarly will the trails be? There are so many emotions and questions going on in your head when the adventure begin. In the end, it all comes down to having fun, riding bikes and enjoying the adventure with new and old friends.
Looking back on the race, it's hard to put into words what happened day by day, hour by hour. It all simply blurs into one glorious memory. Each of the days, we were out on the bike for anywhere from 9 to 12 hours. Leaving one camp at around 7am and arriving at the next camp in the evening, sometimes as late as 7pm. These conditions provide a whirlwind of emotions and experiences, all held together by heaps of energy output.
After landing on the podium in 2016 and winning the last Trans-Provence in 2017, I knew what it would take to race this crazy six-day adventure and hopefully tie it all in with a win. With that familiar knowledge, I felt very confident and relaxed going into this years race. I've already done it once so the pressure is off, right? Time to get out there, have fun and enjoy the ride.
After taking the lead on day one by over 35 seconds, I felt super comfortable and confident going into the week of racing. I knew I simply had to keep things smooth and under control. Something that is easier said than done when the full-gas mindset wants to sneak in.
Heading into day two, I knew I was out in front by a good margin, so I took the same approach as day one as I tried to remain super smooth and consistent. It wasn't enough! I pushed, but I wasn't pushing hard enough. I got smoked as Roman Paulin absolutely crushed it that day and put a minute into my time. I gotta admit, I was a bit surprised, but then later found out Roman comes from World Cup Downhill and is one incredibly fast and talented French rider. I knew the battle was on, as Roman led the race by 16 seconds going into day three. Helping my overall race nerves a bit, I took the win on day three by only 3 seconds as we ended a savage day of navigation and big descents. Everyone got lost a few times so it came down to who managed their navigation the best. It was wild to rip down 600-meter ridgelines while trying to follow course tape hanging from bushes. Day four extended the close battle for the overall as Roman took the win by 8 seconds and extended his overall lead to 22 seconds. It was the biggest day in terms of stats and everyone was completely shattered. A shear game of survival.
Going into day five was tough, as I knew I only had two days to make up enough time to secure the win. The battle was on. I knew Roman was insanely fast so I didn't really want to try and do anything different on my end. I knew I needed consistency and that if I kept doing what I've been doing...things would work out. I didn't want to push outside my comfort zone and couldn't in the chance that it backfired on me. "Keep it smooth and focused, Randy (that's my nickname, don't wear it out!), keep it smooth and be confident. You got this." I kept telling myself.
Starting day five, everyone was rattled. We were all exhausted and trying to figure out how we were going to make it through two more days. The reality is everyone gets in a groove and simply keeps moving, as forward is the only way. One pedal stroke at a time, one foot in front of the other. This day of racing brought us to a whole new area called the Arroyo Valley, just on the other side of Sospel. We even crossed into Italy on two occasions. The day's terrain allowed us to really open it up and let off the brakes one stage after the next. Stage three of the day was something special, a we charged down a freshly rebuilt hiking/donkey path that ripped through the woods with off-camber lines and unpredictable switchbacks. Everyone was talking about it at the end of the day as it was arguably one of the best trails all week. At the end of the day, I chipped in and was blown away by the times. I had pulled 38 seconds back on Roman and was currently sitting in 1st by 16 seconds going into the final day.
Wooooah! I just made up a huge amount of time and was back in the driver's seat. What a feeling...happy, stressed and stoked for the final day. Roman was fired up and I knew he was going to put it all on the line for day six. He had been ripping all week and has some incredible bike handling skills. This was it, the final day of the final Trans-Provence was nearly upon us! I knew I needed to be on point all day and push the pace but also remain smooth. I couldn't afford any mistakes. The game plan: be smooth and have fun. Get out there and do your best. It's just a bike race after all.
At the lunch stop on day six, you could look in everyones eyes and see how mentally and physically tired they all were, including myself. Everyone had to dig deep to find extra strength and push on. These are the moments that bring us all closer and make the experience so much more memorable. I would have liked to look out the window on the final Tran-Provence shuttle and soak up the view as we inched our way to the Mediterranean Sea, but I couldn't. I was sleeping in the car, trying to regain some energy for the final push. Trying not to think about how my times are going to stack up, I focused on enjoying the day and celebrating the 10-year legacy of the Trans-Provence. I made it through each stage cleanly with the satisfying feeling of riding my best and I being stoked with whatever the results may be. The feeling of rolling through the ancient city streets of Menton down to the sea with all your friends is an unforgettable experience. "What just happened?" we all asked each other. That was a blur.
The final time check was so incredibly stressful, Roman and I waited until everyone else had checked in. As everyone is crowded around watching, they made us play roshambo (rock, paper, scissors) to see who would check in first. I lost and had to chip in first. I took the overall lead on the day, but had to wait for Roman to check in to determine where his times got him. He chips in and everything kind of goes silent. Everyone is wondering...who's gonna take it!? Roman's time pops up on the screen and it shows he took the lead on the final day by 3 seconds, which means I secured the overall by a slim 13 seconds after 2 hours and 47 minutes of racing. What an absolute battle! Hat's off to Roman for riding so well all week.
Huge thanks to Ash and Mellissa for seeing this vision and providing such an incredible mountain bike experience for that past ten years. You both changed MTB history and will leave a mark on all of our lives.
Want the stats?
Starting point - Barcelonnette, France
End point - Menton, France
Distance- 308 kilometers (191 miles)
Ascent- 9284 meters (30,459 feet)
Descent- 22723 meters (74,550 feet)
Number of timed stages - 24