Words by Seb Kemp
Photos by Irmo Keizer
[Editor's Note: Author Seb Kemp is too modest to say anything about his placement in the race, but damn, the man finished an impressive 15th out of a field of 68 racers who finished the event, which put him within seconds of some of the fastest pros on the planet. Nice work, Seb. For overall results, click here.]
I’ve never really being grabbed by the racing bug. It’s not that I don’t understand or respect that some people choose to chase time, points, podiums, results, titles, and triumphs, it’s just that it has never motivated me. However, I have always liked entering races that could be described as events. The reason for this is that events are usually more than just about the fastest, the bravest, or doing your best. They are about the moments beyond competition. Events are eventful. And no other race, or event, that I have ever entered has been as eventful as the 2012 Trans-Provence proved to be.
Setting out on the morning of day seven we looked forward to a short day – just 30 kilometers and only one substantial climb of 700 meters spread over 15 kilometers of asphalt – that would finish at the beach in Monte Carlo. However, Murphy and his diabolic law was not yet exhausted. First, we were told that our scheduled dip into the Mediterranean Sea was being blocked by the bureaucratic inanity of the Monte Carlo police department who had told Trans-Provence race director Ash Smith that any mountain biker entering the regal money pit would be arrested and placed in the stocks. A minor hiccup because really the beaches of the Med are plentiful. Where we dipped our battered, fatigued, wasted and fortified bodies was irrelevant, just as long as we did.
The second complication to our triumphant finish was a forecasted orange weather warning that was supposed to strike at 2 in the afternoon, but had seemed impatient enough to kick off at 8 in the morning as we tried filling ourselves once more with porridge, bacon, egg, and anything else our stressed bellies could possibly handle. Every rider grimly accepted their prescription of one last day of sodden riding by packing every last dry or waterproof item into their already stuffed backpacks. One last ride and then it would be over.
The third setback occurred when super shooter and super-fast rider Sven Martin tried a cheeky inside line straight through the middle of a tree just fifty meters from the start line of special stage 23 – the first of the last day.
Apparently, riders waiting to clock in heard the unmistakable guttural grunt of a nearly unstoppable force of a big man hitting an immovable object as fast as he could.
By the time we got there we found Sven in good hands already. Hannah Barnes had always told me she was a nurse, but I had never really seen much evidence of her ever working, instead she tends to galavant around the globe riding her lipstick-pink bicycle. However, that day I saw a different side to young miss Barnes as she instantly kicked into first-responder mode and took leadership of the situation. She had Sven covered in emergency blankets, stabilized (including precautionary head and neck stabilization as he had obviously struck his head), and administered a shot of morphine which the on-bike race doctor had in his pack. As we came up the hill and turned the cover to see the emergency situation it looked pretty severe. Judging by the awful kink in his arm, Sven had broken bones for sure and by the way he was talking had wrung his bells pretty good.
All week we had undergone challenges but racing our bikes down mountainsides or enduring up to 50 kilometers of saddle sore-producing, thigh-tearing, lung-burning backcountry navigation each day had been the least of them really. We had had the sky fall apart and rain down on us like no other day I have ever experienced. We had had lightning bolts thrown at us. Some of us had wasps bury their venomous little pricks into us. We had had our bellies knotted by the accumulated stress of exercise, a diet of sugary gels, and perhaps a weather-contaminated water well. We had got ill enough to seriously consider retiring, but had deliriously decided to push through. We had taken wrong turns in the wilderness, had nights and nights of insomnia, slept in cold wet tents and had been troubled by the fear that our gear wouldn’t see us to the end. Some riders had crashed, tumbled, and fallen off numerous sheer mountainsides, saved just inches from mortal doom. But the biggest challenge was what we were all faced with when we were confronted by the sight of Sven laid up like he was.
Everyone who rides a bike accepts the chances of accident, but an event that is as much fun as the Trans-Provence dulls you to the likelihood that it could happen to you or your closest friends, even if you are trying to ride hell for leather down never before seen trails. Seeing a close friend wrestled to the ground and beaten like that really shook us all up. Everyone there had their own demons that they were forced to brave. Despite the personal torments everyone came together as a team to get Sven comfortable while we waited for him to be rescued by air ambulance.
Our group of riders and friends consisted of some very skilled and experienced rescue staff (as well as Hannah Barnes, Paul Smail is a firefighter, and both Sam Pantling and Chris Ball are experienced mountain men) and everybody worked as a group to support each other and the situation; so much so, in fact, that the mountain rescue staff were impressed enough to make comment on how well ordered the scene was when they arrived.
Sven was airlifted to a hospital in Nice and underwent surgery that night for a dislocated elbow and broken ulna which needed plating. We visited him in hospital the next day and he was upbeat, even when incarcerated in a facility that looked more like a mental asylum than a hospital.
After seeing Sven safely lifted off into the sky and into the hands of the professional staff at the funny farm none of us really felt like going hard. Racing took a back seat to just making it to the ocean in one piece now. For the remaining next special stages we rode together, deciding to just share good times together on the trail rather than chasing seconds.
At the start of the very last stage of the week we were afforded tantalizing views of the blue Mediterranean Sea, but before we knew it we were lining up on the start of the last timed segment. The fat lady, however, had not yet belted out her last tune. Just fifty meters from the finish line Jon Cancellier suffered the last painful insult to a week that had plagued him with almost comical levels of discomfort and misfortune. A multi-rider pile up resulted in another hospitalization when Jon’s already stretched ankle ligaments said farewell. Although Jon was in a lot of discomfort, the black humor of being carried to the finish line on Paul Smail’s shoulders wasn’t lost of anyone.
Trans-Provence was one hell of a battle at times. It really did feel like the racing was the easiest part of the week. However, I will most certainly be putting my name into the hat to do it again. The times I shared with some of the best people I have ever had the fortune to meet made it a truly special week. The riding was superb and the landscapes we traveled amongst were eyeball- liquifying, brain-meltingly beautiful. The organization and dedication of the Trans-Provence staff was certainly top notch.
The seventh and last day of racing came around in a blink of an eye, but looking back it felt as if the first stage happened months ago. Like the long summer holidays of childhood, looking back I just remember the good times as great and the hard times as good.
Surprisingly, the Trans-Provence might have got me hooked on racing. The Enduro format that is so established in Europe seems to be the ideal structure for anyone that actually likes riding and racing mountain bikes. It tests all the elements that a real mountain biker should possess: fitness, endurance, downhill skill, climbing mastery, all-terrain adaptability, strength, mental fortitude, an appreciation for the outdoors, and wilderness savvy.
Enduro racing in North America seems to be a long way behind Europe, but with a keen eye on the lessons learnt in the old country, North America could get on track soon. We have the terrain, the structure and support for racing, as well as a growing demand for races that offer more than just a timed run or lap accumulation. Current attempts at adopting the Enduro format in North America are receiving mixed reviews. I truly think that anyone thinking of trying to start, or continue to run, an Enduro race-series needs to listen to the word of returning North American racers who have first hand knowledge of Europe’s races…or better yet, they’d do well to just get out there and see how successful Enduros really work. It isn’t hard to grasp the concept, but something is being lost in translation as it comes across the Atlantic.