The Trans-Provence is an epic multi-day mountain bike stage race, which takes place annually in October across Provence, France. Juliana Bicycles rider Anka Martin took on the challenge once again this year, alongside a group of riders and friends who were determined to finish the ride from the Alps to the Cote D’Azur.
One of the most highly regarded races out there, riders are faced with enduro-style racing with timed stages, stunning scenery, hard climbs, steep descents and an atmosphere like no-other.
Anka – who crossed the finish line victorious as the first pro-woman – shares the thrills and spills of 6 solid days of MTB riding.
“The Trans-Provence is always the highlight of my season. It’s a week filled with amazing, unknown, wild and crazy trails, where we trek up and over vast mountain ranges, starting near Sisteron and making our way all the way to the Mediterranean beach in Menton.
I love this point-to-point style adventure, where you are actually moving, pedaling and pushing yourself across mountain and valleys, and that sense of satisfaction that you feel when you get your first glimpse of the sea shimmering in the distance. That’s what keeps me coming back every year for more.
Last year my team had some bad luck. Sven [Anka’s husband] got heli-vacced off on the last day, then Jon Cancellier got carried out 200 meters from the finish line with torn ankle ligaments – not ideal. Mix in some crazy rain, thunder, flash floods and hailstorms on exposed mountaintops with not a tree in sight, and you can start to understand how a small group of riders started calling ourselves Team Dark Cloud.
Not satisfied to leave unfinished business, Team Dark Cloud had to come back this year to make sure that everyone completed the race, got to plonk themselves into the Med, and have a puff on the old victory cigar.
So here we are: Trans Provence 2013
Day 1: Clamensane to Digne
The day started off sunny and cheery, only to turn to shit as soon as we got to the top of the mountain for stage one. This was deja vu; the weather was exactly like last year, and how we came up with the name Team Dark Cloud to begin with. We had to laugh and just get on with it – was this to set the precedent of the week to follow?
I set of on my first special stage on day one in a hailstorm – this was going to be a long, tough week. The day was tough; we fought, slogged and dragged our bikes through clay and mud the entire day. By the end, I was knackered.
Day 2: Digne to Colmars
The sun was shining as we set off under blue skies on day two. We had a big old hike-a-bike to tackle first thing in the morning; just what we needed to loosen up our sore, aching bodies & awaken blisters from the day before!
Sunny skies lifted everyone’s spirits and filled the day with banter, laughter and lots of war stories.
Day 3: Col de Champs to Guillaumes
This was a morning of big views and big mountains, as we got dropped off on top of the Col De Champs. It’s a sight that will take your breath away, as well as being the gateway to the Maritime Alps – a sign that we’re heading in the right direction.
The first special stage of the morning was a write-off for myself and many others too, starting off with getting lost, falling into a hole and then slipping and getting stuck in my bike on the wooden bridge right at the finish while the clock ticked away. On top of this I gave the bridge a good punch with my knuckles as I slammed into it – ouch.
All of this before a proper coffee.
Day 4: Guillaumes to St Sauveur sur Tinee
Once day three rolls around, your body has sort of got used to the shock of everything and you actually start to feel good and get into the swing of things.
We had surprise too; we got to ride a chair lift for two of the stages in the Roubion bike park. It was fun to change it up, but these were my worst two stages of the day – the trails were way too groomed and perfect I reckon. I didn’t know how to ride normal stuff! But it was a good way to mix it up with all the other riders and hang out a bit.
At this point, we had no idea what Ash [the organiser] had in mind for us for the last stage of the day. I have no words to describe it. It was wild, very sparsely marked, super exposed, almost 30 minutes long and at the end of the day when you’re already a write-off mentally and physically.
Most of us got lost somewhere along the way, crashed a few times, almost died a few times, but we all lived to share the stories at a local pub on the side of the road. It was awesome. Thanks Ash for keeping it real!
Day 5: Valdeblore to Sospel
So day four was supposed to be our easy day, to rest up for the biggest day of the week, but it sure didn’t feel easy to any of us and day five was looming ahead.
It was a long slog heading out in the moon glow from the campsite and silently pedalling on through the morning fog. The fog never lifted and just got thicker as we made our way up into the mountains, creating quite a sullen atmosphere, as you didn’t hear much laughter or chatter this morning. It took us about 3 hours before we reached the start of the first special stage that morning and we still had a long way to go.
My goal was to hold back and get through these next 2 days without doing anything silly – I was in the lead and I wanted to keep it that way.
All I had to do was not crash, flat or have a mechanical – easy huh?
Holding back is not easy when you’re loving the tracks and you just want to pin it, but this is what had to be done. After the first 2 special stages, we had a bitch of a road climb to get to the 3rd stage – 20km on the road with super tacky tires and 6″ trail bikes aren’t that enjoyable.
We got on with it, as that’s what you do in this race, but we all cheered up when we were welcomed by local hero Nico Vouilloz at the start of the 3rd stage. How sick is that?
I think we all tried to pin it even harder after seeing Nico, but unfortunately Olly, our South African friend, was a bit too inspired and pinned it into some rocks, smashing his face and dislocating his shoulder pretty badly.
Our day was about to get a whole lot longer and Olly just inducted himself into the Team Dark Cloud crew. He got heli-vacced out of there, but the Team had another stage to finish up for the day, not the nicest thing to have to do after seeing your friend off in a helicopter.
We grabbed a headlamp from one of the shuttle vehicles, turned up the volume to some Irie reggae tunes, mellowed out and smashed out the final run of the day – which happened to be my fastest run after we all decided to go steady – oops! Having too much fun.
Day 6: Sospel to Menton – The final countdown!
Yes, the last day has arrived and we’re all jonesing to get our tired assess into the Med, but we have to get there first. It was an amazing day exploring a whole new Sospel valley, even making a quick jaunt into Italy for a quick cappuccino after one special stage.
The stages were very physical, with uphill running, boulder clambering, challenging navigation and some long-ass sprints, or maybe we’re all just tired from the whole week. But there was no rest day, and we had to work hard to dive into that sea in Menton.
On my last stage, I kept messing up, doubting myself, thinking that I was lost and that I was throwing the whole week away – even turning back at one point to double check a sign. It was amazing how my mind was playing tricks on me.
Anyhow, I got down, I made it, I kept my lead and I took the win. I was very, very happy, as this event is very special to me.
This is what riding mountain bikes is all about. It’s the adventure, the camaraderie and all the experiences that make this event so special. It’s wild, raw, dangerous and everything that I love about racing little bikes as fast as you can down crazy technical blind tracks.
This is and will always be what everyone keeps harping on about these days – “the spirit of enduro”. Or as I prefer to refer to it – riding our bikes in sick places.
Cheers to Team Dark Cloud and every single person that completed the week – you guys and girls are awesome (especially the girls, as this is not an easy week). Heal up to all the injured riders too.
– Anka Martin 1st Pro Women’s (32nd overall)
– Sven Martin 1st Masters (also 2nd Amateur & 15th overall)
– Chris Ball 1st Amateur (9th overall)
Cheers, Team Dark Cloud!