Sospel - Menton
Given all the high-fives and elevated stoke levels flying about at the end of the final day of the 2017 Trans-Provence I purposely took a couple of days to write this summary so that I wasn't looking at it through rose and adrenaline-tinted glasses.
Two days after we rolled through the square in front of the cathedral in Menton and down to the finish at the beach I'm still grinning from quite possibly the best few weeks of riding that I've ever done. Ash Smith and his partner Melissa Munro - plus their merry crew - all strive to put on the best experience out there from all aspects - sure the trails are first and foremost in an alpine MTB rally across the Alps and Alpes-Maritime. But there are so many more parts that create the whole of the experience. Food, beer, tent life, camaraderie, history, shuttle schedules, route maps and care and attention to even the most minute detail all add to that feeling of being in the care of like-minded people who understand you and make you feel like family.
I first met Ash in 2009 at the La Bresse World Cup Downhill in the GT pits where he explained his concept to me over a few too many Duvels with Mark Maurissen. I was instantly hooked. I knew I had to ride the Trans-Provence and photograph it. But schedules and various injuries kept that from happening year after year until the stars eventually aligned in 2013 - and since then I've ridden all but one. Ash is committed to the idea of capturing that feeling of elation when you get to the bottom of a trail you've ridden for the very first time and truly pushed yourself and your bike's limits - the essence of blind racing.
Racers covered almost 300km this year and descended around 18000m vertical in the 6 days - a new record for the Trans-Provence. Bikes and bodies took a hammering but that's all but forgotten when you jump in the Mediterranean in Menton with a cold beer in your hand and your riding buddies next to you all doing the same.
Sure there were podiums and awards and speeches, but I feel that the experiences taken away go beyond the basic premise of racing. Going through good times, bad times, highs and lows during the week bring out a level of empathy that sometimes gets lost in the modern age. You stop and chat to a rider who needs a word of encouragement up an hour long hike a bike in 30+ Celsius weather, help a rider who is struggling to plug a cut tyre, or laugh at stories of folks' days when you're back at the camp at night. It's the people who make this race - and to all I met, rode with, chatted and laughed with - thanks for making the Trans-Provence what it is.
A week before the race started a good friend of mine sent me a message saying that he hoped that riding the Trans-Provence would be good for my soul. It was. And then some.