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Uberbike Sponsored rider Rachael Gurney's Trans-Savoie Big Mountain Enduro report

04 Nov 2014

 

Trans-Savoie: Big Mountain Enduro, Reflections from a Racer

My experience of the Trans Savoie started from the very moment I was asked if I would like to go, and along the way I experienced and lived through a range of feelings, both physical and emotional, good and bad, each reinforcing ‘my Trans Savoie’ adventure. Everyone racing that week will have their own story but here’s mine.

The Trans Savoie is an alpine enduro race, six days packed full multiple timed stages, with an incredible 24,302m of descending and a total of 302km of riding over the week. It is organised and run by Ali Jamison, owner of sister company trailAddiction, a guiding company based in Les Arcs. Ali is innovative in the way that this race uses the ski lifts available in the Alps to assist riders in the liaisons between stages. Sounds easy doesn’t it, lift up and ride down? Just look properly at the numbers though – an average of 4000m descending a day for 6 whole days, unimaginable to most! This race is still a demanding test, with approximately 900m climbing under the riders own steam a day, this is on top of all that amazing downhill action. The Trans Savoie route winds its way from Val D’Isere all the way to Chamonix with a different base camp almost every night.

Racers make their way to each camp which is moved for them by race volunteers and set up ready again for their arrival. This means all the riders have to think about apart from racing is finding the correct tent at the end of the day and eating the food ready prepared for them! The race route has been meticulously planned by Ali to take in what he considers the very best alpine singletrack. He certainly pulled it out of the bag in my opinion, the stages were hugely varied using walkers tracks, ‘secret’ unmarked trails and a good mix of bike park trails. The tracks were technical, challenging and sometimes gruelling but mostly enjoyable with something to leave a smile on your face in each one.

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My Trans Savoie begins with extreme excitement, after talking to Trev the UK editor of Enduro Mountain Bike Magazine about the opportunity a month prior to the event itself I was literally bouncing off the walls! I said yes straight away of course knowing that I would do anything to make this happen, work, annual leave, fitness, bike – I’d figure those issues out later. That night I hardly slept, the feeling took me back to being a kid on Christmas Eve but instead of lying in bed waiting to see if I could hear Santa I was kept awake by a steam train of thoughts, worries and fears rushing though my head, none of them stopping at the platform! For the next couple of weeks the Trans Savoie dominated my thoughts, it was a stressful time. I called in a few favours at work, begged the bosses and managed to wangle the annual leave, phew! That was the biggest hurdle, I then set about preparing my bike, my kit and myself for the race.

Notes sent out to the competitors gave guidelines for our preparation, it wasn’t stipulations but if you were to ignore this advice I think you would have suffered come race week. I laid my hands on the beefiest tyres possible for a 29er (tubeless of course), bought plenty of brake pads (thanks Uberbike), packed as much waterproof clothing as possible (thanks Sealskinz) and also managed to squeeze in fresh kit for each day (thanks Flare Clothing). Following the guidelines paid off, I managed the week without a mechanical hitch and without physical discomfort even in the heaviest of rain, keeping me smiling!

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Anyway, I’m jumping ahead of myself here, my next emotion was worry. Due to work commitments I ended up leaving a majority of the packing to my boyfriend, Adam. I spent most of the car journey to the Eurostar wishing I had been able to see and tick off each and every piece of kit as it entered then van. I questioned Adam endlessly until he pointed out it was far too late now, we were too far from home to turn back so I stopped talking and between me and my brain matter we silently hoped! So, 20 hours later, one long, noisy van journey and we had arrived at the first base camp in Val D’Isere on Friday evening.

It was exactly as I imagined it would be – row upon row of identical tents like peas in pod awaiting the week’s competitors. The butterflies in my stomach twittered in excitement, it all looked so amazing. I love camping at the best of times and this combined with riding my bike, all set in this beautiful location, I couldn’t believe my luck! It was late (and pretty chilly at 1800m altitude) so after quick introductions to Ali and the team I turned in for the night.

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Officially all the rest of the competitors were due to turn up on Saturday afternoon. We spent the day riding a few trails in Val D’Isere, checking my bike felt good and giving it a once over ready to start the epic journey they were calling a race the next day. Sign on was like any normal race apart from one crucial detail – you also had to prove you had the correct insurance, eek! I was starting to feel a little daunted, I felt as if I was going to be released into the wilderness and left to fend for myself. This feeling didn’t leave me as I entered the tent for the race briefing.

Ali gave us some facts and figures for the race, he emphasised the expedition factor of the race and the importance of making it through to the end along with some slight scare mongering. Standing there in briefing my stomach was churning but having completed the race I can understand what he was trying to do. This is a difficult race, to go hard on every stage as if you were racing a ‘normal’ enduro race would end in tears at some point in the week, probably with injury from falling off the side of a mountain! I certainly made changes to my way of riding after day one and only then did I really understand his tactics in the briefing.

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Val D’Isere to Seez

I slept surprisingly well the night before the race, over dinner the previous night I had acquainted myself with the other female racers and we had already shared some of our thoughts and fears. It felt good to be able to relate to these girls and know I wasn’t the only one feeling apprehensive! Day one dawned cloudy but this soon burnt off to leave beautiful sunshine to light up the mountains surrounding us. In hindsight day one was tame but at the time I thought some of the trails were incredibly difficult. There was a mix of bike park and natural trails in the morning, a large liaison to get to Tignes le Lac for lunch and then two fun and flowing natural trails in the afternoon ending the day in Seez and a new base camp. The stages on day one had some tough parts that I had to walk, I really battled with my mind here – not used to having to ‘give in’ and walk down something.

Evaluating this later I realised that this was what Ali was talking about in the briefing yesterday, blind racing is another skill altogether, if you get to a feature and you can’t ride it then commit to walking. It will save you time and possible injury from trying it, failing and falling. This was an alien concept to me but one I quickly became accustomed to. Ali hit us hard with the liaisons today, showing us just how tough this race was going to be, both were long (one was 15km!) involving both riding and hiking in the heat of the sun. Post dinner I reflected on the adrenaline of the day and felt overwhelmed, I had ridden some awesome trails already, climbed some epic liaisons and physically pushed myself, I felt broken! How could this go on for five more days?

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Les Arcs to Les Coches

Day two started with a new perspective, if you kept up to date with my daily blog you will already know what I am talking about. I was now fully on board with the ‘this is not an enduro race’ mindset, this is survival and endurance, safeguarding your body and kit. I was in a totally different frame of mind and in hindsight I realised I went too hard on day one. Today I held back, rode conservatively, fell off less and had a blast! I realised I just have to get down each stage to the best of my ability and have fun riding them with the people around me, I was so much more chilled out I think I was actually faster.

I was still apprehensive about what was coming up but the nerves were gone, the race was turning out to be awesome fun! To top off a great day it was cool to see friendships forming throughout the 100 other racers. Everyone was super friendly and it was great to be able to walk into the dinner hall, sit with complete strangers and strike up conversation. It was great to see the jokes and the banter flowing as people got to know each other, I think we had started to form that ‘team’ of riders Ali had talked about at the beginning of the week – all ready to help each other through to the end.

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Champagny to Bozel

Physically the race was now starting to take its toll, through the night I woke up with cramp in my hands and feet! Day three dawned wet and miserable, what I could see of the mountains surrounding our camp looked dejected and uninviting. Today was the day that we were subjected to the vast amount of rain that many other bikers have been faced with on their annual ‘Alps’ trip this year. With trepidation I joined the others on the coach to start us on our journey to 2,700m. The weather was that severe that we (sigh of relief) never made it to 2,700. Instead the organisers diverted us straight to what would have been stage 2. After an hour of shoehorning over 100 enduro bikes into a coach trailer designed for road bikes or at very best 26” wheeled mountain bikes (the trailer needs to move with the times!)

We arrived at the lift taking us to the first liaison. The liaison was wet to say the least, as rain dripped from my jacket and shorts I was mega glad for my Sealskinz waterproof gloves and socks, it would have been so cold without them. The stage was ridden, untimed, by all of us in some sort of train format, it was still carnage! Quite possibly the sloppiest, most greasy trail I have ever ridden, this was switchback heaven or hell depending on your skills. I marvelled as some riders wound their way down the turns with ease, hardly able to stay on my feet let alone my wheels! I was disappointed not to get a good days riding in today but I have to hand it to the organisers and marshals for doing all they could to get us out there on our bikes in the unfriendly conditions. The fully dressed post ride dip in the lake was a refreshing end to the day – well, we certainly weren’t going to get any wetter so might as well be clean!

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Courchevel to Villarlulin

Day four started with initial discomfort, kit that had been optimistically hung out to dry in the rented dinner hall had done little in the way of drying. Still sodden and now cold it was a joy to dress in my body armour! Luckily my feet had some respite as my waterproof Sealskinz socks kept the water out from my saturated shoes! The sun was out from beginning to end today and in apology for deserting us yesterday made a good effort in drying our kit out whilst we rode some magnificent stages and trawled up some big liaisons. On reflection day four has to be my favourite of all days, the stages (five in total) started ridiculously hard and gradually worked their way towards the conclusion of the day with two amazing stages.

From beginning the day with a trail I had to walk a fair amount of, to the best trails I have ever ridden, the kind you want never to end was a great high! Both very similar and deep in the woods, these were full of loamy awesomeness, with swooping natural turns, switchbacks to keep you on your toes and trail features in exactly the right places to make you feel like a mountain biking god (or goddess)! The two whole stages of this amounted to over 25 minutes of riding, absolutely brilliant!

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Areches to Beaufort

Fatigue is next on the list of feelings, it comes hand in hand with enjoyment of ripping up epic trails! There’s that thing that mountain biking can do to you, making you forget how tired you are as you are lost in the concentration and adrenaline of an awesome trail! The liaisons were tough climbs on day five, mostly on road it really sapped and stole both physical energy and enthusiasm to be on the bike. The mornings coach ride dropped us at the beautiful Lac de Roseland, over looked by Mont Blanc we ground up hill away from the ever inviting lake towards the first stage. Today I really felt my lack of preparation, make no mistakes about it, although this race is lift assisted the miles to pedal are not to be underestimated. To add to this each day there is a cut off time which you have to be at a certain part of the course at in order to be able to progress to the next part of the day. For example today, you had to be at the lunch stop by 13:30pm.

I had to pedal a lot harder than I would have liked to get here on time and I wasn’t the only one! I arrived the right side of the clock and progressed onto the final stages of the day. They took us the closest to civilisation we had been all week with the start marshal overlooked by a large dog in his garden territory, he didn’t cheer but watched passively, us bikers are a normality to him! Arriving back at base camp with the group of stragglers I had found myself riding with day after day we were met with a party atmosphere, racers all grouped together in the evening glow, revitalising with a beer and exchanging stories of their days racing whilst giving the bikes a cursory once over – pretty perfect post ride endeavours I think!

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Les Contamines to Mont Blanc

It was hard to believe day six was here already, I felt a bit gloomy but also excited to be stepping out for two last stages. There was a lot of hype around stage one, reported to be tough beyond belief – not an understatement at all. Due to the rain earlier in the week the liaison was slippery, containing a lot of ‘hike-a-bike’ sections. Due to the severity of the trail I basically hiked up to hike back down again – not that impressed with the mornings ‘riding’ I hoped for more from stage 2. The liaison to the next stage was along an epic ridgeline, and was also a lesson in not procrastinating with the upcoming climb.

The first thirty or so riders got the breath taking views into the valley and a dry trail, the rest of us got cloud and a stage resembling an ice rink! An entertaining end to the day though, sliding, foot out and wild to the finish line! Just across the finish line was a pub now dominated by Trans Savoie competitors, cheering as each new person emerged from the foggy gloom of the woods – what a reception, fabulous and representing the spirit of this race perfectly, capturing every single rider’s elation and relief!

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Finishing the Trans Savoie is no small feat, there are so many variables set on a fine balance to turn against you. From mechanicals caused by an interaction with a rock at speed to a minuscule mistake in a switchback sending you sliding down the hill quicker than you can blink, it’s a delicate line between winning and losing your personal battle to make it through. Riding conservatively and making the most of the après bike atmosphere made sure I had a brilliant experience.

The race element fell by the wayside for me, blind racing is a totally different kettle of fish to racing normal ‘enduro’ and one that needs to be taken with a slightly more relaxed approached. Pinning it at all times isn’t going to win it, but in finishing the event, learning from it, improving your riding and in making friends everybody wins something. The Trans Savoie is still in its early stages of development but had all the hallmarks of a great event that will over time, I hope, find its own identity in the race world and really grow to become a ‘must do’ event.

Words: Rachael Gurney Photos: Mick Kirkman

 

 

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