The 2013 Trans Savoie: a monumental race on some seriously big mountain terrain.
Read my first introductory article on the preparation and training in the lead up to 2013 Trans Savoie here.
As a yet untested event the Trans Savoie brought a lot of trepidation for me, a feeling I am almost sure was shared by nearly every other rider at the event. Simply arriving at camp on the Saturday night I could feel an underlying anxiety as to just what lay ahead, something that had been building for the eight months since the confirmation email of a place at the event had dropped into my inbox. Just how tough really was this week really going to be? How much exposure and technicality would the trail bring and was completing the event going to be about simply completing the course alive or could it be raced? And if it could, just how high would the level of competition be?
Day one got underway with a stunning sunrise at our campsite in the Val d’Isere valley, the destination for the day was Seez, taking in five special stages, 3780 metres of descent and one giant climb on the transition between stages four and five, which we were to hit right in the heat of the day.
Stage one, Mr Brightside, offered a fitting introduction to big alpine mountain riding: natural, steep, rocky single-track with a significant drop to the left, finishing the stage some six minutes after starting and seeing the look of shell shock on riders faces as they crossed the line behind me with the realisation of what lay ahead of them was almost amusing… had my facial expression not been identical.
A lift took us back to the top to stage two: a less exposed and less technical stage starting on a red trail in the bike park on some flowing berms and jumps which lead to a lung busting traverse/climb through a grassy meadow before joining a rocky walkers’ path for a steep rocky descent down to the lake at Tignes. The long, sustained pedal on a draggy meadow really highlighted the limitations of the respiratory system at 2000 metres, with everyone crossing the line at the finish gasping for air.
Stage three, Tuf Love, was an unadulterated introduction to the level of exposure that these mountain trails can produce, starting on a loose, rocky, knife edge ridge where a mistake could be very costly before dropping into a blue bike park section back down to Tignes. (Check out Neil Donoghue’s video from the stage below). A silly mistake in the heat of racing here saw me and fellow competitor Dan MacMunn off the race trail and riding a different path altogether, fortunately it arrived at the same destination as the original stage but lost us a good three minutes of time.
Neil Donoghue riding the crazy ridgeline
Stage four was possibly the most physical of the race: a flat out open top section through an alpine meadow littered with big rocks dropped into a dried river bed with bermed switchback after switchback before a few fireroad climbs on the limit dropped into wooded singletrack to the finish.
For the final stage of the day, arriving at the start felt like an achievement in itself, not only for making it through the first four stages of the day alive but also reaching the top of the long climb to the start. Reading ‘be aware of technical rock steps drop to left, cliff to right’ on the course note at the start of the stage does bring a level of anxiety but I failed to notice the exposure while focusing on where to place the front wheel during my run, probably for the best! By the bottom this stage turned into one of my favourite of the entire race, partly due to one of my best overtaking moves of the race, which features in the race video.
Day one exceeded all expectations of how tough this race would be, but it was great to get back to camp and find that despite the time lost on stage three I was lying in seventh.
Another big one: Les Arcs to La Plagne, dropping into race organiser Trail Addiction’s back garden, we knew we were in for a treat. Five special stages all with a different style and just over 4000 metres of timed descent.
The day started with the longest, most technical trail of the race so far. Double Shredder rated 5/6 on race organiser Ali’s scale of technicality and 5/6 for physicality. The riding reflected it, utilising a bike park section towards the top and dropping onto a natural track littered with giant rocks, roots and some of the tightest switchbacks I have ever ridden at the bottom. Avoiding blowing corners was the name of the game as fast, open straights lead abruptly into tight switchbacks. At over 16 minutes long it was incredible to see that Rene Wildhaber and Armin Beelii had put nearly two minutes into third place!
I’ll now seamlessly skip to stage three, titled Axe Wound, which was another highlight of the race. Clearly a staple trail for Trail Addiction, it featured steep, tight, loamy corners that just went on and on! Our first run on Axe Wound was the first issue we had with course markings, tape from a critical turn had been removed (possibly by walkers?) and a few of us ended up back at the lift we started at, slightly confused to say the least. To be able to ride fast, this style of blind racing requires the greatest depth of vision, moving your focus of attention as far as possible along the trail not only to spot the next trail obstacle but to catch onto trail markers, as I found a number of times; the slightest lapse in concentration can result in a wrong turn.
Stage five started with a nice technical climb, I was in my element, as the trail progressed it became steeper and steeper with some of the craziest switchbacks of the entire race (check out day two video at 5:20 for a comedy example).
It was often a struggle to get fully into the race zone with so many stages that went on for so long and with no real idea of your pace until the end of the day, when your mind had shifted away from stage results to cramming in as much food as possible and resting.
As the race progressed I often found my best stages to be those when I could chase a rider down or do my best to follow a wheel, a strategy that all of the top three riders utilised. First and second place finishers Rene and Armin would often set off within seconds of each other, riding many of the stages almost in a train together; as two riders fairly equally matched on ability it was a strategy that clearly worked. For Donny it worked slightly differently, riding much of the race with Steve Peat Syndicate Team manager Tristan, who would set off ahead as the motivational carrot dangling ahead of him on the trail. As Donny then passed him it would help pull Tristan down the hill.
Stage five highlighted the effectiveness of this strategy for me, leaving a gap I set off after Donny and chased hard, as I neared the top of the climb I caught and passed Tristan shortly before dropping into a technical descent, hearing him a few corners behind me and knowing his pace on the descents was an added incentive to push on and worked well as a focus to get down the hill as fast as possible, no racer ever likes to be overtaken!
Champagny to Bozel. Four special stages, 4030 metres of descent.
By now fatigue was really starting to take hold of riders, with DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) starting to rear its ugly head. Starting the day with a bus transfer to a lift then onto a short transition up a fireroad climb to stage one, the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains were stunning. Stage one, at just over 11 minutes long, was a nice warm up for the day, starting on an almost Welsh trail centre-like little ribbon of singletrack then dropping into a sustained pedal through a wide open grassy field before joining a singletrack traverse on a narrow rocky trail. The course then dropped into a woodland trail to the finish, the significance of this trail for me was the only stage of the entire race where I made it into that prestigious top three; it didn’t feel like a spectacularly fast ride for me but with a few sections of sustained pedalling and a bit of misfortune for other racers at the pointy end I achieved my best stage result of the entire race.
Days one and two highlights
Stage two, named the ‘Transavalanche’, was a break from the normal defined race track, starting on a wide-open boulder field with a plethora of line options, it was up to the racer to keep their head up and pick the fastest line. After a short climb out of the bolder section the course dropped onto a wide-open, high speed rocky fireroad section, a few corners broke the trail up but this had to be one of the hardest sections on the hands and forearms of the whole race with both pumping up horrendously! The lower section down to our lunch stop featured some of the tightest and most awkward switchbacks of the entire race, with jagged rocks perfectly placed for destroying rear mechs and hangers on every turn!
A brief lunch stop, a lift and a single-track climb took us to stage three, Spider Pig. The event video doesn’t quite do the exposure of the stage justice, arriving on the edge of a field at the end of a climb and joining onto a eight-inch wide section of singletrack with what felt like a near vertical drop off to the left changed my approach to the stage away from racing and more into getting down the trail alive! Fortunately the transition into the stage was far worse than the stage itself, which consisted of a relentless series of tight switchbacks.
A long fireroad climb, again in the heat of the day took us to the start of the final stage of the day, not the most physically demanding or technical of the race but close to one of the longest. Stage four was significant in because it was the stage that saw Rene crash and broke his ribs, so it was reassuring to know I was not the only one who crashed. After clipping my bars on a tree half way down the stage, hitting the ground and watching in horror as my bike dropped into a river five metres below, a quick scramble down to the bike and a frantic clamber out and I was back on the trail.
Stay tuned for the final segment of Ben’s Trans Savoie adventure early next week…