YOU’VE LOST THAT LOVIN’ FEELIN’

HOW ASH SMITH, THE RIGH­TEOUS BROTHER OF EN­DURO, RE-FOUND FOR­TI­TUDE AND FLOW IN THE MAR­ITIME ALPS

Bike (USA) - - Contents -

Trans-Provence is her­alded as the true tes­ta­ment of blind, raw power and en­dur­ing tech­ni­cal prow­ess in a world oth­er­wise pep­pered with prac­tice runs.

Yet founder Ash Smith called a manda­tory time­out fol­low­ing 2017’s ter­mi­na­tion. What is the fu­ture of the only real en­duro?

The itin­er­ary. Ash Smith ob­sesses over

it. He loses sleep wor­ry­ing over piec­ing to­gether an­cient path­ways that

criss­cross the Mar­itime Alps. Yet mirac­u­lously, it comes to­gether. Here’s how

it hap­pens, well, sort of: A mu­nic­i­pal

of­fice worker in some sleepy moun­tain

town be­grudg­ingly hands Smith a faded, crin­kled map. He scours it for dot­ted

lines travers­ing con­tours, ref­er­ences it

against Google Earth, stud­ies the map

again and hits dirt with his two wheels.

Some­times he strikes gold on the first

at­tempt. But most of­ten, find­ing ride­able routes through the south­ern Alps

is a process of trial and er­ror re­quir­ing

the cu­rios­ity of an arche­ol­o­gist, the

map-read­ing skills of a car­tog­ra­pher

and the tenac­ity of a gold pan­ner.

A week ago, I flew to Nice on the French Riviera. It was a warm week in late Oc­to­ber, the sky sparkling blue, mir­ror­ing the Mediter­ranean Sea. I joined Smith, founder of the leg­endary Trans-Provence en­duro for some ground truthing. Trans-Provence’s pop­u­lar­ity has risen me­te­or­i­cally since its in­cep­tion 10 years ago. Its un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to blind-rac­ing rugged trail was sec­ond-to-none and no­ticed by all. But then in 2018, it ground to a halt—Smith said no more—why? I’m here to hear Smith’s story.

Over the past five days, we’ve feasted on a smor­gas­bord of sin­gle­track: Trans-Provence clas­sics like Wim­ble­don and Red Earth, oth­ers newly dis­cov­ered like the one that has our at­ten­tion to­day. We’re on a trail so new it doesn’t even have a name—well, a rid­ing name. New in this part of the world means new to moun­tain bik­ing, old to hu­man­ity—cen­turies old. We’re deep in the Roya River Val­ley, tucked against the Ital­ian bor­der a few moun­tain ridges over from the Mediter­ranean. Our name­less trail has flopped us onto a farmer’s field and a pair of sheep dogs snarl men­ac­ingly as we use our bikes as pro­tec­tion, flank­ing the prop­erty. Luck­ily, the hounds quickly lose in­ter­est. Back on our sad­dles, we fol­low a trace of trail that dead-ends into a steel lad­der af­fixed to a lime­stone bluff as the val­ley pinches to a canyon. We shoul­der our bikes, and awk­wardly as­cend the lad­der. I don’t ask ques­tions. I fol­low Smith, and no­tice a raw ham­burger abra­sion on his right fore­arm. I fig­ure if we’re climb­ing a lad­der with bikes, there must be a rea­son, a good rea­son. So I sa­vor the thought of what lies ahead. As we clang up the fi­nal rungs, a rush of musty cold air en­velops us; we’re in­side. To our left, a rusty steel door grasps aim­lessly at worn hinges. We’re in­side a World War II bunker. Nearly 80 years ago, poor French re­cruits sat as lonely sen­tries safe­guard­ing the nar­row slot be­low from Ger­man and Ital­ian sol­diers.

“You guys are in for a treat now,” Smith tells our group of riders, which in­cludes French Santa Cruz rep Loïc Del­teil, and pho­tog­ra­pher Sam Need­ham. Smith doesn’t make state­ments like this ca­su­ally; he can be his tough­est critic.

Af­ter the beers had stopped flow­ing, and the rush of Trans-Provence num­ber nine

sub­sided in the sum­mer of 2017, Smith sud­denly an­nounced that this nearly 190-mile stage race from the high Alps to the sul­try Mediter­ranean was tak­ing a year off. But it wasn’t go­ing away. Smith needed a year to un­earth hid­den gems, in­vok­ing the same pas­sion and ad­ven­ture that cat­alyzed the seven-day en­duro back in 2008.

“I set a stan­dard that there needs to be at least one-third, to 50-per­cent new trail ev­ery year in the Trans-Provence. It was time to take a year off,” ex­plains Smith, in his typ­i­cal no-non­sense fash­ion.

Were that not enough, Smith’s model de­mands each day has a min­i­mum of nearly 10,000 ver­ti­cal feet of de­scend­ing—5,000 feet of that ac­cessed by ped­al­ing and 5,000 feet by shut­tling.

Smith doesn’t do any­thing half-assed. Last year, af­ter an­nounc­ing the hia­tus, Smith and his wife rented out the fam­ily house in Sospel, bought a camper trailer, pulled the kids from school and hit the road. The en­tire fam­ily went on the hunt for hal­lowed sin­gle­track.

Raised in Bel­gium where his fa­ther worked as a di­plo­mat, the Bri­tish-born, flu­ent French-speaker went on to study trans­porta­tion en­gi­neer­ing in univer­sity. Af­ter­ward, Smith was hired by SBB, the na­tional Swiss rail­way com­pany.

“Ba­si­cally, my job was to help trains run on time,” Smith says, about a job that’s al­most like a par­ody of one the most en­dur­ing Swiss stereo­types—punc­tu­al­ity.

But the Brit’s true pas­sions lie in the moun­tains—rid­ing bikes and big skis. Af­ter his po­si­tion at Swiss Rail was made re­dun­dant (Bri­tish for get­ting laid off), he got a job for half the pay but twice the fun with Trail Ad­dic­tion, a moun­tain bik­ing tour com­pany in the Savoie re­gion of France.

Still, there was some­thing in Smith’s rest­less na­ture that soon grew dis­sat­is­fied with guid­ing “plunkers” on moun­tain bike hol­i­days on the same trails again and again.

He headed south, search­ing for a longer rid­ing sea­son and moun­tains with the prom­ise of dis­cov­ery. Even­tu­ally, Smith landed in Sospel.

“We were liv­ing in Basel at the time and I had drifted apart from Trail Ad­dic­tion. I wasn’t re­ally think­ing about busi­ness,” Smith says. “I had been trav­el­ing down to this area since about 2006 to see what the rid­ing was like in the south­ern Alps.”

Sit­u­ated a half hour’s drive from the

Mediter­ranean, and a mere 15-minute pedal from the Ital­ian bor­der, Sospel had what Smith was look­ing for—seem­ingly bound­less op­por­tu­nity for two-wheeled ex­plo­ration, year-round rid­ing and a com­fort­ing sense of ob­scu­rity. Aside from an im­pres­sive Ro­man Catholic church and the Fort Saint-Roch Musuem, there’s lit­tle in Sospel to at­tract the sight­see­ing tourist.

“Af­ter a few years ex­plor­ing down south, I felt I had found a set of trails that I wanted to share with a wider au­di­ence,” Smith ex­plains, a time when the en­duro for­mat was novel and when thoughts of cre­at­ing a stage race be­gan per­co­lat­ing. “I re­ally wanted an event that wouldn’t fa­vor cross-coun­try rac­ers.”

He launched Trans Provence in 2009 with 30 peo­ple. Four years later, it topped out at 82 par­tic­i­pants, a num­ber Smith be­lieved was the max­i­mum given the lo­gis­tics of shut­tling riders and crew along ser­pen­tine moun­tain roads in the Mar­itime Alps be­tween var­i­ous stages.

Need­ham and I poke around the con­crete bunker, let­ting Smith’s words soak in while imag­in­ing bored French sol­diers posted here to guard this ob­scure val­ley from an in­cur­sion of en­emy troops.

Then it’s time to drop in. Our nar­row gorge sud­denly broad­ens to a panoramic sweep of the val­ley be­neath us. I can see a thread of dirt through thick brush, trans­form­ing a bench-cut trail con­tour­ing through sun-kissed lime­stone bluffs—just wide enough to al­low two loaded mules to pass one an­other. In places, it’s bed­ded with paving stones, pol­ished smooth by cen­turies of foot and hoof traf­fic. It dips in and out of ravines, with oc­ca­sional knee-high man­u­als and cor­ners so per­fectly banked you’d think an IMBA-cer­ti­fied crew was re­spon­si­ble. Ev­ery so of­ten, there’s a turn with life-end­ing ex­po­sure adding to its pucker fac­tor. I pause and shake out my fore­arms, tak­ing in the view. Back home on Van­cou­ver Is­land, this trail would be an in­stant clas­sic: ab­sorb­ing tech­ni­cal power moves, fast cor­ners on lime­stone pavers as grippy as 60-grit sand­pa­per, spine-tin­gling ex­po­sure and post­card views. It’s easy to for­get this isn’t a pur­pose-built moun­tain bike trail. Just an­other re­cent Smith dis­cov­ery, up­rooted from the com­plex, lay­ered his­tory of this rugged land­scape, hid­den and melded like the mix of dirt and sweat on the fore­arm of a moun­tain biker who

hasn’t show­ered in weeks.

“These trails are four, five, six—even 700 years old. No­body re­ally knows. They were util­i­tar­ian routes for trade and de­fense,” Smith says, paus­ing on a cor­ner that of­fers up an­other ma­jes­tic Mar­itime-Alp panorama. “As far as I know, no­body was rid­ing these trails be­fore I came down here and started ex­plor­ing.”

We’ve been spoiled to­day. It’s been one of those days when a ride tran­scends into a jour­ney through space and time. In the morn­ing, we ped­aled up through the Col de Tende Ski Area onto a bar­ren ridge­line strad­dling the French-Ital­ian bor­der, pass­ing be­fore the 19th cen­tury ru­ins of Fort de la Mar­guerie and Fort Pepin. Later, we sliced through a tech­ni­cal thread of sin­gle­track switch­back­ing down a gor­geous sub-alpine basin, full of larches blaz­ing in au­tum­nal gold. Af­ter wind­ing through a tri­als-like rock­gar­den, we granny-geared past cool trunks, crest­ing to a stu­pe­fy­ing view of Mer­can­tour Na­tional Park tow­er­ing north. A quick plunge to­ward a pas­toral val­ley belched us down a char­ac­ter­less jeep track of loose rock and rub­ble, a far cry from our sin­u­ous salvation ear­lier.

“My map said this was a trail. Some­times it doesn’t work out,” Smith told us, at the bot­tom of the crappy de­scent. “Other times I’ll find a good trail but it takes one-and-a-half hours of hike-abike to get there, so it could never work as a route.”

But to­day’s fin­isher—a bal­cony of an­cient sin­gle­track high above a val­ley— had been mak­ing Smith gig­gle all day, as though all that had come be­fore was mere pre­am­ble.

And when Smith does nail a route, he can be se­cre­tive, down­right pro­pri­etary.

“Trans-Provence par­tic­i­pants and guided groups are asked not to use Strava. If they do, we ask them to leave the trip,” says Smith bluntly.

I take it as a warn­ing to not get too de­scrip­tive of this trail, too fi­nite in lo­ca­tion de­tails.

As we wind down, tech­ni­cal power moves and steps carved into lime­stone by cen­turies of foot­falls de­mand my im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion, as does a bone-break­ing plunge to the right were my fo­cus to wan­der. Though I’m en­grossed, my mind drifts to thoughts of ori­gin—was this once an es­cape route for villagers try­ing in vain to flee the scourge of the 14th-cen­tury Black

Plague, traders car­ry­ing goods to mar­ket over the Col de Tende into an­cient Italy, a se­cret path for World War II sol­diers skirt­ing en­emy troops? Likely it was all three at different points in his­tory. It makes the pur­pose-built moun­tain bike trails of my home seem some­what vac­u­ous and empty in com­par­i­son, like the out­line of a plot with­out char­ac­ters. Smith ad­mits he has rel­a­tively lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence rid­ing out­side of the Alps, ex­cept for a hand­ful of trips to Whistler where he worked a few win­ter sea­sons and met his Cana­dian wife. He doesn’t claim to have any special per­spec­tive, but he has a gut in­stinct for a soul­ful ride.

Late in the day, as the au­tumn sun dips to the west, we stuff bikes and bod­ies into Smith’s Sprinter van for the shut­tle back to Sospel. We fol­low a wind­ing moun­tain road into the tiny Ital­ian town of Olivetta. In a dark door­way I see an older man tend­ing to a small batch of freshly pressed olive oil. A few mid­dle-aged cou­ples sit on an out­side ter­race sip­ping wine.

Af­ter Olivetta, the road dips to­ward the French bor­der and Sospel. Sud­denly I hear Smith curs­ing up­front.

“Bunch of twats,” he says, af­ter spot­ting flash­ing po­lice lights in the rearview mir­ror.

Soon we’re pil­ing out of the van, while a terse ex­change in French be­tween Smith and the gen­darmes en­sues.

“You have to show them your pass­ports,” he says, with res­ig­na­tion.

Ar­gu­ing with cops rarely bears fruit, but Smith seems to rel­ish in the chal­lenge no less.

We learn that the au­thor­i­ties are crack­ing down on the flow of mi­grants from Italy into south­ern France, and Smith’s panel van bum­bling down the moun­tain­side loaded with riders and gear must’ve been a glar­ing eye­sore. We rum­mage through bags of sweaty bike gear for our doc­u­ments. The cops study them closely, un­in­ter­ested in the rat­tle of poorly con­cealed empty beer cans at our feet.

Fif­teen min­utes later, we’re back on our way. Sospel is en­veloped deeply in evening shade when we re­turn. Though the sun set on Trans-Provence in 2018 it will shine brightly next sum­mer.

“Peo­ple want the event to carry on. Re­ally I can’t think of any­thing I’d rather do than go out and find an­cient trail,” Smith says.

Some can’t help but fol­low what breathes life into their souls. For Ash Smith, the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness sprouts sin­gle­track seedlings that have grown into the mighty Trans-Provence.

Man of vi­sion cloaked in ob­scu­rity: Smith piled his whole fam­ily in the panel van upon procla­ma­tion of post­pone­ment. New trails took pri­or­ity over all else.

“GROUPS ARE ASKED NOT TO USE STRAVA. IF THEY DO, WE ASK THEMTO LEAVE.”

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