I hooked up with my old mate, Shrewsbury’s Sandy Plenty to get the highs and lows
of this epic six day stage race and to find out exactly what it was like for the amateur riders. Needing no introduction: Trans Provence now well and truly carries it’s own weight in the form of one-off challenge races among the world of enduro. It takes riders through countless kilometers of climbs, hikes and amazing downs for a full six days, sometimes riders being out for up to twelve hours a day.

It is renowned for being tougher than tough and a real challenge to test the pros, never mind the normal riders like you or I. When the entries become available during November, over 2000 people apply to become one of the short list of 76 riders who are accepted into the race. Upon entry applications, riders are asked a sequence of questions, not only to test their riding ability, but mental state and willingness to help out other riders in need.

Sandy and I have been biking buddies for over 20 years
Sandy and I have been biking buddies for over 20 years

Sandy and his best mate John Baker, both from my hometown, went through the nail biting entry process, soon to be accepted, much to their delight. These guys have been racing now for over two decades, but have never done anything like this before, this is not just an enduro, this is known as an epic adventure, so what exactly did the local shop (The Trailhead) owner make of the event?

Sandy took on the challenge…did he make it though?!
Sandy took on the challenge…did he make it though?!

Firstly you and John both knew this was to be an extra challenge for the pair of you given both your dickie ticker situations, would you care to elaborate?

John has recently had a pace maker fitted after some serious black outs and irregular heart rate issues. This has just made the goat even faster uphill. I was born with a heart & lung disease, known as ‘Primary Pulmonary Hypertension’, it affects my breathing and heart rate, but it is kept under control through medication and regular trips to Great Ormond Street hospital. Its not a sob story, just life. We both cracked on with the challenge ahead.

So when you got the ok for the entries, how did it feel, how long did you have to prepare and in what way?

We knew the email would be sent out early in the morning. I went to bed excited as if it was Christmas eve. I woke early and checked my emails, I was in the race! Excitement, however, was soon replaced with apprehension and fear. I had 10 months to prepare and get some serious miles in my legs. I soon heard from Baker, and our poor friends had to listen to our TP ramblings for most of the next year.

I kept up to date with yours and everyone else’s progress during the event via organizer’s videos on social media, but these never show just how tough the events can be. Can you explain just how hard day one was? was it a massive shock to the system and did you feel you were in too deep?

This trail is called 'Hobson's Choice' after Juliana's Julia Hobson
This trail is called ‘Hobson’s Choice’ after Juliana’s Julia Hobson

“Day One was tough mainly because I had travelled to Provence with a stomach bug, this left me low on energy but still excited. The first day was fun though, big climbs and some amazing descents left me tired but wanting more”.

How smooth did the event run, were there any complications, and were the instructions clear and well explained for the following days riding?

The whole event ran like clockwork, this is down to Ash and his band of merry men and women. We wanted for nothing and all was explained in a rider briefing every night after dinner along with the previous day’s film. There was around one member of staff to every three riders. The food was nutritious and came in good generous servings. Each evening we where given a set of maps for the following day, including specific stage notes and an elevation profile that normally made me gasp. When you where racing in a timed stage, it was essential to keep your head up, to see the white TP signs that direct you through the mountainous terrain.

What about some of these huge hikes up with the bike on your back, that’s my idea of hell, how did you cope?

It’s not as much about coping as just getting on with it. Giving up is simply not an option after all the build up and hours of training. So we simply cracked on at a steady pace. It was very difficult for me, but once we reached the other side we were greeted by some truly world-class descents. You have to do the grueling hike-a-bikes in order to unlock the awesome downhill stages.

How well did you and John get on during the event? I’m guessing it must have sometimes been a real test of friendship, when having to dig deep for such a long time together!

Sandy and John enjoying the last day
Sandy and John enjoying the last day

We joked about this as we flew out to Nice. I can honestly say I couldn’t have done it without him and I think he would say the same thing. We just helped each other through the low points. I can remember one climb when I had the tunes on my phone and John was dancing, never a dull moment with the inventor!

What did the full days proceedings usually consist of?

Typical TP day was: Alarm went off at 5.45am, then breakfast and packing your bag. We tried to be on the pedals for 7am or occasionally we got an uplift for the first few KM’s. Ride/push/carry all day through the most beautiful of landscapes. Lunch stop then back to camp around 5-6pm. Grab a shower, get a massage, dinner and repeat!

Tent life
Tent life

Did you make many other good mates out there, did anyone do your head in?

There were a lot of positive people out there and only a few negative ones. I chose to surround myself with the positive people and made some great pals on the way. I’d like to mention Anka Martin (Juliana Bikes) a true professional who always had time for everyone, and Jeff Callam who deservedly won the ‘Spirit of TP’ award for going out of his way to help everyone including John and myself.

Some times you just gotta take 5, Sandy rests with fellow Brits Lee and Fay Jordan
Some times you just gotta take 5, Sandy rests with fellow Brits Lee and Fay Jordan

What about mechanicals, punctures, crashes, anything worth mentioning?

Well thanks to our trusty Schwalbe Super Gravity tyres, we had no punctures. I had a good over the bars, as did John. My gear cable snapped on the last day, but no real issues. Sven Martin is a shredder and went down on stage 4 – Donkey Darko, separating his already aggravated shoulder. I have to mention just how gnarly and fun the descents are. I love technical steep trails and the TP delivered just that and some. One stage on the last day took me 12.5 minutes with a drop of over 600M, so physical on the upper body. Other than that all went well.

Hard climbs were rewarded by beautiful vistas
Hard climbs were rewarded by beautiful vistas

Did you feel like you where in a race? How much did you push it?

“Day one I had my race face on, this was soon wiped off with some tough climbs. I guess I rode at 80% on the downs, except day 6 where I opened up the taps slightly, getting a 24th and a 21st in the two steep stages. All in all I was there to complete it, but I’m happy with my results.”

What about the old monkey-butt, are you able to sit down ok now?!

Ha ha well I don’t have a lot of natural padding to be fair, so I got the chamois cream lathered on every day. Eleven hours a day did take its toll and day six was sore in that department. All my troubles where forgotten when we saw the sea though.

Riding high after a 13K Hike-a-bike
Riding high after a 13K Hike-a-bike

Any big thank yous you’d like to get in there?

First and foremost thanks to Baker for being a top mate. A huge thanks to all the mountain staff, doctors (who rode the stages with us) and Henry the sweeper who has the patience of a saint. Some really top people work incredibly hard behind the scenes to make this, in my opinion, the hardest most prestigious mountain bike stage race.

Also a big thanks to all the great people that support me: Royal racing, 100% goggles, Sealskinz, Santa Cruz, Mojo suspension, Renthal, Simmonds Transport, Wenlock Water, Torq, Schwalbe, Invisframe, Bikmo Insurance, Troy Lee, Mum, Dad, Cherie & Ruben.

Finally, would you do it again, or is it one of those, ‘been there, done that, got the T-shirt’ affairs now?

If you had of asked me on day two the answer would have been a simple NO. But now the dust has settled I will definitely be back…. If Ash will have me!? The Mavic Trans Provence is way more than a race, it’s a life changing adventure across some amazing trails. And next year you’re doing it with me if you can get an entry!

Words Jim Buchanan

Pics Jeff Callam, Sandy Plenty


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