01 October 2013
The Trans-Savoie (pronounced Sav-wah, or Saveloy in franglais) is a daring experiment in big mountain enduro racing. While mountain biking needs another niche sub-discipline like it needs a sidewall slash, big mountain enduro gets a big tick from me.
Trans-Savoie is the brainchild of veteran Savoie guide Ali Jamieson and his company Trail Addiction. Intimate knowledge of the local gnar has seen him create a sensational event that pushes technical trail riding to extremes of duration, distance and vertical drop. Stage lengths are only limited, or perhaps enabled, by geography. 1500 metre descents lasting 30 minutes are not uncommon. All ridden at pace, and without practice. Four or five of these often linked together each day with sifty liaisons connecting the stages. Altitude was regained by lift or shuttle wherever possible. This immediately challenges any pre-conceived notion that riding downhill might be easy. The memory of six continuous days hurling myself down the French Alps sends my braking fingers into a quiver.
The course stretches from the high moonscapes of Tignes to the valleys of Chamonix cowering in the shadow of Mont Blanc. The Savoie and Haute-Savoie regions take in some seriously lumpy terrain with innumerable jaw dropping vistas, plummeting waterfalls, viaducts, high mountain chalets and forested peaks. The villages are mostly devoid of snow seekers in the summer, but the extensive networks of gondolas, chairlifts and funiculars remain... an endless and effortless source of positive gravity for fans of the brown pow.
With racing being the reason, I can't claim to have got too close to the local culture - but cosy hamlets along the route were buzzing during late August with fetes, live music most evenings and fine cuisine. Markets featured some of the stinkiest cheeses imaginable, which rivalled my knee pads after six hot days of riding.
It's a delicate balance - finding the sweet spot between going flat out (pinned), and riding conservatively to ensure finishing without a claim against your travel insurance. Many chose to participate purely for the experience of riding the trail, but my innate competitive nature meant I was always destined to be at the crashier end of the spectrum. Whether through luck or skill, I managed to keep rubber side down, emerging after six days with my elbow skin largely intact and 12th place on the results sheet.
All trails were tackled sight unseen. With no chance to scope lines and run-outs, excitement was always high. The 'unknown' around each switchback made for thrilling riding. A great rush. Nothing can match shredding a trail for the first time - relying on instinct and muscle memory to get you to the bottom safely.
The race or 'special' stages were a casual affair with riders self-seeding into a mutually agreed order. A marshall scanned the timing chip and a flurry of pedalling ensued. Scanning in at the finish line was usually accompanied by stoked ravings and unclenching of lego-man hands which had deformed to handlebar grip shape. Times were stored on each rider's card. On arrival at camp we were told our ranking for each stage and overall position.
Some riders preferred a slightly faster buddy just ahead to push them, while others opted for a long gap to allow dust and psychological pressure to settle. The variety of terrain suited me. With my whippet background I'd claw back some time on pedally sections, while others with the cajonnes to let go on fast exposed bits surged ahead. By the end of the week everyone regarded themselves as total shredders... battle hardened forearms combined with line-selection algorithms honed over 20,000 metres of descent. We ate switchbacks like baguettes, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Bike style of choice for the Trans-Savoie is burly. Fatter tires ruled with 2.4" the most common. I dabbled with super tacky compound but their tenacious gripcame at the expense of longevity. Theharsh alpine rocks turned knobs to knubs in under three days. Ideally a harder compound with a tough tubeless or 2 ply DH casing is best.
160mm travel front and back, with 26" wheels was standard with a sprinkling of in-betweener 650B's to round out the field. My bike was the oddest - a Ventana 69er sporting a big 29" wheel up front (for business) and a delightfully frisky 26" (to party) out back. It worked well for me, inspiring confidence on tight switchbacks and steep loose sections.
Single ring setups were all the rage despite the difficulty these posed for steep climbs. The induced walk usually coincided with anon-timed liaison stage so there was no competitive disadvantage and walking was a welcome change of mode.
Never underestimate the abuse gnarly terrain dishes out to your bike. Rocks ripped off side knobs, slashed casings and mashed derailleurs. Forks blew up and shocks wheezed in resignation. Campsites resembled a bike triage as creative workshop repairs kept the battered steeds alive.
Big 200mm brake rotors and an ample supply of spare pads were crucial. Reliable, hi-performance stoppers were the primary defence against plummeting to your doom (literally) over a rocky precipice. A dropper post is a must. Mine was used thousands of times during the race. Popping up for pedally sections and dropping down low when I needed to throw my weight around.
Knee and elbow pads were widely used, with only a single brave Canadian riding bare. An enduro helmet with increased protection for the back of your head when launched from your bike is essential, preferably in the latest fluro-euro colour. As the organiser dryly pointed out, a full face helmet is only really necessary if you plan to land on your face. At odds with recent Mtb trends, the bold and funky enduro style seems to have bunny-hopped across the Atlantic. I dig the bright colours. My Ground Effect gear fitted right in, the bright tones right at home amongst the euro set.
For the body, a crew of massage therapists was on hand to rub weary limbs. While I didn't indulge many fellow competitors reported excellent recovery for the next day. If only there was a massage for braking digits. Where I could, I'd end the day with a swim or a dip in an icy cold stream, the pseudo ice bath made for a brisk but invigorating recovery.
Each day ended with a massive three course spread of hearty food served up in a local hall, usually only a stroll from the campsite. We camped in a village of tents that were pitched by the race crew. This was a nice touch, allowing us to focus on the importing things like eating, sleeping, riding.
I was fortunate to gain entry to the Trans-Savoie. The seventy spots were randomly allocated amongst the thousand applicants, and snapped up within seconds. I'd encourage anyone with a passion for technical downhill to give it a whirl. It was the trip of a lifetime and the memories remain as my calluses subside and downhill skills fade back to mediocre. With riders from 43 countries, I learned 'gnarly' in seven languages, and have offers of sofas on which to crash, and trails to shred, around the world.
If racing isn't your thing, or you don't get lucky with an entry, a trip to the French Alps should be on your bucket list.The quantity and quality of technical descending, all with chairlift access, guarantees an amazing time.
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